What is Social Capital?

The Economy of Ideas #5

What is social capital?

“Connections among individuals; social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”

Robert Putnam (b. 1941) Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001)

The American writer Robert Putnam may have popularised the idea, but he didn’t invent it.  Jane Jacobs used it 40 years before in her brilliant analysis of how cities work at the human scale which included a searing critique of much of what passed for urban planning at the time:

“A good city neighborhood can absorb newcomers into itself, both newcomers by choice and immigrants settling by expediency, and it can protect a reasonable amount of transient population too. But these increments or displacements have to be gradual. If self-government in the place is to work, underlying any float of population must be a continuity of people who have forged neighbourhood networks. These networks are a city’s irreplaceable social capital. Whenever the capital is lost, from whatever cause, the income from it disappears, never to return until and unless new capital is slowly and chancily accumulated.”

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).

In fact, the phrase was coined in print well before, by Lyda Hanifan (1879-1932), who was the supervisor or rural schools in West Virginia and defined social capital as:

Lyda Hanifan “Those tangible assets [which] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up the social unit.”

Lyda Hanifan The Rural School Community Center (1916),

The OECD offers us a more recent definition:

“Networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.”

OECD Human Capital (2007).

The ‘capital’ metaphor is not necessarily helpful (see here). Rather than being something to be acquired and accumulated, these are skills to be developed and practised continuously in order to be of any use. This can be seen as an aggregation of practices between people which establish shared understandings and expectations and shape future interactions, even if they don’t always involve the same people. The ’social capital’ of a community or a society is a constantly evolving set of learned behaviours which form a web of relationships and are strengthened though use. It is this social-historical legacy of many interactions between people which can strengthen their sense of community.

Whatever the terminology, this kind of social ‘glue’ seems like a good thing to nurture; helping to build the mutual trust, respect and co-operation which make communities work well. However, just as it can promote inclusiveness and solidarity, ‘social capital’ can also have the effect of excluding new arrivals, non-members or those who don’t conform to the norm. In its inward-looking form, it can promote xenophobia.

As educators, we clearly want to help young people acquire the ‘social capital’ which can help them in life.  We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack the social networks and skills of their better-off peers even when they have with similar qualifications. This additional ‘capital’ is what can open doors for them and help them get their foot on the first rungs of a career ladder. Despite our best efforts, many highly qualified young people will find themselves playing a lifelong game of ‘social capital’ catch-up, with never quite enough to make good.

So we need to bear in mind that education does not in itself build a better, fairer world. We should be arguing for a society where opportunities are not so much determined by how well networked you are or how polished your social skills are and where a lack of ‘social capital’ is not just another barrier to getting on within an unequal economy. We may want to re-evaluate the way we use the idea of ‘social capital’ and start judging people less by how much of it they have and more by what they do with it.

See also:

The Economy of Ideas

#1 The marketplace of ideas (July 2015)

#2 Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

#3 The global economy of care (May 2016)

#4 Capital as metaphor (June 2016)

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Capital as metaphor

The economy of ideas #4

We talk about social capital, cultural capital, creative capital, even ‘emotional capital’. It seems that capital can stand in for almost every human capacity. Why is this?

CapitalGiven its role as a real currency, it’s perhaps not surprising that we also use money as a metaphorical currency. Money acts as an accepted means of exchange based on a common measure of value which allows very different things to be exchanged; material things, human labour, goods and services of all sorts.

The role of money is familiar in our transactions. In the material world we are constantly buying and selling stuff, including our labour and that of other people. Capital is accumulated money which represents the potential to own or do things. Having capital is a first step to making things happen – or maybe preventing them from happening.

In the world of ideas we also like to ascribe value and attempt to rate different ideas on common scales. This can involve some fairly crude ‘lumping and labelling’. Agglomeration, the ‘lumping’, requires disparate processes to be brought together as one. Reification, the ‘labelling’, requires us to take an idea which we can think about, modify and use and to treat it as a thing which we can own and keep.

This process turns complex social transactions and behaviours, such as skilled work, teaching and learning into things which can be quantified, measured and exchanged. This shift can help make things clearer but the danger lies in oversimplifying and forgetting that we are talking about an interaction between human beings in a social context rather than a disembodied exchange of goods. There is a big difference between the capital sitting in a bank account and the myriad of activity it could be funding. We need to avoid simply counting the money when we could be discussing how to spend it wisely.

