Children must be allowed to practise music in schools again after 16 months of Covid regulations, Andrew Lloyd Webber has said, as leading arts figures warned that the young were missing out on a vital part of their education.

Lord Lloyd-Webber was joined by Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, siblings from Britain’s foremost family of young musicians, in calling for arts education to be prioritised as Covid restrictions lift.

After-school activities were cancelled during the first lockdown and many have not resumed. Government health warnings still apply to singing, playing instruments, dance and drama.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation supports the work of the Music in Secondary Schools Trust, which provides free musical instruments and tuition for thousands of children each year.

Over the course of the pandemic, face-to-face lessons were cancelled and orchestras were forbidden from practising together.

Writing in The Telegraph, below, Lord Lloyd-Webber said schools had been faced with “rules and regulations” based on “seemingly conflicting data”.

He said: “Music needs to be at the heart, not just of schools, but the approach to moving on from the events of the past 16 months. Children have missed out on so many things that help them to learn, grow and develop. They are our future and a longer-term plan is needed.”

The Telegraph is campaigning for the Government to put children first and to end disruption in schools as the country emerges from restrictions.

Proportion of children out of school in England for covid-related reasons

Current government advice tells schools they must maintain strict social distancing between musicians, and that there may be “an additional risk of infection in environments where singing, chanting, playing wind or brass instruments, dance or drama takes place”.

In fact, research published last week in the Aerosol Science and Technology journal concluded that playing wind instruments generated fewer airborne particles than speaking.

The Kanneh-Mason siblings attended Trinity Catholic School in Nottingham, where music lessons were a core part of the curriculum. In addition to weekly lessons, pupils were encouraged to take part in music groups and concerts.

Sheku, the cellist who performed at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, visited the school recently. He said: “I was asking the music teachers how it had been, and I think the main thing that has been so difficult is all of those groups who met at lunchtimes and after school. That has not been able to happen.

“Normally, the school orchestra would be a mixture of all the year groups, but that became year group ‘bubbles’. I used to love getting involved with music at lunchtime and after school; for them not to have that is really tough.”

The Government’s lack of prioritisation for the arts in schools was evident before lockdown, he added, regarded as “a luxury or an add-on, instead of something that is essential for us as humans”.

Isata, a classical pianist, said: “Music teaches determination and hard work and you can cultivate those skills and apply them to any area of your life. And it is just so good for your mental health. There is such a mental health crisis among children and young people, especially now, and that’s something that really needs to be taken seriously.

“If children have compromised mental health, they can’t perform well in any areas of life, and what kind of society are we building?”

Campaign for Children: Rise in mental health referrals

David Suchet, the stage and television actor, said it was vital that children be allowed to access drama in schools.

Writing for The Telegraph, he said: “If I hadn’t had the chance to act in school plays, I would never have become an actor”. Covid “has had a devastating impact on the arts” he said, and he made “a plea to our schools to make drama and, indeed, all the arts not only mandatory but given as much importance as sport”.

Access to music in schools is crucial in improving life and work skills

By Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lord Lloyd-Webber has said music and the arts are a powerful way to address issues of self-esteem, friendships, attitudes and creativity

Credit: Rii Schroer

Music in our schools has been proven to be the common denominator which transcends all languages, shades of politics, race and creeds. In our increasingly dangerous and fractured world, the arts have never been as vital as they are today. Access to music in schools is crucial in improving life and work skills and it should be free.

The Music in Secondary Schools Trust (MiSST) helps schools that have a disadvantaged and challenging student intake by providing not only funding for classical instruments, but also support in the form of regular tuition, opportunities to perform and a programme of excellence that is unrivalled in the UK. Children are given an instrument in Year 7 and follow the programme for three years, at no cost to parents. It gives students creative opportunities usually only afforded by those with disposable income.

MiSST found ways at the start of lockdown in March 2020 to ensure that all students on the Andrew Lloyd Webber programme could continue their musical learning. It adapted rapidly to an ever-changing situation with an unknown end date. The curriculum was able to continue during lockdown with teaching videos and additional resources uploaded via a virtual educational platform and YouTube, and live interactive sessions were planned and delivered.

But, as in many schools across the UK, lack of access to IT hardware and the internet was a serious barrier for those young people who were already disadvantaged. Whilst the situation has improved, we have yet to reach a position where all children, irrespective of background, have full access to the online resources that have been made in the past 16 months.

Children in more deprived areas are missing school due to Covid at twice the rate of those in wealthier areas

Rules and regulations have defined for many months what can and can’t be done, based on a range of evidence. For schools, charities and the arts sector, this has been particularly difficult with seemingly conflicting data brought as evidence to inform the guidance.

An enormous amount of high-quality teaching videos and resources have been developed and should not be forgotten. Whilst daily online learning can become tedious, there is much that is positive. But music and performance are “in the moment”. Technology cannot yet replicate this, particularly as there is a time lag over the internet, albeit fractional, meaning an orchestra cannot be in time!

We all have a moral purpose to close the gap for those who experience disadvantage, whatever the circumstances. Our children deserve the best and are at the heart of all MiSST decisions. And the benefits of learning to play an instrument and being engaged in the arts are well-documented, and transformational at an individual and school level.

Parents have told us that their children now have pride in their accomplishments, are able to set goals, and that their self-esteem, confidence and self-worth have grown. They see sharing and learning in a group as invaluable and that music has also helped them to learn skills in persistence, organisation, and developing an appreciation of how practice leads to improvement.

One Year 10 student said: “When I hear the word ‘music’, I think of hard work that gets paid back, unlike any other subject.”

Despite the pandemic, MiSST continues to grow and in September there will be over 8,000 students learning to play an instrument during their weekly lessons; 3,500 will pick up a violin or flute, many for the first time, and learn to play over the next three years.

Five ways children’s lives have been made worse by the pandemic

I have seen first-hand when visiting schools how engagement in the arts can change lives. The positive impact of the arts on health, social mobility and wellbeing are now irrefutable. I know it works. Head teachers and their staff of MiSST’s partner schools know it works. It helps at every level, from behaviour through to academic levels of achievement, because music is an empowering force leading to more confident and resilient young people. Teaching children to play an instrument is not about turning them necessarily into musicians, it’s about empowering them in all sorts of different ways.

My mother was a piano teacher and as a child I was surrounded by music, and took the opportunities open to me for granted. Sadly, those same opportunities are no longer freely available.

Given the evidence, music needs to be at the heart, not just of schools, but the approach to moving on from the events of the past 16 months. Children have missed out on so many things that help them to learn, grow and develop. They are our future and a longer-term plan is needed. The needs of a reception child are very different to those of a 14-, 16- or 18-year-old. Music and the arts are a proven and powerful way to address issues of self-esteem, friendships, attitudes and creativity. This is needed more than ever.