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No music charges on First Minister's patch

North Lanarkshire Council in the political heartland of Jack McConnell, the First Minister, is to drop charges for music tuition.

This is one of the few positive developments since Mr McConnell's pound;17.5 million pre-election pledge to give all pupils the chance to play a musical instrument by the time they reach P6.

Some councils, particularly in rural areas, have said they will find it impossible to meet this commitment because of a shortage of instructors and because the cash will be spread thinly across the 32 authorities (TESS, August 15).

Heads of Instrumental Teachers in Scotland (HITS) has expressed "great concern" over whether the plan is workable.

But North Lanarkshire says the gains from making musical performance as accessible as possible will outweigh the losses from introducing free tuition. The council, which spends more than pound;1 million a year on music instruction, had an income target from charges of pound;58,000 but Michael O'Neill, the director of education, says this is difficult to achieve because of the large number of families on benefit who are exempt.

"We have also experienced some difficulties in reclaiming monies from unpaid accounts and the legal costs involved in reclaiming the money from individuals outweighs any potential gain," Mr O'Neill said.

North Lanarkshire faced wider difficulties with music charges in any case because it placed performance in music, drama and sport at the heart of its much-lauded policy of raising achievement. Charles Gray, the council's education convener, acknowledged that this was a factor in the decision when he commented that enabling pupils to reach their full musical potential "encourages self-confidence and develops a sense of achievement" while also enriching the artistic life of the community.

North Lanarkshire's move represents the final step in what had only been a partial charging regime. Pupils on free meals and clothing grants were already exempt as were those doing Standard grade and Higher music. Free tuition was later extended to all pupils at the 5-14 stages.

The council has also announced that it is to step up the amount of instrumental and vocal music teaching by phasing the increase over three years.

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