18 January 2012

The Importance of Children's Access to Music

Last Thursday I really saw the importance of music. Most mornings here in Argentina, I help at one of the Houses run by an organisation my charity supports, called Bethel. The House where I work provides an amazing and loving home for children and adults with a range of physical and mental disabilities. A visitor came to the House with a guitar, and played and sang for the people there. The reaction was great. One teenager in a wheelchair sat nodding his head to the beat, with a big smile on his face. Another girl, who calls out random words and can get quite agitated, sat calmly, listening to the music, while another boy swung his feet to the tune. It was wonderful to see everyone enjoying it! That afternoon, I was invited to go to a school in the town of Unquillo, which my organisation, CHW, also helps. We had recently given the school a donation to buy music equipment, to be able to provide good quality music education to the pupils, and I was going to see the new equipment. This is coming at a time when back home, in the UK, cuts in the budget are planned for music education.

The Benefits of Music for Children

The effect of the music on the people at Bethel made me think of the music project of another organisation which my charity supports, in Romania, called FAST. FAST is concerned with helping Roma children and families through many different projects, one of which is their Music School. FAST states on its site that music is an integral part of the Roma people's cultural background and it is being lost due to a daily struggle against poverty. By giving the children at their projects an opportunity to learn this music and dancing, the children are able to retain a part of their cultural identity. 

Cultural music and dance: Children from a Roma school perform at the "Gala pentru Supervoluntari" in Brasov, Romania, November 2011; and children at New Life International Children's Home, which CHW works with in Ghana, doing traditional dancing along to music.

Another point FAST makes is that enduring poverty gives youth few chances to express themselves through any outlet and that "music can be an outlet for their interests, energies, and sense of cultural self-worth." Children from any background could be helped to express themselves through music. The Creativity Institute, which makes educational toys in the USA, states:

"Children of all ages express themselves through music. Even at an early age children sway, bounce, or move their hands in response to music they hear. Many preschoolers make up songs and, with no self-consciousness, sing to themselves as they play. Kids in elementary school learn to sing together as a group and possibly learn to play a musical instrument. Older children dance to the music of their favorite rock and roll bands and use music to form friendships and share feelings." (You can see the full article here)

Helienne Lindvall, who attended a music school in Sweden, describes further benefits of receiving music education in a Guardian blog post. She says that singing together created a sense of community between the students, so there was less truancy as students looked forward to school, rather than dreading it. The grades obtained at the school were usually above average for all subjects. Music has been shown to have a positive effect on numeracy and literacy skills as well as behaviour. Summaries of various studies showing this can be found on the 'KidsDevelopment' website.

In November 2011, the UK Government launched it first ever National Plan for Music Education - "The Importance of Music", following the Henley Review, released earlier in the year. The Plan's foreword says: "This National Plan is clear about the importance of music: it will ensure not just that more children have access to the greatest of art forms, but that they do better as a result in every other subject.The UK Government seems to agree with the benefits of music for children. 

The UK's National Plan for Music Education

The Plan states that music education is patchy across the country and that change is necessary to ensure all pupils have access to a high quality music education. From September 2012, new music hubs will take forward the work of local authority music services and will provide a music infrastructure which transcends schools. Hubs will build on existing music services and will consist of different organisations, such as  local orchestras, ensambles, charities and other groups, working in a local area to augment and support music education in schools, as well as offer broader opportunities to children that reach beyond their school. The Federation of Music Services has produced a toolkit for developing hubs. Hubs will be formed in two stages: firstly a lead organisation will create a framework for the hub, which is in line with the National Plan, and it will then pull parties together; secondly the partners will then become the hub. The partners should be a range of providers and stakeholders committed to delivering the local music education plan, according to the area's needs.

Despite the tough economic times, funding has been ring-fenced for music education, although it decreases each year. From April 2012 to 2015, the following amounts will be available each consecutive year: £77m; £65m; £60m. The vast majority of this will be invested in the hubs and should be supplementing local and national funding for music, from, for example, local authorities, cultural organisations, businesses and foundations. Government funding, augmented by equivalent funding from the Arts Council England, will increase for the In Harmony, Sistema England programme, inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema model. This is a community development programme which aims to use music to bring positive change to the lives of children from some of the most deprived areas of England.

