Storming the Citadel: a quest for cultural capital

This blog is based on a talk I gave at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds 2019’ hosted by the Grammar School at Leeds on Saturday 22nd June.

Why is language vital?

What is Cultural Capital?

Who decides what ‘culture’ is?

What does it mean to be ‘culturally poor’

How can we redress the balance?

Culture, cultural capital and cultural poverty are all loaded terms. They are trigger issues – the type which evoke the big, contentious issues in our society. If we are to have a hope of tackling cultural poverty in the classroom, to focus on the ‘teacher stuff’ and find solutions, we must first wade through the wider social injustices and sensitivities which are inextricably linked to ‘culture’: race, power, identity, nationalism, poverty and the lives of real people.

Left to right: Mum and me (aged 22 months)
Auntie Karen, Grandad Alf, Mum, Auntie Alison

I am a woman of mixed British and Caribbean heritage. My grandfather came to Leeds from St Kitts as part of the Windrush Generation. He met my Irish Catholic Nana, and the rest is history. I grew up in a place called Chapeltown in Leeds. It is the artistic hub of the city; home of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, the incredible West Indian Carnival, Leeds Young Authors, countless artists, writers and musicians from a diverse range of backgrounds. Art and ‘culture’ are ubiquitous on those streets where teens riff on street corners and dance troupes practise in the park. I call this culture. This is the real world; the Britain which nurtures our students. Most teachers would agree that a diverse culture should permeate the walls of our classrooms, and that our curriculum should explore a range of voices and experiences.

Culture, however, has been defined by someone else. Ofsted describes cultural capital as:

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.

(Schools Inspection Handbook, OFSTED, 2015)

This all sounds very laudable, but the debates surrounding, for example, the History curriculum and the inclusion of teaching empire and slavery, tell us that this will be a challenging and emotive topic: how do we decide what is crucial knowledge and what can be skipped over? How do we decide what is ‘the best that has been thought and said’?

In a recent article, Helen Moylett (ref below) makes the point that ‘we all have cultural capital; all forms of it are valid, but they are not valued equally by society’s institutions including the education system and this has economic and political consequences for children and families.’ She outlines the cultural capitalist theory which posits that school is somewhere where working class children are taught to be more middle class, ‘thus by default working class culture is devalued.’ I would add to this any other culture which is not that of the established white middle class in this country.

If we are to have a reasonable chance of addressing things from a practical teaching perspective, we must distinguish between these two things:

The culture of heritage, art and expression is something we must respect and value, regardless of who we are or what we are doing. However, someone else has decided what is ‘worthy of study’, and that version of ‘culture’ is something we must engage with if our students are to succeed and achieve the qualifications they need.

Why language is vital…

Language has the power to challenge us, to stir emotion and belief and to move us to action. It is also problematic in its ambiguity; every word and phrase is open to a range of meaning and interpretation, rendering language dangerous. Despite this danger, language is NECESSARY. We must have a name for ideas and challenges, because otherwise we can never describe and understand them.

I received a lot of flack from people on social media over my use of the title ‘storming the citadel’ for my conference talk this summer. Some people objected to my use of language which is explicitly challenging and militaristic. As an English teacher, I am fully aware of the connotations of my language choices – this metaphor is entirely apt – I intended to be provocative. Cultural poverty is not an issue which will be improved by mildness, apology or polite euphemism. Like all social injustice, it must be dealt with head-on.

I’ve heard lots of people say that they don’t like the term ‘cultural poverty’ and they don’t like calling students ‘disadvantaged.’ A lot of people feel this way, it seems, but I wonder where this comes from?

All teachers are privileged, even if they didn’t start out that way. We must be mindful of the level of privilege we have – our education, jobs, a degree of security, position of power – all of these things make us privileged. We are far more literate and more able to engage with the world around us than the average person. This is privilege, and it can make us feel a sense of guilt. We can often worry that, by calling someone ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘culturally poor’, we are somehow judging them, or buying into the very stereotypes which we see as keeping them down…

All of these concerns are very natural, but we must ask ourselves who we are really trying to protect… A lot of these issues; the judgement, fear of patronising, fear of being called racist or intolerant; these are all about how we feel, how we are affected by poverty and injustice. It’s easier for us to say, ‘well, I don’t see disadvantage because I’m not judging people’, than it is for us to just deal with the fact that society is unfair, and we happen to be closer to the top of the pyramid than many of our students. The ability to ignore injustice is our privilege. Many of our students and their families CAN’T ignore it, because they are living it every day. The least we can do is acknowledge it – see it for what it is, call it out, and try our best to deal with it.

