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Using a capitals frame to understand boarding schools: exposing the economic ‘elephant’…

Published in Bourdieu, Inequalities by Joan Forbes on January 13, 2014

(c) Images Money

(c) Images Money

by Joan Forbes, Gaby Weiner, John Horne, Bob Lingard

[this is a response to a previous post What are the capital benefits of boarding schools?]

An interesting post today, Mark, on the new article by Bass (2014) which applies a capitals frame to understand boarding schools: we share your surprise regarding ‘the lack of any sustained discussion of how forms of capital (in particular economic capital) buy you access to such schools in the first place’.

Readers of Social Theory Applied may be aware of the Scottish Independent Schools Project research by Bob Lingard, Gaby Weiner, Joan Forbes and John Horne which has emerged from the Applied Educational Research Scheme, Schools and Social Capital network (SSCN) studies. Located alongside other SSCN projects, which were  interested in how social capital might be used to help schools, families and young people overcome disadvantage, the SISP series of studies explore how social and other capitals work in and through fee-charging schools to produce and reproduce advantage (see e.g. Forbes & Weiner 2008; Lingard et al 2012). The SISP studies apply the analytic of social capital and, following Bourdieu’s work on the crucial intersection of economic, cultural and social capitals in educational attainment, other capitals, cultural, economic, symbolic (including in the form of reputation), national, cosmopolitan and emotional (Bourdieu, 1986, 1991, 2003; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).

An important finding in the SISP series of studies to date has been not only that in these schools ‘most … students enjoy the advantages of familial economic surety, that is [they] come from well off families, and as such they experience the associated freedom to think and learn’ (Forbes & Lingard 2013, p51), but also that in fee-charging boarding – and day – schools ‘the economic capital and economic surety of students and their families are manifested in school space in multiple ways: physical social and intellectual’ (ibid. 2013, p55).

Indeed one headteacher confided ‘that the quality of schooling available at the school should be available to all young people, including those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds attending state schools in poor communities. She concluded, however, that the cost of provision of such schooling was the “elephant in the room” here, and that this in some ways challenged her own political commitments to real equality of opportunity for all’ (ibid. 2013, p57).

So, of course, the evident tension is the reality that these schools produce distinctions academically – and socially – thus producing future advantage for their young people. Perhaps then not so surprising that the initial economic capital advantage of fee-charging schools’ students remains unspoken and unexamined?

Interestingly, other SISP studies have found ‘gender’ to be another ‘elephant…’ in the fee-charging case study schools (see e.g. Horne, Lingard, Weiner & Forbes 2011; and Forbes & Weiner 2013). Comment on that for another time…


More information on the The THEORY SPACE initiative can be found here, while click here for the Teacher in Public project:


Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J.G. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. Pp241-258. New York: Greenwood.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and symbolic power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (2003) Firing back against the tyranny of the market. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Horne, J., Lingard, B., Weiner, G. & Forbes, J. (2011) Capitalizing on sport: Sport, physical education and multiple capitals in Scottish independent schools. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32.6, 861-879.

Forbes, J. & Lingard, B. (2013) Elite school capitals and girls’ schooling: Understanding the (re) production of privilege through a habits of ‘assuredness’. In C. Maxwell & P. Aggleton (Eds.) Privilege, agency and affect: Understanding the production and effects of action. Pp50-68. London/New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Forbes, J. & Weiner, G. (2008) Under-stated powerhouses: Scottish independent schools, their characteristics and their capitals. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 29.4, 509-525.

Forbes, J. & Weiner, G. (2013) Gendering/ed research spaces: insights from a study of independent schooling. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26.4, 455-469.

Lingard, B., Forbes, J., Weiner, G. & Horne, J. (2012) Multiple capitals and Scottish independent schools: The (re)production of advantage. In J. Allan & R. Catts (Eds.) Social capital, children and young people: Implications for practice, policy and research. Pp181-198. Bristol: Policy Press.

