There is growing evidence from across the arts and health field that suggests that participatory arts programmes can contribute to health improvement, emotional resilience and social reintegration, among vulnerable and excluded groups including criminal justice populations. This report presents a three-year research project funded by the BIG Lottery Fund that completed in 2013. The project was a collaboration between Superact Community Interest Company and the University of the West of England, Bristol. It used mixed methods to investigate a participatory music programme delivered to young people in justice settings by Superact.
The research was conducted within a range of custody and community based youth justice settings. These included Young Offender Institutions, Juvenile Secure Units and Prisons, Secure Children’s Homes and Youth Offending Teams. Ethnographic research explored responses and perceptions of Superact’s music programme, focusing on links between music and health, wellbeing, behaviour and social inclusion. Data collection included participant observation, semi-structured interviews and focus groups across eight sites and fifteen programes. As well as examining in depth the responses and views of young people who took part, the research explored the perceptions of stakeholders including prison staff and musicians. A key objective of the research was to pilot conventional validated health, wellbeing and social inclusion questionnaires with this population, partly to establish baseline scores and also to explore the feasibility of measuring these indicators with a transient and ‘hard-to-reach’ population.
The research has yielded valuable insight into the perspectives and attitudes of young people in justice settings, in relation to music and their identification with it, and participatory music programming. The research reveals the effects of group dynamics, institutional systems, behavioural factors and population transience on delivery of programmes across these settings. Perhaps inevitably, the high degree of transience of the population impacted on programme attendance and participation, limiting what could be drawn from the quantitative data. However, while the baseline questionnaire data reveal no significant findings with respect to health, wellbeing and social inclusion indicators, the qualitative findings reveal a myriad of themes that underlie the process of programme delivery and the value of music to individuals. These data reveal significant affordances offered by music making for young people and illustrate programme and contextual factors necessary for these affordances to be realised. Essentially, creative music making has the potential to engage even ‘hard to reach’ young people, delivering positive learning experiences and enabling them to forge new identities. Active engagement in arts programmes of this kind can deliver life-changing benefits for some individuals; certainly, for the majority of participants in this study, the programme was valuable in helping them cope with difficult circumstances, including custody, and to consider how music could help them look positively towards the future. Team-building, group dynamics and creativity were key factors underlining successful programme delivery and effective engagement of young people.
In conclusion, we argue that participatory music programmes provide opportunities to young people to engage alternative skills and competencies that are not routinely afforded them via conventional education and training programmes. Moreover, music provides a medium that enables young people to engage their life experiences in creative ways, to identify positively with music, to draw on knowledge and experiences, and to engage with their peer group. An important feature of programmes delivered by professional musicians is that they have the skills and experience to garner respect from young people, particularly groups that are difficult to engage and present with challenging attitudes and behaviours. We believe that music programmes that take this approach are a major asset to youth justice organisations, especially since they are located outside the system and therefore command respect and credibility from young people.