First published by The Herald on Sunday on 23 February 2020
MUSIC tuition is in danger of becoming the preserve of the wealthy as soaring fees put it out of reach of thousands of pupils.
Campaigners are now demanding it is classed as a core education subject as new figures show numbers have plummeted where councils have introduced fees, with some areas down by 45%.
Under current rules, the Scottish Government classes instrumental music tuition as a non-core part of the education curriculum, meaning local authorities must find the money to pay for it themselves.
Six councils currently provide lessons free of charge, but the remaining 26 pass this cost on to parents with prices varying from a £120 a year in Inverclyde to £524 in Clackmannanshire.
In its most recent report the government-funded Improvement Service revealed the devastating impact that introducing or increasing fees is having on the number of children learning an instrument.
In West Lothian, which scrapped free provision last year in favour of a £354 annual fee, pupil numbers plummeted by 45% year-on-year while in Clackmannanshire, where fees doubled to their current level from £258.50 in 2017/18, they dropped by 28%.
Now councils and campaigners are demanding that ministers start funding it by reclassifying it as a core subject, alongside maths and English, meaning it is ring-fenced for funding.
The row over music tuition comes after a devastating report into the state of Scotland’s education system found that exam results are declining while the number of specialist teachers also falls.
Council umbrella group Cosla has indicated that as the overall government settlement for local authorities is being reduced by £95m for the coming year individual councils are being forced to make tough decisions about their discretionary spending.
As music lessons are not classed as statutory education, that means that instrumental music services will remain at risk unless the Government agrees to provide funding for them.
A Cosla spokesman said: “There is increasing demand for a wide range of services councils provide. We have made the point repeatedly to Scottish Government that investment in our core budget is crucial if we are to meet all of this demand.”
The degree to which councils are willing to consider slashing their music budgets was underscored this week when Edinburgh City Council voted through a budget that will see £500,000 cut from its music service between 2021 and 2023.
A consultation will now follow, but the decision means that charges are likely to be introduced in the city.
In North Lanarkshire, meanwhile, where the area’s Schools Pipe Band is the current holder of Scottish, British, European and world championship titles, councillors will tomorrow consider whether the authority’s instrumental music service should be drastically scaled back or even scrapped altogether.
It comes after the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Education and Skills Committee last year made it clear that music lessons should be provided free at the point of delivery in all Scottish schools. A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said the expectation is that local authorities will heed that recommendation.
“Decisions about the provision of instrumental music tuition are for local authorities to make, taking into account local circumstances, as well as the positive impact that learning a musical instrument can have on wellbeing and attainment,” she said.
“All local authorities should consider the Education and Skills Committee’s recommendation that music tuition should be provided free of charge. We would be concerned by moves by any local authority to limit access to instrumental music tuition.”
Campaigner Alistair Orr, who teaches brass instruments in Stirling, said the current situation amounts to a “Mexican stand-off between parliamentarians at Holyrood and the local authorities”, stressing that unless one side concedes the whole country will ultimately suffer.
“We hear claims all the time about Scotland being a world leader and in music we really are; this is something Scotland does really well,” he said. “If we lose this or have it choked off in the manner in which it seems to be moving then Scotland will be a loser educationally, culturally, socially. What goes in here contributes well beyond the classroom.”
‘This is our future. Do we want kids who can pass exams or do we want kids who can explore their potential?’
DEACON Blue drummer Dougie Vipond does not believe he would be where he is today if it wasn’t for the education he received at Park Mains High School in Erskine.
Having gone there specifically because of the reputation of music teachers Keith Hamilton and Brian Duguid, he said the encouragement he received and the opportunities he was given – all free of charge – did not just enhance his life, they shaped it too.
“Park Mains had an amazing music department,” he said. “It had jazz bands, orchestras – there was something going on every night.
“I came from a background where no one had a career in music or would have contemplated a career in music, but going through that school, being under the influence of those teachers and being taken along by their enthusiasm meant that I could go to the RSAMD [now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland] to study percussion.”
While that paved the way for him to join a high-profile group that has endured for three decades, it is an opportunity that vanishingly few children are now able to enjoy.
According to figures compiled by the Improvement Service, a government-funded organisation whose remit is to help councils “improve the health, quality of life and opportunities of all people in Scotland”, all but six local authorities now charge for instrumental music tuition in schools.
That figure is likely to fall to five after Edinburgh City Council this week voted to slash £500,000 from its music budget.
The disparity between what parents across the country are expected to pay is stark, with those in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Orkney and Renfrewshire paying nothing at all while at the most extreme end those in Clackmannanshire, West Lothian, the Highlands and East Renfrewshire pay respective annual sums of £524, £354, £318 and £300.
Nor is there any certainty around what parents within a given local authority area are likely to have to pay, with some councils imposing steady increases over the years, some introducing large, sporadic hikes and others flip-flopping between raising, lowering and eliminating fees.
