Are you tackling cultural poverty among students?

16 May 2022, 6:00

Ofsted is inspecting for ‘cultural capital’, but limited experience of the world is still holding learners back, writes Josh Spears

Have you ever felt like more and more learners are struggling to answer essay-style questions, not because they don’t know the facts, but because they lack good analysis?

Maybe, like me, you teach GCSE English Language re-sit, where learners struggle with fiction and non-fiction writing tasks.

Or you’re vocational studies, or A-level, wondering just why the evaluative elements of a student’s work just seem to fall flat.

It might just be because your students are living in cultural poverty.

I only really put the name cultural poverty to this issue at the start of 2020, defining it as “learners being unable to engage with creative and social concepts due to a lack of personal experiences that take place in the wider world”. So far it is holding up well enough.

To put it more simply, let’s ask this question: how can we expect a learner to write creatively about a time they went to a forest, if they’ve never been to one?

Just this year, a re-sit cohort went on a college visit to a gallery in Middlesbrough and nearly all of them had remarked that they’d never been to Middlesbrough. Darlington is 16 miles away. Yet they’d never been once.

High travel costs, lack of access to transport, no knowledge of activities. These are the bedrock of cultural poverty.

It worries me that those in cultural poverty can be at greater risk of fake news and radicalisation as they lack the ability to judge truth, having been exposed to little debate, coupled with that feeling that the community has no use for you.

Those in cultural poverty can be at greater risk of fake news

Don’t mistake cultural poverty with the failed, classist theory of aspirational poverty, which has since been debunked by academic Morag Treanor, in 2018. Aspirational poverty suggested that the poor, working class of the country didn’t aspire to “good” jobs in law, health or any such profession where you exchange business cards over a Pret lunch.

But learners want to be the best ̶ it’s just they don’t always know what is out there to be the best at! Or they do know, and they want those roles, but they don’t know how they can get there.

We give them careers advice, but do we give them varied careers experience?

American professor E. D. Hirsch suggested that learners existing in this state lacked “cultural literacy”. This idea focused around a national “shared vocabulary of ideas”-̶ not just an awareness of historical dates but the ripple effect these events had on our shared “tribe”.

The concept of cultural literacy appealed so much to Michael Gove when he was education secretary in 2012, that it inspired think tank Civitas to produce the ‘Core Knowledge’ curriculum, boldly stating that they will create “culturally literate citizens”.

This is good… but it doesn’t solve the problem of cultural poverty, and not only because it seems to focus on schools, not FE.

What we need is more than just facts, dates and their impacts. Learners at FE age need to be brought into the world and given a stake in it, a way to give something of themselves.

They need to be paid as well, because all the good feelings and intentions you offer pale in comparison to money. If we don’t offer this, then a part-time job that a learner might mistake for a career surely will ̶ I’ve seen it happen. We need to compete to win them back.

Ofsted is now inspecting for “cultural capital”, which it is calling “the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens”.

It’s down to organisations to determine what defines culture and how it can be championed. My own college is now investing in one of the first professional development events focused entirely around cultural poverty and how to lift learners out of it with the right tools.

Calling it cultural poverty, rather than capital, is important: we don’t tell students on free school meals that they lack food capital, so why do it with culture?

We owe our learners a way out, and into the wider world.

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