Disadvantage and cultural engagement - Cultural Capital conference

2 April 2015

Highlights from our latest research on disadvantage and cultural engagement, and an overview of the Cultural Capital Conference on 17 March 2015.

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  1. On March 17th, the Goldsmith Centre in Farringdon opened its doors to host A New Direction’s Cultural Capital Conference. The event was an opportunity for AND to finally bring together a series of seemingly disparate, yet deeply interconnected pieces of work.
  2. In very practical terms it was a chance for us to crystallise the learning from our Strong Voices programme and air some ‘hot off the press’ results from our Cultural Capital Qualitative research.
  3. More generally, however, it was an opportunity for AND to finally give voice to a discourse that has been so fundamental to our mission in the past few months, ever present in our internal discussions and yet quite difficult to articulate in a cohesive way – that of the impact of disadvantage on access to and engagement with arts and culture.

Cultural Capital?

As an organisation that works to ensure that children and young people in London have access to arts and culture regardless of wealth and background it is impossible to ignore the fact that, despite being the 6th richest city in the world, London is a place of profound inequalities both economic and social (if you haven’t already, do take a look at our latest infographics). And young people’s ability to get meaningful exposure to and engagement with arts and culture can suffer tremendously as a consequence of these inequalities.

The recent Warwick Commission Report on the future of Cultural Value, as quoted by Dr Eleonora Belfiore (Warwick University) in her address to the audience, for example, found that only a very small portion of the population (8%) is directly benefiting from Arts Council’s public investment into arts and culture; this also happens to be the whitest and richest slice of the population. Similarly, past research from AND also shows that young people from less privileged backgrounds are significantly less likely to engage with a range of cultural activities. But while the evidence this speaks clearly, the argument behind arts and culture’s role in the context of disadvantage is complex.

To get to grip with this, our starting point for the Cultural Capital Conference (and for the related research), was loosely based on Bourdieu’s notion of Cultural Capital. Our interpretation of this sees culture as an ‘asset’ which enables young people to become well rounded individuals, able to navigate the complexity of the world and ultimately achieve positive life outcomes. While potentially being a controversial argument, as it may be taken to imply that certain forms of cultural capital are ‘better’ or ‘more useful’ than others, it is one that has attracted considerable attention throughout the conference.

A series of questions, the same that underpinned the Cultural Capital Inquiry, accompanied us throughout the day. What is the picture of cultural engagement among young people facing disadvantage? Why does it matter? What would be the impact of no cultural engagement among young people facing disadvantage? What can we do about it?

The day involved a line-up of great speakers from a variety of backgrounds and an incredibly interesting mix of sectors within the audience – from academia, to the youth sector and the cultural sector.

Findings from our Cultural Capital qualitative research, a study comprising depth interviews and auto-ethnography with more than 50 young people facing different forms of disadvantage (disability, being looked after, having to look after a relative, being at risk of gang activity) helped us set the scene and lay the ground for the discussions throughout the day.

Here is a distillation of the highlights from the research that sparked most discussion on the day...


Feeling excluded from what London has to offer emerged as a strong undertone to many of the things that the young people in our research were saying about engaging with experiences and opportunities. Fear of travelling beyond their own estate and concerns about personal safety when venturing into unfamiliar territory, caring commitments towards a relative, or being ‘confined’ to a particular group of friends because of life circumstances (e.g. disability) are all examples of practical factors that contribute to a sense that there is a ‘life’ outside the boundaries of young people’s experiences that they are not participating in.

Often, when internalised, these barriers go further than a mere sense of ‘missing out’. In her address to the audience, Dr Lisa McKenzie from the LSE talked about the feelings of ‘separation’ and of ‘otherness’ that families in working class communities feel when relating to the outside world. Coram’s Director of Operations Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent’s reference to Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ painting , depicting the conditions of the poor as seen by the affluent classes also reminded the audience how the notion of ‘Otherness’ has been a permanent feature of the relationship between different portions of society throughout history. And it’s because of this sense of ‘otherness’, that the notion of ‘Culture’ has always been divisive.

What culture and whose culture?

Perhaps one of the thorniest issues when thinking about cultural capital as a vehicle to positive outcomes and, ultimately, to social mobility is defining which culture and/or whose culture we are referring to.

Both previous research by AND and our latest Cultural Capital research highlight a big disconnect between the traditional definition of publicly funded arts and culture and young people’s perception of what arts and culture is. Spanning a variety of non-traditional forms (street art, tattoo art, gaming and animation, street fashion to name a few examples), young people’s perception of what is art tends to be deeply entwined with their sense of identity and who they are.

So, in this sense, unless it’s done in the right way , there is a danger that introducing young people to new forms of arts and culture that they don’t identify with could simply lead to alienation.

