Singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi has spoken eloquently of the importance of his school, St Kentigern’s Academy, in Blackburn, West Lothian, to his later success as a musician. The music department’s staff were “very supportive” and “gave us time to explore our musical interests... that’s why I think music in schools is so important”, he said in 2019.
However, according to a new survey, just eight per cent of pupils took instrumental music lessons in state schools last year. In 2015/16, some 61,500 pupils were being taught an instrument, but last year the figure was just 56,138. This fall came despite a 2021 pledge by the Scottish Government to provide free tuition for all.
While the lasting effects of Covid may still be having an impact, it raises serious questions about the SNP’s commitment to music education and the party’s ability to deliver on its rhetoric. Can it be that thousands fewer children are interested in learning to play an instrument, or are there other reasons, such as a lack of music teachers or a lack of opportunity?
In difficult times, music may seem like a low priority. However, it is more important than it might seem to some. In addition to the income generated by the music industry, it is a source of joy that can have a hugely positive effect on mental health, for both players and listeners. There are also significant social and cultural benefits – for example, we can probably all agree that Scotland would be a much diminished place without the skirl of the pipes.
Of course, state schools are not the only source of music tuition. Some of the children fortunate enough to have musical parents or those with the ability to pay for private lessons will doubtless go on to become highly skilled. But reducing the pool from which the musicians of tomorrow are drawn will inevitably have a negative effect, both on the quality of the tunes and also the range of emotions and opinions expressed.
Promising free lessons is all very well. But in the end, what matters is the numbers actually taking them.