A family trip to the theater or an afternoon at a museum can be a fun day out, but new research suggests such cultural outings won’t actually help kids get better grades.
There have been persistent theories that wealthier children may enjoy an advantage in their school careers by being pressured to visit art galleries and exhibitions. According to a new university study, however, exits often seen as ‘middle class’ had no correlation with improved GCSE results.
Findings emerge from a study examining the impact of ‘cultural capital’ and its power to improve children’s life chances, as well as the extent to which it explains the persistent inequality experienced by children from wealthier backgrounds. or poorer.
While family cultural outings had no discernible impact, the researchers found that the reading activities of parents and their children did play a role in test scores. They measured activities such as reading for pleasure, visiting a library and discussing books at home. Such activities have significantly increased GCSE scores. ‘Engaging in two or three reading activities, on average, raises a student’s GCSE score by seven to nine points,’ they found. “The magnitude of this effect should not be overlooked, as an additional pass in the GCSE at grade A* is worth eight points.”
The researchers behind the study, which will appear in the British Journal of the Sociology of Education, say it has real implications for ministers. The authors from the Universities of Sussex and Edinburgh said the concept of cultural capital “has become more prominent in government education policy”.
They point to new guidance from Ofsted, saying that in assessing the quality of education in a school, “inspectors will look at how well schools are providing pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in the life”.
‘It is appealing to believe that increasing the level of pupils’ cultural capital will have a positive influence on GCSE academic achievement,’ the paper said. “It is tempting to theorize that visits to museums or historic places could be helpful in fostering interest in history, and that visits to theaters could similarly cultivate learning about theatre. Upon further reflection, it is difficult to plausibly describe the mechanisms by which exposure to certain extra-curricular activities would influence achievement in other GCSE school subjects.
“This study reports a set of empirical findings that do not support the idea that increasing cultural capital will reduce the extent of social class inequality in school GCSE achievement. This does not mean that activities that have sometimes been associated with increasing cultural capital should not be part of the school experience – for example, extracurricular travel may contribute to the enjoyment of education.
The researchers used statistical models based on data from Understand society survey, which documents household life across Britain. They then linked this data to school records kept in the National Student Database. They looked at ‘cultural capital’ activities, as well as reading activities, of parents and their children to examine the links.
Other studies have shown that visiting museums, art galleries and theaters could have much broader benefits beyond education. A study by UCL academics concluded that they may actually lead to a longer life. The 2019 study found that the more people engage in the arts, the lower their risk of premature death.
This has led to calls for the prescription of cultural travel as a way to improve well-being and has supported studies that have shown that regular cultural visits can improve depression, dementia, chronic pain and frailty.