Catriona Thomson: More than music at stake as Scottish council considers tuition cuts

Free lessons are vital to realising the potential of all pupils. Photograph: Getty
Free lessons are vital to realising the potential of all pupils. Photograph: Getty
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A dusty cupboard to the left of the school assembly stage, stuffed full of music stands and instruments, was where on a weekly basis I would murder scales on the euphonium.

I had passed a musical aptitude test and was deemed a suitable candidate for subsidised tuition. I came from a family who valued musicality and who could afford to pay extra. Admittedly, I quickly lost interest, but it opened my eyes to other worlds and I became obsessed with another creative muse, dreaming of going to art college.

But musicality must have been in my DNA, passing through to the next generation. My eldest started playing the guitar at Beeslack High School when she was 13. It was at the same time as a medical condition was diagnosed which put paid to her active lifestyle.

The music tuition provided her with a vital outlet to cope with the tumults of teenage rage and a distraction from her problems. I would listen surreptitiously as she practised intently in her room, becoming better, more confident and skilled as each week passed. Music and the guitar lessons became her freedom and escape.

Fast forward three years and she had attained grade 8 with distinction, no mean feat. Individual and small group lessons nurtured this talent; her teacher patiently walking the tightrope between cajoling, encouraging, building confidence and praising to get the very best from their student.

My daughter’s story is just one of many I know about individuals who have been helped by music.

However, this kind of tuition is now at risk in Midlothian. Facing a budget shortfall, the council last week announced devastating proposed changes to music education.

This would see an end to individual musical instrumental tuition unless pupils are sitting SQA examinations in the senior phase. To clarify, whole-class statutory lessons aren’t affected by the cuts, but these cannot hope to achieve the same results.

In an age of Curriculum for Excellence, which seeks to prepare youngsters as rounded individuals, gaining knowledge, skills and attributes for life and work in the 21st century, the planned cuts seem odd. And to target one of the eight key curriculum areas, expressive arts, and a singular creative subject just seems wrong.

Maths may not have been my favourite subject, but the council’s sums – taking away music to make ends meet – just do not add up. And history taught me that no good comes of targeting a small group of people or section of society. That is why I felt compelled to write and voice my alarm and defend against this attack on arts-based education.

It seems particularly perverse for a council that trumpets their young people’s talent each year at the Midlothian Schools’ Festival of Music to make these cuts. The musicality of the region’s young people is showcased at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall with a programme ranging from classical and traditional to contemporary and rock, featuring orchestras and bands, clarsach, percussion and guitar ensembles, and choirs.

It has always afforded an ideal opportunity for a local councillor to grandstand in front of the gathered masses and expound the great work that is being done by their teaching staff. Those same staff taking the bows along with the children might be among the nine of the 12 full-time equivalent posts that would be cut under these proposals.

Are we sliding back to the past when reading, writing and arithmetic were all that was offered? Perhaps we should regress further and ignore those who don’t excel within these narrow parameters or question whether girls need the same level of education as boys or whether children deserve to learn at all.

You might think I am a middle-class moaner, a left-leaning liberal with an axe to grind, but to degrade creative options for generations of youngsters is wrong and will diminish society and our country. Your postcode should not limit the educational options you have.

Midlothian Council please think again.

Many of the savings measures being considered by councillors will be discussed at a full council meeting to be held on Tuesday or you can voice your concerns to HaveYourSay@midlothian.gov.uk or petition for the council to abandon their current budget proposal at https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-midlothian-music-tuition