Emma Cowing: Music to our ears

After months of campaigning by Scotland on Sunday, the Government is overhauling instrumental tuition, writes Emma Cowing

Proposals include an end to tuition charges for students sitting SQA music exams. Picture: Neil Hanna
Proposals include an end to tuition charges for students sitting SQA music exams. Picture: Neil Hanna

ON A drizzly summer’s morning in late June, Scotland’s minister for learning, science and Scotland’s languages sat down in the assembly hall of Leith Academy to listen to a concert. As rain pelted the windows and pupils from Leith Academy and Holyrood RC High School in Edinburgh entertained the audience with a number of string pieces on violins and cellos, Dr Alasdair Allan, not unmusical himself and an enthusiastic member of the Back District Gaelic Choir on the Isle of Lewis, might reasonably have been forgiven for wondering how on earth he had got there. Because when the music stopped, Allan stood up to announce the proposal of something that would have been unthinkable just a year before: the most radical and wide-ranging overhaul of instrumental music tuition ever seen in Scotland.

Today, the Scottish Government declared it had accepted that overhaul. All 17 recommendations contained in the Instrumental Music Tuition in Scotland report launched that day in June will be implemented over the next year, changing how music is taught in this country forever. These include a “national vision statement” – effectively the country’s first policy on instrumental music tuition; a commitment that personal circumstances should not be a barrier to learning a musical instrument; more opportunities for learning instruments for children with additional support needs; apprenticeships to make musical instruments; more clarity on local authority charging policies; and an understanding that learning an instrument is a hugely important tool in shaping the creativity and future of Scotland’s children.

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But to answer how this all came about you must go back almost 15 months, when this newspaper first started asking why Scotland had lost its grip on music tuition amid spiralling fees, a lack of access to instruments and a disturbing trend to charge for SQA music exams – developments that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. So just what has our campaign, Let The Children Play, achieved and what do these latest commitments mean for the future of instrumental music in Scotland?

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Allan admitted that by September 2012 when our campaign first launched, the Scottish Government had “lost a national focus” when it came to instrumental music tuition. “We didn’t have a clear picture in the past as to how different local authorities approached this,” he said.

That is one way of putting it. We published exclusive figures showing a total of 24 out of 32 local authorities were now charging children between £95 and £340 for instrumental music tuition, and 11 had raised fees that year, making prices out of the reach of many hard-working families. Most shockingly of all, five councils (Aberdeen City, Dumfries & Galloway, Midlothian, Highland and Renfrewshire) were charging children for instrumental music lessons even when they were sitting SQA music exams, where playing an instrument counts for up to 60 per cent of the final mark. It effectively meant there were children in Scotland being charged up to £340 to sit an exam that was on the Curriculum for Excellence.

Our motivation was not purely to shame the local authorities who were charging children to play instruments, but to demonstrate why learning to play a musical instrument was not some middle class, extra-curricular indulgence, but an essential tool, crucial for children’s educational and social development.

As Nicola Benedetti, the Scottish violinist and former Young Musician of the Year, who has backed our campaign from the start, said when we launched: “Learning an instrument is just as important as learning the fundamentals of maths and English. It’s about understanding the ­creative, spiritual thing that goes on inside of us. It goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. How can it possibly be separated by something as superficial as whether you can pay for your lesson or not?”

We published wide-ranging research that showed that learning to play an instrument could influence everything from how well a child performed in maths and English, to their ability to communicate and work in a group. One report, published in Canada, suggested that six year olds learning an instrument had, on average, a seven point IQ increase over the course of a year. Those not learning to play saw no increase.

Professor Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education in London and the UK’s leading researcher on the subject, told us: “The evidence is overwhelming. Learning an instrument is very important in terms of a child’s intellectual development. It improves listening, it impacts on how they learn language, literacy, mathematics, it can boost self-esteem, improve social skills, not to mention that it gives young people the opportunity to demonstrate that they are good at something.”

Scottish musicians from Dame ­Evelyn Glennie to Frightened Rabbit, Aidan ­Moffat to Sharleen Spiteri, agreed and gave us their support. We also spoke to members of Scotland’s wider creative community about the impact learning an instrument had on their lives. Janice ­Galloway, the award-winning novelist, wrote a poignant piece for us on how ­being taught the violin at school had, in her words, “saved her life”.

