On cultural capital

This weekend the Guardian has churned out a clickbaity article citing research which apparently shows that museum visits or other ‘outings often regarded as “middle class” had no correlation with improved GCSE results.’ I think the article is pretty pointless, and its headline, ‘Museum visits do not improve GCSE results, study reveals’ is, well, risible. I don’t know enough about research method and design to critique the study; others will be able to do that, and Dr Neil Gilbride does it well here:

What has got my goat is the lazy, sneery framing of working class families that is perpetuated by the media, and in some parts of education, too: that our working class families somehow need to be ‘saved’ by our teachery we-know-what’s-best-for-you middle classness. I’ve written about that before, here. And I’ve still got a problem with it.

I grew up in a deprived area of inner-city Birmingham, in a two up, two down terraced house, with my mum, dad and older sister. My parents worked in the pub trade for a number of years, and then mum ran a playscheme and my dad worked for an insurance company. They worked very hard and for very long hours, but we struggled for cash. We had one small gas fire and paid for the electricity and gas on 50p meters. We kept a pile of 50 pence coins on top of the gas fire in the living room. The fear of that pile getting smaller, as it often did, was horrible – I remember it vividly. A weighty, stone-cold, shameful fear.

But we did not live in an hermetically sealed house, or road, or area of Birmingham. We didn’t press our faces against the windows of the museums and art galleries and cathedrals to catch a glimpse of the middle class folk doing their middle class museumy things. We didn’t do that because – and here’s the kicker, Guardian reader: we did it too. We lived a couple of miles away from the stately Jacobean mansion, Aston Hall, built by Sir Thomas Holte. Mum used to take us there on the bus. My sister and I would skittle down its stunning Long Gallery, searching for the carved squirrels; we knew that the squirrel rampant was on the Holte family crest, and they were dotted throughout the wood panelling and carvings. I practically lived in Aston Hall as a kid. It was easy to get to, and free, and interesting. We also spent much of our weekends and holidays in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Ask any Brummie child from the 80s and they’ll rattle off how much they loved the museum’s terrifying life-size T-Rex that moved and roared!

My love of Victorian art? Yeah, that’s from visits to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, too. I gazed for hours at Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Madox Brown; I noticed the butterfly on The Blind Girl and the baby’s hand peeping out from the mother’s shawl in The Last of England. And after a visit to the museum, mum, my sister and I would often take a left down Colmore Row and admire more of Burne-Jones’s work in the stunning stained-glass windows of St Philip’s Cathedral. It was free to get in there, too. Sometimes we took a long bus journey to Wren’s Nest, a quarry near Dudley. Mum had heard that there were some fossils there. There were masses, so, dusty handed, we filled our pockets and bags with Silurian spoils. We weren’t ignorant of what Birmingham and the West Midlands had to offer. My school helped and regularly encouraged us to visit different places, most of which were free. My parents also applied for Birmingham City Council’s ‘Passport to Leisure’ card; it gave families on benefits reduced entry into lots of different attractions around the city, as well as free entry into council-run swimming pools and leisure centres. The council still run the scheme now.

My mum and dad were huge fans of Inspector Morse. I watched it with them regularly. I quizzed my music teacher about some classical music I’d heard in a Morse episode which sounded to me like nothing I’d ever heard before – glorious, jubilant, life-affirming. I found out from my teacher that it was by Mozart and that the music was his overture to The Magic Flute. And so Mozart became the love of my life. Mum used to scour the pages of What’s On?, a free local magazine listing different events in Brum, to find out if there were any free or cheap concerts we could go to and hear some Mozart. I learned to sing Mozart, too – school funded singing lessons for me. And we also danced at Handsworth Carnival and fished for sticklebacks in the canal at Hockley Port and splashed about in the pool at Newtown Swimming Baths and craned our necks to see the cars as they roared through the city’s arterial roads in the much-celebrated Birmingham Super Prix. Is that ‘culture’ more palatable to you, Guardian reader? Is that working class enough? Does it make you feel uncomfortable that I knew my Millais and my Mozart, as well as my Mansell?

And I can tell you this with absolute conviction: my mum didn’t take my sister and me to these things because she thought it would give us good GCSE grades. She did because they were interesting and exciting and beautiful and, let’s be honest, free. We couldn’t afford stuff. Birmingham freely spilled forth its riches. I was lucky my mum did what she did, and of course not all children have that level of support at home. I don’t want kids to have to be lucky. It’s imperative that schools include visits to incredible, interesting, life-affirming places which help our children know more so they can see more in what they read and learn, and their lives are enriched further. And because those things are fun. Our kids should have the opportunity to discover new things that stay with them forever. I’m eternally grateful to the school I went to for that. My parents were incredible, and my school, too, ensured that my peers and I were blessed with amazing experiences. I saw it rain on stage in King Lear at the RSC. I’d never, ever seen anything like it. And we went ten pin bowling with school, and I loved it. And I sang in all the musicals, and it was brilliant. And piling into Maccie D’s after losing a tennis match against a local school was flipping ace too.

The term cultural capital has, in parts, become a bit lost in a fog of fads and tick lists and ‘school improvement’. It deserves careful, considered thought about what we want for all our children. The sweeping, sneering framing of working class families can do one. Working class families go to museums, too.

Image credit: Benny’s Babbies – Cold War Steve

You can buy it from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, here: https://shop.birminghammuseums.org.uk/products/bennys-babbies-poster