Cultural Capital: Can you relate?


close up of coffee cup on table
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I knew my son was dyslexic in Reception.

We were ‘lost’ parents and did not understand the system. We agreed to have him put on the SEND register. He finally received a specific dyslexia intervention in year 4 (by a HLTA, untrained in dyslexia, who was receiving instruction from a qualified SpLD teacher).  

We would go to progress meetings where she complained that he was slumped over the table. He disliked being ‘taken out’, especially when something fun was going on, and missed science for a whole year.

I had not been able to get his needs met by the school.


My own background: brought may have informed how I managed and responded to communications with the school. Several parents of dyslexic children took their children out of the school and home schooled them. I often wonder if this would have been a better choice for us.

But then, is this close to exclusion?

From a working class, single parent family I received school dinners and when I went to Manchester Polytechnic, it was on a full grant. Education was not given high status within the family though. Graft was. My grandfather was ‘self-made’ and financially secure, built his own house.

Until recently, I was the only one in the family to have gone on to study in Further Education.

As a parent, I had the static cultural capital – we visited museums, I engaged my children in interesting debates, took them on exciting holidays and I supplemented their learning at home. Whilst educated, my background was essentially working class. I did not have the skills, experience, or support from my family to negotiate successfully with the school.

Importantly, I did not have the relational cultural capital – the middle class sense of how to go about getting my child’s needs met. I’m not sure this can be learnt.

I watched other mothers achieve this with envy, trying to look for clues.

The social mobility gap is a particular focus at government level (Department of Education, 2017). There has been a specific focus on the teaching of vocabulary to close the ‘gap’ but in reality, there are far more complex issues at play which are harder to address.

There have been several studies on high vs low Socio-Economic Status (SES) families, their approaches to education, and how this might impact on outcomes (Ciabattari, 2010; Tramonte & Willms, 2090). Whilst Kimelberg (2014), suggests that middle class mothers are actively choosing urban state schools because they are aware of their own cultural capital (and ability to support their children’s education), other studies point to the neoliberalisation of education and the illusion of choice, choice for some but not for others (Reay 2006; 2008).

Schools AND parents are complicit in this, it is seductive. If we really want equity though, it’s time to be present to it.

‘Closing the Gap’ by teaching vocabulary seems like a much easier option.

I had a group of friends when my children were small, we would go to playgroups, play centres and drink coffee. All three of them managed to position themselves to get into schools which were highly regarded or ‘outstanding’ before their children started school. They rented or moved houses to achieve this. Hansen (2013) showed in her study that education-related house moves do occur in the pre-school years. Her paper used data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) and linked it to Land Registry data. Particular types of parents (more educated and advantaged) ‘gear up’ their quest for what they perceive to be better schooling for their children before they start school.

We had bought our house when I was pregnant because we loved it, and we sent our children to the nearest school. Already, I had not shown strategic competency, at this point it did not matter because we did not know about our son’s dyslexia. He was a happy, curious and robust toddler.

I didn’t know what to do or how to help him and eventually trained to be a TA and ended up working in my son’s school, trying to support him by being close to the situation. I saw him in tears every day for 2 years. The school suggested that my presence in school made him anxious.

We will not achieve equity in our education system by filling an imaginary gap with words. Instead, consider how your setting relates to and communicates with all members of their community. Does the school demonstrate favouritism, make special allowances for some?

Are these parents on the PTA, Governing Body, ‘special’ friends of the school?

An ethos of ‘everyone’ should mean everyone and demonstrate daily that every child, every parent, matters without special exceptions, regardless of class and socio economic status.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Capital: Can you relate?”

  1. I hope you don’t vote Tory, but you are clearly also “self-made” – having accumulated a great deal of knowledge through your own effort and experience.

    Somewhat recently, I had a schooling-related chat with a couple who had previously acted on my advice. To redact the confidential content: basically, I found myself sounding out their class credentials. This was an unsettling realisation: why in the world was I playing gatekeeper, with literally nothing to gain by doing so? The truth is that it’s a habit gained by association: ‘we’ realise how many of the apparent choices are illusory, how limited resources really are, and how dependent certain things are on a core group of benefactors, and so ‘we’ are much more reluctant to insist on educating newcomers.

    Parables aside, relational and dynamic cultural capital cannot be overemphasised. Studies abound. I would argue that is the greatest contributing factor to not-so-mysteriously increasing inequality, and not just in schooling.

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