SCOTLAND'S foremost classical composer has condemned the standard of music education in schools, claiming it is fuelling the "terminal decline" of the arts.
James MacMillan, composer and conductor for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, fears Scottish music faces a "doomsday scenario" as interest in classical concerts dwindles and audience numbers plunge to embarrassingly low levels.
MacMillan said the new syllabus for music Higher, due to be introduced in autumn 2006, will make the situation even worse.
He claimed lessons already leave children poorly prepared for performing, composing and reading music, but said he thought the new course set out by the Scottish Qualifications Authority will exacerbate these problems.
MacMillan also took a sideswipe at Scotland's politicians, accusing them of promoting popular music over the classical arts.
Writing today in Scotland on Sunday, he states: "Never before has Scotland's classical music scene seemed in such terminal decline. Scottish Opera has been subjected to a sustained mauling from the Executive and arts tsars, leading to an inevitable cataclysmic disintegration.
"Now we hear of a monumental dumbing-down in Scottish music education, involving a drastic plunge in standards with catastrophic potential for Scottish music.
"From speaking to teachers both north and south of the Border, Scottish students are just not reaching the level required for entrance into universities.
"It is shameful and embarrassing to see this happening - it is damaging the pride and reputation of music in Scotland."
Teachers have also expressed concerns about the new Higher music syllabus, claiming it misses out key components that are essential for preparing pupils for serious careers in music. In the new curriculum, musical literacy is optional while listening papers have changed from deep analytical essays of musical scores to multiple-choice exercises.
A Higher certificate now gives pupils the equivalent of a grade four in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams. Around 10 years ago it was worth a grade seven.
But universities still expect pupils to obtain the equivalent of a grade seven for entrance to music courses, and many are now doing remedial work to help Scottish students catch up in their first year.
MacMillan claimed that despite the success of leading figures such as violinist Nicola Benedetti, classical music in Scotland has never been in a worse state.
Recent concerts by the Royal National Orchestra for Scotland have seen just a handful of seats filled at each performance, compared with hundreds in 2004.
Many now fear public interest in classical performances is set to disappear entirely with the decline in music education in schools.
MacMillan added: "If our suspicions are right and the musical doomsday scenario is now upon us, it will be an appalling confirmation of Scotland's inexorable spiritual decline."
John Wallace, principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, said: "We have been worried about the qualifications in schools for a long time and it is putting children at a disadvantage. The SQA qualifications do not guarantee students entry into university."
Professor Peter Nelson, head of music at Edinburgh University, added: "This has been a concern for us. Politicians often forget that for classical music to have survived for as long as it has, it must be popular.
"But they have turned the arts into an enemy and stigmatised classical music as something for the elite. People need a little bit of education to enjoy classical music, in the same way they need education to read and write. At the moment they are not even getting that."
A spokeswoman for the SQA defended the new Higher music course. He said: "This year, a record number of candidates entered for Higher music. The majority took this subject as part of a general education, not for direct musical career purposes."
"The current course is broad-ranging and covers listening, literacy, music technology and composition skills, as well as performance on two different instruments. Music teachers have expressed clear, enthusiastic support for it."