“Highbrow” cultural pursuits such as theatre trips or museum visits have no impact on children’s GCSE performance, new analysis has found.
Researchers from the Universities of Sussex and Edinburgh found that while children’s reading habits had an impact on exam grades, visits to museums or historical sites had no correlation with high grades at GCSE.
Using data from the National Pupil Database, linked to figures from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, the researchers found family cultural outings had no statistically significant impact on grades.
The research will be published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education.
The study of 736 pupils in English state schools from 2009-10 to 2012-13, finds that engaging in reading-related activities is “mildly influential” on pupils’ achievements but that “engagement in highbrow cultural activities are not”.
This is an important finding as the concept of cultural capital has become more prominent in Government education policyStudy authors
“This is an important finding as the concept of cultural capital has become more prominent in Government education policy,” it adds.
“Cultural capital” is an idea developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which argues that disadvantaged pupils are not exposed to the same range of cultural experiences as their better-off peers.
Wealthier children are taken by their parents to museums, galleries and the theatre, which makes them not just economically but culturally more advantaged, the theory suggests, as “cultural capital” is passed down from generation to generation.
In 2019, schools inspectorate Ofsted included the phrase in its guidance for the first time.
“As part of making the judgment about quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life,” it said.
It added: “It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”
The study did find that parents’ and children’s reading habits and activities, such as borrowing books from the library, had a significant impact on grades.
Engaging in two or three reading activities, on average, increases the pupil’s GCSE score by between seven and nine pointsStudy authors
“Engaging in two or three reading activities, on average, increases the pupil’s GCSE score by between seven and nine points,” the paper said.
“The size of this effect should not be overlooked since an extra GCSE pass at grade A* is worth eight points.”
However, reading activities explained between 4% and 5% of the differences in GCSE grades, while parents’ social class background had a much stronger impact on grades.
“It is beguiling to believe that increasing pupils’ levels of cultural capital will have a positive influence on school GCSE outcomes,” the researchers said, adding that it was “tempting to theorise that visits to museums or historic venues might be helpful in igniting interests in history, and that visits to the theatre might similarly cultivate learning in drama”.
They note that “the concept of cultural capital has made the transition from social science to educational policy” through its inclusion in Ofsted guidance.
However, they said their findings “do not lend any support to the view that increasing cultural capital will reduce the size of social class inequalities in school GCSE outcomes”.
“This is not to argue that activities that have sometimes been associated with increasing cultural capital should not be part of the school experience, for example extracurricular trips may contribute to educational enjoyment,” they said.
But they added that “if schools are serious about reducing educational inequalities, our empirical findings send a clear and actionable message for policy and practice”.
In order to support groups of pupils who may be projected to have lower school GCSE outcomes, schools would be better placed to concentrate on increasing reading activitiesStudy authors
“In order to support groups of pupils who may be projected to have lower school GCSE outcomes, schools would be better placed to concentrate on increasing reading activities,” they said.
They added that targeted policy interventions should address the “stark social class attainment gaps, which are consistently observed in school GCSE outcomes”.
Some writers and teachers have criticised the report’s implications on social media, arguing that cultural experiences have value beyond their impact on exam results.
The novelist Joanne Harris wrote: “Breaking news: education is not just passing exams…”
And maths teacher and Financial Times columnist Bobby Seagull said: “As a school teacher, of course exam results are important to my students.”
“But it’s also important to give them the opportunity to learn about and appreciate culture by activities like museum visits, giving them that spark for curiosity.”
Children’s writer Joe Craig said the real issue was that: “Exams fail to measure benefits of museum visits”.
But English teacher Tabitha McIntosh praised the research, summarising it as: “Studies show that visiting museums is a consumer lifestyle habit of wealthy parents: it’s the wealth, not the museum visits, that results in disparities in educational outcomes. Stop sneering at working-class parents.”
On Saturday, the Government’s social mobility commissioner, Katharine Birbalsingh, told headteachers at the Association of School and College Leaders that teachers should not assume that they could draw knowledge out of pupils rather than teaching them material directly, as this would benefit middle-class students.
“A more middle-class child can go home and will sit down at the dinner table with their parents and they will talk about the politics of the day, read the books that are on the shelves; mum and dad might take out the newspaper,” she said.
“They go to museums on the weekend and they go to the Maldives on holiday and so on – and they pick up knowledge from all over the place.”
“But the more disadvantaged child does not,” she added.
Ms Birbalsingh said that pupils from poorer backgrounds who had not been explicitly taught material would see their middle-class peers answering questions and become demotivated.