When we talk about education we use a lot of these agglomerated and reified ideas: skill, excellence, achievement, creativity, intelligence, character, potential … to name just a few. Each one is a broad term which lumps together a range of very different social interactions between people and is often fiercely contested by those who use it to mean different things. Each one has been subject to attempts to create a scale of value with all the measurement and comparisons this implies. The problem comes when the distance becomes too great between the actual process, such as learning how to do something well, and the measure which represents it: achievement, skill, excellence etc. And so we end up talking about ‘the skills agenda’, ‘aiming for excellence’, ‘character building’ and such meta-terms which are several levels removed from the actual processes of teaching and learning.

The capital metaphor encourages us to think of social processes such as learning as things which can be acquired and accumulated and which have a value independent of their use in the world. If ‘educational capital’ can be given a market value, then it is only a small step to thinking of all our learning as a form of personal wealth accumulation which is less about our relationship with others and more about topping up our purchasing power in the marketplace.

This suggests we should at least be cautious about the use of ‘capital’ as a metaphor and be prepared to question any model of education which seems to try to measure the unmeasurable.

See also:

The economy of ideas

#1 The marketplace of ideas (July 2015)

#2 Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

#3 The global economy of care (May 2016)

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London’s sixth forms.

london cartogram

There are around 165,000 students studying in London’s publicly funded sixth forms. These students are enrolled across 380 different institutions of many types and sizes which can be grouped into 4 broad categories:

  • School sixth forms (as part of a school with a wider age range) of many types.
  • Sixth form colleges which are specialist 16-19 institutions.
  • Further Education colleges which often have a wider age range (although they may organise their sixth form provision discretely).
  • Dedicated 16-19 providers of various kinds including ’16-19 schools’ and academies.

The various consortia arrangements which groups of schools have created sit somewhere between the first and last of these categories.

London has the full spectrum of these different types of provider and any review of 16-19 education in the capital needs to start from an understanding of the full range of ways in which sixth formers access similar programmes.

This is an initial overview of the pattern of provision based on data in the 2015 post-16 performance tables and is part of a deeper analysis of sixth form provision in London. It is mainly based on data on final year advanced cohort (‘academic’ and ‘vocational’) who amount to about a third of the total students enrolled. This suggests that roughly a further third are in the first year and a further third are studying courses below advanced level – which in many cases will provide progression to advanced level.

This overview will limit itself to questions of location, institution type and size and course type. This begs many questions about breadth of offer, cost effectiveness and quality which will be addressed elsewhere.


The main subdivisions used are the 32 London boroughs. It would also be of interest to analyse the data by subregional local authority groupings (as I’ve done here for London Local) as this irons out some of the boundary issues and reveals subregional differences. It’s also a level of potential intervention by councils working together.

The 32 boroughs have a wide variation in the number of sixth formers in education, ranging from 9,200 in Barnet and 8,000 in Croydon to 1,200 in Merton and 1,600 in Southwark. This eight-fold population difference between largest and smallest suggests that some boroughs will need to work with others on any post-16 aspirations they have.

The local patterns of provision vary widely too. At one end, Richmond is almost a ‘pure’ tertiary system with over 1,000 final year advanced level students (roughly half ‘academic’ and half ‘vocational’) studying at the college and virtually none in school sixth forms in the borough. Havering, Islington, Lewisham, Newham and Waltham Forest also have most of their sixth formers enrolled in colleges of various kinds. At the other end of the spectrum Barking, Bexley, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Redbridge and Sutton have no A-level students enrolled in colleges in the borough (but see * below).

Institution type and size:

The overall cohort is very unevenly distributed with 78% of all final year A-level students located across 331 school sixth forms and 20% located in 30 colleges (sixth form and FE). The distribution of advanced vocational students is very different, with 64% in colleges and 33% in schools.

The average number of final year A-level students per school sixth form is 82, compared to 367 per sixth form college, 138 per FE college and 166 per 16-19 specialist school. The smallest average A-level year group sizes are found in school sixth forms in Islington (39), Lambeth (50), Tower Hamlets and Croydon (51 each).

The average number of final year advanced vocational students per school sixth form is 24, compared to 306 per FE college, 261 per sixth form college and 129 per 16-19 specialist school. The smallest average advanced vocational group sizes are found in schools in Kingston (7), Barnet (10), Havering (12) and Southwark (13).

Advanced academic qualifications

Number % total Ave. Y2 students
School sixth forms 331 78% 82
Sixth form colleges 12 13% 367
FE colleges 18 7% 138
16-19 schools 6 2% 166


Advanced vocational qualifications

Number % total Ave. Y2 students
School sixth forms 270 33% 24
Sixth form colleges 12 16% 261
FE colleges 31 48% 306
16-19 schools 7 3% 129


Small school sixth forms:

160 school sixth forms, nearly half the total, have fewer than 200 students overall. This means they fall below the government’s proposed viability threshold for new sixth form provision. With average A-level year group sizes of less than 100 and average vocational year group sizes less than 25 it’s likely that the average London school sixth form is not able to offer a very broad post-16 offer to its students. Some have created consortia to address this, but according to the performance tables, this is not yet widespread practice.