Yesterday it was reported (here and here) that Labour MP, David Blunkett, claimed that the Government was undermining its pledge to provide more children with access to music education by cutting funding "coupled with the near demolition of the role of local government in music education" and that this will reverse the equality of treatment already achieved. He is quoted as saying:

"It would be at least honest if the Government were to come clean and admit that those substantial cutbacks will undermine the life chances of youngsters, not merely in accessing the wonderful creative opportunity and use of talent but also the spin-off effect of music teaching of attainment in other key subject areas."

Jonathan Savage, who has written extensively on music education, wrote of his concerns about the statements in the Plan that the music education hubs cannot be funded solely by government money. This could create an unequal playing field, as some possible leaders of music hubs may have a greater potential to fundraise than others, and this may then become a influential factor in selecting hub leaders. As well as this, hubs in more affluent areas will most likely find it easier to secure funding than those in poorer areas, which goes against the Plan's stated aim for equality.

Classical Music blogger, Tom Service, wrote about the Plan the day it was launched and said that that even though the funding for music education predictably decreased each year, the fact that money was ring-fenced for this made music unique amongst the other school subjects. This meant that the Government accepted the necessity of dedicating money to music education, having taken on board the suggestions of the Henley Review. Service said that he thought the Plan seemed quite good overall, but of course, the important thing is to see what happens next. (You can see his post here.) There is added uncertainty due to the National Curriculum Review currently being undertaken, and so it is left to be seen how this may impact music education in the UK.

A Right to Music?

Children attending the music project run by FAST, in Romania

The child's right to play, leisure and recreation is set out in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Every country in the world, apart from Somalia and the USA, have agreed to be be bound by the Convention, which sets out children's rights. A simplified version of the Convention was made for children, and it refers to music directly when summarising Article 31, stating: "You have the right to play and relax by doing things like sport, music and drama." This can be found here, on the website for Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People. 

Although music is not directly referred to in the full text of Article 31 itself, States Parties must recognise the right of children to engage in age-appropriate recreational activities and to be able to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. States Parties must also encourage the provision of equal opportunities for children to participate in cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity. The UK's National Plan seems to be attempting to provide equal opportunities, as set out in Article 31, with regards to providing music education, as it aims to address the 'patchy' provision of music education across England.

In the UK, there has been a statutory entitlement to music education for children aged five to fourteen since the Education Reform Act 1988 came in to force.The UK's Plan states:

"Most children will have their first experience of music at school. It is important that  music education of high quality is available to as many of them as possible: it must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition. While music touches the lives of all young people, the disadvantaged can benefit most."

It is recognised how beneficial music can be for the most disadvantaged in society.  Organisations, like FAST in Romania, are doing great work when they reach out to children living in extreme poverty. (FAST is not just concerned with music - it has a general education project, helps build homes for families, and much, much more.) A lot of Roma children across Europe do not attend school. Many states, around the world, struggle with providing a primary education for all children, although making primary education free and compulsory for all is an obligation under Article 28 of the Convention. Where this is the case, it is unlikely the governments will give much (if any) priority to music education. 

Feeling the Beat!

Drumming at New Life International Children's Home in Ghana

The enjoyment of simply having music in their Home was evident from the people's reaction at Bethel, as they heard the beat. Music and music education offer a lot of benefits to children. I am glad that CHW could help children at the school in Unquillo have access to a better music education. The immense benefit of music education is recognised in the UK's Plan for Music Education, and now we must wait and see how effectively it is carried out. I really hope it will be successful in moving towards equal access to music education for children across England. I believe that projects, such as FAST's, are very much worth supporting, as music can enhance children's skills in various areas, be a way they can express themselves, provide a link to the culture and give them a sense of self-worth. I will leave you with a quote from Jim Henson, the television producer and puppeteer, who created the Sesame Street characters and puppets, loved by children around the world:

“Music is an essential part of everything we do. Like puppetry, music has an abstract quality which speaks to a worldwide audience in a wonderful way that nourishes the soul.”

