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More robust evidence is needed to build the case for art interventions, research shows

Renowned artists like award-winning rapper Dave and acclaimed actor Ashley Walters credit music and acting for providing them with positive outlets during their formative years and offering a pathway away from the crime and violence that surrounded their upbringing.

Speaking to GQ about music’s impact, Dave said, “The moment I started learning to play the piano it changed my whole dynamic with music and with school. Suddenly I had a reason to be there, or at least at my music lessons; it just took hold of me.”

New research from the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) indicates that while anecdotal evidence supports the benefits of arts-based interventions, there is a pressing need for more robust evaluations to demonstrate its value to policymakers and help secure further funding.

As part of its commitment to find what works to prevent children becoming involved in violence, the YEF partnered with Arts Council England to commission a new systematic review on the impact of arts programmes on preventing offending.

The review aimed to identify studies and synthesise the results of programmes that used artistic and creative activities to engage children and young people. These activities encompassed various forms, including music, drama, digital media, painting and creative writing.

The charity’s analysis revealed a lack of robust evaluations, resulting in insufficient evidence to definitively prove or contest the effectiveness of arts programmes in preventing offending.

  • Arts Programmes

    Programmes that engage children in arts and creative activities.
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    Evidence quality
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    Insufficient evidence of impact

Nevertheless, qualitative studies included in the review did demonstrate several positive effects. Participants expressed positive emotional experiences, successful engagement in creative learning, development of positive personal relationships and improved self-esteem.

The research also points to characteristics that improve young people’s engagement in arts-based interventions. These include being culturally relevant and reflecting their tastes and interests. Activities should be led or facilitated by trusted adults who are relatable or experienced in their artistic field. And programmes should be delivered in a way that promotes self-expression in a non-judgemental and safe environment.

While some projects employ arts activities as a standalone intervention, others use them as a ‘hook’ to engage children in other forms of support, such as mentoring. When coupled with approaches supported by more rigorous research, the argument for using arts-based interventions to prevent violence becomes much stronger. For instance, the YEF’s examination of mentoring programmes revealed an average reduction of 21% in violence, 14% in all offending and 19% in reoffending.

One project that successfully combines music and mentoring is United Borders. Operating from a converted double-decker bus in North London, this music mentoring programme sees young people attend weekly music production sessions, where they also benefit from the guidance of a mentor. The 10-week programme is designed to reduce behavioural issues, improve well-being and self-esteem and foster stronger personal relationships. The YEF is currently funding and evaluating the project to strengthen the evidence base for arts programmes.

Ciaran Thapar, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at the YEF, said: “I’ve delivered a wide range of creative writing and music culture workshops in pupil referral units, youth offending institutes and schools over the last decade. In doing so, I’ve seen first-hand how leveraging artistic expression can help young people to communicate their emotions, build trusted relationships and develop life and career skills.”

He adds: “Arts programmes are an approach that’s widely used to engage young people in communities across the United Kingdom, and there is a huge appetite to do more of it. But little robust evaluation exists to support this motivation. This needs to change, so we can better and more confidently advocate for interventions in this space.”

Justin Finlayson, founder of United Borders, said: “Very few things can connect us like music. Through music mentorship, we help guide young people to better choices which can change their experiences and ultimately divert them from a life that seemed pre-destined for them. Music is not just an avenue for enjoyment and creativity, it’s a bridge for forging meaningful connections. It empowers these young minds to view their circumstances not as isolated or isolating, but as reflections of their experiences.”

The findings of the systematic review on arts programmes are summarised in the YEF Toolkit. This free online resource summarises the best available evidence from around the world about what works – and what doesn’t – to prevent children becoming involved in violence.

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