The postcode lottery of music tuition

Nicola Benedetti meets the budding musicians at Raploch Primary School in Stirling. Photograph: Dan Phillips
Nicola Benedetti meets the budding musicians at Raploch Primary School in Stirling. Photograph: Dan Phillips
Share this article
Have your say

IT WAS a heartbreaking start to the new school term. Within a week, several children who were learning a musical instrument at school were forced to drop out of lessons after the local authority introduced new charges that their parents could no longer afford.

“It makes me so angry,” their teacher told Scotland on ­Sunday. “I personally find it extremely demotivating to have to tell any child that their lessons are being withdrawn because of a lack of money.

“In many cases these children’s lessons are stopped for relatively insignificant amounts. As a result, these children will never fulfil their musical potential.”

Analysis: ‘I think the sports agenda is over-riding the arts agenda’

In numbers: Music tuition in Scotland

It is a scenario being played out in schools across Scotland. A Scotland on Sunday investigation has revealed that 11 ­local authorities have raised their charges for instrumental music tuition this year – ­charges that didn’t even exist a generation ago.

The hikes mean record ­numbers of Scottish schoolchildren are now being charged to learn an instrument. In Aberdeen, it’s £340 a year. In Aberdeenshire, it costs £284 (up £16 from last year). Highland Council charges £252, a £24 increase on last year; and in Perth & Kinross, parents will be expected to pay £246 for their child to receive instrumental music tuition.

In some areas, even those children sitting Standard Grade and Higher music exams have to pay for tuition.

The result? A generation of children whose families can no longer afford the fees are missing out on learning, performing and playing a musical instrument – something that once came free.

Studies show musical tuition can play an important role in a child’s development. A recent study by the Institute of Education at the University of London made some extraordinary discoveries about the impact of instrumental music lessons on children, including better language test results, higher IQs and improved marks in mathematics exams.

There was also evidence of increased levels of self-esteem, confidence, self-discipline and sense of achievement.

Last week, scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago concluded that learning an instrument in childhood led to better communication skills in later life. Composer Nigel Osborne, a Reid Professor at the University of Edinburgh, points out: “Learning an ­instrument literally helps build the brain, increasing capacity in areas of the mind concerned with understanding time and space.”

So why then isn’t a country that has produced some great musical talent – from Evelyn Glennie to Aidan Moffat, Nicola Benedetti to Mull Historical Society, all of whom are backing Scotland on Sunday’s campaign – investing in free instrumental music tuition?

Under the current Scottish Government, £10 million has been allocated this year to the Youth Music Initiative, set up in 2003 under Labour and now run by arts quango Creative Scotland (rather than the schools minister). It invests in youth music projects and training initiatives and aims to ensure that all schoolchildren have access to one year’s free music tuition by the time they reach Primary 6.

But it has no power over how local authorities charge for lessons. The result is an accountability gap, with no one public body able to take responsibility for this area of learning. It also means a wide range of fees that differ for every local authority, and a postcode lottery for every child in Scotland. While eight local authorities in Scotland – including Glasgow, Edinburgh and East Lothian – still offer free instrumental music tuition, the majority have introduced charges in recent years, some with labyrinthine rules, policies and exemptions that vary wildly from council to council.

“Instrumental music tuition has fallen through the cracks because no-one at the centre of government is championing the cause and working with ­local authorities to see how we can stop the trend going in this direction,” says former MSP Pauline McNeill, who was Scottish Labour culture spokeswoman in the last ­parliament. “It needs someone to co-ordinate things, someone in the heart of government, otherwise we’re just heading for oblivion as far as free ­tuition is concerned.”

An analysis of the figures show fees vary hugely across Scotland. Of those that charge, Inverclyde asks for the lowest amount – £95 a year, with exemptions for children whose families are on benefits, as well as those children studying for an SQA music exam. Aberdeen charges the highest amount – £340 a year, and all children studying for an SQA music exam must also pay for their instrumental music lessons – effectively meaning they are being charged to sit their Standard Grade and Higher music exams.

Three other councils now charge children sitting SQA ­exams for instrumental music tuition – Highland, Dumfries and Galloway, and Renfrewshire – while Aberdeenshire plans to phase out SQA exemptions in the coming year.

This academic year, East Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders and Fife have made exemptions for only SQA students in S4 and above, meaning S3 ­students studying for Standard Grade music will still be charged.

Of the councils that provide free tuition, many now employ aptitude tests so that only a small handful of children in each year have the opportunity to receive lessons. Meanwhile a number of councils employ different measurements when it comes to families who might qualify for an exemption. In Aberdeenshire, receipt of free-school meals is the passport, whereas in Highland it is based on family benefits. In Stirling children on free-school meals get a £63 discount, in Renfrewshire it’s £50.

