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We were delighted to hear in yesterday’s Autumn Statement the announcement that government will be supporting an RSA project investigating the impact of cultural learning on disadvantaged children's attainment. With the evidence bar for schools rising all the time, it’s a timely intervention to help improve outcomes for pupils and improve the status of arts and culture in education.

Many schools recognise that providing opportunities for all children to engage with Britain’s rich artistic and cultural life is a key way to develop their cultural capital and improve their chances to live a flourishing life.  But although schools already spend significant sums, including Pupil Premium funds, on arts and cultural learning, they don’t yet have the evidence to help them know what approaches make a difference to children’s learning outcomes. It’s not surprising that, with schools increasingly accountable for the impact their decisions have on attainment, schools’ cultural learning provision is shrinking, especially for the most disadvantaged pupils. 

Why we need to get better at evidencing the impact of cultural learning in schools

Stronger evidence will enable arts organisations to make a stronger offer to schools and continue to develop educational activity as a key part of their civic role.  While anecdotal and correlational evidence abounds, there's limited knowledge and understanding about how cultural learning interventions impact on attainment - either within specialist subject study or on literacy or numeracy. 

The first challenge to getting the evidence that might develop our understanding, is that most cultural organisations are operating at a scale where running trials able to identify causal relationships between interventions and outcomes are impracticable or just too expensive. The other challenge is that cultural learning activities involve a complex mix of pedagogical and developmental strategies (e.g. metacognition, feedback, memorable experiences, the development of self-efficacy, connections to the world beyond the school gates etc.) any/all of which might be having an impact on children’s attainment. 

Working at scale and disaggregating the different components are both key to the project we've developed with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that has just been awarded government funds. We're hoping to make it easier to know with certainty what is having an impact, and make it easier for arts organisations to adopt successful approaches, while still maintaining the distinctiveness which is also a key part of their value to schools.

How we’re tackling the challenge

Over the next two years, in collaboration with EEF, we will set up controlled trials of different cultural learning activities in hundreds of schools in England.  We'll work in areas of above average deprivation, below average educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and where arts and cultural participation is low.  We’ll be working with Arts Council Bridge organisations, to identify suitable delivery organisations with geographical spread, art-form diversity and different scales. 

There is a lot of promising practice out there and, because we only have four trials in this pilot programme, we want to make sure that we choose well.  We’ll work with EEF and a wide range of stakeholders from across the cultural learning sector, schools and HEIs to make sure that we can identify possibilities from as big a pool as possible.  We will test practices that are not specific to one or other cultural organisation or dependent on schools’ geographical location.   What we test should be replicable by any number of artists or organisations, anywhere in the country, from independent practitioners to the largest cultural organisation; maximising educational impact, without prescribing or limiting artistic choice.

What will success look like?

By the end, we should have a stronger evidence base of cultural learning interventions that improve disadvantaged children’s attainment and non-cognitive development.  This should make it easier for arts organisations and schools to advocate for cultural learning to be a component of every child’s education and to reverse the trend of disadvantaged children missing out on the opportunities open to their peers. 

However, as my colleague Julian Astle has blogged about recently, the RSA’s idea of what a good school is doesn’t stop with attainment.  Carrying on from our work with the RSA academies on the Performing Arts Hub project; as much as we want to understand what works for attainment, we want to continue to improve understanding of the various ways arts and culture can help schools to develop the creative capacities of their children, staff or communities. 

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