The current socio-cultural-political context to inclusive musical practice with young children and families

Dr Carolyn Blackburn, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education, Birmingham City University, gave the keynote speech at Sound Connections’ Early Years Music Conference on 6 March 2017.

Introduction and context

Early Years settings in England are supporting a high and increasing number of children living in complex and challenging circumstances. For example, 580,000 children known to be eligible for free school meals had not reached the Government’s definition of a good level of development at the age of five (DfE, 2016). The question is raised of why this is and how music providers can respond. The underlying reasons are best described as complex and multi-factorial. For example, the number of children living in poverty in the UK has jumped by 200,000 over the last year to 3.9 million (The Guardian, 28.6.16). A new landmark report from the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (2017) claims that poverty in the UK is jeopardising children’s health with higher child death rates, obesity and ill-health in the UK than in much of Europe. In the UK, there are 800,000 disabled children under the age of 16 – that equates to one child in 20 (Contact a Family) and high numbers of children are newly arrived in the country with diverse language and social experiences.

Dr Carolyn Blackburn at Sound Connections’ Early Years Music Conference

Early childhood development and music

From birth to age 18 months, it has been calculated that connections in the brain are created at a rate of a million per second (The 1001 Critical Days). Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) has the potential to alter developmental trajectories significantly. However, traditional approaches to ECI have often isolated parents in the home or devalued parents and children’s contributions and competencies (Blackburn, 2016). Early childhood is a unique stage of development where the quality of relationships between children and caregivers is paramount. Research has shown that children are participating in a wide range of organised musical activities, not all of which are organised by individuals who understand child development or how to work sensitively with families and this is a matter of concern (Young, 2007; Blackburn, 2015). Claims have been made about the multiple benefits of children’s participation in music (for example, Hallam 2015). Associations have been made about the benefits of shared musical activities and intergenerational musical activities (for example, Pitt, 2014; Williams et al, 2015).  However, some advise caution in the interpretation of these findings due to methodological differences between studies as well as differences in participants’ identities (Young, 2007).

There are tensions between policy and practice in Early Years. For example The English Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) places communication and literacy as a ‘prime’ area of learning whilst music is an activity to be promoted under expressive arts and design as a ‘specific’ area of learning. This is despite the fact that early sound discrimination promoted by music activities is a foundational step for phonic and vocabulary development and international rights agendas in relation to children’s access to creative play.

Children’s right to play

Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts and that member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity (United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, Article 31). For music providers then, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity in terms of inclusion and participation for diverse groups of children and their families.

Challenges and opportunities for music providers

There may be practical or perceived physical and structural barriers for children’s participation in musical activities. These might include any or all of the following for families:

  • Cultural barriers to participation
  • Practical barriers to participation (time, access, children’s preferences, family commitments)
  • Health/developmental barriers to participation (complex health/medical conditions, child/parent’s movement restricted)
  • Financial barriers to participation
  • Perceived or real lack of child interest in/dislike of music
  • Lack of parental confidence/interest

These barriers or challenges can also be seen as opportunities, which include:

  • Creative approaches to offering musical activities
  • Inclusive approaches to offering musical activities
  • Focus on relationships/relational pedagogy
  • Focus on working with families not just working with children
  • Multi-agency working/interdisciplinary practice
  • Finding a niche and promoting that – examples of this are the Singing Medicine Programme delivered at Birmingham Children’s Hospital by Ex Cathedra and other examples discussed at this conference
  • Developing relationships/communities of practice with childminding networks for example


We need to argue for children’s right to participation in music for its own merits to enhance/promote happiness, enjoyment, well-being, relationships and movement – but how do we ensure all of this with the diverse family structures and practices already discussed?

Sound Connections‘ Early Years Music Conference took place at the Lyric Hammersmith, London, on 6 March 2017.

For more information about Dr Carolyn Blackburn, please click here.

Blackburn, C (2016) Relationship-based early intervention services for children with complex disabilities Journal of Children’s Services Vol. 11 Iss: 4, pp.330-344
Blackburn, C (2016) Communicative musicality podcast
Blackburn, C (2015) Communicative musicality: sounds rhythms and pulses in music and language
Contact a Family
Cross Party Manifesto The 1001 Critical Days
Department for Education (2016) Statistics: Early Years Foundation Stage Profile edited by the DfE (London)
Hallam, S (2015) The Power of Music: a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people London: Music Education Council
Pitt, J (2014) An Exploratory Study of the Role of Music with Participants in Children’s Centres Unpublished PhD Thesis London: Roehampton University
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, (2017) State of Child Health Report
The GuardianNumber of UK children living in poverty jumps by 200,000 in a year 28.6.2016
Williams, KE, Barrett, MS, Welch, GF, Abad, V and Broughton, M 2015) Associations between early shared music activities in the home and later child outcomes: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly (21) (2015) 113-124
Young, S (2007) Changing tune: reconceptualising music with under three-year-olds International Journal of Early Years Education, 13:3, 289-303

About the author

Dr Carolyn Blackburn is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education, Birmingham City University.

Carolyn has worked in the field of early childhood inclusion and intervention for 20 years and has specialised in developmental risk from prenatal exposure to alcohol and educational outcomes for children in social care.

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