Sharmini Selvarajah discusses new Sutton Trust research on the costs and benefits of extra-curricular activities, giving her own experiences as a parent.

Back to school this week which in my house means the usual last minute scrabble for uniform, late nights ironing in name tags and a desultory attempt to reinstate early bedtimes. Plus, for the first time, a new back to school ritual – the writing of cheques for extra-curricular activities. Violin lessons, piano lessons, clarinet, choir, three lots of swimming, football, rugby.

When my children were younger I vowed that I would never become one of those parents constantly ferrying their offspring to music lessons, sports clubs and other activities. But it’s hard to resist the pressure to offer your children at least some of the opportunities their peers are enjoying so here I am, writing cheques and trying to work out if we can also squeeze karate in this term.

So far I haven’t made use of private tuition – another paid for out of school activity that is surprisingly common in my neighbourhood. Where we live, on the outskirts of London, parents are willing to pay upwards of £30 an hour for a tutor to help their child with school work or prepare for entrance tests to secondary schools. As new polling from the Sutton Trust shows 23% of young people report having tutoring, a figure that rises to 37% in London.

Participation in enrichment activities, which are sometimes offered free by schools, is more common. My children are part of a large majority who enjoy after school clubs like choir, Brownies or sports. Sutton Trust polling finds 76% of parents report that their child participated in a regular extra-curricular activity in the past 12 months. But this figure varies significantly by social and economic status. As you might expect, it’s those from the most advantaged backgrounds who are most likely to take part in activities and also have the most money spent on them.

35% of households earning more than £52,000 a year have paid fees for extra-curricular activities for their children in the past three months, compared with only 9% households earning less than £14,000 a year. In other words, a child from the richest fifth of families is four times more likely to enjoy paid for extra-curricular activities than one from the poorest fifth. And the amount spent on these activities also varies by social class. 22% of parents with professional or administrative occupations reported spending £500 or more on one child in the last year, compared with just 10% of those with manual or routine jobs.

But how much does this matter? We already know that the link between family background and earnings is stronger in Britain than any other developed country other than the US. Children from poorer families on average have worse educational outcomes and are considerably less likely to attend university than their more affluent peers. Solving these inequalities requires significant efforts to improve support for families in the early years and a focus on narrowing the gap in attainment between rich and poor that grows as children progress through school. In the face of these complex problems how much difference will violin lessons or the opportunity to take part in an after-school drama club make?

There’s some evidence that participation in extra-curricular activities can have a positive impact on educational attainment and career outcomes. The Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit, which is based on over 10,000 pieces of educational research, finds “reasonably consistent but weak evidence that participation in artistic and creative activities is beneficial”. It’s an area we need to learn more about and the EEF is currently carrying out the UK’s first independent evaluation on whether music lessons can improve attainment.

But we don’t need to wait for evidence that enrichment activities improve test results to know that they do enhance cultural capital and, in doing so, improve access to future opportunities. As such they can be a lever in increasing social mobility. That’s why the Sutton Trust advocates the Government funding means-tested vouchers that low-income families can spend on extra-curricular activities and learning outside the classroom. It’s true they may not make as much difference to a poor child’s life chances as having outstanding teachers or getting consistent, high quality care in the early years, but they can contribute to the uphill battle to improve social mobility in Britain.

Still, as I write out yet another cheque this evening, I know it’s not to improve my children’s SATs scores or to give them access to better opportunities later in life. Like the vast majority of other parents doing the same I’m doing it because I want my children to enjoy different experiences that they can’t necessarily get at school. To learn an instrument because it’s fun and gives you access to an amazing world of music. Or to experience the excitement and challenge of playing in a team. Because, like all parents, I know learning doesn’t stop in the classroom. And every child, regardless of their family income or background, should be given the chance to benefit from learning outside school.

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