Ideas for developing students' cultural capital


A trip to Eton as part of the Future Leaders programme challenged Kate Chhatwal’s preconceptions. She considers what the state sector can and is replicating from the privileged world of Eton

Every year, participants on the Future Leaders headship development programme visit schools across the country to observe best practice in different contexts. This includes secondary and primary schools in the independent and state sector. 

The aim is to give them a range of ideas to implement in their current senior leadership team posts and to help them identify the type of school they would like to lead as a head.

Afterwards, the Future Leaders come together to reflect on what they have seen. Unsurprisingly among a group of senior leaders committed to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, the liveliest debate is usually around the independent schools.

A common reflection this year was about how teaching and learning was taken for granted in these schools, and how they placed a lot – in some cases more – emphasis on developing the social and cultural capital and networks that will form the bedrock of future success for their pupils.

I joined the visit to Eton – and it challenged my preconceptions. Yes, the “boys” wear tails and exude the privilege to which many of them were born. But what was striking was the depth of relationships between the boys and their “masters”, which completely changed the dynamic of the classroom.

The easy relationships in the A2 economics class I observed created a learning environment more akin to university than school. Not sitting in rows, learning by rote as I had expected, but having their knowledge tested with a game of “oligopoly bingo”. Future Leaders who observed other lessons talked of teachers as “facilitators” rather than instructors.

In contrast to schools where students’ achievement flight paths are pasted into every exercise book, the Eton boys did not have formal targets. Instead the school fostered a culture of “wanting yourself to be as good as you can be” and competition between boys.

Teaching quality is judged through a “gentlemanly” appraisal process (and they do mean gentlemanly, as only around 10 per cent of teaching staff are female), consisting of one formal observation a year and meetings with the head of department and senior tutor.

Freed from the challenges which typically preoccupy leaders in many schools – getting culture, behaviour, and teaching and learning right – Eton can focus on those things which, alongside excellent exam results, will guarantee the boys’ future success. 

One of the house masters revealed the careful thought put into the boys’ social and emotional wellbeing, including a full-time counsellor and careful management of life within houses.

There is also a wine society, a cheese society and many more besides. It is these experiences that will build the social and cultural capital and old boys’ network that will give Eton graduates the advantage over their more modestly educated peers when it comes to applying to universities and jobs, even where they have equivalent grades.

It is difficult to imagine that the state sector, with limited resources and fewer connections, can ever fully replicate all these opportunities, but is there more they can do to help their pupils develop their own social and cultural capital and networks? 

A number of schools we visit are led by Future Leaders themselves – and they have been trying.

Some of the things they do cost money – rowing at Mossbourne, Combined Cadet Forces at Northumberland CE Academy, and the opportunity for every child across the Perry Beeches family of academies to go to France (after getting passports for the many pupils who don’t have them). 

Money well spent according to the heads, who report pay-offs in pupil discipline, pride and motivation.

There are some things schools can do to build social and cultural capital that cost nothing at all. These tend to relate to the vision and ethos of the school. At Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, family dining gives staff and students an opportunity to build relationships outside the classroom like at Eton. This has benefits both in lessons and in instilling the manners and norms expected in social situations.

At Perry Beeches IV, aspiration is embedded in the terms that head Russell Bond insists are used for different parts of the building: “refectory”, “raised terrace” and “cloisters” extend pupils’ vocabulary and might make those aspiring to Oxbridge feel more comfortable imagining themselves there.

Building social and cultural capital can also be tied to the curriculum. Although without the replica House of Commons currently under construction at Eton, both School 21 and Globe Academy have a strong focus on oracy.

At Globe, teachers challenge students to speak in full sentences and avoid slang. A year 10 boy we spoke to confidently articulated why he was proud to wear his Globe uniform. He recognised that looking smart was something “most people think of for private schools”, but he didn’t think “they are any better than (him)”.

At School 21, we saw 13-year-olds eloquently debating the arms trade, displaying an excellent grasp of the facts and arguments on each side – and an ability to withstand the challenge thrown in by Future Leader and head Peter Hyman, a former advisor to Tony Blair.

At King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, pupils are explicitly taught character, and expected to lead key school routines and gain formal accreditation in leadership and public speaking. 

Both King’s and School 21 were recently recognised in the Department for Education’s Character Awards, with King’s emerging as national winners.

In schools where aspiration, confidence and broad horizons cannot be taken for granted, these efforts to build pupils’ cultural and social capital – and visits to the Russell Group universities they can help provide access to – are important. 

Alongside high achievement, they will open doors to better life chances that may otherwise remain closed. Show children that they are valued and can achieve, and give them the confidence and skills to do it and there is no reason why future prime ministers should not be coming from Bradford, not Eton.

  • Kate Chhatwal is chief programme officer at the Future Leaders Trust.

Future Leaders
Future Leaders is a charity that develops exceptional leaders for challenging schools across England.?They are currently recruiting existing heads or experienced senior leaders close to headship for Talented Leaders, a programme working with schools in areas that need excellent leaders. Visit

Photo: iStock


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