Covid Scotland: Recruiting new children to learn musical instruments 'impossible' during pandemic

Recruiting new musicians to learn an instrument in Scotland’s schools has been “impossible” due to the pandemic, councils warned, as figures showed that the number of school pupils taking instrumental music lessons has dropped by more than a quarter over the pandemic.

The number of children taking an instrument lesson has dropped by 14,604 – 26 per cent - over the previous year to 41,594 in the 2020/2021 school year, a report from the local government Improvement Service has revealed.

In the report, councils said recruitment of new pupils was “difficult or impossible”, with entry by instructors to primary schools heavily restricted and the opportunities for new pupils to trial instruments “severely limited”. In some local authorities – such as East Lothian, which carried out recruitment through the council’s YouTube channel - new recruitment was possible, but took place online.

As well as limited recruitment, local authorities also reported higher rates of pupils dropping out of the service and lower levels of engagement with musical instrument lessons. In Inverclyde, almost 400 learners disengaged with the service in 2020/21, almost a third of the pupil numbers in that local authority.

Fewer children had the opportunity to take up an instrument in Scotland's schools due to Covid.

Some local authorities highlighted limits on recruitment in certain aerosol producing instruments such as brass, woodwind, and voice, while other councils also said that numbers of learners were restricted by a lack of available tuition due to difficulties in holding larger group classes online rather than in person.

The report said: “A number of reasons appear to have contributed to pupils disengaging with services including a move to online learning, which some pupils appear to have struggled with; an absence of live playing and group activities like concerts, bands, and orchestras; and more generally the impact that the pandemic has had on young people’s mental health, with increased levels of stress and anxiety reported.”

On an individual local authority level, the proportion of pupils participating in instrumental music tuition varied widely, from two per cent up to 24 per cent of all primary and

secondary school pupils. In only two local authorities, Dundee City and Orkney Islands, the proportion of pupils participating in instrumental music tuition increased between 2019/20 and 2020/21. On average, however, participation rates were down by two percentage points across local authorities.

Eilean Siar was most affected with a 5.7 percentage point decrease in participation rate, followed by a 4.7 percentage point decrease in Argyll and Bute.

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In July, the Scottish Government announced that fees for children learning a musical instrument at school would be removed through a £7 million fund. In recent years, more councils began to charge for musical instrument lessons for children, with only six local authorities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Orkney, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire still retaining free lessons before the pandemic. Some other councils waived fees temporarily during the pandemic.

The length of instrumental music lessons also varies amongst local authorities. On average, most pupils receive a minimum of 23 minutes tuition per instrument per week, but lessons range from a minimum of 10 minutes to a maximum of 50 minutes.

The report warned that the Scottish Government would need to prepare for a rebound in recruitment of musicians due to the removal of fees.

It said: “As all tuition fees have now been removed, it remains to be seen what the impact on pupil numbers and demand for instrumental music services will be. Evidence from past years, and even in this most recent Covid-disrupted year, suggests that pupil numbers are very likely to increase, and indeed it seems likely that pupil numbers will rebound strongly to pre-Covid levels in any case. This means that the Scottish Government will need to ensure that services receive an adequate level of finance to meet any additional demand.”

The report also found that there were fewer music instructors in Scotland’s schools. The number of full time equivalent (FTE) instrumental teachers employed by local councils dropped from 651.9 in 2013/14 to 617.5 in 2020/21.

It added: “What is also clear, however, is that local authorities are already unable to meet demand even where fees are in place. As a result, and assuming that one of the goals for removing fees is to increase participation, consideration will need to be given as to the level of funding required to not only meet existing capacity, but work towards building capacity back to historic levels.”

Ralph Riddiough, who campaigned successfully for musical instrument lessons to be free in schools, said: “It is inevitable that there will have been no new starts during the last academic year and at the other end, a lot of children threw in the towel. A lot of them did not enjoy learning online – they enjoy playing in a band or in a group, but to keep it up online, they would have to be very keen.

"However, soon, there is likely to be a big recruitment drive. The Scottish Government has made a political commitment to fund free tuition, but if a certain local authority has a huge surge in demand and go to the government and say they need more funding, the answer is quite likely to be no.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Despite the pandemic causing acute challenges for instrumental music lessons, this survey shows music services have been resilient and innovative in ensuring young people can continue to benefit from high quality experiences. As restrictions have lifted, we would expect learner numbers to be rebounding.

“Since the survey was undertaken, the Scottish Government and COSLA have reached agreement to remove the remaining fees for instrumental music tuition, removing cost as a factor for young people considering taking music lessons at school.”

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