A Free Pass for Families
By | October 22, 2019

I love the National Trust. Kids ran riot in several of their properties over the summer (sorry). And I was struck by their inclusion in this pretty sensible list of money saving tips for children’s holiday adventures.

Indeed, National Trust and other membership schemes can present great value. Below are some examples of passes that could be included in list. This makes no statement about how family friendly they are or the value they present.

But for many – regardless of value per visit - they are still unaffordable.

Organisation Family pass (2 parents/2 children – accepting that part of the challenge is catering for different family models)
National Trust £126 (up to 10 children)
Wetland and Wildfowl Trust £92
RSPB £72
English Heritage £60 (up to six children)
National Art Pass £115

Costs are as stated on their websites and are sometimes all inclusive free entry to every venue/activity and sometimes a combination of free entry and discounts.

And despite much investment from government and other funders into diversity, many of these organisations – charities and for profits - continue to struggle to reach across all demographic groups. The reasons for this are complex. And of course entry fees are only one barrier. There are many ‘free’ provisions such as libraries, National Parks, some key museums and art galleries – that still struggle on inclusion.

It is also true that there are many great organisations that need entry fees to survive. And indeed charging a fee can make people value the service more. So how can we ensure fees are not a barrier?

One solution may be to turn the funding model on its head.

At present many funders make grants to organisations to support  access programmes. The power stays with the charity. And the focus is on the charity to decide how best to support access.

But what if instead some of this funding went to the user?


Every family in the country to get a free family annual pass which they could choose from a list of validated providers on the 5th birthday of each of their children. At an annual cost of £70millon.

This could be in part funded by reducing amount of public monies that go to these charities and in part funded by the government putting money where its mouth is on the notion of character/resilience/cultural entitlement/enrichment/extra-curricular *. Larger organisations could also pay into the pot as part of their work supporting the wider ownership of sector and cultural capital (National Trust has just posted record income and the charities listed in the pass list above start moving towards nearly a £1 billion turnover.

To be clear these organisations manage a massive portfolio of activities attached to this income - this is not a cry that they are overfunded - rather that they all have stated aims on increasing access and access costs.

What would this achieve?

Well, for many families cash is a real barrier so a free pass – if only for one year – is a significant financial benefit. And for this year it would bring all the benefits we know these places and spaces bring to children, young people and adults – well-being, physical activity, increased vocabulary, connections to community etc.

But perhaps, as importantly it is ‘permissive’. Many families report that they don’t feel welcome in cultural, heritage and nature venues – that they ‘aren’t for them’. Making clear that a pass to these venues is an entitlement – validated by the state and promoted via schools – is a step towards saying that these venues are public capital and this capital belongs to you.

It also allows us to have a discussion about what type of organisations should make ‘the list’ for families to choose from; and in doing so consider how we build the provider network for family enrichment services. Should it include more national or local? More heritage or outdoors or arts or sports? And what standards should we set for family friendly venues – our draft proposal for ‘family friendly’ is here.

It would mean that funding ran to those organisations that could develop and present an attractive offer for all families – not just the families that are ‘easy to access’. And it may be that families of children with particular access needs such as disability get an additional premium to spend at the organisation they chose – helping to drive much needed change around services such as Changing Places and Drop Off Points.

And for organisations that are part of the scheme it opens up a new range of users who value their services. This may include users who can afford to buy future annual passes once the value has been modelled. Users who can afford to spend money in tea rooms or donate to the charity. And users who now want to access the services but who cannot afford to continue to pay are at least now in contact with the charity and can be included in funding bids or other subsidy schemes.

It may seem like a risky move to hand choice to the user - but for venues that believe they have an inclusive and quality offer what is there to risk? And for those that never access the joys of these venues there is much to gain.

Shifting the power
This proposal is part of wider thinking on shifting the power in the question of access. User controlled funding can help shape service design and this shift in power – from provider to beneficiary - is one that we need to consider more carefully as we look to support inclusion in charitable and public services.