Lack of funding threatens a neo-feudal age of cultural capital

Cultural capital is becoming the preserve of the few as enrichment is pushed out by the funding squeeze, says Miles Huppatz, but we can mitigate this inequity

Cultural capital is becoming the preserve of the few as enrichment is pushed out by the funding squeeze, says Miles Huppatz, but we can mitigate this inequity

27 Feb 2023, 5:00

Results from a new Sutton Trust survey show the proportion of heads reporting cuts to school trips has more than doubled since last year

Funding cuts are leaving schools sleepwalking into a neo-feudal age of cultural capital. As a middle leader in a state secondary in Peterborough, I believe this could be catastrophic. In one recent conversation about the topic, a senior leader said to me “we just don’t have the money to offer what some places do”. This is unsurprising in an area of socio-cultural and economic disadvantage like Peterborough. 

Feudalism, the dominant social system in Medieval Europe, describes the relationship between the propertied ruling classes and peasants; one of control, exploitation, and inequality. In the 21st Century, neo-feudalism mainly refers to the dominance of societies by small, powerful groups of elites. Today, funding cuts risk creating a neo-feudal age of cultural capital between increasingly polarised groups of haves and have-nots.

Cultural capital is about the cultural assets that people develop but are not explicitly taught. Since 2019, Ofsted have championed developing cultural capital as a key feature of a rich and broad curriculum. Understood through the lens of education, it is about exposing young people to new experiences and opportunities, something many schools do through trips and enrichment activities.

A change in long-term memory

Like many teachers, I know the transformative impact that enrichment trips have on young people. Reading our year 11 yearbooks in summer, I saw that several of our most disadvantaged pupils named their year 8 trip to Hunstanton as their favourite memory of school. Recently, I remember talking to Stephen, one of my year 11s, during a trip to Leicester. He told me that he doesn’t “really get out of town” and had never been to London. He was excited about visiting somewhere new.

For Stephen, our trip was a unique opportunity to experience an unknown place. Alongside undertaking geography fieldwork, we also visited De Montfort University and the University of Leicester, experiences Stephen would otherwise be unlikely to have. This allowed Stephen and his peers to develop new cultural assets and capital. Stephen, like many of his local peers, is hindered by the relatively low profile of tertiary education in the city. The same can be said of pupils in other disadvantaged areas of the country.

Aside from Leicester, other trips have included the National Space Centre and London to see An Inspector Calls, broadening and enriching young people’s experiences of science and the arts. Cutting funding for trips like this will further hinder opportunities for the disadvantaged to access cultural capital.

A Widening Gap

At one end of the spectrum, elites will continue to obtain cultural capital as they always have, through trips, family, and nepotic ties. At the other, many schools are increasingly unable to justify spending on enrichment activities as budgets are stretched and the funding crisis worsens.

It’s this that is driving the rise of a neo-feudal age of cultural capital. Those in positions of disadvantage and on the cultural periphery will continue to be marginalised, unable to gain what the privileged few take for granted.

Solutions closer to home

One solution in these straitened times is to seek out culturally enriching activities closer to home. Over the past few months, businesses in Peterborough have given up their time to help students at my school develop their cultural capital by running careers workshops and hosting students for outreach activities.

At the national level, the government should consider tax breaks to incentivise businesses to run programmes that enrich students’ lives and develop their cultural capital in disadvantaged areas. This would help engage businesses in actively levelling up deprived parts of the UK and redress the inequality in the access to cultural enrichment.

Amid funding woes and a cost of living crisis, it is imperative that enrichment is not only maintained but expanded. Government and the business community can ensure that the economic downturn for families and schools doesn’t translate into a cultural downturn too, decreasing the richness and fullness of young people’s educational experience and sinking us deeper into a neo-feudal age of cultural capital.

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