The term ‘Cultural Capital’ in education has come to be understood as ‘offering working class children experiences and knowledge that will open future doors for them.’ The new Ofsted framework makes a judgement on the quality of education and personal development which includes consideration of how well schools equip children with these in order for them to succeed in life in the same way that their less deprived counterparts often do. There has been a lot of debate about the usefulness of the term (mind bogglingly so if you are a twitter user!) but as a small school in the heart of Mexborough – an ex pit village with high levels of unemployment and deprivation – we explored not its definition in the eyes of HMI, but what it would look like for our children in reality. Like many schools, we redesigned our curriculum last year, using our understanding of our community to consider what essential knowledge and skills (not a dirty word!) our children needed to succeed. The intent of this curriculum was to create effective learners and responsible citizens, valuing not only knowledge and skills but also citizenship concepts, the learning of extensive and relevant vocabulary and personal development, all within the context of widening experience. It was this context that we discussed at length as an SLT, in terms of the opportunities we felt our pupils were lacking from home and the provision we could put in place to bridge that gap. We were keen to expose our pupils to a richer cultural spectrum, giving them access to situations, ideas and concepts that would engage and inspire them to work out when and how to find out more as they continue on their educational journey through our school and beyond. Focusing primarily on literature and the arts, we introduced a range of initiatives which have gone on to become the cornerstones (with a small ‘c’) of our curriculum.
Discussion about the early reading curriculum, fear of the deep dive, guided groups vs reciprocal reads vs whole class book talk, balance of decodable books and exposure to tricky words……the list of bloggable reading matters is lengthy. However, when considering the aim of the cultural capital agenda, we can recall a certain previous Education Minister, who claimed it was to “introduce [disadvantaged pupils] to the best that has ever been thought and said.” Reading is widely agreed to be the way to achieve this, not only learning to read but learning to love to read. Creating an environment which encourages this became a huge priority for us. Over the last academic year, we have invested money and time into our reading areas, making them relaxing and engaging spaces; we created a central library stocked with brand new books (the majority selected by the children); we developed a whole school reward system, giving children a weekly goal for their home reading; we carefully selected vocabulary-rich texts to enhance our novel study and we started a KS2 Book Club for the purpose of encouraging good quality discussion around the enjoyment of reading the type of materials that they probably wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The intent of these initiatives is to expose children to a wider range of good quality classical and modern texts, but more importantly it is to instil a life-long love of reading.
To provide opportunities for children to explore previously un-realised talents and passions for playing tuned instruments to a good standard we subscribed to Doncaster music service, who come into school once a week to teach brass to all of Y4. Each child gets to take a brass instrument home (much to the delight of all parents!) and learns the fundamental rudiments around tuning, rhythm, musical notation and dynamics. The weekly Y4 brass lessons are a genuine highlight of the week and all pupils are embracing the chance to play, staff are receiving good quality CPD and there isn’t a recorder in sight.
As well as teaching music more consistently, we wanted to expose children to a wider range of listening experiences and increase their knowledge of composers and musicians. Installing a sound system across school has enabled us to provide the whole school community with a wide range of music; Mozart, Take That and the Disney Movie Soundtrack have been recent favourites! We talk to the children about what is being played as much as possible. As well as this, during Autumn 2 we have had a featured composer – Bach. We introduced him in assembly and challenged pupils to learn more about him before the next featured assembly. Staff are encouraged to lead this in class, play compositions during learning time and set home-learning tasks. This method of developing our cultural capital ensures that pupils are participating actively – they don’t just listen, they discuss and express preferences, hence developing their personal engagement as well as their musical knowledge.
Performance and Theatre
Part of our pledge to increase pupil cultural capital has included a theatre trip for every child in school (partly funded by school and partly by parent contributions.) Our children are generally up to date with the latest YouTube sensations and are incredibly vocal about their aspirations to be reality TV stars but on the whole have had limited access to the theatre and live performances. There have been many debates about the lack of diversity within audiences and it seems natural that tackling this should come from encouraging young children from all backgrounds to fall in love with the theatre, to prevent it continuing to be a made for and accessed only by the middle-class. This year, EYFS have had an opera performance in school, KS1 have been to the pantomime and UKS2 will be going to the ballet in January. LKS2 are still on the search for the perfect performance to suit the cohort but we are determined that by the end of the academic year every child will have seen (and hopefully loved!) a performance, inspiring many to become avid theatre-goers in later life.
Prior to our focused composer in Autumn 2, we had a focused painting at the start of term, encouraging our children to learn about and discuss the Mona Lisa. If you need a group of Y2s who can express disappointment about how small this painting is without ever having seen it, come to us! As well as this, last year we were the sneaky Doncaster school who signed up to Rotherham’s Picture This. Many of our staff had engaged with Picture This at other schools they’d worked at in the past and it was an interesting point that for them the project had taught them about artists they had never encountered before. This September, our whole school became a gallery for the beautiful work that the pupils had produced the previous summer as part of the Picture This project and this gave children an enormous sense of pride. We are hoping – even as Rotherham’s Doncaster cousins – to display work at Magna this year but hoping even more so that for many children a love and appreciation of art will be sparked and that one day they’ll be in the National Gallery excited to see that painting they learnt all about when they were 8 years old.
At St Johns, we are finding as many opportunities as we can to immerse our children in wider cultural experiences to increase their knowledge but also so that they have the confidence to discuss the value and merits of books, art and music in different contexts. Starting to engage with these discussions now through our books clubs, featured artist/composer assemblies, theatre visits and brass lessons will hopefully enable our children to find out what they like (and what they don’t like), make informed choices in the future, engage in lively and interesting discussion, all of which could potentially influence their capacity for social mobility. Ofsted believe this will ‘level the playing field’; we believe that with or without Ofsted’s endorsement, giving our children a strong foundation in a range of early cultural experiences is just what our community needs.