The boroughs with the most school sixth forms below 200 are: Hillingdon (12), Croydon (10), Hackney, Southwark and Tower Hamlets (8 each). At the other end, Newham has none and Kensington & Chelsea only has one.

Course type:

Using the performance table data, it is possible to compare the proportion of students on advanced ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways. There is no ‘right’ ratio, but across London 36% of advanced students are following vocational courses. Boroughs where this percentage is substantially lower include: Southwark (17%), Sutton (19%) while it is at its highest in Barking (58%) and Westminster (55%).

*This borough level variation is partly related to whether or not there is a college located in the borough rather than whether local students are studying vocational courses, which they may cross borough boundaries to do. This is where a larger, subregional analysis would help.


This kind of analysis serves to remind us of the somewhat incoherent pattern of post-16 provision we have, which does not serve young people as well as it could. It should also remind us that we could plan this provision a bit more coherently by creating new kinds of partnership between sixth form providers. Perhaps this could be a positive legacy of the current area reviews.

Further analysis:

A sixth form profile of the ‘Local London’ area (February 2016)

On the availability of ‘minority’ A-level subjects in London:

A level languages in London. (February 2016)

A-level Drama in London (March 2016)

Classical Capital (March 2016)

Accessing the IB diploma (February 2016)

A-level minority report: Dance, Music, Philosophy (February 2016)




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The global economy of care.

The economy of ideas #3.

solidarity muralIs there a limit to how much we can care about others? Is it natural that we should care more about those who are closest to us? Is it in our nature to ‘look after our own’ rather than see ourselves as part of a wider humanity?

Clearly, the time and energy available to each one of us is limited. We also know more of the suffering of those who are closest to us. Global communications allows us to learn about any number of human tragedies, conflicts, injustices and disasters which affect people around the world. We may feel for people in distant places but no single person can solve the world’s problems, however deeply they care, just as no one could expect to address all the world’s inequalities by giving all their wealth away.

Nevertheless, once we know about the suffering of others, we start to care about them. We ask ourselves: ‘what could I do to help?’ Faced with the enormity of the various challenges faced by human beings across the globe, one natural response is: ‘I can’t possibly do anything about that’ and to retreat into the ‘closer’ world we know best and to apply our caring resources in our immediate circle.

However, there is no reason for human compassion and solidarity to have fixed or predetermined limits. Given that we know the scale of human suffering, we have to look beyond our immediate surroundings for the solutions and to ask ‘what should be done?’ as well as ‘what can I do?’ This is not to stop caring for the individuals close to us or to abdicate responsibility by outsourcing it to ‘someone else’. It’s an acknowledgement that there are social, economic, political, structural causes for much of human suffering and that these have to be tackled in social, economic, political and structural ways. This requires concerted hard work between people; the kind of hard work which one individual citizen can usefully decide to support, vote for, argue for and contribute to.

Social, political, campaigning and collective community action for greater justice offer us ways of applying our limited ‘caring resources’ as individuals; including to make life better for people we will never meet, who live far away and are very different from us. Some of the effects of this may be almost immediate (eg: transferring wealth or providing accommodation) others may take more time to work through (eg: policy changes or social and political reform).

This kind of organised, collective caring does not undermine the more personal face-to-face caring; it is an extension of it. It is a recognition that to be effective, our capacity for care needs to be supported, organised and professionalised, and that we need national, international, state and non-governmental structures to do this. We also need to be prepared to support the more redistributive taxation which is essential to resource a fairer and more caring global society.

The alternative would be to accept an economy of selfishness which defines us in terms of those we don’t care about; either because they are undeserving, too distant or too different from us. Our caring resources will be of little value if we can’t universalise them, and they will remaining narrow, protective and even xenophobic in their impact. If we are to move forwards as a human society we need to find new ways to draw on our personal response to the suffering of others in order to build a genuine global economy of care.

See also:

The economy of ideas

#1 The marketplace of ideas (July 2015)

#2 Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)


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From ‘Recovery’ by Rabindranath Tagore

from Recovery – poem no.10 from arogya by Rabindranath Tagore (1941)

Lazily afloat on time’s stream,

My mind turns to the sky.

As I cross its empty expanses

Shadowy pictures form in my eyes

Of the many ages of the long past

And the many peoples

That have hurtled forward,

Confident of victory.

