First published by The Herald on 25 February 2020
ALMOST exactly a year ago the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Education and Skills Committee released a report in which it said all schoolchildren should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument free of charge.
The report, ominously titled A Note of Concern, had been commissioned after large numbers of children started dropping out of music lessons, with the growing practice of charging for a musical education resulting in many families being priced out. This was of concern to the committee given the pivotal role music has been proven to play in pupil attainment as well as the positive impact learning an instrument and playing in an ensemble has been shown to have.
As committee convener Clare Adamson, the SNP MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw, said at the time: “There is little doubt about the positive benefits that music can have on us as individuals, as communities and indeed to the wider Scottish culture and economy.”
Yet here we are a year later and Edinburgh City Council has just waved through a plan that will see £500,000 slashed from its music budget between next year and 2023 while yesterday councillors in North Lanarkshire sat down and actually – unbelievably – discussed the prospect of scrapping the area’s music service completely. Representatives in Dumfries and Galloway, who have already faced the wrath of incredulous parents at a series of budget roadshows, will have that very same discussion when they meet on Thursday.
They should all be thoroughly ashamed. Take Edinburgh. Though a consultation is to be carried out before any changes are made, the fact that half a million pounds’ worth of savings has to be made in the instrumental music service means something is going to have to give. Teacher numbers and instrument choice will almost certainly be cut, while it is all but unavoidable that some kind of charging for lessons will be introduced.
The impact that cuts of any kind will have is obvious, with fewer teachers giving lessons in fewer instruments inevitably meaning fewer opportunities to learn. Meanwhile, evidence gathered over the past few years shows that, regardless of any concessions that might be introduced, the introduction of fees will lead to certain children no longer being able to learn. Yes, those with wealthy enough parents will be able to pay or go private and, yes, those from poorer backgrounds will not have to pay at all, but for those in the middle – those whose parents are in work but who have no cash to spare – their musical future looks bleak. In a country where every child is supposed to have the right to a broad and deep education, that is an unforgivable dereliction of duty.
That would be bad enough at the best of times, and the postcode lottery that sees children in Glasgow pay nothing to learn an instrument while their counterparts in Clackmannanshire must pay £524 shows just how much some children are already being let down. But in a city that each year becomes a festival-hosting cultural hotspot that puts the whole of Scotland on the global stage; that has worked hard to ensure those from its poorest areas are given the most opportunities to attend those festivals; and that last year sought in spectacular style to break down some of the perceived barriers to musical attainment by transforming Heart of Midlothian’s football ground into a concert arena for the world-famous LA Phil, Edinburgh City Council’s decision is nothing short of perverse.
What, after all, is the point in being a world-famous patron of the arts if that doesn’t extend to every one of your own schoolchildren? Does Edinburgh really want its future contribution to be a trust-fund backed one?
Yet while the actions of individual authorities may be reprehensible, they are only getting away with making these decisions because the Scottish Government – the same government that continually talks about the benefits that learning an instrument can bring – does not class instrumental tuition as core to the curriculum. That means it doesn’t provide specific funding for music lessons, which in turn means that no matter how many times ministers say councils should be providing the service free of charge – which is often – they are under no obligation to do so.
It is hardly surprising, given the never-ending cuts councils have been forced to make, that every bit of discretionary spend has become fair-game at budget-setting time. Yet there is something particularly distasteful about making children shoulder the burden of any of these cuts and something especially fishy about gunning for music at this particular point.
Only last week a Scottish Government report revealed that the number of children gaining Highers in core subjects dropped by as much as 10 per cent in the last academic year while the attainment gap between rich and poor has continued to widen. What better time for three local authorities in which the SNP’s influence is weak to highlight a major inconsistency in the Government’s approach to education?
And there is something deeply inconsistent in the Government saying on the one hand that music is so central to wellbeing and attainment that is must be provided free while on the other sending councils the message that it is up to them to decide whether to provide it. Yes, it is expensive to provide one-to-one or small-group tuition to children outside a classroom setting and, yes, there are very many demands on government funds. But if, as has been proven, that improves children’s concentration, collegiality and attainment across the board – something that will have an impact across their entire lives – surely it has got to be seen as money well spent?
As things stand too many of the children our education system proclaims to cherish are being used as political footballs while a group of teachers who have dedicated their lives to nurturing talent regardless of where it is found remain in the firing line. The only way to end this is for the Government to prove it believes music is as vital to a child’s education as maths or English by ringfencing the funding to provide it. It is not just the future of our children that depends on it, but the future of our culture and society too.