In a perfect world, we would be able to treat everybody the same way, and there would be no need to recognise differences like this. We don’t live in that world yet. To ignore disadvantage is nonsensical: we can’t start living in a world we haven’t created yet!

So, let’s call it out and recognise ‘disadvantage’ and ‘cultural poverty’ for what they are! If we see and take ownership of our feelings of discomfort and guilt, we can use this emotion as a spur to action: let your discomfort give you your ‘why’…

what is ‘cultural capital’?

A person’s level of cultural capital is a huge indicator of how well they are able to succeed academically and engage in wider society. However, improving cultural capital is not as simple as putting a book under someone’s nose.

Who decides what culture is?

Politicians have decided what ‘the best’ is. According to some of the most recent changes to exam specifications, ‘the best’ is limited to the realm of dead white men. For example, under the new curriculum for GCSE English Literature, students are mostly limited to study only British novelists and playwrights; the non-British poets and writers from minority ethnic groups in the anthologies appear to have been selected only to write about their ‘otherness’. It might surprise Mr Gove to learn that black writers are capable of writing about things other than racism and identity… there is plenty a great literature about flowers, sunsets, love and conflict written by BAME writers, but these are rarely, if ever, selected for set text lists.

Students hear short snippets of experience from writers like Dharker and Agard but, worth 12.5% of the GCSE Literature qualification, and with fifteen poems to cover, these cultural voices are marginalised even further. The set texts list now almost entirely comprises British giants such as Dickens and Shakespeare, but students actually live in an increasingly global, irreverent world in which ‘Britishness’ no longer carries the cultural currency it once did.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke in 2009 (TEDGlobal – the danger of a single story) about what happens when one form of literature dominates, and there is only one version of the world. As English teachers have to ask ourselves this: what is English Literature? Is it literature which is written exclusively BY the English, or is it literature which is written IN English? If it is literature written exclusively by English writers then, I’m sorry, but I’m out! I want any curriculum studied by students in my school to be designed with all of human achievement in mind, rather than just that of white European men.

how can we redress the balance?

School leaders, ask the right questions! It is the duty of senior leaders to ensure that teachers are designing the best possible curriculum for their students. A curriculum should be challenging, broad and ambitious. We must ensure that students are exposed to as much as possible, alongside high standards and a strong sense of vision. We must also be committed to developing staff so that they are subject specialists – investing in high quality staff training is critical to delivering a strong curriculum and tackling cultural poverty.

Subject leaders, bring your team on board! Teachers like nothing more than talking about their subject; their passion! Take time to sit down with your team and discuss all the possible content you could teach to your students. Make sure that your curriculum planning contains all the important content students need, the ‘stuff’ which will make them culturally literate. You might be surprised to find that your colleagues have specialist areas of knowledge and skill which they can bring to the fore to broaden and improve your offer to students.

Look at your curriculum, and find the ‘gaps’ where you could achieve a wider breadth of coverage and detail… Many subjects require repeated practice of skills, and this can provide opportunities to introduce more content.

KS3 is often where opportunity lies to make free choices. It is paramount that we are brave; that we re-claim KS3 for real subject exploration and celebration of human achievement, rather than spending that precious time doing soul-less exam practice for something which lies in the far distance! It is possible (and necessary!) to design a challenging KS3 curriculum which builds solid foundations for GCSE and A Level study, without being a mini-GCSE course.

some ideas for effective first teaching:

At the end, everything boils down to strong teaching. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer far greater damage from poor teaching than the average student in this country. It is critical that we make the most of the time we have in lessons to provide a fantastic education and improve cultural capital.

