'Music is an invaluable resource when it comes to children's mental health – and yet it's under attack'

Music sparks creativity, taps into emotions and helps young people to understand their own being, says one musician – it has a powerful ability to help children stay mentally healthy

Pallab Sarker

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William Congreve once said that “music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak”. With so much concern – and valid concern at that – about the vulnerable mental state of pupils, we need to be particularly vigilant in the current climate of austerity-first to shield music and art in our schools from cuts.

And it’s entirely apolitical, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry have demonstrated through their exemplary work with their Heads Together charity – tackling the stigma of mental health in a campaign that cuts across all ages, classes, geographies, and occupations.

Of course, mental health has been growing as a largely overlooked and neglected crisis among young people for years. Modern life – increasingly connected, driven by smartphone culture and rapid change – puts enormous stress on young people at a time when they are growing and at their most vulnerable. We were even reminded how over Christmas teenagers’ mental health would particularly suffer from ubiquitous social media pressures, thanks to a timely survey by The Children’s Society.

In December, the government’s Green Paper on their plans for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) included proposals for introducing mental health support teams – linked to groups of schools and colleges – designated leads for mental health in all schools, new guidance for schools that will address the effect of trauma and a four-week waiting time across CAMHS. Signs indeed that officials are at last taking the problem seriously. But nowhere in that 54-page document are music and the arts mentioned. This in spite of much evidence of the curative and stimulating powers these have on mental wellbeing in youngsters, always preferable, where feasible, as the first option over chemical solutions.

Music as stress relief

The therapeutic benefits of music and arts had been considered a bit of a flaky, hippy theory until recently, but it is becoming more mainstream all the time. Dr Robert Myers, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, says: “Having a little bit of music in your life every day can be good for reducing stress and anxiety. Research and experience has shown that calming music can provide stress relief for children and adults.”

Professor Susan Hallam, Emerita Professor of Education and Music Psychology at University College London, is among leading academics and researchers who have published papers on the impact of music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children, showing exposure to music enhances their perceptual, language and literacy skills.

Now schools are turning all this research to their own advantage, including Bradford’s Feversham primary academy, which made national newspaper headlines in October when it said its newfound Sats success was down to giving all children up to six hours of music a week. Seven years ago it was in special measures and making headlines for all the wrong reasons, but is now rated “good” by Ofsted and in the top 10 per cent nationally for pupil progress in reading, writing and maths.

Understand and develop

Of course, we have to focus on a balanced curriculum, but even if music and art are not being hothoused to exam-levels among students, it is important they all have a chance to soak up these subjects throughout their academic life. There is nothing like music and art for sparking creativity, tapping into emotions and helping young people understand and develop their own life while navigating that of others. After all, today’s students are going to go out to tomorrow’s workplace where more than ever collaboration, often on an international level, teamwork, empathy, soft skills and emotional intelligence will be the essential tools for success. Again, this is a view coming from the pragmatic world of the workplace, supported by the World Bank, whose World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education's Promise says: “It is not enough to train learners to use computers: to navigate a rapidly changing world, they have to interact effectively with others, think creatively and solve problems.”

Despite the numerous benefits provided by music and the arts in our schools, they are under attack. In September a report by the Education Policy Institute showed students studying arts subjects such as music and drama in English schools had fallen to the lowest level in a decade as a result of government policies and education cuts.

So the threat to these subjects is real, despite the great job teachers are doing globally in these fields. In the top 50 shortlist for the Varkey Foundation’s $1 million Global Teacher Prize 2018, I have been impressed by how Brent teacher Andria Zafirakou has changed her students lives with the power of art, how California’s Keith Hancock has motivated his with music and Florida teacher Joe Underwood has steered his to rewarding careers across a whole range of the creative arts.   

I think back to my own music lessons at school. I admit that the music theory handed down from the front of the classroom didn’t hold my attention, but it was a chance for my friends and me to take the guitars out of the music cupboard and start writing songs. The feeling of togetherness and happiness lives with me to this day. Life is now more hectic and stressful than ever but daydreaming of those moments still gives me cause to smile and soothes my own “savage breast”.  I know that must have been real happiness, because we used to play long past the last school bell.

Walthamstow musician Pallab Sarker releases his debut album Grey Day on 10 February 2018

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Pallab Sarker

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