Four councils accused of putting Scotland's free music tuition policy at risk

Campaigners claim the local authorities are ‘wilfully ignoring’ funding rules

The success of Scotland’s free music tuition policy for school pupils has been plunged into “jeopardy” following budget decisions at several councils, it has been claimed.

Campaigners say four local authorities are “wilfully ignoring” funding guidelines, and they fear it could undermine a scheme that has led to a recent surge in the uptake of instrumental lessons.

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The SNP Government scrapped charges for learning an instrument in 2021 by providing funding to councils to remove fees, which had been rising steadily to as high as £700 a year in parts of Scotland.

Music tuition has reached record levels in Scotland (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)Music tuition has reached record levels in Scotland (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Music tuition has reached record levels in Scotland (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Scotsman revealed in December last year that the decision had contributed to a significant increase in the number of pupils taking part in lessons, with long waiting lists now in place in many areas.

The Instrumental Music Services (IMS) survey for 2022/23 showed 61,715 pupils took part in lessons, which was 8.9 per cent of the school roll and the highest number since the surveys were first carried out more than a decade ago.

Documents show that local authorities were reminded by the Scottish Government earlier this month that £12m was being provided for the coming year for the “removal of fees” and that the money was “not to meet the full cost of providing the service”.

However, four councils appear to have already decided to reduce their own spending for instrumental tuition so that it “aligns” with the funding coming from the Government.

Campaigners say this was not what the money was intended for, and question what will happen to music tuition in these areas if the Government stops providing additional funding.

West Lothian Council agreed last year to review the future of the service, potentially saving £421,000 next year, while saying that instrumental provision will “continue within the limits of funding allocated by the Scottish Government”.

Meanwhile, East Lothian Council’s budget last month has paved the way for a “redesign of the instrumental music service in schools to align costs more closely to the funding received from Scottish Government”. It is understood the authority expects to save about £235,000 over three years.

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Perth and Kinross Council is carrying out a similar review, with the aim of saving almost £200,000.

North Lanarkshire Council agreed to cut £140,000 from spending on the service. It is understood the decision means three full-time equivalent staff are now to be paid via the Scottish Government funding instead.

Some of the councils insisted there would be no impact on jobs or the service provided to pupils, as a result of the budget changes.

Alastair Orr, a brass teacher and long-time campaigner for instrumental and vocal education in schools, said: "Councils cutting their spending on instrumental and vocal education in schools appear to be wilfully ignoring the guidance provided by the Scottish Government on the use of funding for local authority music services.

"This money is provided to break down financial barriers to participation, and also to allow instrumental music services to develop and grow.

"Almost 62,000 children are now learning how to play a musical instrument or to sing in Scotland's schools. This is a success story made in Scotland. Local authorities must not be permitted to put this in jeopardy.”

Ralph Riddiough lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament in 2018 to scrap fees for learning an instrument, which varied across Scotland at the time, with the campaign eventually winning cross-party support.

The solicitor said the Government had funded the policy in a “sticking plaster” way, in order to quickly remove the fees, but that it was time for the money to be included in the core education budget.

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"I’d like councils to have less easy pickings when it comes to instrumental music. I think I’d just like to stop this annual fight about whether instrumental music is going to be cut. It needs to be viewed, once and for all, as part of core educational provision,” he said.

“You go to school and you learn maths and English and music and art and all the rest of it, geography and history and modern languages.

"And if you happen to study music, then learning how to play a musical instrument is just part of that, it’s not some added extra that we can charge for, or cut, willy-nilly.”

The row comes in the wake of one of the most challenging budgets for Holyrood and local authorities since devolution, heightened by a dispute over Humza Yousaf’s pledge for a council tax freeze.

An East Lothian Council spokesperson said: “The council’s budget setting meeting was held in February, with a focus on protecting essential public services as far as possible in an extremely challenging financial climate.

“A number of measures were agreed by elected members, including carrying out a redesign of the instrumental music service in schools to align costs more closely to the funding received from Scottish Government. This will ensure it is cost-effective whilst still maintaining the no charging policy.

"Work on this remains at a very early stage and so it is not possible to provide further detail at this time.”

Perth and Kinross Council said: “Elected Members agreed the council’s budget in February; Officers are reviewing the music service provision in our schools and will make recommendations for how the music service is delivered to meet budget expectations in due course.”

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A West Lothian Council spokesperson said: "A measure to review the provision of instrumental music tuition was agreed as part of the council’s budget setting process in February 2023. Provision of instrumental music will continue within the limits of funding allocated by the Scottish Government.

"The review of the service is designed to ensure more efficient use of resources and is anticipated to have no impact on the performance of instrumental music.”

A North Lanarkshire Council spokesperson said: “We have a funding package in place to provide music tuition to school pupils. To deliver a budget saving this year, the music tuition budget has been realigned so there is no impact on delivery of the service or staffing.

" In fact, North Lanarkshire Council now provides free music tuition to 3,700 school pupils, which is the highest figure since data has been recorded, as well as supporting several after-school band tuition.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This government has transformed instrumental music tuition in Scotland’s schools by funding councils to eradicate unfair music tuition charges and the most recent Instrumental Music Survey published in December 2023 shows the number of pupils participating in instrumental music tuition at a record high since the survey began.

“This year we are providing £12 million to support councils in this – as part of record funding of over £14 billion provided to local authorities in the Budget. Any decisions by individual councils to cut funding for music tuition is for them to explain to their residents.”



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