Chapter 5: Barriers: the role of cultural capital

Culture Club: Social mobility in the creative and cultural industries

Chapter 5: Barriers: the role of cultural capital

Cultural capital comes in three forms:

  • Embodied capital: i.e. skills, formal knowledge, know-how, tastes and behaviours.
  • Objectified capital: i.e. possession of cultural goods (e.g. books, artworks).
  • Institutionalised capital: i.e. educational attainment made legitimate by degrees and school certificates.

Research has shown that exposing children to diverse cultural activities – which is more likely in middle class backgrounds – has a positive indirect effect on creative
employment. 36 This chapter considers how cultural capital is acquired, and how cultural education is not the sole provider of the skills and “embodied capital” required to progress in the creative and cultural industries.

Lack of investment in cultural education

The underrepresentation of minority groups in the creative and cultural workforce may partly result from insufficient opportunities within the education system.
There has been a national decline in the uptake of creative subjects in schools, reducing opportunities for young people to explore the arts. For instance, the
average number of Key Stage 4 arts entries per pupil has fallen by 20 per cent in both inner and outer London between 2007 and 2016. 37 The provision of creative subjects has fallen most in schools that have a higher proportion of children receiving free school meals (i.e. from disadvantaged backgrounds); these schools have been twice as likely to withdraw art-related subjects. 38 The government has also recently excluded arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate, further reducing opportunities for those whose participation in cultural activities is limited to the classroom.

The role of background and family

Acquiring cultural capital is also influenced by one’s participation in the arts outside the education system, and how one’s interaction with the arts shapes interest in working in the sector:

I think going to places when I was young was important for me, especially going to the free museums… neither of my parents worked in the creative and cultural industries… they were really
keen to accompany school trips and take us to places where we could benefit from public learning, so I feel really at home in the British Museum because every summer holiday we went because they were free, easy to get to, and again the facilities are amazing and world class. I mean how lucky to have that in London.

Female working class, employed in the museums, galleries and libraries sector

Even where universities and colleges have been trying to select students using their portfolio of works and other characteristics such as passion, commitment,
ambition, industry awareness and team skills 39 rather than formal academic attainment, parental involvement and support makes a difference:

I think this also has difficulties because the quality of the portfolio always depends on what school they’ve come from. So, some schools would be very supportive of the creative arts, some would be more difficult. One of the things we have found is that when we are interviewing for instance for film courses
[…] the students won’t know who was nominated for an Oscar when they were on two days before. So there’s that lack of support from the schools and families and colleges when it comes to looking at cultural capital […] it’s a very limited education which they have. They don’t get past that stage when trying to get onto creative courses.

University representative

Even once in further education, accumulating cultural capital seems to depend on background:

We do find our role to be much more about taking them to places because their parents won’t be taking them. You are taking them to all the events in their college time, but we are spending an awful lot of time trying to bring them out into more places they’re not going to – it’s not that they are frightened; it is an unknown place and they need that introduction […] it’s our job to embrace that and encourage them.

FE college representative

Interactions outside of the cultural sector – for example with parents and career advisers –will also have an impact on the decision to embark on a creative
career. However, working in the creative and cultural industries is seen (not unjustifiably) by parents as risky and unconventional. This has consequently led to focus group participants describing situations in the home where support for a creative career ranged from limited to absent.

My family weren’t that supportive. Whereas [with] my older sister who went into law, my mum really bragged about it […] she never said anything about me because I did a film degree and I wanted to work in the film and TV industry.

Female BAME, employed in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

Private school

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that former private school students are overrepresented in the creative and cultural industries. 40 One employer argued that this, as much as higher education, should be the focus for action:

The tendency in this industry is that we’ve been too obsessed with the elite universities […] a certain percentage of the population go to private school and [they form] the majority of the people [who] get the positions… although [we] are better than other broadcasters, we still have a high percentage of
people that went to private school that work here.

Employer in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

Getting to arts school is not the main factor in getting a cultural job

Aside from going to private school, some commentators recognise the importance of mentoring and networks, but argue that arts education is the biggest factor in
promoting social mobility. 41 However, research has found that one of the key differences between the creative and cultural industries and other sectors of the economy is the relative unimportance of having formal educational qualifications. 42 Although research on art school graduates in particular suggests that they do try to pursue careers within the arts, learning on the job and cultural pastimes are just as important. Employers rely on demonstrated experience, and the quality of people that entrants to the sector have worked with, rather than just formal qualifications alone.

