Yes, engagement with museums can help improve grades – if done right
MGS's Loretta Mordi, Learning and Engagement Manager and Dan Paris, former Advocacy and Public Affairs Manager, outline in the following blog how museums can support academic outcomes with the proper investment and ambition.
Will taking your kids to the museum help improve their performance at school? It’s an interesting question – not least because museums are celebrated for their role in learning – that has been reignited by some recent research into the importance of “cultural capital” in exam grades.
The research, which is available in full here, examined whether there was a correlation between family engagement in “high-brow activities”, such as visits to museums and theatres, with GCSE grades in England. The conclusion, based on analysis of survey data, was that inequality in exam results can be largely explained by parental social class and household reading activities, rather than family attendance at cultural buildings.
You could be forgiven for asking “So, what?”. As a response from sector bodies argued, museum experiences are “not designed to help children pass specific exams, but to contribute to their wider development and understanding of the world.”
But the research does provide some important insights – and, when read in the context of the wider literature, should leave museums confident in articulating their deep educational benefits.
Inequality in educational outcomes is no secret. Too many children have their life chances limited by the circumstances of their upbringing, and tackling this attainment gap is rightly a priority for the Scottish Government.
The idea that these inequalities could be overcome by building “cultural capital” in children was always going to be incredibly limited – not least the problematic division between highbrow and lowbrow culture that this argument perpetuates. Families engaging with culture can have many profound and lasting benefits but museums are not hallowed spaces that will endow visitors with greater intelligence simply by walking through their doors.
Instead, we should recognise museums for what they actually are – the holders of collections that can have relevance right across the curriculum, with staff skilled in curating, interpreting, and engaging audiences, including school pupils.
In 2020 MGS commissioned a literature review that outlined the evidence on formal engagement between schools and museums. This found that both government and independent research identified that cultural engagement can have positive academic and non-academic outcomes. Object-handling sessions, or using museums as non-traditional classrooms, had particular benefits, as did projects to help learners develop their critical thinking skills.
Importantly, the research also found that the effects on “disadvantaged learners who do not usually engage with museums much is particularly strong”.
So how should we interpret this recent study on the limits of focusing on cultural capital?
First, we should acknowledge that – for all their benefits, and their importance for our collective wellbeing – museums will not reach their transformative potential through the occasional informal visit.
But the study’s focus on family visits is too narrow. The potential for museums to support school education is through sustained engagement, carried out by skilled and experienced professionals. This requires investment in learning and engagement teams and building relationships between museums and schools.
Importantly, the combined evidence base has profound implications for the potential of museums to help tackle the attainment gap. This latest study is simply the most recent to show that school performance is largely determined by family background. But we also know that museums can make educational interventions that are most effective for those from deprived backgrounds.
In a survey for the National Museum of Scotland, 80% of teachers believed visiting the museum had contributed to their school’s work on narrowing the attainment gap. Longer term relationships – such as the Dundee Heritage Trust’s school in residence programme at the RSS Discovery, or MGS’s pilot employability programme with schools in areas of multiple deprivation – will have the greatest potential.
That’s why MGS, working with a range of partner organisations across culture and heritage, have called for our sectors to be embraced as educational resources to support the Curriculum for Excellence, including through greater links with teachers and through dedicated projects to tackle the attainment gap.
There are already great learning programmes developed around the Curriculum for Excellence to support teacher and learning experience of children and young people, such as the resources developed by Aberdeen and Glasgow museums.
We know that engagement with museums can support academic outcomes – but achieving this requires investment and ambition.