12 Reasons to be Disappointed with the arguments for Cultural Capital

The new draft NC in the light of Michale Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation


Let me begin by stating that I believe you have the best of intentions for Britain’s school children – now and in the forseeable future. There is nothing you have said that leads me away from this opinion and I sense your earnestness is genuine. So we are of a mind when it comes to the aspiration.

However, the common purpose ceases there. I can find no point of agreement with your route or find sympathy with your mode of travel. Nor can I find legitimacy in the arguments you employ to denigrate the earnest attempts of others to move towards that same destination. In fact I find them flawed, contrived, contradictory and insulting. I and my teaching colleagues expect, and deserve, a better case to be made. You made a weak and dubious claim for GCSEs to be reformed and have had to rescind that proposal. You have repeated the error with the thinking, evidence and arguments that lie behind your proposals for the 2014 NC.


1.“Because parents – especially poorer parents – want their children to get up and get on. And that means acquiring a proper rounded rigorous education. In the hope that they can choose to go to university.”

I don’t know why you make the distinction of affluence providing any more incentive for a parent wanting a child to ‘get on’. It’s an instinct of most parents irrespective of affluence. But the assumption that going to university is the only route to achieving this ignores all other legitimate routes – obtaining an apprenticeship, following in a family trade or company, being taken on by a business after part-time work…. You know that 55% of students don’t go to University. So why start with the assumption that they will choose to go down a route your government has made the less trodden path?

2. “she used her money to send them to the most traditional, academically demanding prep school she could find. So they could enjoy the best education reality TV could buy”

I find it unsettling that you ground your argument upon the decisions of a reality TV celebrity. I doubt you, I, or anyone outside Jade Goody’s close family know her motives for choosing a prep school education for her sons. Some would say that for many families putting their children through private education that it is as much about securing privilege, a narrow and selective social group of classmates or old-school tie connections that parents are purchasing. I don’t know what her motives were. But I’m pretty close to sure that you don’t either – and to use her to support your view is exploitative.

3. “Well, for an analysis of those forces which do stand in the way of liberating young people from the chains of ignorance, I would recommend close attention to the work of Gramsci. Antonio Gramsci was a powerful critic of the power structures of his time which entrenched the dominance of traditional elites in Italian life. And one of the greatest concerns he had was that one – increasingly fashionable – ideology which was being sold in Twenties and Thirties Italy as progressive – would only end up reinforcing the inequalities and injustices he hated…. Gramsci saw that – far from being progressive or democratic – this new approach to education risked depriving the working classes of the tools they needed to emancipate themselves from ignorance.”

A frequent technique you use here. Find a voice of the left to support the view you are going to propound. A pincer movement of potential critics. Can I just say that finding one voice, from a context in place and time so removed from where we are, does not a winning argument make. Just looks a bit desperate. And contrived.

4. “One of the most effective analysts of the dominance of progressive theory has been the American academic E.D. Hirsch. Himself a man of the left – a liberal Democrat and campaigner for social justice – Hirsch has consistently highlighted how important Gramsci’s insights are for understanding why society has not become more equal in recent years.”

OK – another ‘left’, though in the USA we know that is relative. Are you really claiming that the huge and increasing disparity in wealth in the USA – and by association the UK – is due – not to non-redistributive tax systems, the wealthy paying themselves more and the unregulated corruption within the financial economies of these two nations, but to ‘progressive education’? Really?

5. “There used to be an almost instinctive understanding on the Left of the liberating power of traditional education. Cultural capital, like every other kind of capital, should not be the property of an elite. The rich should no more have exclusive access to the means of intellectual enlightenment than they should have an exclusive hold on the means of economic production, distribution and exchange.”

Well you’ve inserted the word ‘traditional’ to give succour to your own view. The liberating power of ‘effective’ education would be more honest. Not the power of the ‘failing the 11+’, ‘secondary moderns’, the CSEs – but effective, open-access, non-selective or prejudicial education. And if you’re going to insert ‘cultural capital’ into part of the statement – how about accepting the last sentence in your drive for improvement? You re-phrase the elements you want and then surgically remove them from the context.

