You are here: Music-making and youth justice

Breaking down barriers to music-making

Young people who come into contact with the youth justice system have often had to deal with very tough circumstances and experiences. This can make them especially ‘hard to reach’ and reluctant to engage in activities like music-making.

They may have suffered neglect or abuse, or had bad experiences with education. Often they find it difficult to trust others and lack self-esteem. Many also struggle with poor communication skills, including reading and writing. Some may have issues with drug or alcohol misuse or poor mental health.

Our projects also work in some of the country’s most divided communities, with young people who are at risk of offending or being attracted by gangs, or even extremist groups.

The number of children and young people in custody in England in Wales is actually at an all-time low right now. However, currently up to two-thirds of young people in custody reoffend within 12 months of their release. Without the right support, it’s all too easy for young people to get into a cycle of crime, custody, probation then crime again.

The projects we invest in are expert at helping to break that cycle, and bringing about positive outcomes for young people through music-making.

Musical outcomes

Our projects give young people the chance to explore making the type of music that interests them, and it can be a crucial first step down a positive path away from offending. Learning to compose and produce their own tracks. Developing creativity and expressing themselves through lyric writing. Feeling the sense of achievement that comes from performing live.

It’s hard performing live… I didn’t think I would do it, as I’m so self-conscious but in the end I did, and it was such as buzz, you feel really good about yourself.

Young participant in the ‘Free the Music’ project run by Clayfields House, a secure children’s home for offenders aged 10–17

Life on Shuffle

The Life on Shuffle project works with young people who are ‘looked after’ (in or leaving care), not in education, employment or training (NEET) and/or in contact with the youth justice system. It’s delivered by the Love Music Trust and funded in partnership with Cheshire East Council. Here’s an original composition by the young people taking part.

Personal outcomes

Music-making offers a welcome distraction from (often difficult) daily life. Lots of the young people we work with have reported feeling calmer and happier during music sessions. Often they’ll start out low on confidence, but end their sessions with a renewed motivation which extends to other areas of their lives too.

It enables young people to develop vital skills and qualities to help them out of the youth justice system and back into education or the world of work. Resilience and self-control. Listening skills and teamwork. It’s a chance to gain accreditations such as Arts Award – for some young people, the first qualification they’ve ever achieved.

Lots of young people have identified lyric-writing as being particularly important to them. It’s a way to get their thoughts out, to process the difficult experiences they’ve had in their lives, and express things they might not be able to otherwise.

[Making music] has given me a focus and a purpose… If I wasn’t doing this I wouldn’t be doing anything… I suffer with depression and this has helped a lot.

Young participant in the ‘Compliance, Completion and Success’ music project run by Birmingham Youth Offending Service
Young male vocalist performing on stage.

The Power of Music

The Power of Music is a project run by 7E Youth Academy in Birmingham, working with young people at risk of getting involved with gangs, or even being targeted as recruits by extremist groups.

Summer Arts Colleges

We supported a series of music-making projects run by Unitas, working with YOTs around the country. These aimed to help young people transition into mainstream education, employment and training, and reduce the risk of offending and reoffending.

Over a five-year period, the majority of the young people who completed the programme (nearly 1,500 in total) reported feeling more positive and motivated about education, employment and training. Over two thirds increased their literacy and numeracy skills, and 96% achieved an Arts Award qualification.

Facts and figures

  • As of August 2016, there were around 900 young people (under 18) in custody in England1
  • Two-thirds of offenders in custody re-offend within 12 months of release – a much higher reoffending rate than in the adult population2
  • Around 40% of young people in under-18 youth offending institutions haven’t been to school since they were aged 14, and nearly 9 in 10 have been excluded from school at some point.
  • In the year ending March 2015 there were 89,651 arrests of 10-17 year olds in England (around 10% of all arrests)3
  • 24% of these arrests happened in London, with a further 15% in each of the South East and North West regions
  • The most common types of offence involve violence, theft and criminal damage

There are a number of groups who are overrepresented in the youth justice system, including:

  • black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) young people
  • young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEN/D) or who are suffering with mental health problems
  • ‘looked after’ children (children in care or leaving care)
  • males (84% of arrests of young people made in the year ending March 2015)

How you can help

You can help us fund more life-changing music-making projects for young people in the youth justice system. Get involved with Give a Gig, or make a donation.

Find out more


1. Youth custody data -
2. Review of the youth justice system - press release
3. Youth justice annual statistics: 2014 to 2015 -


Youth Music would like to thank the National Lottery for the public funding we receive each year through Arts Council England, without which none of this amazing work would be possible.