The best investment you’ll ever make (Part 1)

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With child poverty at record highs, if schools really are serious about transforming the life chances of young people then they need to unlock social capital. In this the first of two blogs, we unpack the different types of ‘capital’ and the challenges schools face.

I am currently reading a book called ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind’. The American author, Eric Jensen, asks two key questions: ‘What does being poor do to kids’ brains?’ and, ‘What can schools do about it?’ More importantly, the book attempts to demonstrate how schools can improve academic achievement of economically disadvantaged pupils at the same time as preparing them for ‘life readiness’. It certainly is a challenging brief.

According to a 2016 New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population in the UK are living in poverty. In Scotland alone the situation is even worse, with one in four. This means that in a typical classroom of 30 pupils, at least six children will be living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last week in Scotland pulls no punches. The situation will not get any better it claims, unless political leaders take “the decisive steps needed to make the transformational change required.

This is nothing new. We’ve known this for years. For example, in a 2006 Audit Commission report, researchers concluded that if school leaders were serious about transforming communities, schools have to become far more proactive at releasing social capital, especially in the most deprived parts of the country. This is often why it is more challenging transforming a school in a deprived community (with low levels of social capital) compared with one that is not. Ofsted, please take note.

What is poverty?

According to Jensen, poverty is “a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body and soul.” There is a tendency to assume that poverty only affects the working classes and those pupils living in cities or in large metropolitan areas. This is not the case, and Jensen’s book reminds us of all the different types of poverty, including the more familiar ‘absolute’ (day-to-day survival) and ‘relative’ (when income is below a national average). What is perhaps less familiar is the notion of ‘rural’ poverty, a concept that seems to be emerging more and more and is certainly true this side of the pond.

The issue is therefore as complex as it is ubiquitous. This is particularly why I was immediately drawn in to Jensen’s compelling narrative because he frames the entire book in the opening chapter with one stunningly simple question:

‘If life experiences can change poor kids for the worse, can’t life experiences also change them for the better?’

Pierre Bourdieu and the 3 types of capital

This is where social and cultural capital come in, which is why the question got me thinking again of the work of the influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I revisited his writings last year when researching a chapter on Identity I wrote for The Working Class, edited expertly by Ian Gilbert. Bourdieu first coined the terms in the 1970s when attempting to construct a new social capital theory eventually crystallised in his classic study of French society called Distinction (1986). He even suggested that it is social and cultural capital that have the biggest influence over a child’s chances in school.

According to the theory, the more capital (or resources) a parent has in their possession, the more power and agency they have. In turn, the more advantaged they become. Social capital gives them a much-needed foot up the ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Before we explore cultural and social capital, we need briefly to mention ‘economic’ capital. According to Bourdieu, economic capital exists very much at the interchange of the two. Economic capital is essentially the total of all the assets that an individual may own and is very often an indicator of money or wealth. However, this also includes material wealth. On the surface, a person may appear to be economically wealthy but in fact they are not. This is often applicable to the families in our schools. They may well have a car, go on holidays and have a sky sports subscription. But because their social and cultural capital are locked up, they themselves remain disadvantaged because they don’t have access to the full range of opportunities available to those with greater capital.

Social capital

Social capital concerns itself with the connections we have in our lives. The more connections we have, then the more control. It means we can make better, more informed choices as opposed to having to just about make do. (Remember Theresa May’s JAMs? Those just about managing.) A person with lots of social capital is likely to have a number of friends and acquaintances at their disposal, some of whom may be colleagues they work with, ex-alumni or community members.

However, for too many of our families, the only acquaintances a mum or dad may have are those other parents they stand with on the playground. This may well be the sum total of all they have, especially if new to the UK. That said, these parents may still be able to release social capital through family connections. Social capital in the family home is often as important as economic or financial capital, especially when strong relationships exist between family members and parents act as strong role models.

Cultural capital

Once a person has a reasonable amount of social capital to hand they can then start to trade it in for cultural capital. Cultural capital includes those assets that are non-financial such as education, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, dress and even age. All of these are known to promote social mobility. Reciprocity is essential so that people know how to bargain, compromise and live in a more tolerant and pluralistic society.

Cultural capital runs a lot deeper though than simply connecting up the friendship groups an individual may have and introducing them to new cultural experiences. Too often, cultural capital is already too ingrained for it to be influenced. Cultural capital is essentially the accumulation over a lifetime of a set of social norms such as knowledge, behaviours, values and skills that a person can access at will.

In essence, it is the extent and ease to which a person can tap into these traits that demonstrates their status or standing in society. This, according to Bourdieu, is what determines class. The more cultural capital you have, the more likely you are to be middle class or above and therefore be more advantaged. However, do not mistaken this with elitism. Regardless of class or status, cultural capital has always been the mainstay currency when passing on traditions or oral history down through the generations, be it round the campfire, on cave walls, urban music or social media.

Ethical trading

Schools are uniquely placed to tackle the problem head on. Our classrooms, school halls and playgrounds are ideal locations to serve as virtual stock exchanges or trading floors for parents reluctant or unable to build capital. Teachers play a key role as as brokers. You need to grasp this economy and make it work, ensuring as many of your parents as possible are in credit, each with a healthy balance. In terms of your time, it could well become the best investment you ever make.

As with all investments, it comes with risk. You are certainly not going to get a quick-fix return, and so any investment plan must be for the long term, five to seven years I’d say at least. As an ethical investor, I’m in. I am far more likely to want to get out of bed each morning to pursue this worthy strategy than endlessly trying to wring another half a percentage point out of next year’s progress measures. It all comes down to moral purpose.

More questions than answers

Returning to the question posed by Jensen at the start, let’s instead now plug in ‘social capital’ rather than ‘life experiences’. In so doing, we can now ask: ‘If less social capital can change poor kids for the worse, can more social capital change them for the better?’

I wish I had the answer. I suspect it is not as simple as that, not least because there is no real and clear consensus as to the extent to which the capital is a fixed or variable asset in the first place. Take you for example. Do you have any idea how much capital you have? If you wanted more tomorrow, how would you go about getting it? I can’t even answer this question for myself, so I have no idea how I’m going to attempt to answer it in regard to the communities we serve. (And we have dozens across the trust, all very different.) And as for measuring it, well it can be a bit like trying to measure the world’s largest dot.

We also need to accept that in most cases, social norms and beliefs are so deeply entrenched within our communities that the extent to which an individual has access to social capital is already a pre-determined given. Nothing we will ever do will change it.  If this is the case, are we not just wasting our time and that we’d be better off doing something else? Can we really kid ourselves that merely by bringing parents together at school we can release more capital for them? And even if we did, does it really make a difference to how well a child achieves? If the answer is no, and we can’t intervene and exercise influence, then we may as well pack up and all go home now.

But we won’t. I do genuinely believe that the answer is yes, we can release capital, not least because we know from research that one of the key characteristics of communities with high social capital is trust. If we can start to engage with our families when the children are as young as possible, then time is on our side. For those of you working in primary schools, you have a distinct advantage. As with virtually everything we do in our schools it starts and ends in early years and so where better place to start than this?

In my next blog I’ll look at practical ways in which as a trust we’ve tried (and often failed) to increase the amount of social capital available to our families. Whether or not it made a clear and tangible difference, who knows. I’ll let you decide.


(Thanks go to @RADY_Louise, @fullonlearning and @mngroves for nudging me in the right direction.)

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