London is awash with culture. It can sometimes feel overwhelming, a torrent of cultural experiences you could never hope to fully take part in. For those in the know, much of this culture is freely accessible. Just this week it is possible to see Van Gogh’s sunflowers at the National Gallery, experience the Winter Festival at the Southbank Centre and see the Big Barrio band in Soho, all for free. But the reality is that engagement in the arts (for adults) remains stubbornly and predictably dependent on educational background and wealth, and whilst technically many opportunities are open to all, implicit codes of exclusion operate and many communities opt out of engagement or are not able to take part because of a range of factors.
For adults, we might argue that this is an inevitable part of making choices and as long as publically funded arts and culture does not raise barriers to entry, we can’t force people to take part. But for children and young people the issue is more complex. Are we comfortable with young people making a choice not to participate, even if they don’t really understand what participation means? To what extent is lack of engagement not only detrimental to a young person’s development but also leaves them without a wider hinterland of knowledge that could be crucial to helping them create social bonds and progress as they get older?
At A New Direction we are interested in understanding the idea – sometimes referred to as Cultural Capital – that engagement in art and culture through childhood contributes to becoming a well-rounded individual, better able to access opportunities and navigate choices as you get older. And, in more simple terms, understanding which children and young people are engaging in arts and culture and which are not, and the possible barriers to entry.
To help unpack these issues, we are opening up a space for debate and inquiry which will culminate in a conference in March 2015. There are three main questions:
- What’s going on in terms of engagement? Do we know which children and young people are not engaging in arts and culture and why?
- Why does it matter? What is the impact of zero or limited engagement and is it significant?
- What could be done to change the picture and whose responsibility is this?
We have commissioned some new research into the difference in engagement between pupils in receipt of Free School Meals (as a proxy for wealth inequality) and pupils not in receipt of Free School Meals to begin the discussion. We would welcome suggestions of existing research which is relevant to this inquiry as well as contributions to the debate and ideas for blogs and other forms of discussion.