Social capital, active community and educational disadvantage

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Photo of the back of school children's heads looking at a whiteboard.

By Professor Andrew Peterson, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
School of Education, University of Birmingham.


The publication last week of ‘The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’ by the House of Commons Education Committee brought into sharp – and indeed critical – focus once again the unequal and contested nature of educational experiences and attainment in England. Since its publication, much of the commentary on the report and the conclusions it draws have centred on the Committee’s suggestion that the use of the term ‘white privilege’ has played a part in limiting white working class educational outcomes. Much less attention, however, has been paid to another notable suggestion made by the Committee – that the educational disadvantage experienced by White working-class pupils is, in part, due to a lack of social capital.

The identification of a lack of social capital as a notable factor in undermining White working-class educational outcomes is an interesting inclusion in the report. While by no means uncontested, the concept of social capital brings into focus the bonds and associations between citizens and communities that help to foster a sense of connectedness, involvement and belonging. However, on closer analysis the report pays too little attention to social capital and what it might comprise. Despite the claim that there exists ‘an important role for civil society organisations, such as youth clubs and youth services, working with schools and families to build social capital and provide positive role models for disadvantaged young White people’ (p. 41), the term ‘social capital’ is used only six times across the report’s 84 pages and, when referenced directly, it is given a decidedly economic slant. The report, for example, highlights the importance of positive role models and of building connections – to families, to local services, and to communities – but rests these largely on building awareness of the ‘world of work and industries’ (p. 40). In addition, the term says nothing about how social capital might relate to ‘cultural capital’ – the broad knowledge, behaviours, skills and qualities that impact social status (the term ‘cultural capital is not used in the report at all).

Notably lacking in the report is a deeper and more considered understanding of the ideas of community cohesion and active community that would not only speak to the experiences of White working-class communities and pupils but could also serve to connect and bridge these experiences to other communities, especially those who also experience disadvantage. The only real connection to the civic bonds and bridges that social capital might provide comes where the report cites evidence submitted by The Local Trust to argue that low levels of social capital are signified by high levels of unemployment, low adult qualifications, and poor community cohesion in areas lacking “places to meet, an active community and connectivity [to] both transport and digital access to economic opportunities in the wider geography’ (p. 24). It is precisely this lack of active community spaces and the opportunity to connect with others – often the direct result of under-funding and investment in disadvantaged communities – that undermines the creation, cultivation and sustenance of social capital. This lack of both investment in, and the deliberate fostering of, civic spaces in turn exacerbates the ‘placed-based’ disparities felt not only by White working-class communities but by other disadvantaged communities in modern Britain.

What the report seriously underplays, then, is that positive forms of social capital will only flourish when they are built on solid foundations. While economic foundations are important (of which investment in communities and local service provision is a core part, of course), of equal importance are the moral and civic foundations that underpin social capital. These moral and civic foundations include, but are not limited to, trust, mutual goodwill, civility, and a commitment to the common good, as well as genuine understanding that democratic society is stronger, more stable, and more harmonious when no portion is subject to adverse social and economic conditions. Social capital, in other words, requires us to view each other as co-participants in a common endeavour and to work for the good of others through the various institutions and organisations of civil society. Emerging data from our research with school leaders on what constitutes a school of civic character suggests that it is precisely co-operation, trust, care for others and the community, and mutual goodwill that schools are emphasising in their work with all pupils.

It is these characteristics that are largely captured in the measure of social capital offered by the Office of National Statistics. In its most recent (pre-pandemic) report in February 2020, the ONS focused on four domains of social capital: personal relationships, social network support, civic engagement, and trust and cooperative norms – reporting an overall decline in social capital over the previous 8-10 years, including a decline in trust and belonging to our neighbourhoods. If we are serious about addressing the educational disadvantage for White working-class communities, and indeed more widely, serious attention needs to be paid to this general decline in social capital as well as to the continued disparities in social capital felt across lower affluent communities. Such a challenge demands not just what schools, pupils, families and community organisations can do to cultivate positive forms of social capital within their individual communities, but rather how greater cooperation, trust and mutual goodwill between communities can be fostered and sustained. Social capital has to be a responsibility of all if it is to work for benefit of all – for White working-class communities, for other disadvantaged communities, and for society more widely. If a deeper and more committed approach to cultivating and maintaining social capital is not embraced, the wider ambitions of challenging educational disadvantage will not be realised.


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