The findings of a study examining the impact of “cultural capital” on reducing the size of social class inequalities in school GCSE outcomes have been shared in The Guardian, in an article titled ‘Museum visits do not improve GCSE results, study reveals’. This study, due to appear in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, finds that family cultural outings have no discernible impact on exam grades, while reading activities with both parents could increase GCSE results.

We are keen to emphasise that while this study draws some important conclusions about social inequality, it presents a somewhat misleading picture of the role of museums and heritage sites in addressing this issue. The role of museums and heritage sites in reducing social inequality extends far beyond exam results. Studies commissioned by the DCMS, Heritage Alliance, Arts Council and other sector organisations have particularly highlighted benefits for children’s social development, memory function in older age, and wellbeing improvements in adults. Art Fund’s Wellbeing report reveals that people who visit museums and galleries report a greater sense of satisfaction with their lives than those who have never visited. Museums are for everyone, and regular engagement can have life-long impacts on health and wellbeing, however GCSE exam results capture a snapshot of a pupil’s educational experience and do not necessarily predict life outcomes.

GEM and Engage led a joint session at Museums Association Conference 2021 titled ‘Creating and Sustaining Equitable Partnerships’, where this talk was delivered by Mark O’Neill on the role museums can play in addressing social inequality. Mark sets out six recommendations for how museums can begin to close the gap in attendance between upper and lower socio-economic groups, which we would recommend to anyone wishing to address social class inequalities in a museum setting.

Furthermore, while we understand that this article primarily refers to non-school museum visits, GEM would encourage greater collaboration between schools and museums, both for enrichment of the curriculum, and the general wellbeing benefits gained by pupils. Our latest issue of the GEM Case Studies highlights some key examples of museums that have worked with schools to improve pupil enjoyment and outcomes, and Case Studies #29, due to be published later in the Spring, will specifically address the benefits of museum engagement on audience health and wellbeing. The importance of learning extends beyond tests and qualifications, and children and young people who struggle in traditional classroom settings can thrive in the informal learning environment of a museum or heritage site. We celebrate the positive impacts of cultural interaction on children and young people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and urge schools to continue to provide museum visits as a contribution to educational enjoyment.

Finally, we would like to recognise the efforts of museum and heritage professionals across the UK who are dedicated to creating space for new audiences to connect with cultural heritage in meaningful ways. We call on our members to continue embracing opportunities to reduce social inequality in their museums, galleries and cultural heritage sites.