Gerry Robinson discovers a humourous and provocative book that gets past the emotive responses to its subject to propose a change for the better

Since its inclusion in Ofsted’s inspection handbook, cultural capital has become a well-worn phrase in schools. But what is it really? Phil Beadle’s latest book opens by addressing Ofsted’s assertion that schools should “[equip] pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” and forces us to reconsider our assumptions.

A complex, insightful read, with several humorous interjections, this book could not be more timely. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests both nationally and internationally, many schools decided during the first lockdown to reflect on and decolonise their curriculum offer, in order to better meet the needs of their students.

Subsequent guidance introduced by the UK government, however, which deems “anti-capitalist” ideas as an “extreme political stance” and discourages the use of materials by any organisation that promotes such views, seems to have sent some schools running back to the apparent safety of teaching what Beadle calls “the approved high culture, the producers of which… are white, male and dead”.

How, then, can educators support students to celebrate their identities without risking their own careers? Beadle’s book, written before the new guidance came into effect, offers a possible pathway to “do something real and valuable about culture that also gets Ofsted off your back”.

Ofsted, Beadle asserts, has ‘misrecognised what cultural capital is’

Much of Beadle’s book centres around the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the “radical sociologist” who first coined the term “cultural capital” and highlighted the connection between our (supposedly) neutral pursuit of beauty and our economic and political system. Ofsted, Beadle asserts, has “misrecognised what cultural capital is”, which is simultaneously ironic and problematic. Beadle breaks down exactly how and why this has come about in the first three chapters of his book, building a convincing, detailed and thoroughly researched argument before proposing practical solutions.

I particularly enjoyed Beadle’s argument, in the chapter entitled “The Uses of Language”, that mastery of language is “the most primally important thing we can give our children in terms of their schooling”. A crucial point in this chapter is the importance of valuing the language of the working class (and, though this point is less pronounced, that of other marginalised groups).

Countless studies have shown that Standard English does not require greater cognitive ability to grasp than Cockney rhyming slang. And yet, Beadle correctly points out, we condition students to believe that Standard English is intrinsically better. The crucial point here is that Standard English is perceived to be “more than” because it is the language of the dominant class. Beadle therefore promotes a balance of learning the language of “your oppressors” in order to challenge the status quo while keeping one’s own modes of language. He astutely writes: “Without access to the language of the dominant, they will have been left silent; with access to it, they can call the bluffers out for what they are.”

This is what is so brilliant about Beadle’s writing: he moves fluidly from academic discourse to colloquialisms, all the while demonstrating that a working-class person can master the ability to move confidently between cultural registers and therefore challenge social hierarchies.

Beadle acknowledges multiple times that readers may be put off by his assertions that schools are reinforcing damaging social systems, especially given the fact that many teachers regularly, and with the best of intentions, espouse the importance of cultural capital  ̶  albeit Ofsted’s version rather than Bourdieu’s. But Beadle’s writing is enticing and even those who disagree with his thesis will find it hard not to keep reading and reflecting on their own ideas of what it means to empower students through education.

In any case, as a teacher himself, it is clear that Beadle is wholly in support of school staff; it is the school system he wishes to challenge. In fact, Beadle notes that teachers, above all others, are the group who have “the most cultural capital but have benefited the least from it in financial terms”, putting us in the perfect position to use “the radical tool” Ofsted has “accidentally given us… to change education for the better”.