A lack of research? How Ofsted misrecognised Cultural Capital

Written by: Phil Beadle | Published:
Cultural error: Bourdieu says that culture is a hidden form of transfer of economic capital and our ‘tastes’ in culture mirror our social position (image: Adobe Stock)

What is cultural capital and why should we be questioning it? Phil Beadle explains how Ofsted has catastrophically ‘misrecognised’ the concept of cultural capital in its Education Inspection Framework...


The thing about being overconfident is it can cause you to hand in your homework before you’ve checked it properly.

Alternatively, the blithe or disorganised student might submit something they have scrawled quickly onto a piece of paper while on the school bus.

And so it is with Ofsted and their ideas on the subject of cultural capital.

“This homework, inspector, has quite simply not been done to standard. See me after class for a long and painful detention.”

Let me explain.

Ofsted, and its Education Inspection Framework (2019) is checking for schools’ provision of “knowledge and cultural capital”.

The inspectorate defines this with reference to the “Aims” section of the national curriculum, which reads: “It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

There is a problem with this three-part definition and that problem is that it is the kind of bullshit attempt at homework that might fool an NQT in September, but that doesn’t stand up to an even marginally professionally-held red pen.

It is an unexamined assertion that, when submitted to analysis, renders itself into a piece of cheap bog roll meeting a wet, though determined, finger.

Allegedly (knowledge and) cultural capital is “the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens”.

Leaving aside the tautology of defining knowledge as knowledge, well, no, actually, it isn’t.

This version of knowledge is contained under the title cultural literacy. Yet cultural literacy as defined by American academic ED Hirsch and cultural capital as defined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, are not the same thing ... at all, not even slightly.

You’ve done this on the bus, haven’t you?

You would think this error was bad enough, but this is merely an amuse-bouche for the plutonium-grade SNAFU.

“(Cultural capital is) introducing them to the best that has been thought and said.” This is so genuinely hilarious that you can imagine the late Bobby Ball twanging his braces while mouthing it.

“The best that is thought and said (Tommy)” is a misquoted line from a Victorian poet and HMI, Matthew Arnold. It appears in his egregiously unreadable prose piece Culture and Anarchy (1869) in which culture is recorded as “a way out of our present difficulties” (these difficulties being the political protest of the working class and the fact that this had succeeded in getting working class urban males the vote).

The Arnoldian view of culture, which has lasted as the predominant lens through which society views books and plays and paintings, was that man’s engagement with it was the search for spiritual enlightenment and the path to better enacting God’s will.

Arnold viewed culture as essentially disinterested: that is, impartial, unconcerned with economics.
Most people hold this view despite it being, in terms of the ways in which culture is used to stratify people, provably false.

The Arnoldian view of culture was held unimpeachable until Bourdieu demolished it in his work in the 1960s and 1970s. He defines the concept of cultural capital expressly to destroy the idea of the pursuit of culture being disinterested.

Taking a word from finance – “capital” – and juxtaposing it with the alleged disinterest of the realm of matters “cultural”, Bourdieu points out the relationships between the two that, before his work, remained either unseen or hidden.

He points out that culture is a hidden form of transfer of economic capital and that our “tastes” in culture mirror our position in the social space.

Engagement with culture is therefore a means through which we might distinguish ourselves from the animalistic working class who serve the drinks at Glyndebourne but, since they are not as elevated as us, do not seem to enjoy Wagner’s operas very much.

So the term “cultural capital” was coined by Bourdieu to satirise the very view of culture as being somehow a “view from nowhere” that Arnold espoused.

Ofsted is, therefore, and this might have been obvious to an organisation that checks its homework before handing it in, defining something by its opposite.

It is, as I write in my recent book The Fascist Painting, “defining self-interest as disinterest, subjectivity as objectivity, rationalism as religion” and is also, as my editor Luke Shoveller has remarked tellingly, “pairing the most scared of cows with its most famous and adept slaughterer”.

You could make it up, of course, but you wouldn’t want to.

A further “this would be funny if it weren’t quite so tragic” irony is that one of Bourdieu’s key concepts when examining how the transmission of culture works in the social space is that of misrecognition.

This is where all sides of a debate fall for common sense ideas that are not actually true: this form of functional blindness allows the missionary educators from higher social settings to genuinely believe that they are civilising the disadvantaged poor by forcing them to memorise colonial era poems exalting patriotism.

It also causes the poor kids to buy the bullshit they are served up and to believe that they are being educated, when what is really happening is that they are being trained to submit. No-one recognises the truth.

The irony here is that Ofsted has fallen prey to the very thing that Bourdieu sought to teach us about the way in which culture works: they have misrecognised what cultural capital is.

There are those on one side of the education debate, the traditionalists or, as I am more inclined to view them, the alt-right authoritarians close to government, who assert that certain arguments have been won.

But I detect the woeful signal of profound complacency in this defining something by its opposite and, particularly, in the pitiful lack of research undertaken by those who claim to be devoted to such things.

This suggests to me that those arguments have merely been steamrollered by brute force as the left-wing of the profession has not mobilised with sufficient intellectual rigour to point out that much of traditionalism is just stupid people exalting their own stupidity.

Either that or progressive educators have become so profoundly bored of being shouted down by king and country mobs that they cannot be bothered to engage any more.

The Fascist Painting is merely an opening salvo from Luke and I. It is an attempt to put a flagpole into the grass around which progressive educators, who might be more inclined to recognise the elevation of tradition to be a hallowing of centuries of abuse, might congregate and might claim back the notion of intellectual engagement with the direction of the profession.

Margaret Mead, a now forgotten voice of a pedagogic tradition that does not seem to count as valid for those who exalt only the traditions they select as valid, recognised a move, as far back as 1943, towards “the development of techniques of power, dry pedagogy, regimentation, indoctrination, manipulation and propaganda.

“These are but sorry additions to man’s armoury, and they come from the insult to human life which is perpetuated whenever one human being is regarded as differentially less or more human than the other.”
And here we are.

  • Phil Beadle is an experienced teacher, author, broadcaster and speaker.


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