Let The Children Play: Mike Russell raises the tempo in school music fees fight

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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EDUCATION Secretary Mike Russell has put more pressure on local authorities to scrap music tuition fees for exam students.

Pupils in five local authorities in Scotland have to pay the fees even though music tuition is part of their official Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)exam courses.

Although one of the councils – Midlothian – has now agreed to abandon the charges, the four others have yet to move on the issue. Currently Highland, Aberdeen, Renfrewshire and Dumfries and Galloway still make the charges, with Aberdeenshire introducing them next year.

Scrapping the charges is one of the key aims of Scotland on Sunday’s Let The Children Play campaign which last week won two important victories with the government allocating £1 million to a new fund to buy instruments and setting up a working party to examine the future of music tuition in the country’s schools.

The working group – to be chaired by David Green, the former convener of the Cairngorms National Park Authority – will also investigate the policy of charging pupils who are taking music exams. Last week, Russell made the government’s views known in an interview with the BBC. He said: “I don’t think there should be any charging for formal exam courses, so we are asking the group along with ministers to try to persuade those authorities to change that practice.”

Another key aim of the campaign is the scrapping of all music tuition fees for all ­pupils, but many cash-strapped councils are still ­intent on keeping the fees structure in place.

Currently, 24 out of 32 local authorities in Scotland charge between £95 and £340 a year for instrumental music tuition.

Clackmannanshire Council last week announced it is considering shutting down its instrumental music service or doubling lesson charges to around £450 a year, which would make them the most ­expensive in Scotland.

In a move that brought furious protests from concerned parents and teachers, the council, which currently charges £220 a year for instrumental music tuition, said in its budget proposals that ceasing music tuition altogether would save £104,925 per year. Alternatively, increasing fees to £15 per lesson would save the council just £12,500 but would hike charges to around £450 a year, the most expensive in the country by more than £100.

Clackmannanshire Council’s education convener, Councillor Ellen Forson, said: “The information contained within the council papers relate to ­potential options put forward by officers. At this stage, the council has not been asked to make any decisions on the officer options outlined and will not do so until a full consultation has been undertaken.”

Former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said: “To have an SNP-run council even consider abolishing instrument tuition altogether only one week after SNP ministers said they were taking action and days after Mike Russell told parliament that they were “encouraging other councils” to do as well as those who provide free tuition, is a real slap in the face. This incredible proposal would mean that no pupil in Clackmannanshire could take SQA music exams unless they had private tuition.”

Liz Smith, the Scottish Tories education spokesperson and MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, said: “I am not at all ­surprised that the recent deliberations within Clackmannanshire Council have raised so many concerns amongst parents and schools.

“They will find it very hard to understand why, at the very time when the Scottish Government has pledged some additional funding for music tuition, one council is considering whether to double charges or even scrap the service altogether.”

By contrast, Dumfries and Galloway Council revealed in its recent budget proposals that it is considering cutting its instrumental music charges from £130 to £65 per year, which would make them the cheapest in the country.

Councillor Douglas Chapman, COSLA’s education, children and young people spokesman said: “All councils are looking at budget proposals at the moment for future years. However, what I can say is that all local authorities are enthusiastic supporters of music in schools and communities.

“Local authorities have agreed charging policies over many years and in close consultation with parents. It is a fact that instrumental music tuition costs money and has to be paid for in some way.”