An Analysis of SEMH Provision Using Bourdieu’s ‘The Form of Capital’.

Bourdieu’s theory is written from a Marxist perspective, as just like Marxism, Bourdieu argues that what links the world is capital, which is accumulated labour in its materialised form, and it is this capital that,

makes the games of society not ideal and prevents anyone becoming anything.”

While Marx wrote an economic theory, Bourdieu extended this, while acknowledging that economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital, by arguing that capital in all its forms is necessary to explain the structure of society. Bourdieu stated that as well as economic capital, there is also cultural and social capital. Cultural capital can be embodied within a person and is life limited, objectified in terms of pictures or books, and institutionalized through academic qualifications, and social capital is measured by the size of networks, or the number and “quality” of a person’s connections. Bourdieu argues that the accumulation of these forms of capital means that everything is not equally possible or impossible.

Bourdieu’s theory can be used to explain how it is in education that you can clearly see how inequalities of opportunity and outcome arise. This is a break away from the idea that economic success is linked solely to aptitude, and from the functionalist idea that the social gain of education is measured by its’ effects on national productivity; a purely economic analysis. Bourdieu argues that acquiring cultural capital is a long- term process that requires time, and that time is made possible by economic capital or financial security. This financial security or economic capital allows a carer to not work but give time to a child or buy the time of others to instil this cultural capital. Such examples could include extra tutoring to improve exam results to achieve a place at a high achieving school, and theatre or museum trips, library visits and access to books or internet. For some it is simply beyond their economic, cultural and social needs to extend their children’s education beyond the minimum legal requirement. This cultural capital is then added to or compounded by the social capital, and Bourdieu argues that the volume of social capital depends not only on the quantity of connections but also the amount of social capital held by each connection, or its’ qualitative value in a networking context, which exerts, what Bourdieu calls,” a multiplier effect.”

Melissa Benn recognised this, and its’ impact on democracy and diversity, in her study of free schools:

” Bristol one of the most educationally divided cities…. many shiny new academies that have not solved the class and ethnic divides. It now has a free school, largely for the benefit of families in a relatively affluent postcode.”

Benn argued, from her pro- comprehensive left-wing stance, that the “Gove” reforms replaced democratically elected local organisations with unaccountable charitable and private bodies saturated by social capital with a middle-class slant backed by cultural power and economic power. This middle- class drive for the acquisition of cultural capital, manifested in academic qualifications through the “right” school, has created a tiered school system that denies equality and democracy for all.

Bourdieu’s theory can also be related to class room practice, where cultural capital, sanctioned by those whose quantity of social capital has given them the right to choose for others, can define “acceptability” in terms of reading materials, methods or practices which can exclude some while further empowering others. It can be argued that those it empowers and maintains are those that recognise or have already been introduced to the accepted cultural capital “on offer” from the curriculum.

Kendall’s research into young adults and what it means to read and be a reader argues that reading should consider the social practices through which readers experience text. Bourdieu argues that the acquisition of cultural capital is a long term process, yet Kendall found that students talked of how time consuming reading was and that they were too busy. The students also rejected broadsheets as they failed to recognise themselves within their pages linking technical ability and identity; the young people coupled the broadsheet reader with reading and by default themselves as opposite. The power of established cultural capital symbolised by the broadsheets and the powerful social capital that maintains them and what they stand for is seen as exclusionary or even a no go zone for some pupils.

Although the lack of equality, democracy and the denial of opportunity for all in education is given a theoretical explanation by Bourdieu, it can also be found manifested in the concept of “othering”, which is defined by Michel Foucault as the processes or means used by societies or groups to exclude others whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society. This is why Kendal showed that the students she spoke to, who expressed a preference for accessing text through gaming, texting and tabloids, despite learning actively and critically in a social environment, still felt the “otherness” of feeling opposite to the broadsheet reader whom they saw as more able, and were also reluctant to reject the security of belonging represented by the need for reading of certain materials and learning styles defined by their school.

Bourdieu would also argue that social capital produces and reproduces useful relationships that secure material or symbolic profit. This is clearly shown in the education system by the disproportionate number of privately educated students who achieve Oxbridge places, and the “nepotistic” and “class ridden” nature of certain national institutions such as Parliament, the legal system and the BBC. Educational qualifications (cultural capital in its’ institutionalized state”) can be exchanged on the labour market for monetary value, and those achieved at certain private schools, Oxbridge colleges, or held by those “rich” in social capital (titled or well connected) are paid more, and thus have the economic capacity to perpetuate their dominance and continue the “othering”of those outside this system.  Nepotism is the result of social capital multiplying or increasing the yield of academic qualifications, and the “othering” of certain groups is further entrenched through accents (cultural capital in its’ embodied state”) and the contribution which the education system makes to the reproduction of the social structure. This dominant group can then define what acceptable cultural capital is, as well as what kind of social capital it is that really matters so perpetuating a system that continues to deny equality, democracy and diversity for all.

The reproductive effect of social capital that Bourdieu highlights within education is perpetuated within the workplace, to the disadvantage of some to such a degree that it is recognised as a broken system in need of reform.  

Bourdieu’s theory can also help explain how the different ethnic and cultural groups that make up our diverse society may underachieve within the education system. Although ethnic minority groups have great respect for education, and as family units take great time, attention and care investing cultural capital and have high social capital within their individual groups, they may still underachieve because they do not have high amounts of social capital within the dominant group. Traveller groups have large amounts of social capital within their close- knit communities and take great effort to instil the cultural capital defined by their culture, but this does not transfer to the education system where they regularly underperform and which they often reject. Bourdieu also argues that while those who come to live and work in the UK and learn English at the expense of their native tongue increase their social capital, they also undermine aspects of their cultural capital.

