In the most recent Early Years inspection framework, the grade descriptor for a Good setting, in the ‘Quality of education’ section, says:
“Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give children, particularly the most disadvantaged, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life,” explaining that cultural capital is “the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens.”
But who decides what knowledge is essential? And is there only one correct way to be an educated citizen? Why is it so vague?
It might feel a little hard to see how this definition meets the ground in your day-to-day practice. So to explain the idea of cultural capital in the EYFS, and see how it unfolds in real life, we made a video to help you out.
Ofsted didn't invent ‘cultural capital’.
Cultural capital is a term in sociology that basically means the social and cultural advantage that some people have, usually when they have more money. This social or cultural advantage means you have access to more opportunities to ‘move up in the world’.
Examples of traditional forms of cultural capital might be being able to visit different countries, enjoying expensive extra-curricular activities, learning an instrument or two, wearing nice clothes, or speaking in a “proper” way. Most often, having access to these forms of cultural capital costs considerable money.
However, when Ofsted say ‘cultural capital’, they define it as the ‘knowledge children need to prepare them for their future success’ and be ‘educated citizens’.
For example, for an adult, this definition of cultural capital might look like:
This is the type of knowledge you might not have learned formally in school. It could be considered akin to ‘street smarts’ or even common sense.
In the Early Years, this definition of cultural capital might mean things like knowing how a library works, or having the opportunity to visit a museum. But it could also include less concrete advantages, like knowing how to apologise to others, or being good at taking turns.
And this is important because not all children have access to all these things or that kind of knowledge or support, so it’s about levelling the playing field.
Cultural capital looks different to different children and families.
Children come into Early Years settings with the knowledge they’ve learned about the world at home, and that knowledge and experience contributes to their cultural capital too. That means that your delivery of cultural capital is about including and celebrating this cultural knowledge.
For example, if your toy sushi is mostly packaged away in a box, labelled ‘multi-cultural food’, and is only set out as part of a special ‘let’s learn about Japanese culture’ day, what message does that send to the children in your setting who have that food in their kitchens every day? Instead, children’s experiences should be reflected and built on continually. Put the toy sushi in the play kitchen with the other food, for children to see and learn about in context.
The same applies if you only acknowledge different cultures or faiths at special times, like easily ‘Early-Years-ifiable’ festivals or events. For example, only working to include and celebrate your LBGTQIA+ families during Pride celebrations, because it’s easy to paint a rainbow.
In the Early Years Inspection Framework, Ofsted tell us that, in a Good setting, “Practitioners value and promote equality and diversity and prepare children for life in modern Britain.” According to Ofsted, practitioners do this by “developing children’s understanding of fundamental British values.”
But this shouldn’t mean promoting stereotypical British culture, especially at the exclusion of other cultures. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.
The ‘British Values’ they’re referring to are:
Having a board up with Union Flags isn’t necessary either. These values should be shared with children through fair, inclusive, and respectful practice.
It’s also important that we don’t use cultural capital to try to enforce specific cultural norms onto children. Teaching and supporting children’s cultural capital is not teaching children how to be Western and middle class.
For example, some children come from a home where eating with hands is the norm and a valuable skill, so it’s not our place to tell them that using cutlery is the ‘right’ way to eat.
It’s not about suddenly playing only classical music, because that’s stereotypically the most ‘cultured’. Instead, it’s about playing a variety of types of music, from all over the world. That way, children might hear some they’re familiar with (and take delight in hearing that in their setting, and sharing it with their peers) or hear some music that’s completely new to them. You don’t need to try to decide which music is the ‘best’.
Cultural capital should be something that should be shared and ‘taught’ in your everyday practice and, the chances are, you’re probably doing it anyway.
For example, when a child has a birthday in your setting, you might sing Happy Birthday, share a sweet treat, and celebrate with a party. If that child does something different at home, you incorporate those traditions too.
That’s also why the description of cultural capital is so vague - Ofsted can’t tell you what the unique cohort of children at your setting need because you know them best. It’s because of your expert knowledge of those children that you’re in the best position to think about how to offer that variety of familiar and new experiences.
After all, that’s the essence of designing a curriculum. You don’t assess children when they start at your setting and leave it at that. Instead, you plan experiences for them to support their development, where and when you’ve observed they need it.
”It’s not helpful to label a child that comes into your setting at age three, who hasn’t had some of the play and experiences that other children may have had, as somehow younger. Look at what they haven’t experienced and give them those rich experiences they haven’t had yet.”
In short, include, celebrate, acknowledge, and build on children’s knowledge, experiences, and interests. And, at the same time, provide new opportunities and experiences, to challenge, expand, and increase children’s knowledge, understanding, and skills.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.