DEA BIRKETT Out of our class

The classroom is
not the first place of learning, and it’s time the importance of informal education was acknowledged, says Dea Birkett

Why are we so obsessed with school? When we talk about learning for children and young people in the arts, we mean formal learning. We don’t mean learning in families.

Yet it’s in sitting rooms on sofas, not classrooms on hard chairs, that most learning takes place. Our family has a far greater in uence on us than our teachers ever can.

We know this, but can we really prove this? There is little hard evidence, although it’s completely evident. Even the new Durham Commission on Creativity and Education announced last month by Sir Nicholas Serota, the new chair of the Arts Council, is going to examine and make recommendations around “education policy” and “our education system”, not whether you’re encouraged by your mum to spend your spare hours hanging out at the Tate or the local shopping mall. The recently formed Cultural Education Partnerships are also entirely focused on formal learning. It’s as if a child only exists between 9am and 4pm, Monday to Friday, for 40 weeks of the year.

But we all know, from our lived experience, that family has a far greater effect on our life-long involvement with the arts than our school ever can. My own children go to a local inner London school with a vibrant offer of cultural trips. They’ve been to the Whitechapel Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery and heard the London Symphony Orchestra. For the majority of the children in their class, these visits are the only time they will ever visit. And they might never even mention their names again. Because I have been to all of these places, I can chat with my kids when they get home about what they heard and saw. I can continue the conversation that was started on a school trip because these mighty cultural institutions are familiar territory to me. That’s not the case in every family. For most of the kids, the conversation stopped at school.

The value of school trips, now widely seen as the way to target children who wouldn’t otherwise experience the arts, is extremely limited. You can drag a 12-year-old along to the Whitechapel, but you can’t take them back at weekends, or when they’re 18. What we do know is that the demographic of the schoolchildren who visit museums on school trips is entirely different to those who visit with a family, whichever way you count it – social class, ethnicity, disability. Basically wealthier white families dominate informal visits.

Supporters of school trips use this as evidence of how effective they are. They bring kids along to culture who wouldn’t otherwise experience it. But this gulf between those who go with their class and go with their cousin should be a cause for concern, not hope. There is no evidence that the schoolchildren ever come back as independent teenagers or adults. And there is no evidence, and very little attempt, to turn that school trip into a return family trip.

The best museums are worried about this and have experimented with ways in which a school visit can be transformed into a family visit, from invitations in school packs for families to postcards addressed to parents. The best I know is Glasgow Museum’s stickers. They send kids who’ve been on school trips back home with a sticker on their uniform saying where they’ve been as a prompt to ask questions. They’ve found stickers work best because they’re highly visible; most parents don’t rummage around in a school bag looking for an invite to see the local collection of 19th century porcelain. But they’ll see the sticker on their child’s school jumper and ask.

Ensuring every young person has equal access to and enjoys the arts should begin not by looking at what they do while wearing their uniform, but where they hang out and what they talk about after four o’clock and on Saturdays. Start with informal learning, then move to formal learning, not the other way around. But that would mean hard-to- reach museums and cultural institutions have to reach out to families, not schools. Start talking to people, not positions. Pick up a phone and have a face-to-face conversation, not email and ll out a form. But if we really want to give every young person the same cultural opportunities, we have to start with what they do out of school, not in it.

Dea Birkett is creative director of Kids in Museums and www.manyrivers

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