Focus group participants suggested that the formal structure of a higher education creative degree was deterring them from the practicalities – the “doing” of creative arts.

I think that sometimes it’s a bit too theoretical […] some students struggle a lot with the theoretical art side of things because as an artist I don’t think you necessarily have to be able to eloquently talk about your practices or write thousands of words about it. But you do now.

Male, self-employed artist

From the skills perspective I feel like I can write an essay on anything now if I had to go and research something for an exhibition or a project or just admin… I feel quite comfortable doing that but I do think it was very academically focused. From the perspective of practical skills, communication skills
and networking, not really…

Male BAME, employed in the crafts and design sector

University experience helps equip students with the skills needed to enter the workforce. Nonetheless, an arts education is not simply about skills acquisition –
not every artist will have studied art, nor will every art graduate work in the arts. Educational institutions can, however, help students to understand the technicalities of a creative career and can support them in acquiring both
social and cultural capital. Nonetheless, in order to tackle underrepresentation, other measures will also need to be taken by employers in the cultural and creative industries (see Chapter 6).

Knowing how to progress

Career paths in cultural industries are notoriously murky:

If you came here to work as a lawyer or [in] finance, there is a very clear structure […] they tend to be more diverse and inclusive oddly. I think in the creative industries and the more creative roles, the more desirable roles… it is less clear how you progress.

Employer in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

Many young people don’t have the capital to get ahead, or don’t know how to start:

If you came here to work as a lawyer or [in] finance, there is a very clear structure […] they tend to be more diverse and inclusive oddly. I think in the creative industries and the more creative roles, the more desirable roles… it is less clear how you progress.

Employer in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

Many young people don’t have the capital to get ahead, or don’t know how to start:

My friend worked as a runner for a TV production company […] I’ve seen her in the times between that she’s also desperate to find work and she doesn’t know where to find it. More recently she’s finding that when she does get the work she’s not able
to move up, she’s stuck in the lower realm… she’s getting sick of getting everyone’s coffees, that’s kind of the extent of the runner role.

Female, unemployed, seeking employment in theatre

Most people I know who are doing drama facilitator work are freelance… and that’s hard… setting up your own business… I don’t have a business background. I would need a lot of help on how to set up something like that. You either hope that there’s an established role that pays, which is so unlikely, or you create your own role which is also really hard.

Female, unemployed, seeking employment in theatre

Research has shown that the process of hiring talent across sectors often goes beyond assessing the skills needed and unconsciously selects employees on the
basis of their cultural fit. 43 Ultimately, this could lead to the risk of losing creative talent and diversity, as this employer reflected:

People believe that they have a staff shortage… there’s not enough writers, producer[s], directors. And I think that’s slightly not true […] what I think it means is people are saying that there’s not enough of the exact director they want. What people are saying is that there’s not enough of the person I want; and
I think that we need to broaden the pool of people, who people want, and I think it’s quite a difficult thing to do because television is so risky.

Employer in the film, TV, radio and photography sector

What can be done?

In light of these findings, the next chapter will consider what actions can realistically be taken by policymakers, employers and educators to rebalance access to the creative and cultural industries.

Roundhouse Choir
Roundhouse Choir Ellie Pinney
  • 36 Koppman, S. (2016). Different Like Me: Why Cultural Omnivores Get Creative Jobs. Administrative Science Quarterly, 61(2).
  • 37 Johnes, R. (2017). Entries to arts subjects at Key Stage 4. London: Education Policy Institute.
  • 38 Cultural Learning Alliance (2013). English Baccalaureate research: teacher number statistics. London: Cultural Learning Alliance.
  • 39 See for example Ravensbourne’s further education admissions pages (undergraduate recruitment is similar): https://www. and-portfolio/
  • 40 Randle et al (2015), op. cit.
  • 41 See, for example, matter/
  • 42 Oakley et al (2017), op. cit.
  • 43 Rivera, L. A. (2012). Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms. American Sociological Review, 77(6).