6. “At the age of fourteen the Durham collier Jack Lawson discovered a treasure trove of books in the local miners’ institute. In his own words,”’Like a Fenimore Cooper Indian I was tireless and silent once I started. Scott, Charles Read, George Eliot, the Brontes; later on Hardy, Hugo, Dumas and scores of others…..’A hundred years ago that was the experience of a boy from the Durham coalfields. And that experience was empowering. Because the accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility.”

This long passage drawing on the reading powers of honest artisans and factory-workers is telling us what? That in the absence of other intellectual stimulation many people of all social classes turned to books. And the message for today is? A longing for a simpler time? With no technology so that the honest poor can again gather in front of a coal fire and read books in the flickering flames? Some people have claimed you’re trying to turn education back to the 1950s. By your own words you seem to be nostalgic for a time long before then. Many of the students in my school read books. But many find their stimulation elsewhere. We have to work in this context – not long for a romanticised past. Nor use it to try to defend current proposals.

7. “What the success of Thomas Jones and Holland Park teaches us is that children from every background are as capable of success – as able to grasp for the glittering prizes – as children from the wealthiest backgrounds, if they are given access to the sort of education which the rich have always felt they should enjoy by right. Look at any of the schools which are now giving children from the poorest of homes the greatest of chances and you will find they are all – like Holland Park – places where academic learning is taken seriously, where an entitlement to knowledge and cultural capital is baked into the brickwork.”

Well no argument there. Children from every background are capable of success. (Still the argument of grammar schools and scholarships to independents – that some working class can slide through the narrow gateway as tokens of opportunity. But they ignore the majority. In fact they keep the majority out). But you’ve slipped that ‘cultural capital’ concept in. Is it not equally likely that the current success of Holland Park is effective discipline policies, engagement of parents and effective motivation of students through enlightened teaching methods? You keep bolstering your arguments with examples that you subvert or provide no evidence for.

8. “But despite the abundant proof that children from every background can succeed academically there is still a remarkable resistance – especially among many on the left – to asking our education system to ensure more children do succeed.”

You know this is laughable don’t you. Not even going to point out the aim in the Blair years to increase university opportunity to 50% of students, which your party belligerantly opposed.

9. “And – most perversely of all – the EBacc narrowed the curriculum, some said. But the Ebacc is only a performance measurement. Its introduction does not mean anyone is mandated, required, obliged or statutorily commanded to do anything.”…. and then….”At the moment just 16% of students in the state sector secure the EBacc. Only 23% are even entered for it. More than three-quarters of state school students have been denied access to the qualifications which will empower them to choose their own path.”

What is it? No-one is obliged to do anything? Except that I’ll use it as a stick to further denigrate schools who fail to persuade their students to opt for the named subjects – and then secure a C grade or above in them all. You are not sustaining the consistency of your arguments within a few lines of each other.

10. “But for the self-styled educational progressives nothing could be as redundant as imparting knowledge. If you want knowledge, they argue, Google it.”

Really? Really?? Now degenerating into slap-stick. I have never – ever – come across a teacher who claims this is the way to teach their students. And, I guess, neither have you. So where has the insinuation come from?

11. “Willingham cites the work of Recht and Leslie in the Journal of Educational Psychology which shows that the deeper the level of factual knowledge about any subject, the more any piece of prose can be understood, appreciated and enjoyed.”

Can’t disagree. And there are few GCSEs or A levels that currently exist without a wealth of ‘factual knowledge’. It’s why we spend so much of our time coaching, coaxing and urging our students to revise. But then you spoil it….

“It is only when knowledge is secure in the long-term memory that it can be summoned up effortlessly and the working memory can be freed to deal with new and challenging tasks.”