But the earth when I look at it

Makes me aware

Of the hubbub of a huge concourse

Of ordinary people

Led along many paths and in various groups

By man’s common urges,

From age to age, through life and death.

They work –

In cities and in fields.

Imperial canopies collapse,

Battle-drums stop,

Victory-pillars, like idiots, forget what their own words mean;

Battle-crazed eyes and blood-smeared weapons

Live on only in children’s stories,

Their menace veiled.

But people work –

Here and in other regions,

Filling the passage of their lives with a rumbling and thundering

Woven by day and by night –

The sonorous rhythm

Of Life’s liturgy in all its pain and elation,

Gloom and light.

Over the ruins of hundreds of empires,

The people work.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Translated from the Bengali by William Radice (b. 1951)

The full poem and others available in Rabindranath Tagore Selected Poems, Penguin Classics (1985)


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Market autonomy or democratic autonomy?

With French presidential and parliamentary elections due in April , May and June next year, politicians on all sides agree that education should be a high priority and they are trying out a range of policies for education reform. These include ending the comprehensive secondary school (‘college unique’), a greater emphasis on skills training, a radical decentralisation of the system, changes to teachers’ terms and conditions as well as a return to traditional methods, or possibly a highly individualised approach based on e-learning.

PHILIPPE-MEIRIEU__Malena-Arrighi(680x380)In a recent post on the Café Pedagogique site, the eminent French educationalist Philippe Meirieu examines the link between education reform and the future of the French social project. In particular he contrasts different approaches to school autonomy by identifying two radically different types which he calls market autonomy and democratic autonomy.

By democratic autonomy, Meirieu means giving schools the necessary freedoms to ensure that their professional teams can achieve clear national aims and objectives established democratically and within a coherent national system. By market autonomy he means the creation of a system which pits publicly funded schools in direct competition against each other, something rather like the system of private schools under a state contract which is already possible. According to Meirieu, many of the elements of this market autonomy are already present.

Meirieu argues that the rise of individualism has led to a crumbling of people’s confidence in public education. People are no longer prepared to entrust their children to schools in the way that one might entrust them to an airline – trusting the pilot to do the job well without any advice from passengers about how to fly a plane. We are less ready to accept the judgements of others about what is good for us and we are more distrustful of those who would make such judgements, whatever their expertise, in the name of the common good. In fact, the whole concept of the common good is no longer clear.

In this account, while our personal interests are perfectly legitimate we seem to lack the political institutions to construct a common good which is compelling enough to have a greater legitimacy than these short term interests. This leads us to be conflicted between our immediate personal interests and our desire to contribute to a greater common interest. We might agree with the idea of diverse, comprehensive, socially mixed schools and parity of esteem for vocational education…but maybe not for our own children.

And so, French citizens are increasingly becoming education consumers and the move towards market autonomy is well under way as evidenced by the increasing use of league tables, patterns of option pathways available, new flexibilities in catchment areas, new forms of student support which play on parents’ anxieties and also the very existence of private schools, whether they contract with the state or not.

Meirieu acknowledges that some of the growth in alternative and private schools is a response to the perceived failure of public schools to live up to their promise of individualised support, academic excellence and preparation for citizenship.

It is in this context that French politicians may be considering market reforms in education. Meirieu suggests that it would not be difficult for a new government to radically fragment the system into a multitude of smaller units committed to serving ‘parent-consumers’ who would become more reliant on their ability to play the system as well as possibly on their ability to pay for it. There are those who are ready to make the case for a massive deregulation of state education and the introduction of vouchers which can be ‘topped-up’ by the better off. Any government making this choice would be able to abandon any social vision or national purpose for education and hand things over to the institutional Darwinism of the market, trusting that those schools doing the best job will survive and thrive.

This would, of course, mean the end of France’s Republican education project, as defined by Jean Jaures (1859-1914) and others. It would mean abandoning any ambition of creating an education system which could help construct the common good for all our children. French education would be delivered into a global education market and be fought over by interest groups and corporations.

In the face of this threat, what does Meirieu recommend?

He certainly has no time for the ‘limping’ status quo. Drawing on French revolutionary traditions he suggests that what is needed is a combination of a ‘Jacobinism’ of aims with a ‘Girondism’ of means. By this he means that the aims of the system should be set nationally and democratically and apply to all; a strong, coherent and popular project which could enthuse teachers, parents and students. This would require a strong policy commitment to comprehensiveness and social mixity, parental involvement, effective differentiation, pathways of equal status, the promotion of teamwork, research and project work among staff and students and a strong place for arts and cultural learning.

