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The Arts in Schools: Cultural Capital, knowledge and skills

Pauline Tambling discusses the role of cultural capital, knowledge and skillsover the past 40 years

We published a think piece, The Arts in Schools: a new conversation on the value of the arts in and beyond schools, in May 2022, reflecting on the 1982 Gulbenkian report on this topic, and developments in arts education since. Between June and September 2022 we convened a series of roundtables on Zoom with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, academics, young people, and policy makers on nine themes in the original report. What follows are personal reflections on discussions at the roundtable chaired by Maggie Atkinson on Cultural Capital, knowledge and skills. A fuller response to what we heard across all the roundtables and responses to our think piece will be published in a new Arts in Schools report in early 2023.

The 2019 Ofsted framework requires schools to consider how they develop their children’s ‘cultural capital’ to help them succeed in life:

As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Our understanding of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ is derived from the following wording in the national curriculum:

‘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.’[1]

Some arts educators have welcomed Ofsted’s inclusion of ‘cultural capital’ within the inspection framework seeing it as an acknowledgement of the importance of the arts in schools. There is a danger of formulating an official view about what constitutes ‘cultural capital’. Agencies like Ofsted adopt such terms, describe them, promote ways to integrate them and then include them in inspection criteria.

Whereas the originator of the term ‘cultural capital’ French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), was describing a phenomenon whereby individuals progress in society by subscribing to a mainstream culture at the expense of others who don’t or can’t, Ofsted has embraced the idea as a positive means of achieving social mobility. This raises questions about determining whose culture we value and how we measure its acquisition.

In 1982 when The Arts in Schools report was published, the debates were different. Progressive education had promoted practical learning in the arts with individual creativity dominating, often unrelated to arts appreciation. The writers knew that many critics saw encouraging free expression as lacking rigour. They felt the need to re-balance arts teaching to reflect the discipline inherent in professional arts practice and to position young people’s work within a wider tradition of cultural heritage. They stressed both the process of art-making and the end product, seeing both as equally valuable. They were clear that creativity or artistic ability were not about individual ‘genius’. They could be cultivated in all young people, honed and developed.

It was a revelation to our young people’s panel that a report written in 1982 addressed the complicated issues of cultural heritage and ‘whose heritage and culture?’ and that such debates were happening forty years ago. The fact that the Gulbenkian writers did not subscribe to the view that there was a single unchanging culture surprised them, as did the report’s recognition that ‘Often, children live within one culture, while school, for the most part, represents another. We are thinking here not only of the many ethnic cultures which British schools now serve, but also of positive counter-cultures, instanced for example by Paul Willis (1978) in his account of attitudes to school among working class boys.’ [2]

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Central to the report’s argument was the view that the arts are crucial to engaging with wider culture (or cultures) because they challenge young people’s perceptions of others’ attitudes and values and help them to find their own voices which in turn are challenged by others. Ideally there is a balance between individual and/or group participation in the arts and an engagement with the arts of others. Learning, practising and improving in any artform leads to a greater understanding and critical engagement with the wider arts, both past and present. The fundamentals of ‘inquiry, expression and creation’[3] are common to all artists.

Our roundtable participants were keen to focus on the way we teach the arts. When well-taught, the arts encourage young people to find their individual voices. They acquire skills, facility and confidence and will be able to place their work and ideas within the bigger context of what’s happening in their communities, or what they see in professional galleries or on stages. They need to feel that what they bring to the process is valid even if their cultural backgrounds are different from those that dominate in the school.

At the heart of this argument is the concept of equity. The 1982 report sees schools as ‘shot through with the values of surrounding culture … for this reason schools are best seen not as transmitters of culture but as complex cultural exchanges.[4] Our participants felt that nowadays we sometimes take a deficit view – of children lacking in ‘cultural capital’ – because we close our eyes to ideas and practices that do not meet a particular definition, whereas the prize is to embrace more and different cultural experiences and to focus on the quality of engagement and the dialogue between cultural practices.

Our roundtable started with a presentation by Polly Hamilton, Assistant Director for Culture, Sport and Tourism for Rotherham, who described the Borough’s plans towards a Children’s Capital of Culture in 2025. Launched in 2017, and described as much as a journey as a destination, the initiative is already empowering children and young people to create a narrative for Rotherham on their own terms, celebrating its culture(s), identity and distinctive heritage. Young people have been consulting with the wider community and taking part in skills development, traineeships and employment opportunities. They are also engaging with seven cultural partners in the Borough. In 2025 there will be a year-long festival. It is a fine example of listening to young people, recognising the culture they bring to a project, and recognising that we create ‘cultural capital’ as much as we acquire it.

[1] Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, 2019

[2] The Arts in Schools, p.38, Willis, Paul (1977), Learning to Labour, Saxon House, but see also, Willis, Paul (1990), Common Culture, Open University Press

[3] The Arts in Schools, p.46

[4] The Arts in Schools, p.43