Youth bands and orchestras at mercy of council cuts

Parents fear the postcode lottery in musical instrument tuition will stifle the promise of a generation.

Dave Gornall and his daughter Abby. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Dave Gornall and his daughter Abby. Picture: Ian Rutherford

When father of two Dave Gornall was told that his local council planned to axe lessons for any children learning a string or percussion instrument, his heart sank.

His son, Matthew, 14, had just opted to study music as one of his National Five exams – with the violin as his main instrument.

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“He has been playing the violin since P5 and is now in S3,” says Gornall, from Whitburn. “Theoretically, his tuition will cease after the summer and he will not be able to progress with the violin, while the guy next to him in class, who plays the trumpet, will still be having lessons. It puts him at a disadvantage.”

West Lothian’s proposal to stop providing school tuition for all string and percussion instruments is the first of its kind in Scotland.

A total of 22 councils now bill parents for musical instrument lessons, with annual prices ranging from £117 in Inverclyde to £318 in the Highlands, while a few charge a fee for the annual hire of instruments. West Lothian, claims it has no other choice than to cut string and percussion provision if other instruments are to be saved.

However, it is not the only council to spark anger among families and music teachers. Clackmannanshire has recently revealed plans to more than double the cost of its instrument lessons held in schools from next year – meaning that children will pay more for a group lesson than they would be charged by a private teacher for individual tuition. Just one local authority – Renfrewshire, where tuition is still free – increased its annual spend on its music services last year, by £200,000.

The state of music tuition in Scotland has attracted criticism from international musicians – with one esteemed Swedish conductor blasting the cuts as “cynical” – while other Scots stars, including violinist Nicola Benedetti and composer James MacMillan, have joined forces to back campaigns to save lessons.

Gornall’s 17-year-old daughter, Abby, who is due to leave school in the summer and also plays the violin, has benefitted from years performing in local orchestras, but her brother will no longer have the same opportunity.

“He plays in the Bathgate Junior Strings and Linlithgow Symphonic, but they are both run by the council tutors, who will no longer be in place, so they are to be closed down,” says Gornall. “The instrument tuition is one thing, but it is playing in the orchestras, where they are all together, making that big noise, where he really gets the enjoyment. Even if he continues learning the violin privately, there will be no ensemble for him to take part in.”

John Wallace, chair of the Scottish Government’s Music Education Partnership Group and the former head of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is behind a campaign to end the erosion of music tuition across Scotland. He says the number of instrumental music teachers employed by councils in Scotland has dropped from around 1,150 to 640 over the past decade. Meanwhile, the cuts in West Lothian alone will see between 600 and 800 fewer children taking instrumental lessons in the next academic year.

“It is a little bit of a lottery at the moment,” he says. “If the rate of the actual instrument teaching keeps on eroding at the current rate, we won’t have many left in a few years.”

The initiative, “Develop not Dismantle”, has been backed by a number of high- profile names, including singer Paolo Nutini and Patrick Doyle, the Oscar-nominated composer who wrote the score for Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

A Scotland on Sunday campaign in 2012, Let The Children Play, lobbied for free instrumental tuition in schools. Then, the highest cost for tuition was £340 a year – charged by Aberdeen, which has kept its fees static for the past six years. Now in Clackmannanshire, parents are reeling at a new pricing policy which will see the cost of lessons more than double from the new school year in August.

Councillors, who rubber-stamped the proposals at a budget meeting in March, are to increase the annual cost of lessons from £258.40 to £524. This works out at around £17.50 per lesson, meaning that the cost of a 30-minute group class – where children can share a teacher with three or four other young musicians – now costs more per head than a private lesson of the same length. Even children from low income families – who are entitled to reduced fees – will be expected to pay a rate of £117 a year, pricing many of them out of learning an instrument entirely.

Andrea McLaren, whose ten-year-old son, George, has been playing the clarinet for three years, while his brother, Sam, began learning the trombone at the beginning of this school year, says the decision will have a catastrophic effect on musical provision in the area. She plans to keep her children in the school lessons for the meantime, in a bid to help prop up the system – and the infrastructure of orchestras and bands which surround it.

“With two in the system, my tuition bill will be more than £1,000 annually. I consider myself fortunate to be able to afford this, however, Clackmannanshire is not an affluent area and many other families will not be able to justify this kind of expense, especially in the early stages when children are still exploring their strengths and weaknesses.

“It will not take long for the effects of children dropping out due to financial strains to show on the council’s balance sheet and provision will again be up on the list to be cut. In a few short years will music have disappeared from the curriculum in Clackmannanshire?”

The furore over instrumental tuition cuts comes as Scotland’s biggest teaching union this week warned that state education in Scotland is no longer free, with many pupils “missing out” on key choices because of the costs they face in subjects such as home economics, art and design and technical studies – as well as in music. The EIS said charging parents for course materials, equipment and school trips undermines the principle of “equal opportunity for all” in Scotland’s schools.

Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, says that the party is soon to unveil “new measures” which she said would assist the funding of music tuition. “Meantime, we encourage all councils to follow the lead of those councils which have, despite the financial pressures, ensured that all pupils from low income backgrounds get bursary support for music tuition fees,” she says. “Music is a very important part of any school curriculum and it is deeply disappointing to see some aspects of its provision being cut as a result of financial pressures faced by local authorities.”

