That is the main message from the first survey of youth participation in the arts published this week by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
The 300-page report says: "Opening up arts opportunities may be a valuable contribution to resolving disaffection among our young people. Testaments to the arts as a powerful 'civilising' force are very evident: such benefits deserve careful perusal, perhaps not least by politicians as much as policy makers or arts providers and educators."
More than two thirds of the 700 14 to 24-year-olds questioned had positive experiences of the arts. They said they had gained in motivation and self confidence, made more friends and had fun. The same percentage said they had wanted to be more involved in arts at school. But it was clear from the sample that young people from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds, especially males, were less enthusiastic about the arts and had little experience of them. Overall, 13 per cent of black and Asian young people said they were involved in the arts in their leisure time compared with 23 per cent of whites. John Harland, one of the authors of the report, said: "We found this surprising, especially for Afro-Caribbean young people as they are stereotyped as liking dance and music."
The researchers were concerned about the declining "power base" for arts in schools, both in the curriculum, given the Dearing review's refusal to make them compulsory at key stage 4, and because of the decline in education authority support services. This could lead to unequal access to arts which are already more popular among the more privileged pupils, they warn.
The survey found that nearly 60 per cent of those asked had "audience" leisure activities, usually watching TV, videos, reading and cinema-going. Almost the same percentage were actively involved in sport. But less than a quarter took part in an arts activity, with painting, drawing and playing an instrument most frequently mentioned.
Nearly three quarters of the sample could recall some arts activity, usually plays, which they did at primary school and 75 per cent had positive memories of secondary school, with drama again being the most enjoyable. Just over half those surveyed continued with an arts subject in Years 10 and 11 while only 12 per cent did two subjects.
More than half - 55 per cent - had a single perspective, equating "the arts" with only one subject, usually the visual arts. Those from better-off backgrounds or who did well at school were more likely to have a wider view. Older people and girls were more knowledgeable. But the survey noted that arts participation was particularly low among 17 to 20-year-olds.
But the report says:"Even at an early age in their school career, certain categories of young people might already be exhibiting signs of what might be termed an 'arts by-pass', that is, are less likely to feel they have found the arts which they experienced either enjoyable or valuable."
One 23-year-old man said of his primary days: "I never saw it as the arts - it was just school." A 19-year-old woman said:"The less academic kids did art - painting - if you were bright, we had to do English and maths."
About the same percentage rated the arts as "boring" at secondary school as found them "enjoyable" although more girls than boys thought them "fun". An 18-year-old male said: "They were available, I just didn't want to do them . . . they were boring." A woman of 21 said: "I liked and enjoyed them - I wanted to do more. I was told not to by mum - won't get a job."
The vast majority of those who became involved with the arts in youth clubs found the experience enjoyable, but numbers were small, with only 11 per cent taking part in youth club art activities.
Some of the sample said they got "a real buzz", "a feeling of adrenaline" or "a sense of achievement" by their particular commitment to the arts. But "a wide range of negative attitudes were collected from a substantial sub-sample, who treated the arts with indifference and, sometimes, hostility", the report says. However, "it can only be seen as encouraging that two thirds of those interviewed wanted to have more involvement in the arts in future," it adds.
Arts in their view: a study of youth participation in the arts, National Foundation for Educational Research, Pounds 10. A 16-page summary is also available from NFER, The Mere, Upton Park,Slough, Berkshire SL1 2DQ, price Pounds 2.50.