As Leaving Certificate and leaving school looms, teenagers' participation in cultural activities declines

New research, conducted by the ESRI and funded by the Arts Council, shows that young people become less involved in cultural activities as they prepare for the Leaving Certificate and leave school. Using data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, the report charts a decline in reading for pleasure and taking music/drama/dance lessons between 13 and 17 years of age.

The findings point to striking differences by gender and family background. Young women are much more likely than young men to read for pleasure, to make music (singing/playing an instrument) and to take part in structured cultural activities (such as music/drama clubs). Young men are much more likely to spend time playing computer games. Young people from more advantaged families (with parents with degrees or in professional/managerial jobs) are more likely to read, make music and participate in structured cultural activities, and less likely to be involved in digital culture (such as computer games and watching TV, especially on weekdays).

Reading for pleasure and taking part in music/drama clubs contributes to how well young people do at school. Unequal participation in the arts and culture is therefore likely to contribute to educational inequalities.

Other key findings include:

  • The most common cultural activities in which young people engage for fun or relaxation several times a week are listening to music (87 per cent), surfing the internet (86 per cent and singing/playing a musical instrument (23 per cent).
  • Less than one in six (14 per cent) of young people read for pleasure several times a week.
  • Almost one-quarter (23 per cent) of 17-year-olds had taken part in art, drama, dance or music clubs/groups/rehearsals in the year prior to the survey.
  • The vast majority of young people spend at least some time watching TV/films, with the proportion watching TV for two or more hours a day almost doubling at the weekend (to 37 per cent). Less than half of young people play computer games regularly, with time spent on gaming also increasing at weekend (with 9 per cent during the week and 18 per cent at the weekends spending two or more hours per day).
  • There is a particularly large decline in reading for pleasure over time; the proportion who never read increases from 19 per cent at 13 years to 53 per cent at 17 years.

Schools are an important arena for accessing the arts and culture:

  • Young people’s access to some cultural activities (such as art or music as school subjects or after-school choir or drama) depends on the type of school they attend.
  • Larger schools, fee-paying schools and single-sex girls’ schools are more likely to offer Leaving Certificate art and music and to provide a broader range of extracurricular cultural activities (such as choir and musical instrument tuition).
  • Schools serving more disadvantaged communities (DEIS schools) are as likely as non-DEIS schools to provide extracurricular cultural activities, which helps to reduce the gap in cultural participation. Young people who had attended DEIS schools also placed a strong emphasis on the importance of art and culture in their lives and indicated how schools had helped their appreciation of culture.

Emer Smyth, report author, said: “These findings relate to young people’s lives before the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people were already becoming less involved in the arts as they grew older. There is a real risk that school closures earlier in the year will have accelerated this decline, especially for more disadvantaged groups. It is therefore important that extracurricular activities are not forgotten as schools grapple with the challenges of providing a safe learning environment.”

Maureen Kennelly, Director of the Arts Council, said:

“The findings of the research give us pause. The decline in participation may not be surprising when we consider the busy schedules of young people preparing for their Leaving Certificate or heading into the world of work. However, as a society, are we providing sufficient time, space and encouragement for young people to be inspired, to express themselves, and to participate in our arts and cultural life at this pivotal point in their lives?

Despite the decline in participation, almost one-quarter of 17-year-olds had taken part in art, drama, dance or music clubs/groups/rehearsals in the year prior to the survey. The research also shows that life satisfaction levels are higher where young people regularly make music, go to the cinema and are involved in music/drama clubs or lessons. We need to carefully consider how COVID-19 is impacting young people’s access to these activities.

The Growing Up in Ireland data provide information on young people taking up art and music in senior cycle. But this is just one part of the picture. Many art forms are only available to young people as extra-curricular activities, and these are currently seriously curtailed. For the quarter of young people who do participate in these activities, and who gain life satisfaction from them, how are they being impacted by the absence of these vital dimensions to their lives? For those who wish to go on to higher education in arts practices not fully catered for within the school curriculum, such as dance, what are the implications for their learning and development?”