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Why do we need music as schools reopen after Covid-19?

As schools in England fully open their gates again in the wake of the pandemic, young people need music more than ever. But why?

The return to school was accompanied by shocking headlines that the gap between rich and poor pupils grew by 46% in a year, with black and minority ethnic children having ‘gone backwards’ compared with their better off peers since March 2020.  Teachers highlighted the critical need for additional support for the most vulnerable and least engaged young people in our society. So how can music help?  Jennie Cashman Wilson, CEO of the Abram Wilson Foundation, explains how her organisation supports young musicians in a time of crisis

Youth Music’s recent Sound of the Next Generation Ipsos Mori research report found that music is young people’s favourite pastime, along with gaming. But it also highlighted how economic background becomes a major barrier to participating in some forms of music education, especially when children reach secondary school.  

This is one of the reasons why our music education programmes focus on working with schools in more disadvantaged and diverse areas. For example, 89% of participants in our most recent Future Sound programme were from black and minority ethnic minority backgrounds and 58% were from low income families. We must ensure that all young people have the opportunity to develop their enthusiasm for and skills in musical education, as part of a range of efforts to prevent these already-present opportunity gaps from widening even further as a result of Covid-19.

There is an ever-growing body of evidence that demonstrates how music can be life-changing in wide-reaching ways, not only for wellbeing and resilience, but also to improve learning across all subjects and develop essential 21st century life and work skills, like teamwork, communication and creative thinking.

Recent studies have found that there was a striking, if understandable, decline in mental health across the UK during lockdown – more than half of those aged 16 to 24 who felt their wellbeing had been affected said they experienced loneliness, and almost a quarter of young people over 13 years without a history of mental health problems described their mental health during lockdown as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor.’

Learning an instrument, improvising and composing, is more important than ever

Music making can be a valuable personal coping strategy, as composer, musical director and creative Adam Saunders (who has designed and led projects with some of the country’s leading organisations including the Southbank Centre and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and advises on our Future Sound programme) observes: ‘Learning an instrument, improvising and composing, is more important than ever – it can provide a getaway from the stresses of everyday life and give us some focus and respite from the difficult times.’

One of the harsh ironies of the pandemic has been that as the music and creative industries have been devastated, the value of music and the arts for wellbeing and community-building has been brought to the fore.

Adam says: ‘Music and sound is incredibly powerful. It has the unique ability to unite people during a crisis and provide a creative outlet for people experiencing challenging times. Back in March, the internet was flooded with beautiful videos of Italian people singing and playing together from their balconies during lockdown. They connected with each other through sound – a sonic ‘hug’ – they were united through music.’

Music and the arts can shine a positive light across all areas of learning and skill development

Continuing and building this positive sense of togetherness and belonging through music will be critical for schools in getting back to a sense of ‘normal’ albeit against a backdrop of safety and physical distancing measures that are informing how they must now operate.

But as young people look to an uncertain future, there is extensive evidence to show how music and the arts can shine a positive light across all areas of learning and skill development that are critical for later life.

Teachers responding to last year’s Durham Commission on Creativity and Education – which recommended the promotion of and equal access to creative learning – said that in schools where arts provision has been squeezed, there has been a broad, negative effect on children’s oral skills and self-confidence, whereas schools with a thriving arts programme report high levels of pupil behaviour and self-confidence.

Indeed, our most recent Future Sound programme found significant benefits: as well as improvements in musical skills, 94% of students improved their teamwork skills, 88% improved their creativity and 85% improved their communication skills.

A protection factor against depression and anxiety

And the increases in both general and musical self-efficacy scores were statistically significant. This is super important as ‘self-efficacy’ is the degree to which you believe you can succeed in a task and overcome obstacles. This ‘can do’ attitude has a huge impact on a whole range of life outcomes – a wealth of studies have shown the benefits, including better academic performance, commitment to remain in school, better health, life satisfaction, job performance and satisfaction and being a protection factor against depression and anxiety.

As one of the Future Sound workshop leaders, SEED Ensemble’s Chelsea Carmichael, said: ‘We’ve really encouraged belief in self and belief in being able to do something and share ideas and also respect other people’s ideas as well. I think that’s where we’ve seen the most progress, in terms of confidence.’

So with the Autumn term under way and with uncertainty lingering in the air, we are excited to be launching our Future Sound Digital programme very soon. It’s one way in which we’re offering even more young people vital access to music learning in challenging times.

Please help the Abram Wilson Foundation reach even more young people through the Future Sound music education programme and support the development of up-and-coming professional musicians’ careers by donating to the charity here.

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About the author

Jennie Cashman Wilson
Jennie Cashman Wilson

Jennie Cashman Wilson is a social entrepreneur, writer, speaker and coach.

She founded the Abram Wilson Foundation in 2012 in memory of her late husband, critically acclaimed, award winning jazz musician, mentor and educator Abram Wilson.

The charity supports the next generation of musicians to fulfill their potential and pay it forward to young people who face barriers to accessing inspirational music education opportunities