Best Practice

Extra-curricular activities: Cultural capital and personal development

In this five-part series, Matt Bromley looks at best practice for planning and delivering effective extra-curricular provision. In part four, he looks at how provision can boost powerful knowledge, ‘cultural capital’, and personal development

Extra-curricular activities series

Cultural capital and personal development

I would like to continue this series by exploring how extra-curricular activities might help build pupils’ knowledge and cultural capital, and thus prepare them for success in school and in later life. Let us start by defining what we mean by the term “cultural capital”.

Cultural capital is a somewhat contentious notion that has taken on new meanings within the world of education since its inclusion in the national curriculum and Ofsted’s 2019 Education Inspection Framework (EIF).

In the field of sociology, cultural capital comprises the social assets of a person (education, intellect, style of speech, style of dress, etc) that promote social mobility in a class-driven society.

Cultural capital includes all the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers social status and power, and it comprises all the material and symbolic goods that society considers worth seeking.

Cultural capital is a complex concept and takes many forms, but it is in part concerned with using education to improve a pupil’s social standing – to confer on them the knowledge they need in order to achieve a higher status in society.

Powerful knowledge

ED Hirsch, in his book The Schools We Need (1996), states: “The children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro (needed) to catch hold of what is going on, (and as a result) they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge.”

One form of mental scaffolding is vocabulary – the language with which to express yourself. Another is what Professor Michael Young in his book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and social justice (2014) calls “powerful knowledge”.

He says that powerful knowledge is a type of knowledge that "allows those with access to it to question it and the authority on which it is based and gain the sense of freedom and excitement that it can offer". He argues that facts alone do not constitute powerful knowledge.

He says that the purpose of education “is to enable all students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience”.

He states: “It is knowledge which many will not have access to at home, among their friends, or in the communities in which they live. As such, access to this knowledge is the right of all pupils as future citizens.”

We can therefore build cultural capital in the form of powerful knowledge by ensuring that all pupils, including the most disadvantaged, have equal access to a knowledge-rich diet – and this is where extra-curricular activities come in.

Extra-curricular activities can be used to provide cultural experiences in addition to, not in place of, the core curriculum. This might involve museum and gallery visits, or mentors who talk with pupils about what’s happening in the world, perhaps reading a daily newspaper with them before school or at lunchtime.

Because we know that the socio-economic attainment gap emerges early in a child’s life and that, therefore, the child’s family is crucial in helping to close that gap, we might also use our extra-curricular programme to support community projects such as reading mentor schemes, helping improve parents’ literacy levels, and encouraging parents and members of the community to engage with education.

Principal of Havelock Academy in Grimsby, Emma Marshall, explained that cultural capital “should be built into the curriculum and day-to-day school life, but using extra-curricular activities to provide more opportunities is an excellent strategy, especially in more deprived areas where travel and finances are difficult”.

Havelock’s director of music, Ian Cooke, added: “Extra-curricular activities can provide (opportunities to build pupils’) cultural capital as they often link to trips and visits in addition to regular weekly activities.

“They can also involve fixtures and collaborations with other schools, providing opportunities not just on the doorstep. Even the act of travelling to another school or further afield to another town or city, serves as experience.”

Mr Cooke reflected that “the key with cultural capital is opportunities, be they through a French breakfast before school, ensuring there are strong links made to different theatre works in drama club, or access to professional athletes as part of sports programmes”.

The view of Ofsted

In his 2020 blog Making curriculum decisions in the best interests of children, Ofsted’s (now former) national director of education Sean Harford said that “under the Education Inspection Framework, the quality of education judgement starts from the premise that schools should offer their children a broad, rich curriculum.

“Through our curriculum research,” Mr Harford continued, “we know that a narrowed curriculum can mean that children miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in later stages of education or in their adult lives. It can also have a disproportionately negative effect on the most disadvantaged pupils.” (Harford, 2020)

Ofsted is interested in the quality, breadth, and ambition of the curriculum through both key stages 3 and 4. If schools can show that they have thought about their curriculum carefully – that they have built a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure, and sequencing, and then implemented it effectively – then it is probable that inspectors will judge their curriculum favourably.

Mr Harford said that inspectors will “also be looking at whether the curriculum is broad for each and every pupil”. Common themes Ofsted has seen include:

  • Great breadth and depth of curriculum – for example, giving pupils the opportunity to learn a number of foreign languages and arts subjects.
  • The wider curriculum being open to all pupils, regardless of academic ability, and being taken up by the vast majority.
  • No subjects being squeezed out of the key stage 3 curriculum, which means that pupils continue to take a range of subjects, including the arts, at key stage 4.
  • Key stage 4 courses going deeper into content and being broader than just the specifications called for by the exam boards/national curriculum.

