Music interview: RCS principal Jeffrey Sharkey on the decline in music tuition in Scottish schools

Jeffrey Sharkey,''principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Jeffrey Sharkey,''principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
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Six years ago, local councils in Scotland introduced fees for musical instrument tuition in state schools. The approach was scattergun, some councils charging as much as £500, others less, while some maintained free tuition. Our sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, responded immediately with its Let the Children Play campaign amid fears that children whose parents couldn’t afford lessons would lose out, numbers would plummet, and a cycle of decline would have obvious consequences on future performers, teachers, audiences and the general cultural health of country, not to mention the proven wider benefits musical training has on the cognitive and social development of the child.

Since then, there’s been a lot of talk: some of it constructive, involving practitioners on the Music Education Partnership Group (MEPG) alongside the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA); some of it political – the government is sympathetic but struggling with so many areas of educational crisis that progress seems to be at a snail’s pace.

As such, little has changed since 2012. Regular news reports continue to paint a picture of spiralling decline – a recent one claimed that pupils taking lessons in West Lothian had dropped from 1,800 last year to 360 this year after fees were introduced. East Lothian had experienced a drop of a third. And these are not the highest charging local authorities.

Worse still, this situation has been going on for at least six years, the equivalent of a whole generation of secondary school children. Many of them – put off by costs – will have been lost to the system. The figures point to a vicious cycle of decline. It has to be fixed, and quickly.

Among those most passionate about finding a solution is Professor Jeffrey Sharkey, principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS). His world-ranking institution depends on the end product of school instrumental tuition to determine its quota intake of Scottish students. “We’ve definitely noticed a difference in recent years,” he says. “We still get a lot of brass and wind players. But when I tried to find a Scottish classical violinist among our students to play when [Education Secretary] John Swinney visited us, I could only find one.”

In general, he says, it’s becoming harder to find good Scots-reared string players and pianists. “Certain art forms have to be started early. For strings, that has to be in primary school. This country’s been good at saying let’s give people a taste of music – wonderful initiatives by the professional orchestras – but we’re less good at providing tasters that lead to sustained and progressive learning of an instrument.”

There is an issue with classical music, as opposed to the burgeoning interest in Scots traditional music which Sharkey claims, along with dance, is flourishing. “Classical music can come over as middle class, partly because of all the expenses that go with it, the expense of instruments, the cost of attending ensembles, weekly lessons, etc. We have to get over that social thing, find solutions and get the message over that it’s for everyone.”

Is money the sole answer? The inconsistency of costs and implementation that exists between one local authority and another is certainly governed by individual spending priorities and the hard decisions that have to be made, music tuition being the easiest target.

“In a sea of competing priorities,” says Sharkey, “I guess the danger for young people in the arts is that it’s a problem that will grow ten years down the line, when we don’t have audiences, don’t have creative thinkers, whereas the trash pick-up has to happen this week.”

Whichever corrective route is taken by the government – it’s unlikely to happen through statutory legislation – money ultimately has to follow. We have plenty of high-profile champions for the cause, including Nicola Benedetti and James MacMillan. But what seems to be lacking is some form of nationwide strategic directive that not only recognises the true benefits of learning an instrument (are parents even aware that success at the higher grade exams counts towards additional UCAS points for university entry?), but in turn ensures a parity of provision across all local authorities that is affordable to every child in Scotland, regardless of means. For that we need a passionate political champion.

“I believe we are inching towards having some kind of political champion,” says Sharkey. “The government wants to see the results of the [MEPG] survey and act on them. I don’t know how they will do it, but there has to be some kind of funding pot that will equalise the costs. I’d like to see this as a cross party thing. All the politicians I’ve spoken to want to raise attainment in the arts. My message to them is this: just do it!” - KEN WALTON