The Education Secretary has suggested some councils do not “recognise the value” of teaching children to play musical instruments, during questioning about charges for the service by MSPs.
Giving evidence at an inquiry into music tuition in schools by Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee, John Swinney argued the charges - set by individual local authorities - risked creating barriers for children wanting to play an instrument.
However, Mr Swinney revealed he was not considering direct funding grants from central government for music tuition to allow councils to stop charging families.
The former Finance Secretary said: “Some local authorities, despite all the issues that are raised generally about local authority finance, attach the priority to this that they make the eligibility for access to instrumental music tuition free.
“Some local authorities recognise the value of instrumental music tuition and want to put in place no barriers to the access of instrumental music tuition as a consequence of the decisions that they’ve made.”
He listed Dundee, Edinburgh, the Western Isles, Glasgow, Orkney, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire as authorities that had not introduced charges.
Iain Gray MSP asked whether he was content or concerned by the variation in costs of musical tuition, as in one part of the country it may be free while “in another it cost a family quite a few hundreds of pounds”.
Mr Swinney replied: “There is quite clearly a risk that the cost is an inhibitor to the participation of young people within instrumental music tuition.”
• READ MORE: Free music lessons face ‘death by 1,000 cuts’
Asked whether local authorities were living up to a 2013 commitment they would not be charging for music tuition that led up to an SQA qualification, he said: “I can see no evidence of that happening, with the exception that I am concerned by what I am seeing in Midlothian Council which I don’t think is consistent with the spirit of that commitment.
“It may be just-about passable by the letter of it, but I don’t think it’s consistent with the spirit.”
Also giving evidence were Cosla leaders representing Scotland’s 32 councils.
Children and Young People spokesman Councillor Stephen McCabe blasted local government cuts.
He said: “The fundamental issue is not about ringfencing one area or protecting services, it is the chronic underfunding of local government over the last 10 years which this Parliament has presided over.
“Since 2011/12, core funding to local authorities has been reduced by £1.64 billion in real terms.
“No local authority makes the decision to introduce or indeed increase charges for any service lightly.
“However, the financial situation for local authorities continues to be very difficult and as a consequence councils have faced difficult decisions about funding.”
Questioned on Cosla’s submission ahead of the next week’s Budget, Mr McCabe said: “We’re looking for a fair settlement overall, there’s no specific ask on music.
“But if we were were to get the settlement we are seeking, that would make it far easier for councils to protect services like music.”
When the hypothetical option of more central government funding specifically for music tuition was suggested, Cllr McCabe described such a measure as a temporary “sticking plaster”.
“It costs, we’ve estimated, £28 million a year to provide music tuition. Fees and charges, which aren’t applied by every council, raise in the region of £4 million.
“Next year it will cost more than £28 million, it will cost more than £28 million the year after that because of inflation and wages going up.
“So we think simply saying ‘find £4 million’ to wipe out the charges is a very simplistic solution.”
Lauren Bruce, Local Government Finance chief officer, explained cuts to local government disproportionately affect certain areas due to ringfencing around issues such as teacher numbers.
She said: “The savings that Local Government have to make from core budgets can only be taken from 42% of the budget that comes to a local authority.”