These are, Ofsted believes, positive decisions to preserve richness and breadth. Ofsted also says that schools should be providing for pupils’ personal development. The curriculum provided by schools should, it adds, extend beyond the academic, technical or vocational. Schools should support pupils to develop in many diverse aspects of life.

Personal development

The personal development judgement of the EIF evaluates a school’s intent to provide for the personal development of all pupils and the quality with which the school implements this work. There are clear links to extra-curricular provision. The personal development judgement focuses on dimensions including:

  • Developing responsible, respectful and active citizens who are able to play their part and become actively involved in public life as adults.
  • Developing and deepening pupils’ understanding of the fundamental British values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and mutual respect and tolerance.
  • Promoting equality of opportunity; understanding that difference is a positive; promoting an inclusive environment.
  • Developing pupils’ character traits and virtues as well as their confidence, resilience and knowledge so that they can keep themselves mentally healthy.
  • Enabling pupils to recognise online and offline risks to their wellbeing as well as the dangers of inappropriate use of mobile technology and social media.
  • Developing pupils’ understanding of how to keep physically healthy, eat healthily and maintain an active lifestyle, including giving ample opportunities for pupils to be active during the school day and through extra-curricular activities.
  • Supporting readiness for the next phase of education, training or employment.

Examples in practice

Clearly, a programme of extra-curricular activities can help us to cater for many of the elements listed above.

Emma Marshall, principal of Havelock Academy in Grimsby, considers “fun and enjoyment” to be vital in extra-curricular programmes as they help to “foster a love of learning that then spills into the classroom and the life of the school”.

She added: “Students who take part in regular extra-curricular activities, over a prolonged period of time, go on to be successful. Success can be in lots of different formats, but they are successful because pupils demonstrate increased confidence, stronger communication skills, and good social skills.

“We have also seen students do very well academically where they have learnt the importance of commitment and resilience through their extra-curricular participation, and so show this in their approach to the curriculum.”

At Heathfield Community College in East Sussex a “super-curriculum portfolio” is launched three times a year, designed to “inspire an interest in a subject not yet studied or not continued to examination level”.

Headteacher Caroline Barlow continued: “Completed voluntarily by students in their own time, these activities provide engagement with a theme or topic but also give the opportunity to dig deeper into the real academic and intellectual depth of the subject.

“From Latin to business, literature to biology, castles to culture, our super-curriculum underpins the stimulation of a lifelong interest in subjects beyond examinations.”

Heathfield also operates a thriving alumni network through which former pupils act as guest speakers and talk about their careers.

Working with others

One way to extend the curriculum beyond the purely academic is to work in partnership with other organisations, to reach out beyond the school gates for curriculum resources and different voices.

Schools can work with local employers, charities, tourist and arts venues, as well as with volunteers from the local community, including parents and governors. Incorporating as many different voices as possible can help teach pupils about diversity as well as broadening their horizons.

Ms Marshall explained: “We have strong links as part of our multi-academy trust, and we are building strong relationships with our local music hub. We are also working closely with a local community group, East Marsh United, on a project involving primary and secondary schools within our particular area, to produce an anthem for the area.

“This has been a lovely project to be a part of, not only supporting our local community group, but further building relationships with the primary schools involved.”

She added: “In the past, we have involved local primary schools in our activities practically as well as to showcase our school to them. This has been particularly successful in sport and performing arts and is starting to grow again now that Covid restrictions have been lifted.”

Meanwhile, Ms Barlow said that they try to ensure a range of engaging opportunities “to suit all year groups” and which are “designed to enable access for all but also to initiate an ambition for their future”.

For example, in year 7, Heathfield ensures that every pupil experiences a West End show. All of year 8, meanwhile, experience the Warner Bros. studio tour to open their eyes to possible careers in the arts.

In year 9, when pupils are beginning to think about their next steps, the school delivers a day on employability skills. And in year 10, pupils attend a Big Futures event.

“It is vital to us that students experience the curriculum outside of their GCSE studies,” Ms Barlow continued.

Extra-curricular provision also has the benefit of helping older pupils to engage in subjects they are not taking at GCSE. Ms Barlow continued: “In year 9, students take part in a carousel day where they engage in workshops about subjects they are no longer studying towards a final qualification.”

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