All work and no play? Cultural participation should become a key focus for social mobility

Social mobility is rarely – if ever – measured by looking at the social and cultural divides between the rich and poor. However, as John Asthana Gibson argues, if the government is serious about their social mobility agenda, it should focus on building our children’s social and cultural capital.

Debates about social mobility – the link between an individual’s socio-economic status and their socio-economic background – often focus on educational and labour market outcomes. Attention tends to be drawn to educational attainment gaps or occupational differences between those born into better and worse-off families and communities.

Also important, but often overlooked, are social and cultural divides between the rich and poor. Young people’s participation in cultural and community activities can improve their educational performance and access to top professions (and, many would argue, is valuable in and of itself). As such, any differences in cultural/community participation, and the cultural capital it generates, should form an important aspect of social mobility.

On this basis, the Social Market Foundation was keen to understand if there have been any changes in cultural participation over time, focusing in particular on the ‘participation gap’ between rich and poor. We used data from the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport’s (DCMS’) Taking Part Survey to look at rates of engagement across a number of different activities, such as attending museums and libraries or engaging in sport and music.

To understand the ‘participation gap’, we created a ‘Social and Cultural Participation Index’. This measure ranges from zero to ten. Zero means a child has not done any of the ten activities we looked at over the previous year – things like whether they play a musical instrument, engage in arts or drama, team sports or social and cultural activities[1]. Ten means they had participated in all of them. The categories do not map perfectly on to Labour’s ‘ten by ten’ campaign – ten experiences and opportunities that the party has said every child should have by the age of ten – but there is substantial overlap.

We then grouped the children in the survey by the level of deprivation in the area they live in, to find the average participation scores of children from the most and least deprived areas of England.

The findings are striking. As Figure 1 shows, children from the least deprived neighbourhoods have a significantly higher participation score than those from the most deprived communities. In other words, better off children participate in a far wider range of cultural and extracurricular activities than kids from the poorest neighbourhoods.

Furthermore, there are stark differences in the total lack of cultural participation experienced by different groups of children. For instance, during the period as a whole, surveyed children from the poorest neighbourhoods were nearly twice as likely not to have visited a museum or library in the previous year than those from the least deprived neighbourhoods (24% vs 13%).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Previous research has highlighted how socio-economic background is a strong predictor of participation in arts and culture. What is disappointing, particularly given the Government’s social mobility agenda, is that the participation gap between richer and poorer neighbourhoods seems to have persisted over time. There are subtle differences in how the gap has changed over time. For example, the participation gap for visiting museums seems to have slightly widened, whereas for libraries it seems to have narrowed. But by and large, stark differences in cultural participation remain.

Moreover, this participation gap has continued alongside a worrying fall in the breadth of cultural participation among children from all walks of life, as shown in As Figure 2. What’s more, this average masks more severe falls in participation in certain activities. For example, Figure 3 highlights how library visits by children from both the most and least advantaged backgrounds has fallen drastically. This is somewhat expected, with many libraries falling victim to austerity over the past decade. But given the important role libraries play in supporting schooling and widening educational opportunities, the inequalities in and falling overall levels of library participation should nonetheless be a real cause for concern.

Whilst the general trends are clear enough, this sort of analysis is inevitably rather broad-brush. Relatively small sample sizes (roughly 1,700 children each year) are an issue, meaning that we cannot be too precise in our estimates. We have used neighbourhood deprivation as a proxy for how well off children are – as is common practice – but even this has its limitations. Community-level effects are likely to play a role, but the most important factors affecting children’s cultural participation occur at the household level, and the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) overlooks these individual level factors. Using an area-based measure also opens the door to potential confounding factors. Museums and libraries, for instance, tend to be located in town and city centres. As many deprived communities are also located in these areas, these amenities are therefore likely to be more accessible to people in those communities. So it is actually plausible, in that case at least, that we have underestimated the participation gap. Furthermore, the most recent year of data is 2019/20. As such, we are unable to analyse the impact of the pandemic, which is likely to have severely limited access to social and cultural activities.

Better data on these issues would be welcome and would aid efforts to improve cultural and community participation among children from less advantaged backgrounds. Above all, a greater focus is needed on policies that will grow young people’s cultural capital and narrow the entrenched inequalities in children’s access to culture.

[1] Activities assessed: Museums, Libraries, Heritage sites, playing for a sports team, practicing or rehearsing a musical instrument, theatre and drama, arts and crafts, film and video, live music events, reading books.


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