AND research – a whistle stop tour

16 December 2013

This is the time of the year where often we look back at the last twelve months and draw the sums –when it comes to research, we can safely say it has been a busy and, above all, exciting year for A New Direction.

Subscribe to our newsletter

(Photo: Giulio Mazzarini)

We kicked off in the spring with the launch of our Future Agenda – a call for cultural organisations to think about how the sector can respond to the context of the city by helping address some of the challenges that young people are facing.

It was supported by a piece of research conducted by BOP on key trends affecting young people in London under four key themes – School, Work, Community and Home. It drew the sector’s attention on a number of key issues – from overcrowding in homes, to the shortage of school places, to youth unemployment – and pushed it to think about its potential to help –for instance by providing a ‘third space’ for young people to spend time in, by cooperating with schools on curriculum content, by helping young people developing skills and attitudes that are key to employment.

What we learnt about Young Londoners’ engagement with arts and culture

The spirit of the Future Agenda also called for a deeper understanding of young Londoners and their relationship to arts and culture. Much of our research this year focused on unpicking what is behind young people’s decision to engage.

We surveyed over 1,600 young Londoners aged 11-25 between February and March this year to find out more about their attendance at a range of cultural venues and events and attitudes. You can find the full findings from the study in the report ‘Culture Engagement by Young Londoners’ written by Catherine Bunting.

More recently, we have commissioned an ethnographic study through which we have followed the lives of 20 young Londoners and their engagement with arts and culture over the course of three weeks. This has allowed us to bring some of the findings from the survey to life, adding ‘texture’ and ‘colour’ and to better understand the nature of the barriers to their engagement with arts and culture.

Our annual report ‘My Culture, My London’ showcases the eight pen portraits of young Londoners created from the study. A full report of the findings will be available in the new year.

Some highlights from both pieces of research include:

Overall, levels of engagement among young Londoners are high.

Significantly higher than for the national adult average – but this masks big differences within art-forms. Nearly 90% of 11-25 year olds attended the cinema within the past year, compared to just over 60% who went to an art exhibition or 45% who attended a live dance performance.

Young people’s definition of arts and culture is wide.

Our ethnographic research suggests that young people do not tend to use the term 'arts and culture' as this is too limiting, and linked to traditional art forms like ballet and theatre. When asked to coin a term for these activities, a whole other world opens up, that is free of these associations. It is exciting, dynamic, contemporary, interactive, creative and often involves technology.

There are no limits to what can form a part of the landscape – it depends on the young person and their particular sphere of interest. It can embrace beauty and make-up, graphic design, street dancing, political demonstrations, writing poetry, computer animations and cookery. It often involves doing, interacting, creating and co-creating rather than passively absorbing.

Schools are a gateway to arts and culture.

They are particularly important for introducing young people to more ‘formal’ art-forms – such as art exhibitions, museum visits and theatre – where young people are as likely to attend in their spare time (compared to cinema, circus or carnivals which are overwhelming done outside of school).

Engagement in cultural activities decreases as children get older.

With rates of attendance declining sharply from age 16, suggesting that schools often leave a vacuum when it comes to participation. However, our ethnographic research also tells us that young people’s relationship with arts and culture is often in a state of ‘flux’ and change which suggests this (and other vacuum points) may still be turned around.

Being outside of education or employment increases the likelihood of a young person not engaging.

66% of 16-25 year olds in paid employment or undertaking an apprenticeship, training or internship had been to the theatre in the past year compared with just 44% of those NEET.

School is an important leveller of opportunities for young people from less privileged backgrounds.

The most common answer to the question 'who organised your first memorable trip to a cultural event or place of interest?' is school for young people from less privileged backgrounds (35%), while it is parents for young people from more privileged backgrounds (46%).

Our think piece Priced Out- an essay about poverty and young London gives some context to these findings by looking at how the extent and the nature of poverty in London are changing, the impact that they have on young people and what this may mean for their engagement with arts and culture.

Barriers to engagement go beyond rational justifications.

Our survey suggests that cost (33%), time (29%), distance (23%) are among the top factors putting young Londoners off from engaging in cultural activities. These are rational – that is, top of mind- barriers. They are present, sometimes very real and can still make a difference between engaging and not engaging – it is a fact that proximity to cultural venues plays a big role on engagement, with 11-25 year olds in Outer London being less likely than those in Inner London to engage in arts a culture.

However, our ethnographic study suggests that ultimately a decision to engage rests on a deeper question of identity dictating whether a particular activity ‘is or isn’t for me’. This is to do with the type of reward that a young person receives from their involvement in a cultural activity - whether this is ‘inner’ directed, something that is privately motivating and rewarding, or ‘outer’ directed, something that has a more external motivation, i.e. is largely influenced by other people (e.g. friends, family etc).

The research fleshes out an ‘iceberg’ model of barriers to engage based on these two attitudes and four different ‘types’ of young people characterised by a different type of relationship with arts and culture.

What we learnt about London Schools

2012 saw us getting our heads around what cultural engagement looks like in London Schools through a survey conducted by NFER on our behalf in more than 300 schools.

Building on the insights of this study, this year we felt we needed to stop and look at how the landscape of the education sector had been shaken up by the myriad of recent changes. New school models were an important piece of the jigsaw, in general but also in building our evidence case to support our Future Agenda. Mapping the territory was the first step – we commissioned the Institute of Education with an audit of all non local authority maintained schools which highlighted the fact that the landscape in London is rapidly changing.

As of April 2013, there were 323 academies in London. One in ten schools in London currently has an academy status, with the proportion being much higher for secondary schools (51%) than for primary schools (5%); a sizeable proportion of academies (nearly 40% at the end of 2012) are part of a chain. Free schools are also increasingly a reality - by September 2013 the number of Free Schools in London reached 49.

London has many examples of how new school models have embraced their freedoms to ‘self determine’, and used them to take a fresh approach to the provision of cultural education opportunities for their pupils. School 21 and ARK Conway from our case studies are good examples of this trend; however, new school models are not the only recipe for an innovative approach to cultural education, as the case study on St Paul’s Way, a Trust School featured among our case studies, proves.

We have pulled together our thoughts on the research and, more generally, on the trends that are currently affecting the education sector in our think piece Freedom, Accountability and Change.

We still have much to mull over, to reflect on and, ultimately, to share but we can see that some of these insights have already sparked conversations within the sector. We hope they will continue to do so.


If you missed any of these pieces of research throughout the year, follow the links to the full findings and if you know someone in the sector that may benefit from them, please share.

If you have already seen the research, what has been most useful? And how have you used the insight? We are starting to think about next year’s plan and we would love to know!