Overall, this year’s figures show a worrying trend of higher charges creating a postcode lottery that discriminates against tens of thousands of Scottish children in a range of ways.

Mark Traynor, convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland’s Instrumental Music Teachers Network, worries that the lack of accountability, combined with the continued downturn, means deeper cuts lie ahead. “I don’t see any ­reason to doubt that they won’t continue to increase charges,” he says.

“As budgets become more constrained within local ­authorities, they are going to continue to see the need to ­increase revenue and see it as a revenue generator.”

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) ­defended the situation. “This is rightly and properly a budgetary matter for individual ­local authorities to decide on,” a spokesperson said. ­“Ultimately, councils are required by law to present a balanced budget ­every financial year and have to do this based on local need and circumstance.

“We all know the direction of travel as regards public spending – it is inevitable demand for the wide range of services councils provide is going to exceed the ability to pay for them. Let’s be clear what we are talking about here is extra-curricular instrumental tuition – all councils provide music as a subject choice.”

The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, represents more than 750 instrumental music teachers. In 2010, it published its own charter for instrumental music arguing that every child in Scotland should have the right to learn a musical instrument. Now the union has warned that the charges mean a class divide between those children whose parents can afford tuition and those who can’t.

“Our concern is that within Scotland, which is meant to have an inclusive educational system, we are now beginning to see pupils who are being ­excluded because they are from poor financial backgrounds,” says Traynor. “There is a postcode lottery between those who are charged and those who aren’t. There is now a definite unfairness in place across Scotland.”

That unfairness means many children from poorer backgrounds living in local authorities that have introduced charges no longer have the opportunities they would have enjoyed when instrumental music tuition was free.

Richard Michael, former head of music at Beath High School at Cowdenbeath, director of the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra and visiting professor of jazz at the University of St Andrews, has seen it in action.

“A generation ago under the previous system, pupils would have started learning an instrument in primary school and through to secondary, so that by the time they got to fourth or fifth year and wished to follow music as a career they could go to a specialist teacher and the local authority would even give them grants towards that,” he says.

“Now, what I see at St Andrews is that those who are coming forward to continue music are those whose parents have paid out of their own pockets for specialist tuition. Reaching a high standard is becoming the prerogative of the middle classes and the wealthy. It’s wrong.”

The world-class violinist Nicola Benedetti, from West Kilbride, who is supporting Scotland on Sunday’s campaign, has spoken out in the past about her belief that instrumental music tuition should be free.

“We need to get the message across to government and ministers that if you want Scotland to be what you’re talking about it being, you need to prioritise this,” she says. “This is who we are. We need to have this as part of our traditional history, part of our cultural richness and musical ability. This has got to be a priority.”

Benedetti, 25, a former Young Musician of the Year who has gone on to perform with some of the world’s top musicians from the Royal Philarmonic ­Orchestra to Andrea Bocelli, is angry about the charges. “The last thing that should get in the way of children making music is money,” she says. “It should be the last thing that differentiates the kids that play and the kids that don’t.”

Over the coming weeks, Scotland on Sunday will be looking at what can be done to reverse the trend. We will be speaking to politicians and asking why no-one is taking responsibility for our children’s instrumental musical education. We will talk to teachers and children and ask them why it’s important to learn an instrument. We will visit schools where music ­tuition is still free to see it in action, and we’ll look at the ­academic and scientific benefits of letting the children play.

We will also examine possible solutions, including the creation of a £1 million musical instrument fund for schools, and the introduction of a specific government policy on instrumental music tuition, under the control of a minister who can be held accountable for its implementation across Scotland.

And we’ll also hear from some of Scotland’s greatest musicians about why they ­passionately believe that free instrumental music tuition should be a right, not a privilege. And we want to hear from you, our readers, about your own experiences, and your views on this issue.

For Benedetti, it’s straightforward.

“Learning an instrument is just as important as learning the fundamentals of maths and English,” she says. “It’s about understanding the ­creative, spiritual thing that goes on inside of us. It goes to the heart of who we are as ­human beings.

“How can it possibly be separated by something as superficial as whether you can pay for your lesson or not?”


We want you, the Scotland on Sunday readers, to get involved in our campaign.

• Did you learn an instrument at school?

• What role did learning an instrument play in your life?

• Do you have a child learning an instrument at school?

• Are you a parent struggling to pay the fees for a child’s instrumental music tuition?

• What do you think of our politicians’ handling of the situation?

• Would you like to see free instrumental music tuition for all school children?

There are a number of ways to get involved:

• You can tweet us and follow our Twitter feed {

• Comment on our Facebook page at

• Email your stories and your thoughts to

• Write to Emma Cowing at Scotland on Sunday, Park House, 5000 Academy Park, Gower Street, Glasgow, G51 1PT