From our Strong Voices Programme, we know that, ‘starting from where young people are at’ and ensuring that their interests and passions are fully factored in is key to their commitment. This may mean helping them to deepen their knowledge of a creative practice that they are already engaged in or exposing them to examples of high quality work from professional artists. Or perhaps, as one of delegates put it, supporting them to build an awareness of the depth of their existing creative practices. And this is not to say that they can’t be introduced to new things later on but finding a relevant ‘hook’ is key. To put it in Lady Sorrell’s words who talked about the success of the Sorrell Foundation’s National Art & Design Saturday Clubs, ensuring that young people ‘own’ the experience they are exposed to is crucial to success.

The role of Social Capital

Another concept featuring in our Cultural Capital research which was echoed in many of the conversations on the day of the conference was the notion of Social Capital - that is, networks and positive relationships that young people develop as a result of engaging in activities and the skills that come with those including self-belief, confidence, a sense of agency, resilience and determination.Jim Minton, Director of Communications at London Youth, talked at length about the importance of supporting young people in developing social and emotional capabilities and how the impact of interventions in these areas can be measured.

Both our cultural capital research and our learning from Strong Voices suggest that supporting young people in building their cultural capital goes hand in hand with developing their social capital.

On the one hand, new activities and experiences need to build on their existing networks to be sustainable - this may mean involving families, peers or even ensuring that the activities happen in environments that young people are familiar with, feel safe in and are shielded from a sense of ‘Otherness’.On the other hand, this also means that cultural capital can in turn help build social capital in the form of new positive relationships (e.g. with artists, mentors, peers) and new skills where this is weak or lacking. In this sense, as well as having intrinsic value, cultural capital becomes a catalyst for increasing young people’s ability to connect with the outside world, grow socially and emotionally and, ultimately, to achieve positive life outcomes.

The value of high quality work

Starting from where young people are at and building social capital are important elements of success but they are not the only ones. Quality has a considerable role to play, as many of the discussions at the conference suggested.

While the concept of quality is in itself elusive and subject to much debate in the sector, there was definitely a sense in the room of what the key ingredients should be. Lady Sorrell, for instance, talked about the importance of giving young people an authentic experience of the artistic process (regular master classes with professional artists working in a range of fields are a key element of their National Art & Design Clubs).

This is also echoes learning from Strong Voices; where activities engender an understanding of the artistic process, how it works and what it takes to see a piece of work through from start to finish, engaging young people becomes a lot easier as they tend to work with interest, enthusiasm, build confidence and take pride in their work as a result of that understanding. Giving young people credible and relevant role models that they could relate and aspire to also emerged as an important factor of success.

As it was argued within some of the discussions on the day, quality could in itself be the hook for young people while social and cultural capital follow almost naturally from there.

Schools - connecting or disconnecting?

It’s hard to talk about cultural capital without mentioning schools. This is perhaps one of the themes that was least touched upon in the discussions during the Cultural Capital Conference but one that nonetheless remains key within the bigger question of ensuring that arts and culture is accessible to all young people regardless of their background and circumstances.

Both our current and past research suggest that schools is a key context where young people gain first and sustained exposure to arts and culture; this is particularly true for young people from less privileged backgrounds for whom the influence of families and other networks may not be as strong as for their peers.

However, we also know (both anecdotally and from research) that there is huge variation in young people’s experience of arts and culture in school. For some young people the influence of an inspiring teacher, for instance, can be instrumental to a lifelong involvement and interest in the arts.

For others, however, an uninspiring experience at school may mean that an interest is never developed or, worse, that resentment builds to the point of disengagement.

Some of the young people involved in our Cultural Capital research expressed profound disappointment with the way arts and culture is presented in schools. Many spoke of an offer that is poor and that often doesn’t resonate with their own creative interests which struggle to be acknowledged. Often, this adds to the disconnect between what is presented as arts and culture in school and what young people feel like they ‘own’ as their creative practice.

Although some variation in the level and quality of cultural education in school is natural (see our London Schools Research and segmentation for more detail on this), for young people facing disadvantage this may well be compounding a whole host of other factors which affect their ability to engage in positive activities (of which arts and culture are an example) and, ultimately, to fulfill their potential. So, although unsurprising, this is once again reinforcing the idea that there is a role for the cultural sector to be played in strengthening quality of provision in both formal and informal education settings.

What next?

Our Cultural Capital Conference was the culmination of an important strand of delivery work (our Strong Voices Programme) and of research; however, these are all ideas and themes that will continue to permeate AND’s work. And of course we are keen to hear your thoughts - you can find the detailed findings of our research and join the conversation on our wider Cultural Capital Inquiry here.

Get involved

To help unpack these issues, we are opening up a space for debate and inquiry which will culminate in a conference on 17 March 2015 at Goldsmiths' Centre in London. Find out more here.

The three main questions we want to explore are:

  • 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 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.

We are inviting comments from parents, young people, cultural organisations, academics, those working in education etc, which help contribute ideas for further research, for campaigns and action that can help build more equal access to the arts and culture for all children young people in London.

If you would like to contribute to the discussion, email us or tweet via the hashtag #ANDCulturalCapital