However, the institutions themselves should benefit from considerable autonomy in implementing these national aims in ways which are appropriate to their local context and which build on the skills and creativity of their staff. This is the flexible, pragmatic ‘Girondism’ suggested by Meirieu. The role of the state should not be to ‘reign’ over the system or to treat its citizens as subjects but to guarantee those common values which unite citizens and create the conditions for them to live those values. Far from being docile servants of the school system, teachers and others education workers should be seen as skilled actors in a process which can both unite and liberate future citizens.

Meirieu regards this as a complete reversal of ends and means in contemporary French education and one which is urgently needed. In his view, the state is both abdicating its responsibility for defining ends and chipping away at the means available to help achieve them. All those involved in education need to have the opportunity to work on the relationship between ends and means in order to actually have a chance of actually achieving a smaller number of agreed social and educational objectives.

These debates are relevant to the English context where a system of radical ‘market autonomy’ is much further developed; to the extent where we are now starting to ask how we might rebuild a more coherent, less atomised, system. As always, each country can learn much from the experience of the other.

See also:

Educating after the November 13th attacks (December 2015)

Educational inequality in France (May 2015)

L’autonomie pourquoi? (In French) (April 215)

Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism – Philippe Meirieu (April 2015)

Roberto Unger on school as the ‘voice of the future’ (April 2015)

The bitter fruits of autonomy (November 2014)

What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)


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Educational inequality in Europe

Social atlas of europeWhat are the patterns of educational inequality in Europe? To help answer this question, The Social Atlas of Europe (Policy Press, 2014) by Danny Dorling, Dimitris Ballas and Benjamin Hennig provides a fascinating visual overview of inequalities across our continent using maps and cartograms which represent countries and regions by population size rather than land mass.

The authors’ aim is to inform debates about the future of Europe and to promote greater cohesion and sustainability rather than a return to old divisions, national stereotypes and local conflicts. In their own words:

“We hope the work presented in this social atlas will do more to enhance feelings of social cohesion and solidarity among the peoples of Europe. We have tried to achieve this by highlighting important disparities and inequalities and, at the same time, reminding Europeans how much we have in common and the potential for what can be achieved if we move away from a ‘nation-state’ mentality and work, rather, towards a socio-economically and environmentally sustainable common European future.”

These maps reveal some wide disparities across Europe, not least in education. So, for example, we learn that, based on 2013 data:

19 million people over 15 in Europe have had no formal schooling: there is a hundredfold difference in the proportion of people in this category by country. Turkey and Portugal have among the highest proportion at over 10% with Denmark and Norway at the other end of the spectrum with 0.14% and 0.2%.

106 million people in Europe are educated to primary level at most: this is 21% of people over 15 with the highest proportion 16 times the lowest. Turkey (41%) and Portugal (44%) have high proportions, but so does Denmark at 40.8%. Norway has the lowest proportion in this category at 2.8%.

300 million people in Europe are educated to secondary level at most: 58% of people over 15. Hungary and Albania have the highest proportions at 80% with Iceland and Portugal the lowest at 34%, Denmark scores the fourth lowest at 40%.

87 million people across Europe have university degrees: representing 17% of people over 15. Ireland has the highest proportion at 30.5%, Italy and Albania among the lowest at 9.3% – a threefold difference with significant variation from the average.

These data give us a sense of the complex demographics of educational participation across Europe and to fully understand the economic impact of these disparities we need to know more about the different qualification requirements of the various local labour markets. However, as labour mobility across Europe has increased, it is clear that those with lower levels of qualification will be increasingly disadvantaged.

It’s also true that accredited learning and length of time in education are not always the best measures of educational achievement. But with so many professions requiring graduate applicants, people without degrees will find themselves struggling to get onto the first step on the employment ladder.

We also know that too many young adults in Europe have low levels of numeracy and literacy as measured in the OECD’s survey of adult skills (2012) which showed the UK as the worst performing European country in both measures with twice as high a proportion of its young people having low literacy or numeracy skills than other European countries such as Finland and Denmark.

The most shocking fact is that 125 million people over 15 across Europe have no experience of secondary level education. This is a larger cohort than those who have university degrees, suggesting a massive under-investment in education leading to an under-use of human potential across our continent. Simply reversing that 125 / 87 ratio would require at least an 8 year education investment programme involving a cohort the size of Poland (38 million) including a concerted effort to promote adult and lifelong learning and an expansion of secondary and tertiary education where it is least developed.

If we don’t start to tackle this waste of human talent, we will continue to suffer from the negative effects of unequal economic development and a widening gap between rich and poor across our continent.

See also:

Project Hope: for a democratic Europe (April 2016)

Education: the universal human right (May 2015)

Choose education not catastrophe (November 2013)

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