A recent article in the Observer caused a stir in some circles when it reported that “museum visits do not improve exam results”.
Beyond the provocative headline, the piece outlined the findings of a survey published by the British Journal of Sociology and Education examining the role of “cultural capital” in GCSE attainment. The survey in question did not focus solely on museums but examined a range of cultural experiences and their connection to academic achievement.
Cultural capital, a concept coined by French sociologist Pierre Bordieu in the 1970s, theorises that cultural knowledge confers status and power, increases social mobility and is linked to how well a person succeeds in life. The term will be familiar to education practitioners; England’s education watchdog Ofsted launched an inspection framework in 2019 that required schools to develop their students’ cultural capital. Ironically, this new approach was welcomed for taking a more holistic view of education, rather than focusing only on exam results.
Given the growing importance of cultural capital in education, museums were understandably concerned about the finding that “engagement in highbrow cultural activities [is] not influential” on attainment, and the implication that a museum visit has no educational merit. The survey goes further, casting doubt on the theory of cultural capital itself: it says the “central empirical findings do not support the Bourdiuesian position” and there is “no evidence that the parental social class inequalities observed in GCSE outcomes can be explained by inequalities in cultural capital”.
Many culture professionals have argued that the survey’s use of GCSE results as a benchmark was flawed. A letter signed by sector bodies, including the Museums Association (MA), argued that cultural experiences “are not designed to help children pass specific exams, but to contribute to their wider development and understanding of the world”.
The Group for Education in Museums responded that the survey “presents a somewhat misleading picture of the role of museums and heritage sites in addressing this issue”, pointing to the well-documented benefits of museums to social development, wellbeing and memory function.
“GCSE exam results capture a snapshot of a pupil’s educational experience and do not necessarily predict life outcomes,” the group’s statement added.
The debate has shone a spotlight on the ever-evolving relationship between museums and education. Like so many things, this has been turned on its head as a result of the pandemic (see box). Some cultural institutions have lost touch with local schools, while others have struggled to compete with the wide range of high-quality resources that are now available online. But appreciation has also grown among teachers about the value of learning experiences outside the classroom.
Pandemic broadens museums’ offering for schools
A recent report by the University of Leicester’s school of museum studies, School Visits Post-Lockdown II: The Role of Digital, looks at how the relationship between museums and schools has changed during the pandemic.
It follows a survey taken at the start of the pandemic, providing a snapshot of how the situation has evolved. The report focuses on digital engagement between museums and schools – a new frontier foisted upon both sectors with little chance for prior planning. Only 5% of the 44 respondents said digital activities were “extremely important” to their schools offer before the pandemic, with 45% reporting that digital was “not at all important”.
Despite the haphazard nature of the digital shift, most museums agreed that it had broadened their educational services. “Inspired by the surge of creativity and skill sharing that Covid brought, we are now more proactive and knowledgeable in looking at new ways to engage and educate,” wrote one respondent.
“The pandemic helped us refine our offer and closely scrutinise our programmes, so that they are better,” wrote another.
But others warned that schools’ growing demand for purely digital experiences was having an impact on in-person visits. “Online digital offers must not duplicate hands-on visits or we will shoot ourselves in the foot,” said one respondent.
The survey also revealed that the proportion of museums ranking school visits as “extremely important” fell from 73% at the start of Covid to 49% in 2021. Practical reasons such as furlough, redundancies and staff sickness during the pandemic meant some museums were forced to cut down on school visits. Others became more focused on financial return, with one prioritising schools that paid for visits and another introducing charges for school visits for the first time.
For many respondents, Covid served to highlight schools’ importance to museums as a core audience and source of income.
New approaches also sprang up, such as Leeds Museums & Galleries’ Closing the Covid Gap, which was a pioneer of educational engagement. The initiative helped 18 schools across Leeds adapt their curricula to digital learning and giving them access to workshops and online learning resources based on the institutions’ collections.
The education sector faces daunting challenges in the years ahead as it grapples with the far-reaching impact of school closures and lockdown restrictions on students. The social class inequalities cited in the Observer article have almost certainly widened, with the pandemic disproportionately affecting people from ethnically diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds. About 124,000 “ghost children” are estimated to have dropped out of the school system altogether during Covid.
The schools white paper, published in March, outlines how the government plans to address this issue in England. The paper puts an emphasis on “levelling up”, promising targeted support for any child who falls behind in English and maths, and uniform school hours, which it says will allow pupils more time to “explore creative subjects”. But the plans have been criticised as underwhelming.
Nevertheless, could museums play a more proactive, ambitious and creative role in education? The MA’s Manifesto for Learning and Engagement, published in 2020, outlined this vision, stating that we are “in a time that requires radical social innovation” and arguing that we should commit culture and the arts to “being central to rebuilding our societies”.
One vital role that museums could play is helping schools to address the representation gaps and structural inequalities in the education system. These came into the spotlight in February when Birmingham City footballer Troy Deeney wrote an open letter to the government calling for the history and experiences of Black, Asian and ethnic minorities to be made mandatory in England’s national curriculum.
Deeney said the current curriculum is failing children from ethnic minorities; a survey he commissioned found that 54% of teachers believe the current system is racially biased and 72% wanted it to be more culturally diverse.
A new art education initiative, The World Reimagined, could offer a model for cultural institutions. The project aims to celebrate Africa’s cultural richness by transforming the public’s understanding of the transatlantic slave trade. It will place globe sculptures in cities across the UK this summer as it seeks to empower “a new generation to make racial justice a reality”. A parallel learning programme offers creative resources, learning outcomes and teacher leadership development to primary and secondary schools, and can be integrated with core subjects.
Far from merely being spaces for middle-class recreation, museums are more determined than ever to make a difference to pupils’ lives and ensure they can all benefit from cultural enrichment – even if it doesn’t show up on an exam paper.