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Bourdieu and education policy research: the case of teaching English as an additional language

Published in Bourdieu, Pedagogy & Curriculum by Naomi Flynn on August 20, 2013

(c) Paul Kam

This is the latest blog post in relaton to the BERA 2013 conference – the actual paper (04/09/13, Parallel session 2) is titled: Under the invisibility cloak: Positioning policy for the teaching of English as an additional language

Social theory, in the shape of Bourdieu’s logic of practice, has given me a way of ‘seeing’ teachers’ practice that is at once illuminating and frustrating. Illuminating in that use of Bourdieu’s constructs of field and habitus in particular throw light on the context in which teachers operate in a way that lays bare the impact of years of centralised curriculum control in English schools. Frustrating in that seeing where policy shifts over several decades have successively removed teachers’ sense of agency to control their own actions in the classroom can be, put bluntly, depressing. It could be argued that to become depressed by the outcomes of looking through the analytical lens of Bourdieu is inherent in the use of his logic of practice; indeed there are those who find his theory unacceptably deterministic. However, applying his thinking to analysis of the field of English teaching in particular is valuable in terms of uncovering unconsciously/consciously held accepted beliefs and dispositions that drive institutional habitus in schools and among policy makers. Albright and Luke argue:

Bourdieu’s trenchant vocabulary for talking about the systems of unequal and inequitable exchange in language and pedagogy… is more relevant than ever. (2008: 3)

Gerard and Farrell’s (2013) commentary, recently featured as a ‘must read’ on this site, helpfully demonstrates how Bourdieusian interpretation of policy decisions can allow researchers to uncover layers of interaction between institutional habitus and the field of education.  They note that for Bourdieu institutions play a lead in determining the way in which the field shapes its own rules. Schools, for example, make decisions about what they will accept, adopt, adapt, reject, dismiss or ignore in any policy and their decisions and actions therefore influence and organise educational practice in the classroom. Furthermore, where policy does become practice it is subject also to interpretation by groups and individuals. Thus, while successive governments have made attempts to control pedagogy for the teaching of English over several decades, the reality in class has always been filtered and modified through the ways in which the school has elected to make meaning from the intentions of the policy makers.

It is in this inter-relationship between practice and text that the power of policies to influence and organise education practice can be found, and here that a research methodology focussing on analysing the creation of these processes might start. (p. 8)

In my own work I have examined the way in which teachers adapt, or do not adapt, their practice for teaching English to primary school children when working with children who have English as an additional language (EAL). Bourdieu’s constructs of habitus and capital have been valuable in coding interview data and finding a narrative to describe how teachers’ practice for teaching EAL learners is a complex mix of subject knowledge, experiences, beliefs, school-based habits, interpretation of the curriculum and personal responses to ‘difference’. Furthermore, Bourdieu’s work on the symbolic power held by users of dominant forms of language (Bourdieu, 1991) –Standard English for example – has provided a powerful lens through which to analyse how policy is shaped by unspoken assumptions about the place of English as a gold-plated capital asset. In schools in the UK EAL learners are taught principally through a monolingual curriculum and assessment structure designed for the teaching of native English speakers (Safford and Drury, 2013). Thus, institutional habitus for the teaching of English is automatically aligned with the curriculum for English for monolingual speakers and guidance for teaching English as an additional language is at best an often over-looked appendix.

In my paper for BERA I will present data from interviews with teachers alongside analysis of the text of policy documentation for the teaching of EAL, to demonstrate the relative invisibility of EAL learners in primary education policy in England: this despite the fact that 18% of children in English primary schools have a home language other than English. My own habitus situates me in the Literacy and Language SIG rather than within Social Theory in Education, but my use of Bourdieu is integral to my research. I seek to give equal weighting to practical implications of my data and to the value of using Bourdieu’s logic of practice methodologically for interpretation of the relationship between policy and practice in education.


Albright, J and Luke, A (2008) ‘Introduction; renewing the cultural politics of literacy education’, Chapter 1 in Albright, J and Luke, A (eds.) Pierre Bourdieu and Literacy Education, London: Routledge pp. 3 – 11 (This book is fabulous)

Gerrard, J and Farrell, L (2013) ‘‘Peopling’ curriculum policy production: researching educational governance through institutional ethnography and Bourdieuian field analysis.’,  Journal of Education Policy, 28 (1), 1 – 20

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Safford, K and Drury, R (2013) ‘The ‘problem’ of bilingual children in educational settings: policy and research in England’, Language and Education,  27 (1), 70 – 81

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About the author /

Naomi Flynn is Associate Professor in Primary English Education at the University of Reading where she is a teacher educator. Naomi’s research interests centre on the teaching of English in English primary schools, with a specific focus on how policy shapes teachers’ practice. Her doctoral research focussed on how’ practice was impacted by the changing pupil demographic in primary schools in the south of England following Eastern European migration to Britain after 2004. She is currently completing a follow up study exploring how linguistic capital plays out over time for migrant children and their teachers. She would be happy to hear from others using Bourdieu to analyse aspects of school and education, or from colleagues with an interest in the teaching of children with English as an additional language. She can be contacted at

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  1. Donald Gillies

    I am sorry I missed your paper at BERA as I can relate to the concerns that you identify. One help I have found is to see teachers as operating in multiple fields rather than just their own workspace and so subject to cross-field effects as well as competing ‘logics’. Similarly , habitus needs to be seen as dynamic and not fixed, to avoid determinism, just as Foucault’s basic conception must be taken as ‘discursive struggle’ rather than controlling ‘discourse’, to avoid the exact same problem. I think these positions are sympathetic to these theorists rather than doing violence to their views but also accept that these are areas of undoubted tension – around agency – in their work

  2. Naomi Flynn

    Thank you for your comments Donald; sorry to have missed an opportunity to share ideas too. Like you, I have found conceptualising teachers’ practice as taking place in multiple and competing fields a valuable way of analysing what goes on when they meet the unfamiliar. Where I have found evidence of a less than dynamic habitus, resulting in reduced agency, is in uncovering teachers’ apparent lack of consciousness of their own relationship with the curriculum; thus they may work in multiple fields but I’m not so sure they are always aware of which one they are in and whether they are playing the right game with the right rules. Perhaps it is this unexplored sense of uncertainty that undermines their capacity to become games-makers rather than blindfolded players, and gifts symbolic capital by default to policy-makers. I’m still brewing that last thought, so all observations welcome!

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