Because that’s it, isn’t it – the whole basis of the draft NC. Students as memory sticks. Fill them up. Check it’s stored. And then access the whole lot at some unspecified date in the future.
Except they’re not. Memory sticks. They need to be motivated, to see a point, to know what it’s for along the way. That’s what so much of our job is – persuading and showing what they can do with this accumulating awareness of the world. Do you really remember all that you were taught in your sixth-form? Or your three years at Oxford? The zenith of intensive instruction. We forget far more than we remember. But we learn about ourselves, about capacities, about how to find the information we need, when we need it. You do it all the time. Or you have people to do it for you.

12. “We have stripped out the rhetorical afflatus, the prolix explanatory notes, the ethereal assessment guidance, the inexplicable level criteria, the managerial jargon and the piously vapid happy-talk and instead simply laid out the knowledge that every child is entitled to expect they be taught.”

And this is the crux. This is where you show that you don’t understand learning, or progress, or sophistication in comprehension, or unleashing of potential. Because you have dismissed the one area that defines rigour, provokes challenge and sets gold standards. These things are not defined by the ‘facts’ learned, the amount of information required, the difficulty of the questions or even the length of the exam. But it is in the evaluation criteria. That, which you so blithely dismiss as ‘inexplicable’. You’re right – they were as originally written. But we, in every school, set about asking ourselves ‘what does progress in our subject look like? How can we turn these aspirational statements into something we can use daily, weekly, termly with our students to evidence progress? What marks out a better performance than a merely standard one. How do we nurture a student’s development to enable them to appreciate connections, patterns and associations between facts, categories, classifications, relationships, exemplification, reliability of evidence, cause and effect, justification, synthesis, prediction, hypothesis-generation…. the whole rich world of helping students demonstrate more sophisticated thinking and – yes – being.’ It’s what your head of Ofsted is focused upon observing: progress. Not accumulation of facts. We all seem to know what it’s about. Why do you not?

Your draft curriculum – particularly in History – will fail because it will be attempted, edited, then replaced with the pragmatic. It will be by-passed because it is over-burdened, based on dubious theory and is ignorant of the real needs of students in engaging their motivation and their making marked progress via creative thought. You define content above all else, but are silent about the depth of that content or how it can be used to demonstrate progressive levels of intelligence. And that is what effective classrooms do.


The full text of M. Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation: http://www.smf.co.uk/media/news/michael-gove-speaks-smf/
Read E. Hirsch’s views: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/education/ed0174.html
E. Hirsch’s US Core Knowledge website: http://www.coreknowledge.org/our-philosophy



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2 responses to “12 Reasons to be Disappointed with the arguments for Cultural Capital

  1. I’m working through your back catalogue and have stumbled across this gem. A few weeks ago I tweeted a thought that we should spend more time working on pupils remembering stuff and cut down on the actual time taken to teach. I can’t remember your response but it was quite a defensive tweet (something along the lines of we already do this by….). My tweet was merely a reflection on the fact that as a teacher I am too accepting that pupils forget what I teach them as the year goes on. I needed to do more to keep the plates spinning in their heads so they could build on their knowledge to get a better understanding of science. I can see you may have felt I was treating pupils as memory sticks. What you have written above I agree with 100%.
    The idea of a (politically driven) core curriculum scares me. My cultural capital is different from many other people. It hasn’t held me back to know nothing about the history of the royal family or where some English counties are. What we teach our children is of paramount importance . However a hirsch style core knowledge curriculum is not a path I’d like to take.
    Look forward to working my way through more of your blogs,

  2. Thanks for that Damian – appreciate your comments a lot. We forget that which we don’t use a lot. And what we don’t use a lot is because it’s not that central to the way we operate, or the gaps between using it are long. Some things I could do with remembering (how to do the heimlich manoeuvre that I did in first aid trainng years ago) could be vital one day – but having never needed it since I was taught it, it fades. Other things were just stuff – and they go. But if there are building block principles we think are essential to students knowing – maybe we need to ask ourselves why we don’t revisit them on a regular basis with students if they are going to be that important in units later on. I guess ‘time’ and ‘breadth’ could answer that one. Complicated, isn’t it.

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