There have been a lot of fads sold to teachers which have wasted a lot of time in the classroom. Things like ‘The Learning Pyramid’, ‘Learning Styles (VAK)’, ‘The Ghost in the Classroom’ and ‘Brain Gym’ have led to a culture where there are lots of myths flying around and quite a lot of confusion about what really works.

In my experience, my students make the best progress when things are kept simple…

If the content is challenging, the delivery is clear, and the work is purposeful, then students learn. That’s it. Simplicity rules the day. Students with poor cultural literacy do better when receiving direct instruction from an expert. There is nothing wrong with teacher talk that is well judged, high quality and ambitious.

I have written on challenge here.

Dual coding is pairing images with learned content to improve the brain’s ability encode and learn information in the long term. I have explained this theory in more detail on my memory blog here. The images above from from Oli Cavaglioli’s excellent book, ‘Dual Coding With Teachers‘ published this year by John Catt Edu.

Knowledge organisers effectively lay out all key content for a unit of work. By sharing an outline of the topic to be covered and all the key knowledge content, students can be clear on what they need to know. A knowledge organiser lays bare all the key information which will be required to access the unit and be successful. This can make things feel more accessible, manageable and less overwhelming. From the teacher’s perspective, a knowledge organiser can go a long way to supporting your own planning, provides excellent content for learning homework, and can help you to set high standards and academic expectations from the start.

There is a reason why, in most private schools, homework is referred to as ‘prep’. By completing homework, pre-reading, research etc. students are coming to lessons PREPared. Regular challenging homework can support students to develop the cultural literacy they need in order to be ready for your lesson and the ambitious content which awaits them. I wrote about my own anxieties and recent eureka moment with homework here. Fundamentally, well planned homework can do a great deal to improve student confidence, recall and cultural capital.

I love @TeacherToolkit’s book, ‘Mark, Plan, Teach.’ I would recommend it to anyone working in a school where marking reigns supreme, as a brilliant collection of strategies for coping with that challenging workload and making it as meaningful as possible.

Is there a better way, though? The term ‘marking’ places emphasis on the physical act of writing in students’ books – of ‘mark making’. But teachers are not markers. Teachers are experts in their subjects who can observe a student, see what they produce and how they work, and use these observations to plan for progress. If teachers want to be consistently effective, they should LOOK at student work, and spend the majority of their PPA time in planning the most effective lessons to meet the needs of their classes. My experience of a decade of ‘marking’ work in English has seen me spend roughly 80% of my time marking, and only 20% in planning. Surely it would be better to spend less time writing in student books, and more time planning for next steps? Our school is currently engaged in research trialling no-written-feedback approaches, to see whether simply reading student work, then planning and teaching more responsive, appropriate lessons, has a discernible impact on pupil progress and engagement. Watch this space for a blog update in the summer!


Cultural capital. It is vastly complex. Every student, even those we would term as affluent and privileged, has gaps in their cultural knowledge. Our job is to identify what these gaps are and attempt to fill them as best we can. I once taught a lesson on the poem ‘Nettles‘ by Vernon Scannell. My class at the time were almost all born outside the UK, and they allowed me to teach for almost a whole hour before someone finally put up their hand and said, “Miss, what’s a nettle?” I had made a silly assumption about something which any person born in the UK would see as a simple piece of necessary, ubiquitous knowledge. I was shocked, and spent the next ten minutes showing them pictures of nettles, trying to explain the pain I felt when I fell in a patch aged seven, and showing them what dock leaves look like, just in case they ever need one!

What can we do? Don’t make assumptions! Check for understanding and prior knowledge at every opportunity. Students will probably surprise you with the things they DO know, as much as the things they don’t. Keep communication open in your classroom – if students aren’t confident to ask you for clarification, you will end up teaching ‘Nettles’ to bemused fifteen year olds for an hour… Plan a challenging, ambitious curriculum which pushes students beyond their own expectations. Don’t ever forget that students have their own cultures to bring to the table. Asking questions, valuing their experience, heritage and identity goes a long way to helping them feel like they are fully fledged members of society with something valuable to offer.

When faced with the option of whether to do what’s right according to a politician’s idea of what ‘the best’ is, and your own gut feeling of what is right for the students in front of you; do what matters most, every time.

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