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Working with ‘at-risk’ young people: do we really have the right support and skills?

With funding for youth services having been either cut completely, or shifted from open access to targeted provision, working with ‘at risk’ young people is fast becoming an essential skill for socially engaged and community musicians. It’s certainly a growing area of need, and therefore a market for practitioners. But are musicians and the sector really equipped to do this work? What skills are required of musicians working with young people in the 21st century, and what support do they need? Anita Holford looks at one programme in Wiltshire, and talks to those working in the field. Wiltshire Youth Arts…

With funding for youth services having been either cut completely, or shifted from open access to targeted provision, working with ‘at risk’ young people is fast becoming an essential skill for socially engaged and community musicians. It’s certainly a growing area of need, and therefore a market for practitioners. But are musicians and the sector really equipped to do this work? What skills are required of musicians working with young people in the 21st century, and what support do they need? Anita Holford looks at one programme in Wiltshire, and talks to those working in the field.

Wiltshire Youth Arts Partnership (WYAP) is part of Wiltshire Council’s Early Help service and also its music education hub, Wiltshire Music Connect. As part of its Music Matters programme, the team has been working with the Council’s EOTAS (Education Other Than At School) team to run bi-weekly music workshop days for young people unable to attend mainstream schools for health reasons.

The success of a three-month pilot project, subsidised by Youth Music, has led to the programme now being solely funded by the setting and embedded into its work.

All EOTAS students have a diagnosed medical condition, largely mental ill health, which can present in emotional, behavioural and social challenges. They continue their education in an educational centre where they follow the national curriculum and can also take GCSEs and other qualifications through links with their home schools. The idea is that the setting provides more tailored, small-group provision for young people who wouldn’t cope in a mainstream school.

The service, and others like it nationally, is under increasing pressure. ‘There are more young people going into medical provision nationally, particularly for mental ill health,’ says Kirsty Bentley, Lead Teacher covering the EOTAS setting. ‘Budgets are stretched because the work is expanding: we now cover primary, and post-16 too. We’re massively over-subscribed. We have enough funding for 20 young people full-time, and 10 part-time on the ward but we’re currently supporting 37 full-time.’

Skills and qualities for EOTAS teaching staff 

With the service under increasing pressure, and young people in crisis who’ve often missed a lot of schooling already, time is precious and teaching staff need to be able to hit the ground running. What are the service’s expectations of the sort of skills and training needed for this type of work?

‘We don’t have any specific training in the difficulties these young people face, beyond things mental health first aid,’ says Kirsty. ‘We’re there as educational experts – there’s a solid line we don’t cross with CAMHS. They are the mental health experts and work within this area. We focus solely on a young person’s education, communicating with other professionals, taking into account the difficulties they are facing. It becomes dangerous if we try to cross this line as we wouldn’t know how it would impact on the therapy the young person’s engaging in.’

‘We look for experienced teachers on the upper pay scale – we don’t employ anyone who doesn’t have at least six years’ experience,’ she continues, ‘but a lot of what we look for can’t be put on paper. It’s their personal qualities. They need to be very calm, emotionally intelligent people who are able to deal with crises, be flexible, perceptive, and change what they’re doing at the drop of a hat.’

What skills and qualities do musicians need?

The importance of the ‘soft’ skills so central to community music practice – emotional intelligence, flexibility and adaptability, young-person-centredness – is highly valued by commissioners like Kirsty. ‘What’s important is the empathy they can show to young people combined with the ability to be firm when needed; good communication and feedback skills; being flexible and creative in finding different ways to engage a young person who may have had an awful week.’

Mal Munday, Head of Service for Early Help and Youth Offending at Wiltshire Council, agrees: ‘You need emotionally secure and literate staff who can ‘hold’ damaged/hurting young people and enable them to go on to fulfil their potential. Potential can be ‘I just feel much better about myself’ or ‘I got a job’, although maybe the place of this work is the engaging part and getting them on the road for others to take forward.’

But in addition to this, he says, it’s important to have some form of theoretical framework: ‘It doesn’t matter which one it is, you can use psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural, or other theories, as long as you have a grounding for your understanding and a structured way of approaching the work, a clear method based on evidence of what works.’

Siggy Patchitt, Education Manager for Bristol Plays Music, the city’s music education hub, cites social pedagogy as a particularly useful framework: ‘From my experience you need a basic knowledge of social pedagogy (see also Social Pedagogy for looked-after children), and a set of skills that are transferable and that you can apply to any situation, which includes being able to work with young people in an emotionally intelligent way, to base your practice on an individual’s particular identity and needs, and to be a reflective practitioner. The guidance that came out of Youth Music’s Music Mentoring programme was invaluable’.

Alex Lupo is lead practitioner on Music Matters’ EOTAS work and an experienced community musician, music therapist and trainer/mentor.  He agrees that fundamental community music skills and qualities are a sufficient foundation, but these need to be combined with knowledge and insights from the team around the child: ‘If you look at the Youth Music Quality Framework, that reads like a list of truisms about the right way to practice as a community musician or a music therapist. But most important in this situation is how you’re supported by the host organisation, and how appropriately they brief you.’

Alex says his regular contact and weekly discussions with Kirsty have been invaluable and Siggy has found the same with his commissioners: ‘The Outreach and Engagement Officer for the Virtual School has been brilliant in helping us make sure we know all about the world that surrounds children in care.’

The importance of dialogue, and understanding the individual child

In the case of WYAP’s EOTAS pilot work, briefings between musicians and settings staff were built in at the start and end of each day, about the young people coming in, and what worked well or not so well.