16 January 2012

Reviving this Blog!

It has been a long time since I decided to start this blog! I came back to it and found just one published entry and one complete drafted entry (about corporal punishment) which I have now published. I will try my best to write regularly, as I have more time to do this now.

I decided to start this blog a while ago, whilst doing a children's rights internship for the Dean of the Law Department at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. It was great being able to do work related to children's rights each day! After that, I went to Ghana, to work at the projects of my organisation, CHW, there, and could not get online often, so I thought I would continue again once back in the UK. However, I then started Law School and between completing all my assignments and running CHW, there was not much time for anything else!

No part of the course at Law School was related to children's rights, so it was nice to have the opportunity to do some research for the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), once I had completed my studies. I contributed towards the research for the basic health and welfare chapter of CRAE's annual report, "The State of Children's Rights in England." The report was launched in December 2011. You can download a free copy here.

I am currently working at CHW's projects in Argentina.

I would really like to share thoughts and ideas of others who are working with and for children and I hope to do that through reviving this blog! I am looking forward to connecting with more people who are concerned with children's issues from around the world!

Let's Talk About Rights

The toddler, sitting comfortably in his pushchair, was wheeled close to our table in a café in Amsterdam. My companion exclaimed:

“Look at your children in their wheels!”

By my children, he meant ‘European’. He was the director of an orphanage in Ghana and this was the first time he had left the country. He could now observe the differences between the ways of life for the children here and there. One of these differences, he found, was the sense of entitlement the children he met on his travels seemed to have. He told me,
"If you don't let them have something, they will cry until they get it. They think nothing is out of their reach. Children in Ghana never behave this way."

The view of the street where I stayed in Lome, Togo.
Next to the tree trunk, you can just see a woman carrying a baby on her back, as is common in the neighbouring country of Ghana too. No "wheels" in sight.

Children and their Rights

Thousands of miles away, in Cape Town, I found some parents were also having problems involving children who believed they were entitled to certain things. In this case though, it was their rights, rather than material objects. One mother I spoke to at a children's event in Cape Town complained wearily,

"They come home from school and say they have rights, but if you ask them, 'What is your right?' they don't know! They don't understand, and they use it to argue with us."

This seems to mean that someone at her children's school was trying to teach them about their rights, but perhaps was not going about it in the most effective way. There are international legal instruments which are concerned with children’s rights. One is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which all the countries in the world are party to, except the USA and Somalia (a somewhat unlikely pairing!). Another is the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. You can find more information about the Convention and the Charter on the Child Rights Information Network (CRIN) website. South Africa also has national laws concerning children’s rights, which can be seen here. It is important that children know what their rights are, so it is essential that they are taught about this in a way that ensures they have a proper understanding of them, unlike the children of the mother quoted above.

One teenage boy seemed to know at least what one of his rights were, but his father did not like his attitude which accompanied this. He exclaimed,

"Once my son came home from school and said that he has RIGHTS. And his rights meant I couldn't hit him. This infuriated me so much, I actually felt like hitting him!"

Luckily I knew this man was speaking with some degree of sarcasm, and would most likely not hit his son. We were in the middle of a discussion during a conference held by the Working Group on Positive Discipline (WGPD) and this father was firmly in favour of banning corporal punishment. However, he illustrates a very valid point. What is a good way to teach children about their rights? It may be difficult to know how to do this, especially, for instance, with regards to corporal punishment, when the children are part of a society where parents feel that it is socially and culturally acceptable to hit them.

Corporal Punishment and What Children Think

On looking at better ways of disciplining children, rather than using corporal punishment, one participant at the meeting, said:

“Positive parenting and child participation are indivisible. With positive discipline, we are talking about talking to children.”

One point that was made obvious during the conference was that it is essential to engage with children, as well as with parents and teachers, to try to combat the problem of physical punishment, which is so common in South Africa. South Africa has joined the growing number of countries which have banned corporal punishment in schools (although, sadly, the practice still does take place). Like many other countries in the world, it has not yet prohibited corporal punishment in the home.

