Cultural education and its impact on attainment


A strong focus on cultural education can have a far-reaching impact on students’ all-round achievement, explains Karen Sullivan.

In my last column, we looked at how the attainment gap can be bridged (see and I promised to look at how inadequate development in the early years can be undone later on. My research led me to a magnificent book. Bear with me while I divert a little.

The Virtuous Circle: Why creativity and cultural education count (John Sorrell, Paul Roberts and Darren Henley) examines the concept that creativity is integral to everything we do, inspiring innovation, improving our environment, businesses, products and quality of life.

The authors argue that these type of activities should form a vital part of the everyday lives of young people, enriching them academically, physically, socially and emotionally.

There is a fascinating section on what children should have experienced at various ages. For example, by the time a child is 11, he/she should have presented, displayed and performed to a range of audiences and used arts-specific vocabulary to respond to, evaluate, explain, analyse, question and critique their own and other people’s artistic works.

They should have received encouragement to be adventurous in their choices about cultural activities, such as literature, films, visual arts, crafts, heritage, drama, music and dance, become a regular user of a library, and taken part in workshops with professional artists, craftsmen, architects, musicians, curators, dancers, film-makers, poets, authors or actors.

By 18, young people should have learned about the wider world of employment opportunities within the creative and cultural industries, beyond the examples of celebrities, had their own personal achievements in cultural activities celebrated in school or the wider community, and been given the opportunity to study cultural education subjects.

The secret to achieving all this, believe the authors, is for schools to bring cultural practitioners into their buildings, alongside classroom teachers, to share their knowledge and skills with pupils, and to enrich the pedagogy, as well as providing far more opportunities for children to visit cultural organisations and venues. 

There is no doubt that many opportunities do exist, but never has the message of the importance of culture and creativity been driven home so succinctly and persuasively. The authors argue that creativity is not an “entertaining optional extra”, but should be a thread that runs throughout the curriculum, as important an objective as literacy and numeracy – because it is “a way to illuminate and understand every subject better”. 

The benefits are countless. Research has found that participation in structured arts activities improves young people’s cognitive abilities (by 16 to 19 percent). The study of drama, dance, music and visual arts helps students explore realities, relationships, and ideas that cannot be conveyed simply in words or numbers, engendering innovative problem-solving skills that students can apply to academic disciplines. 

Students with high involvement in the arts, including minority and low-income students, perform better in school and stay in school longer – the relative involvement increasing over the school years. 

In terms of the attainment gap, it’s worth nothing that low-income students involved in band and orchestra out-scored others on maths assessments, and those involved in drama showed greater reading proficiency and a more positive self-concept. It will come as no surprise to hands-on educators that culture and creativity can help to bring social and personal advantages to children from all backgrounds. 

Take a look at some of the ideas outlined in this fascinating little book, and be inspired. In my next column, we’ll consider how concepts such as these can make a difference to the lives of the children who need them most.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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