Argyll & Bute and Stirling, for example, have generally raised the cost of music lessons in line with inflation, while North Lanarkshire, which tomorrow will discuss measures that could see its service scrapped completely, has kept its fee-rate static at £150 for the past eight years.
Midlothian has taken a far more scatter-gun approach, raising its charges incrementally between 2012/13 and 2014/15, before halving them from £168 to £84 in 2015/16. It then charged nothing for two years before last year introducing annual fees of £205.50 in addition to floating a now-abandoned idea of discontinuing the service.
Elsewhere in the Lothians, West Lothian went from charging nothing up to 2018/19 to imposing fees of £354, while in East Lothian fees went from zero to £280 in the same year.
The impact this is having on pupil participation has been laid bare in the Improvement Service report, which showed that while overall learner numbers dropped by five per cent between 2017/18 and the current school year, in some charging authorities they plummeted by close to 50%.
In Aberdeen, where the cost of group lessons has fallen from £272 to £242 but the cost of individual tuition has risen from £340 to £400, pupil numbers have almost halved from 3,300 to 1,700, although the council said that can be partially explained by a change in the way the data is collected.
In West Lothian, meanwhile, learner numbers fell by 45% year-on-year while in Midlothian they fell by 25%, and in East Lothian by 10%.
History shows that pupil numbers tend to bounce back in the years following a large drop-off, but concerns have been raised about the impact this is having on the demographics of the children being given the opportunity to learn. Those whose parents can afford to pay and those who are granted a concession because they are in receipt of free school meals tend to fill the spaces, but there is an emerging group of pupils in the middle who are being squeezed out of lessons completely.
“There’s a chasm in the middle where parents will be choosing between getting their car MOT’d or paying for music lessons,” said North Lanarkshire percussion teacher Kirk Richardson. “These are people with jobs, who could pay years ago but now can’t afford it.
“There’s a whole middle section there who we’re not looking after and that’s the sad bit.”
Some schools are taking action to ensure that group is not squeezed out completely, with the headteacher at Newbattle High School in Midlothian using general school funds to ensure every child’s lessons are paid for them.
However, Midlothian woodwind teacher Fiona Gray said that while this is an “honourable” thing to do, she noted that it is creating as unlevel a playing field within the local authority area as already exists across council boundaries.
“Newbattle is in a catchment where lots of children are falling in the middle and are not eligible for free lessons,” she said.
“There’s a bursary scheme but you have to be below a certain level to get it. A lot of pupils are just above that level but their parents can’t afford to pay.
“The headteacher is for very honourable reasons paying for all instrumental lessons for all pupils, which is wonderful, but we don’t have an equal and fair playing field for pupils in other schools.”
In the Western Isles, the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is also introducing measures designed to ensure its music service can be maintained at as low a cost as possible, with the council currently only charging for lessons in stringed instruments. Its solution is to make use of its digital learning hub e-sgoil, which sees pupils across the area get face-to-face lessons at least once a month with the remainder provided via video link.
Other authorities are taking the Western Isles’ lead, with Orkney and Argyll & Bute already using some form of digital learning while Highland, Aberdeenshire and West Lothian are considering it. Dumfries & Galloway, which will look at proposals to axe instrument tuition completely when it meets later this week, is also contemplating an e-sgoil-type approach, although Andrew O’Halloran, local secretary of the EIS union, said the solution is considered to be far from perfect.
“We’ve made it quite clear to the local authority that the technology has to be right first,” he said. “The costs involved in introducing a technology solution would be far greater in the first year than the savings [they would make] if they cut teachers or introduced charging. That model would be a long-term solution.”
The reason charging exists at all is that musical instrument tuition is not classed a core part of the education curriculum, meaning the Scottish Government does not provide funding for it as part of its local authority settlement. Though the Government has repeatedly said it expects councils to make music lessons free at the point of delivery, because they are classed as discretionary authorities are free to fund them as they see fit – or to scrap them altogether if that suits their budgetary plans.
Campaigner Ralph Riddiough, a lawyer and community musician from Ayrshire, has mounted a legal challenge to the Government’s position that music lessons are non-core, which, if successful, would put the responsibility on the Government to fund tuition for children across Scotland. The Government is due to respond to his challenge at the beginning of next month.
Regardless of what that response says, Mr Vipond – and everyone else campaigning to safeguard the provision of music lessons in Scottish schools – believes the Government must now step up to the mark, class music tutors as teachers who are integral to the education system and fund the service they provide.
“The Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to be about educating the whole child; you can’t just pick and choose who gets the chance to have a full education,” Mr Vipond said.
“It’s a real shame that this has become a postcode lottery and the Government saying it should be free but it’s up to the councils to pay for it is not fair. They’re washing their hands of the issue.
“They are under a lot of pressure but this is our future. Do we want kids who can pass exams or do we want kids who can explore their potential? I want to live in a country where innovation and talent and the ability to work together are valued. I don’t want us churning out a bunch of robots that can just do exams.”