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About the author /


Joan Forbes is a Reader in the School of Education, University of Aberdeen. Her research is located at the intersections of inter/professional practice, children’s spaces, and social and educational in/exclusions, and embraces social and cultural theory and policy sociology. Her published studies are on inter/professional working across children’s public services, and on educational privilege, advantage and in/equalities. She co-leads The Teacher in Public project (The Teacher in Public Project), a cross-College of Arts and Social Sciences research collaboration between the School of Education and Centre for Modern Thought (The Centre for Modern Thought); and, with Dr Archie Graham, she leads the interdisciplinary research initiative: the THEORY SPACE.


  1. Avatar

    This is indeed a very pertinent discussion topic that I have been following with interest.

    The two last posts about this topic also made me wonder of the distintions such schools produce and the effects they have in the long(ish) run through the advantages they not only produce but rather seem to perpetuate… (I’d dare say!)

    I am also interested in learning about it not only from the (the evident) economic capital point of view, but also through a symbolic capital lens (as mentioned here). We can argue that the latter is a direct translation of the former… as attending a fee-charging school is by default percived as “a better option”… not only in terms of learning opportunities but also, and above all, the future possibilities it is thought to provide.

    This type of “kudos” is perhaps the strongest selling point of a fee-charging school… the greatest distinction it can offer? I was wondering if any research has been conducted in terms of transitions from school to University, and/or school to workplace.

    Thank you for the interesting post and links!

  2. Avatar
    Olga Campbell-Thomson

    I have been following the debates on production and reproduction of cultural capital through selective schooling in the UK, which frequently allude to advantageous schooling of economically privileged students. This is true, economic advantage allows parents place their children in fee-paying schools, which often produce academic distinction. Yet, not much has been said about cultural capital invested by these parents in their children’s development and education prior to entering the school, and all throughout schooling.

    Having not conducted any study on the issue and thus, not making claims on scientific soundness of my remarks, I nevertheless would like to note that a lot of academic distinction coming out of good schools should be attributed to the parents who express interest in their children’s learning. These parents naturally seek the environment where their interest meets support not only of school itself, but of other parents investing heavily in education (not in terms of money, but primarily in developing intellectual capacity of their children). Students thrive mainly because they are surrounded by peers who contribute their intellectual wealth and appetite for learning to the schooling environment. Etienne Wenger’s concept of community of practice is of utility here. He places focus on individuals’ input when he states that for individuals, participation in a community of learning is ‘an issue of engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities’ (Wenger 2001, p. 7). Mere placing of kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in a school of high standing would very unlikely achieve the goal of ‘good schooling for all’. The schooling will always be only as good as main contributing members of its community, students.

  3. Avatar

    Interesting points you make Olga. I also think that that the peer environment in fee-paying schools (which is a very middle-class one!) must contribute to the intellectual wealth of the learners…. and I’d also say their attitude and identity; a very important characteristic of communities of practices. In fact , the other day when I was writing the first comment, I was thinking that fee-paying schools not only enhance one’s different forms of capital, but also their habitus (and dispositions)… And I was wondering if that is one of the reasons why students from fee-paying schools do better at interviews in Russell Group Universities?

    I must confess I am not an expert in the field, but I’d be inclined to say that parents’ interest in sending children to fee-paying schools is primarily concerned with ensuring their children’s future (including the University they will study at), rather than placing their main focus on their children’s learning. “One” could however implicitly assume that fee-paying education equals higher quality in teaching and learning.

    As Davey (2012) explains “the decision to educate their children privately is a very particular intervention, and the fee-paying sector is one that, through the “classed practices” literature, has been represented as a site for the reproduction of middle-class privilege (p.508)”, not to mention their doxic thinking. He concludes that “through the relationship between [school] and the parents who pay its fees we see a very distinctive classed practice, with, above all, the fee-paying school a signal of their middle-classness to others. To be a parent at [a fee-paying school] is to become part of a middle-class environment, through its ostentatious displays of class-coded culture.” (p.523)

    I’m enjoying this discussion. Maybe I should do some research in this area, especially in connection to my field 🙂

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