Brian Wilson: Music of hope falling silent because of SNP cuts

Children perform at Big Noise in Govanhill, but music tuition is facing major cuts across Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
Children perform at Big Noise in Govanhill, but music tuition is facing major cuts across Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
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Despite projects like Sistema Scotland, which has led to the creation of the Raploch Symphony Orchestra, music tuition is increasingly a matter of “who pays, plays” under the SNP.

Anyone who is serious about addressing inequality in a society does not begin by obsessing over university entrance. Far less do they make progress in that regard by tripling debt and slashing grants for the poorest potential students, as has happened in Scotland.

All of that is a sideshow compared to the real roots of inequality which begin the day a child is born. For a high proportion, it is pre-ordained they will never see the inside of a university unless by overcoming extraordinary odds. A significant minority are statistically more likely to see the inside of a prison.

Inequality is perpetuated by denial of access to opportunity from the moment of birth – the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to share in experiences which enrich life, the opportunity to aspire with reasonable prospects of fulfillment. Unless these roots are attacked, ferociously and with conviction, everything which follows comes under the heading of symptoms.

All that can be dismissed as the preamble to a utopian dream – “yes, yes, we all agree but it will never happen”. But it can be the starting point for a practical political credo; however imperfectly, however incompletely delivered, it is equalisation of opportunity that must inform our priorities in the certain knowledge that much else will follow.

READ MORE: Big Noise children’s orchestra gets top inspection report

If you believe that, then you turn our current priorities upside down and throw everything you can at early intervention, which is exactly what I would recommend. Sadly, Scotland’s grim statistics on literacy and numeracy are not only a scandal in themselves but a sure guide to the fact that inequality is widening, not narrowing, because, without the essential tools of life, potential is even less likely to be discovered, far less fulfilled.

Occasionally, there is a shaft of light which both validates the credo and inspires hope. I experienced one of these this week when attending the tenth birthday party of Sistema Scotland in the Raploch area of Stirling, formerly synonymous with deprivation and all that goes with it; now home to the Raploch Symphony Orchestra and hundreds of children learning to play musical instruments, with the support and involvement of parents and community. Let’s get the easy bit out the way first – Sistema Scotland, or Big Noise in its Raploch manifestation, is utterly inspiring and hugely significant. It has offered life-enhancing opportunity through music to a place which would not otherwise have had a sniff of it. The individual success stories are matched by a much wider transformation in self-confidence and community pride.

Sistema Scotland has its origins in a visit to Venezuela by Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, who came back with the vision of implanting the El Sistema philosophy – music as a route out of poverty – into Scotland. I owed my presence at this week’s event to some modest involvement in securing funding in the early stages. I too had been to Venezuela and seen at first hand the extraordinary impact of El Sistema in a land which did not have its troubles to seek but still sustained this beacon of hope and creativity.

READ MORE: Venezuela’s remarkable Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra plays Raploch

At that time, I recall some caution being expressed from other quarters within music education circles. Nobody was opposed to Sistema Scotland but there were worries that it would attract so much profile – and funding – that it might overshadow other approaches to musical tuition which already existed. These concerns were not without merit though they were out-weighed by the potential which Sistema Scotland had to make its own distinctive difference.

Over the past decade, Sistema Scotland has expanded into three other areas – Govanhill in Glasgow, Torry in Aberdeen and, most recently, Douglas in Dundee. Others will follow. The leadership of Richard Holloway and the dedication of all who have contributed to this success story have also reaffirmed faith in the credo. Create access to opportunity where it would not otherwise exist and lives will be transformed. Slowly but surely, society will change for the better. It is a principle that cries out to be acted upon far, far more widely.

Yet there is, inevitably, another side to the story. Musical tuition in Scottish schools is not expanding. In fact, it is contracting at rather a rapid rate and becoming ever more dependent on ability to pay. A few weeks ago, the EIS called for music tuition funding to be ring-fenced in order to protect it from the cuts to which it is being subjected – a far cry indeed from this week’s happy event in Raploch.

The EIS general secretary, Larry Flanagan, said: “In recent years, there has been an ever-widening postcode lottery of instrumental music provision. A growing number of local authorities have made substantial cuts to their service with the loss of local instrumental music teacher posts and fewer opportunities for young people to access tuition.” In much of Scotland, he said, it was becoming a case of “who pays, plays”.

And that, I fear, takes us straight back from utopian vision to the real Scotland in which local authorities have been made the whipping-boys-and-girls for cuts which are out of all proportion to anything experienced by the Scottish Government itself. The same Nicola Sturgeon who sent a gushing message to Sistema Scotland this week has also instigated cuts – amplified by this week’s Scottish budget – which have forced local councils into the most invidious of choices.

Even the Raploch project is in the frontline for funding cuts by SNP-run Stirling Council. My guess is that the potential embarrassment factor will cause this threat to fade away, but who will notice when equally damaging cuts are quietly implemented in equally deprived communities around Scotland?

Every library closed, specialist teacher removed, extra-curricular activity ended will slam the door on that great equaliser called access to opportunity.

So Sistema Scotland has not just one lesson but two. It is, of itself, an inspirational success story which reaffirms what can be achieved by creating access to opportunity that would otherwise not exist. Let’s have more such beacons. But also, it is a reminder that the same can only be achieved on a wider scale through collective provision – which is being routinely denied through the brutal treatment of Scotland’s local councils.