Pupils who have “Social, Emotional and Mental Health” concerns (SEMH), and who receive their education at a designated SEMH school, may have a severe deficit of positive social capital, and may often suffer from the lack of personal attention from their families or carers that the lengthy process of instilling cultural capital requires. It can be argued that a lack of social capital can directly affect a young person’s sense of wellbeing.

The very act of giving official recognition to a behavioural issue that may manifest itself with SEMH in extreme violence and aggression, is a vivid example of “othering” as argued by Foucault. The language used in an “Education, Health and Care Plan” (EHCP)  has such power that it sets the pupil apart often irretrievably from the mainstream, and as their behaviour often has a cumulative effect, building up from the nursery stage, the paperwork that surrounds them immerses them and makes them different. A vivid effect of this “othering” is shown when a pupil from a SEMH school attempts to return to a mainstream school. The mainstream school is often very reluctant to accept a pupil, despite the pages of evidence provided by the SEMH school to support their return, and the pupil carries their label back with them until they leave.

Pupils who attend SEMH schools have their “otherness” compounded by their attendance there. This is because such schools often have a disproportionate number of pupils from already “othered” groups such as looked after children, travellers, victims of abuse and children living below the poverty line. Therefore it is particularly important that staff within a SEMH school do not compound this “otherness” by offering pity rather than help or patronise rather than normalise. Teachers should not expect less of their pupils because of their backgrounds or behavioural issues; as such an attitude does little to help a pupil who already has many issues to contend with.

An extreme demonstration of how teachers can compound “otherness” is shown by Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s work,” Pygmalion in the Classroom”. This research focused on an experiment at an elementary school where students took intelligence pre-tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing a potential to achieve academically within the next year. When Rosenthal and Jacobsen tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would achieve scored significantly higher. It became clear from this that teacher expectations influence student performance, both positively and negatively, and it was originally called The Pygmalion Effect” in recognition of George Bernard Shaw’s character Henry Higgins, who achieves success with his muse, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, because of his high expectations and belief in her. Teachers in SEMH education must not compound “otherness “by low expectations, the teacher must not add further to a pupil’s low level of cultural capital or deny access to positive social capital because of an expectation linked directly to a label.

Deuchar researched into gangs and “marginalised youth”, and the ideas introduced to support the young people affected. Deuchar draws on Bourdieu when he argues that challenging pupils may have a background of deprivation, negative family role models, social exclusion and marginalisation which leads to a lack of social capital or “compensatory” social capital from gang membership. He argues that this can be addressed if pupils are offered desirable alternatives which provide a chance to build social capital in legitimate fields, such as a positive culture that rewarded achievement, and widened pupils’ social networks through visits, extended school activities and extra- curricular activities such as Mini Enterprise Schemes.

The teachers at one of the schools that Deucher visited still had to warn their pupils, especially those from low income backgrounds and ethnic minority groups, that when they were out and about after school or during weekends and holidays that they were vulnerable to being” demonised” because of the preoccupation with anti-social behaviour amongst young people. This links back directly to Foucault’s “othering” and the exclusionary nature of Bourdieu’s social capital.

Students who are recognised as having SEMH need the support of the best-informed practice because they have rejected or been let down by the existing educational system. The majority have no actual specific learning difficulties but suffer from having had huge gaps in their education from deliberate or enforced non-attendance, and as such need a different form of schooling that challenges existing practice and empowers through self awareness.

SEMH students may lack any motivation or drive to work, and in their radical pedagogy Corrigan and Chapman argue that a student’s ability to trust a teacher can be a huge motivating factor to learning; their research found a positive correlation between trust, motivation and empowerment. Erikson argues that trust begins to develop at birth and progresses through eight sequential stages dependent upon one’s psychological experiences which can be underdeveloped due to childhood experiences. Some SEMH students suffer from “attachment disorder” or are deeply distrustful of others and of forming any kind of relationship. SEMH schools can address this by having a focus on creating radical positions of responsibility beyond the mandatory, such as School Councils, and a drive towards independent learning and long term individual projects managed by students. Pupils would meet with teachers to update them on what they were doing in much the same way as employees hold meetings with colleagues in the work place. This trust placed in the pupils by the teachers would improve self esteem, encourage a critical eye in the students and hopefully improve their behaviour both in and out of school.

A critical pedagogy that could be relevant to the needs of SEMH pupils is Illich’s “Deschooling Society”. Illich argues for the overthrowing of a “schooled up” world where credentials and processes, represented by tests, certificates and qualifications, operate against the least advantaged in society and deny the free flow of natural talent, skill and aptitude. SEMH students are often from financially disadvantaged homes, and Illich argues that poorer members of society are damaged by the current system of schooling as wealthier members are in a better position to simply last out the processing systems. The poor will always have lesser access, and lesser time to linger, and thus be disadvantaged in getting the door opening credentials. To implement this

a SEMH school would have to reject formal examinations and a strict adherence or use of a formal curriculum, in a radical revaluation that moved away from credentialing to learning, as credentials would not be recognised as reliable measures of talent. SEMH pupils, who find it difficult to cope with formal learning and examinations, would be able to find calm and increased self esteem through thriving by doing what they enjoy.

It could be argued that Bourdieu’s theory is personified by the SEMH pupil; “othered” by their label, physically removed from the mainstream, with little social capital or the “wrong” kind and no cultural capital. Would the radical pedagogies liberate these troubled pupils, or would an offer of such freedom or the handing over of such responsibility prove too much?



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