“The thing with music lessons in school is, you don’t just learn how to play,” she wrote. “It is learning complex, multi-taxing synaptic connections, learning to take criticism and persist, learning to accept applause and belonging. It’s gaining friends, a subject for conversation, a route into personal study, joint study, how to listen and listen constructively, and an awareness of what it is to learn for sheer pleasure. Which means being able to find reading, languages, history, the entire open world of knowledge being meant for you too.”

The reaction to our campaign was immediate and overwhelming. Parents and teachers contacted us in their droves to tell us how children and schools were being affected. One music tutor, Kenny Letham, wrote movingly to tell us: “I have seen first hand, good young musicians no longer being able to continue their education due to financial circumstances. I’ve seen professional teachers, people who have spent huge amounts of time learning to do their job professionally and comprehensively, teach pupils for free just to avoid letting talent go to waste.”

Determined to enact change, we published a five point roadmap for the Government, setting out a plan towards scrapping tuition fees. We called for the following five moves:

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

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

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

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

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

A parliamentary debate led by Iain Gray MSP brought the issue to even wider attention and education minister Mike Russell was forced to admit that the Government need to “get a grip” on instrumental music tuition. By December 2012 the Government had not only created a £1 million fund for instruments, but set up a working group to produce a report on instrumental tuition and put Allan in charge of the issue.

In June, that group made 17 recommendations to Government – one of which was to be enacted immediately: an end to all SQA charging. It was a huge victory for the campaign, but more importantly, for the thousands of children across Scotland who could now study for their Higher music without worrying about whether or not their parents could afford to pay for it.

One instrumental music teacher said this week that the effects were already being observed in schools.

“One of the most important changes we are seeing is that no pupil need be put off taking SQA music as part of their course within schools as a result of having to pay for their lessons. Income is no barrier now – and it never ought to have been a barrier to children learning and taking SQA music as a subject in the first place.”

Further, the teacher said, local authorities were now aware that instrumental tuition fees was an issue that they had to pay attention to. Whereas in the past councils were quietly raising fees and charging for exams, communities were now standing up and demanding that they explain themselves. Not one council hiked fees this year, in stark contrast with 11 last year. Two abolished them completely.

“There is a much keener interest and vigilance from parents on the ground as to how authorities are organising instrumental education in schools as a result of the campaign,” he said. “They are aware it’s an issue and they’re not going to let the councils get away with it again.”

The Government has stopped short of abolishing tuition fees for good, however, despite the fact that Dundee City and Dumfries & Galloway have done it off their own bat. The Government claims hat charging, ultimately, is an issue for local authorities – and that at a time of austerity and budget cuts, axing all fees is something that some local councils simply won’t entertain.

But several of the recommendations approved today by the Government – all of which will be taken forward by an implementation group that includes members of Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and other educational and musical bodies – pertain to transparency of charging policies, as well as increased cooperation between councils on sharing resources as well as practices.

“Hopefully, what this means is the situation will not arise in the future in Scotland where anybody is prevented from taking up or learning a musical instrument because of their personal circumstances,” Allan said this weekend.

“I think that’s what lies at the heart of this and hopefully it’s also a good opportunity for us all to restate and better understand the importance that learning a musical instrument can have on developing a child’s wider education, and wider enthusiasm about education.”

Even the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), which is a member of the implementation group and has been critical of the issue in the past, is positive.

“It shows a real intent to look at this and see if we can find a way forward - a future for instrumental music in Scotland,” said Mark Traynor, convener of the EIS’s Instrumental Music Teachers’ Network. “We have a unique opportunity in Scotland now to do something different, unlike our colleagues south of the Border. We’re excited about working on this and looking to see if we can find some solutions to ensure instrumental music continues to be delivered.”

There are other recommendations in the paper: a national conference - the country’s first – on instrumental music; a commitment, and an understanding, that children with additional support needs will receive and benefit from music lessons; research that will be commissioned into the benefits of instrumental music in Scotland; the possibility of an apprenticeship scheme - Britain’s first - on the building and maintenance of musical instruments.

David Green, chair of the instrumental music implementation group and author of the report, says the future is bright. “The journey musical education is going on at the moment doesn’t have an end point,” he said. “It’s such a fantastic subject to be involved in in terms of what it can do for learning, for community and our society, as well as enhancing our cultural identity. That is what we will be looking at implementing.”

After 15 months of campaigning, the fight is not quite won, but it is getting there. Finally, it seems, this country’s Government agrees with us: we should – and must – Let The Children Play.

Twitter: @LTCPcampaign

Twitter: @emmacowing