‘We ourselves talk a lot with CAMHS about the young people, before they come in to us,’ says Kirsty. ‘It’s helpful for everyone to have an awareness of mental health issues generally, and how they can present in a young person.’

In between these ‘setting’ sessions, Alex and Deej, the other music leader, had time built in for a formal peer-mentoring relationship, and the team also met with Carrie Creamer, WYAP’s Progamme Manager, for support and reflection.

Mal Munday says that, ‘after emotional intelligence, and a theoretical framework, safeguarding and child protection, an understanding of things affecting or surrounding the individual child are critical’, but that this should be on a need-to-know basis.  That might be about a particular behavior or condition, about a particular situation they have experienced like early trauma for looked-after or adopted children, ‘or it might be about the impact of adults’ behavior and situations on children: things like domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, or for example for military children, Post Traumatic Stress disorder.’

The challenge of making time to reflect, and having structured supervision

Reflective practice, a fundamental part of community music practice, is essential for effective dialogue with setting staff and supervisors – but it’s often the area that’s squeezed or cut completely when budgets are cut, and puts practitioners under extra pressure: ‘I do reflection notes during the session or in my own time now as it’s no longer built in,’ says Alex. ‘But that can add up, as a freelancer working in lots of settings.’

Alex believes that some form of structured and regular support is also indispensable: ‘Something like the ‘supervision’ you have in social work or music therapy practice really helps. Just an opportunity to have that dialogue with someone who is experienced in the area of practice, to voice any concerns or to say, ‘I don’t think I have appropriate training’. Also some stuff around personal development, understanding how capable and equipped you are to deal with really difficult things.’

Mal Munday agrees: ‘People working in these settings need supervision in three areas: personal – to be able to talk about situations their facing; educational – to be able to identify if they need further knowledge and skills; and oversight – from someone responsible for the contract and the outcomes.’

Could that supervision come from the commissioner, rather than, for example, a community music organisation which might employ the music leader? ‘Possibly,’ says Mal. ‘I’d expect the organisation employing the musician to apply some management oversight but it’s a question of scope for the supervision.’

Encouraging a culture of professional development

Research in Bristol (see the report and briefing, Approaching commissioners – lessons learned from Bristol and beyond) found that many commissioners weren’t aware that there were musicians who had any of these skills, and so didn’t know how to identify suitable musicians.

Siggy Patchitt says: ‘The schools I dealt with would say, ‘You do know these kids are quite difficult?’. They didn’t get that the guys I was sending were very qualified and skilled workers. I had to use language about key stages, curriculum, social pedagogy and attachment theory, so commissioners would understand we know what we’re talking about. But if you have those fundamental community music skills and attributes, you find that you can work with some of the most violent and anti-social kids.’

Bristol Plays Music is one of Youth Music’s ‘Fund C’ organisations, funded to strategically develop the sector including providing training and development for practitioners. Its current New Ambition programme features training from nationally-renowned figures like Phil Mullen and Hugh Nankivell; development needs analysis sessions to assess training needs; mentoring and supervision, and regular observations and paid feedback sessions; annual training days in September (which musicians are paid to attend), as well as meetings for practitioners where they can network and share practice. The Hub is now extending this ‘musically inclusive practice’ training to other music educators too (peripatetic music teachers from the music service, for example).

Siggy believes the skills gap lies less in specialist training for working with children in challenging circumstances, and more around practitioners being conscious of their skills and able to describe them. ‘The emotional intelligence training as part of the Music Mentors programme was the light bulb moment for me – I knew I was doing it well, but then I realised I had a pedagogy, you’re able then to describe what you’re doing, to articulate your skills and feel more confident about that.’

‘On the whole, community musicians need to be better able to articulate their practice … they have the knowledge and skills but aren’t able to sell it … and also, using and explaining things like lesson plans and setting out the learning objectives in advance, even though you expect to be flexible around these.’

‘As a sector we’re continuing to develop what we do but it’s very ad hoc,’ adds Alex. ‘Some of us decide to invest in our development and some of us don’t. But if we want to be seen as a skilled profession, we all need to do this. I think there’s still a lack of proper development and training of practitioners.’

What additional support and skills do musicians need?


  • Emotional intelligence
  • A theoretical framework – eg social pedagogy, music mentoring
  • Safeguarding and child protection training
  • Time built in for reflective practice after each session, solo and with setting staff
  • Supervision – regular structured discussion with an experienced practitioner or manager
  • Briefings from setting staff and/or other professionals working with the young person/people about their individual needs/situations


  • Training/CPD/reading relating to specific conditions/situations as appropriate to the setting/group
  • Understanding of the network of professionals surrounding children (eg children in care) and how they work
  • Behaviour managementTraining – courses from Artswork
  • Reading – Youth Music Network Dealing with challenging behaviour, Youth Work Essentials Dealing with challenging behaviour
  • Group dynamics
  • Mental healthtraining – mental health first aid
  • reading – Young Minds website
  • Attachment/neglect/early trauma theoryreading – DfE Indicators of neglect research report
  • Child sexual exploitationreading –  information from the NSPCC
  • Insights from carers/parents/professionals about specific young people’s conditions or situations
  • More focused supervision-style support
  • Arts Award (particularly for educational settings like EOTAS)
  • Skills/knowledge for signposting and progression routes to wider music opportunities outside the setting

This article was originally published on the Youth Music Network.

About the author

Anita Holford is a writer and communications practitioner who started her life on a local paper, was Marketing Manager of a music venue, and then Head of Communications for Sound Sense, the UK association for community musicians.

She’s worked with music services and music education hubs as well as community music organisations across the UK, and has a deep understanding of the issues involved in bringing together the informal and formal music education sectors to work towards better outcomes for children and young people.