Let The Children Play: Chorus of approval for music campaign

A groundswell of support has been given for fight to abolish school instrument fees. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A groundswell of support has been given for fight to abolish school instrument fees. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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SCOTLAND on Sunday’s Let The Children Play campaign launched in this newspaper in early September with a shocking revelation: 24 out of 32 local authorities in Scotland were now charging school children between £95 and £340 a year for instrumental music lessons. On top of that, 11 councils had increased their fees in the past year and five were now charging children to sit Scottish Qualifications Authority music exams. Learning music in this country had become a postcode lottery. It needed to change.

Our investigation caused outrage and we received a huge amount of letters, emails and tweets in support. One music tutor wrote to tell us that the situation had become so desperate that many instrumental teachers were now giving lessons for free in order to stop talent being wasted, and commenting that the increasing charges were “the gradual execution of the musical soul of the country”. Parents wrote to tell us that they could not afford to give their children the music lessons they so desperately wanted, with one mother telling us, “I have twins, and both want to learn. How do I tell them I can’t pay for them both?”

Celebrities from the music world flocked to back us. Violinist Nicola Benedetti declared that “learning an instrument is just as important as maths and English,” and asked “how can it possibly be separated by something as superficial as whether you can pay for your lesson or not?” Folk singer Karine Polwart wrote in support, stating: “Making music is not an extraneous bonus - it’s a core human activity”, and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie told how she had learnt percussion at school herself through free lessons, remarking, “the rest is history”.

Julie Fowlis, who has won world-wide acclaim for her gaelic singing in Disney blockbuster Brave, Colin MacIntyre of the band Mull Historical Society, composer Nigel Osborne and indie rock band Frightened Rabbit all backed our campaign, while MSPs including Scottish Tories’ education spokesperson Liz Smith, who had previously investigated SQA music charging policies, and former Labour leader Iain Gray, voiced their support. Organisations including the Educational Institute of Scotland and The Musicians’ Union also declared their backing.

They were joined by Tam Baillie, the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland, who questioned whether the current charging policies contravened the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of a Child.

Within a week of launching our campaign, Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, had told this newspaper that an investigation into music services that local authorities provided had been ordered. Within a month, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) had followed suit, announcing that it too was conducting a review into charging policies.

We published our five point roadmap towards ending fees, in which we stated that the way to end the postcode lottery for instrumental music tuition would be to establish the following:

1As a first step, an end to tuition charges for students sitting SQA music exams.

2A national government policy for instrumental music tuition, to fill the current gap.

3The education minister to take on direct responsibility and accountability for instrumental music tuition.

4A commitment to reduce instrument hire costs and the establishment of an instrument fund.

5A government commitment to end all tuition fees for instrumental music lessons.

We highlighted the gross unfairness of instrumental charging in places like Dundee, where Labour MSP Jenny Marra discovered 84 children who attended school in the affluent Broughty Ferry area learned an instrument, compared to just four in the deprived Kirkton part of the city. We spoke to education experts such as Sue Hallam of the Educational Institute of London, the country’s foremost expert on the benefits of instrumental music lessons, who told us children who learn an instrument early in life do better in maths and English, have improved reading and communication skills, and increased self-esteem.

In November, former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray MSP led a debate in the Scottish parliament backing our campaign, and questioning the validity of the charges.

Twitter: @emmacowing