The Scottish Government points to its £109 million investment over the past decade in the Youth Music Initiative (YMI), which allows all children to experience learning an instrument for a year – a total of 12 hours of tuition. The scheme was created to give all children a chance to decide whether learning an instrument is for them, before joining regular instrumental lessons at school.

“Music tuition is of enormous benefit to young people and the Scottish Government is actively providing leadership to encourage participation in music,” a spokeswoman says. “[The YMI] has made a huge impact, helping young people in all 32 local authorities access music-making opportunities and helping to ensure every pupil is offered a year’s free music tuition by the end of primary school.”

Campaigner Ralph Riddiough, from Ayr, who plays in local brass ensembles and has three children who learn various instruments at school, says the government’s investment, alongside other centrally funded projects, is not enough. Ironically, some campaigners believe it is the centrally funded projects, flagships of the Scottish Government, which are detracting from the basic music tuition for youngsters from ordinary backgrounds.

El Sistema, originally a Venezuelan initiative which works to get youngsters from deprived areas into an intensive music programme, is lauded across Scotland, with around 2,000 young participants, but Riddiough believes that children in other areas would miss out without proper school music provision.

In Raploch in Stirling, where a related project called Big Noise has run for nine years, inspectors last year found that the scheme increased children’s self-esteem, confidence and teamwork. But it has limited reach, meaning that children who are deemed to live in less impoverished areas – who may themselves still not be able to afford tuition – are left without affordable exposure to musical instruments.

“El Sistema is a social regeneration programme that works, but bear in mind if you are a child in any other area of Stirling who wants instruction you have to pay,” says Riddiough. “The challenge is to get the message through to the Scottish Government about the educational aspect of musical instrument tuition. It is so powerful in closing the attainment gap.”

Kirk Richardson, convener of the EIS Instrumental Teachers Network, describes the situation as “potentially disastrous”.

“I am a great supporter of the YMI,” he says. “But it is one thing to give children a taster, a chance to decide they want to learn an instrument, then put them into the system – but it won’t work if there is not going to be a system to go into.”

Plans afoot in Midlothian mean that the tuition fees for those studying for Highers and other qualifications in music will have to be met by the school out of its own budget. Campaigners believe the council has found a loophole to get around Scottish Government rules that students taking music for a Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exam such as a National 5 or Higher, should not be charged for instrument lessons.

“That is not going to make music a very attractive option for headteachers,” Richardson says. “I can see a situation where music departments will just say that students can only use ‘classroom instruments’ [eg keyboard or voice] for their SQA exams. If schools go down that route, where will our school bands and ensembles be? They are not going to exist any more.”

Last week, campaigners celebrated a minor victory. West Lothian Council’s decision has been put on hold after Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner demanded that the local authority hold a “meaningful consultation” on the issue with youngsters and said it should also carry out a Children’s Rights Impact Assessment.

The council argues that instrumental music is not a statutory service and points out that it is one of “very few” local authorities in Scotland which still offer free instrumental music tuition.

The decision is a stay of execution, but does not mean the plans will be scrapped for good. The proposal remains one of four options set to be put forward to users of the service before the end of May, with other options ranging from cutting some brass tuition to retain a “some level” of strings, and charging for all lessons. A decision will be made by the beginning of the next school year.

There is no doubt that there is widespread public support for music tuition. In Edinburgh last year, proposals to carve up the renowned City of Edinburgh Music School at Flora Stevenson and Broughton High schools in a bid to save £383,000 were reversed after a backlash which garnered support from the likes of Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson and jazz musician Tommy Smith.

James MacMillan is one of several high-profile musicians alarmed at recent retrenchments. “It is odd that money is being found for the strangest things in educational budgets at the same time as catastrophic cuts are taking place in music provision and tuition,” he says, referring to schools’ acquisition of tech equipment such as virtual reality goggles.

“Philistinism and prejudice are the main problems here. We make powerful arguments over and over again that music should be one of the basics, but it’s hard getting through the tough exteriors of some who don’t want to hear.”

Jim Prime, keyboard player from Scots band Deacon Blue, who now teaches at the University of the West of Scotland, where he runs the Commercial Music course and also works on community music projects, condemns instrumental cuts as “arrogant”.

“To abandon tuition in place of more ‘academic’ subjects is not only folly but shortsighted and frankly arrogant,” he says. “I might remind them that maths and music were taught as one subject in ancient Greece and their interdependency has long been ignored.

“As well as being a famous musician, my role is to support not just the 
survival of music tuition at an early stage but to educate people on the importance of the arts within societal fabric. It brings a spiritual dimension to children’s lives and thus should be protected and guarded as having paramount importance for those children’s future.”

The news has even sparked criticism from musicians living abroad – most notably in Scandinavian countries, which are often cited as potential role models for Scotland.

Swedish trombone virtuoso and composer Christian Lindberg says that his country’s free music tuition programme has led to the country becoming the third largest exporter of music in the world.

“I cannot think of anything more cynical than what I hear from Scotland about cutting funds for musical lessons,” he says. “Without Sweden’s system of “Kommunala Musikskolan”, I would never have had contact with a musical instrument and therefore never even become a musician and role model for young kids.

“Please don’t take this obvious right away from your children. You will pay for it later.”