THOUSANDS of children are being denied the chance to learn to play a musical instrument, simply because they live in the wrong area.
Although Government-backed research carried out by London's Institute of Education suggests some recent improvement, the number learning an instrument was still below that of 1993. And it uncovers a lottery in opportunities provided by council instrumental music services around the country.
The proportion of pupils who are taught how to play instruments such as the violin, piano and recorder varies dramatically, from one in 10 children in some local education authorities to less than one in 25 in others.
While around a half of council music services subsidise tuition for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, many others charge up to pound;30 an hour. Recruiting staff is another major problem. Many music teachers are paid about pound;12 an hour, a sum which excludes the time spent travelling between schools. They also do not receive travel expenses.
Opportunities to be in an orchestras, singing group or bands are also patchy. Seven in 10 councils oversee a choir, 66 per cent a brass band and 62 per cent offer theory classes.
The research was carried out between June 1999 and May 2000 by the institute's Susan Hallam and Vanessa Prince. It was based on responses from more than 50 music services, as well as representatives from authorities, parents and peripatetic teaching staff.
The findings back the results of a TES survey published last week, which showed that Education Secretary David Blunkett has yet to fulfil his pledge made in 1998 that "every child should hae the opportunity to learn an instrument".
In a letter to this week's TES, education minister Jacqui Smith uses the research to defend Labour's record on music.
She says that the proportion of schools offering instrumental tuition increased from 69 to 73 per cent between 1996 and 1999 and that the Government is now starting a substantial expansion across the country.
Problems remain, however, in areas such as Birmingham. There, 40 per cent of primaries have decided they cannot afford instrumental music services, leaving private lessons as the only option for their pupils.
This trend has cost many council music services a lot of money. Others, particularly in inner London, have disappeared altogether.
The plight of music was recognised by the Government last year when it announced it would be contributing an extra pound;150 million to school music by 2002.
But the legacy of decades of under-funding will take several years to turn around, according to Richard Stilgoe, veteran presenter of the Schools Prom, held every year in London's Albert Hall. He said extra funding had boosted music teachers' morale.
But, he added: "I'm still concerned at the number of children who aren't taking up singing or an instrument."
CAMDEN Council in London has become the first in the country to set up a centre for pupils dedicated to popular music.
The move follows a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research which found that two thirds of pupils thought music lessons were too tied to the classics. Those who attend the centre will learn about songwriting, their chosen instruments, and link up with recording studios, agents and the borough's thriving venues for live performances.