The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children website has a page dedicated to research on corporal punishment which has involved children. The following are quotes from some of the children themselves.

In Cambodia, corporal punishment has been legally prohibited in schools, but a study was done before this was the case. The different quotes showed that the children had mixed views on whether or not the teacher should beat them:

“Yes, if I am doing wrong I would prefer the teacher to hit me."

"No, the teacher should ask me to clean the rubbish or classroom or kneel down."
"They should not beat them all, just the lazy ones."

One participant at the WGPD conference drew attention to the fact that some children are in favour of corporal punishment. With regards to child participation, she said children should be able to listen to the arguments for and against corporal punishment, and then make up their own minds. They should not just be told to say what the adults want them to say, as this goes against the whole idea of listening to the views of children.

In Spain, children were asked their opinions on parental corporal punishment. Some of their answers, as follows, are very thought-provoking.

"I liked very much my rights. The one I like the most is not to get raps with knuckles from my parents when I am a bad or a good boy depending who says so, me or my parents."– Boy, twelve years old

"My parents feel, like me, lost many times, the only thing I can't understand is why they refuse to talk about it with me." - Girl, 11 years old

"When they spank us, we cannot explain ourselves, and express our feelings." - Girl, 11 years old

The last two quotes show that these children would much prefer to have a dialogue with their parents, than be physically hit. One woman from Ghana, who has now lived in England for a couple of decades, told me that, although she does not believe that children in the UK are disciplined too well, she does like it that they have more of a chance to express themselves than she did as a child growing up in Ghana.

The next two quotes, from the Spanish children, show some of the negative effects of using corporal punishment as a method of discipline:

"If they hit me, I learn to hit."
- Girl, 12 years old

In other words, using corporal punishment shows children that it is acceptable to hit others and that violence can be used to solve problems, rather than talking about them.

"I don't understand why they are spanking me, but I do what they tell me so I don't get the spanking."
- Boy, 11 years old

This highlights another issue when corporal punishment is used as a method of discipline. The child will do what he or she can to avoid the punishment. This can involve carrying on with the behaviour in question, but hiding it from the parents. If a parent explained to the child why they had a problem with their behaviour, it is more likely the child will understand what they did wrong, and may then behave differently the next time. By talking with children, parents will be able to impart their values to them… which is probably what they are hoping to achieve through discipline anyway.

Teaching Children about their Rights

As shown with the example of corporal punishment above, it is positive, and necessary, to involve children and hear their views on issues affecting them. During my children’s rights course at UCL, my lecturer asked us to raise our hands if we had been taught about our rights, or the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, at school. In the class were students from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. One girl from Colombia put her hand up. Nobody else had been taught about their rights as children.

Purely by chance, as I was writing this entry, the director of one of the organisations my charity supports, here in South Africa, asked me to develop a children’s rights volunteer programme for her. The aim will be for volunteers to go in and teach children in the last two years of primary school about their rights in general and also to focus on what happens when children come into conflict with the law (in the hope that this will deter them from committing offences in their teenage years.) I am excited to be working on this, but I understand that it is a very challenging and sensitive area and must be done properly. (It would therefore be great to hear from people with experience in programmes teaching children about their rights.)

Children at school in Ghana.
Is school the best place for children to learn about their rights? If so, what is the best way for them to be able to do this?


As mentioned at the beginning, sometimes children do feel entitled to things. I have heard demands back home in London like:

“I NEED a Nintendo Wii. Everyone else has one! It’s not fair.”

Something I like about the African Charter is that children’s responsibilities are outlined, as well as their rights. According to Article 31, children have responsibilities towards their family, society, state and the international community. I feel it is important that children are given their rights, and the protection, they all deserve. An essential part of this includes teaching children about their rights, although it is vital that this is done in an effective manner. I also think it would be a good idea to teach children about their responsibilities. If we respect their rights and protect them, we are giving them a good environment to grow up in safely. If we teach them about their responsibilities too, we will help them to develop into well-rounded individuals. Then, they would probably be able to create a much better world for all the children who come after them too.