Fighting to stop music lessons falling silent

6th February 2015 at 00:00
As local authorities trim budgets and fees to learn an instrument increase, ?Julia Belgutay reports on what the government and its partners are doing to keep Scotland's musical heritage alive

Some areas of Scotland may be considering swingeing cuts to instrumental music tuition but it seems that the Scottish government remains committed to making it a priority.

This week, the Instrumental Music Implementation Group (IMIG) published its report on the state of instrumental music in Scotland. The document tracks the progress that has been made on previous recommendations and makes suggestions for the direction of travel over the coming years.

It follows education secretary Angela Constance's comments, in an exclusive interview with TESS ("Young people are the litmus test", 16 January), that music and the arts are important contributors to attainment, urging caution against "viewing them [.] as soft extras".

The new report concludes that there is now a "growing understanding and awareness" of the importance of instrumental music services among both teachers and decision-makers. "The evidence around the importance of music in learning and well-being is ever clearer, underlining music's importance to a young person's education as a whole," it says.

The 2014 Instrumental Music Survey, carried out on behalf of the IMIG, confirms that music plays a significant role in Scottish schools and is far from being a "minority sport". The survey states that almost 58,000 pupils received music tuition in local authority schools in 2013-14. This equates to 8.6 per cent of the 2013 school roll learning to play a range of instruments, from strings to bagpipes.

Sliding scale

Provision and take-up varies widely across Scotland, which is one reason why further action might be required. In Inverclyde, for example, the percentage of students taking part in instrumental music increased from 10 to 13 per cent between 2012-13 and 2013-14. In Shetland, however, take-up fell from the highest in Scotland in 2012-13 at 21 per cent to 17 per cent last year.

Another major difference between local authorities is in the matter of charging for music tuition. According to the survey, only 10 councils did not charge in 2013-14, with Dundee and Dumfries and Galloway having recently removed fees. Among the remaining authorities, fees for group lessons ranged from pound;100 per pupil per year in Inverclyde to pound;272 in Aberdeen.

With councils looking to supplement squeezed music budgets, the survey also reveals that 12 local authorities - more than a third - increased their tuition fees for this academic year.

A recent Freedom of Information request by Scottish Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon confirms these trends. Of the 29 councils that responded, only eight said they did not charge for music tuition; charges were highest in Aberdeenshire, at pound;300.

To avoid excluding pupils from low-income households, all local authorities offer concessionary rates - and in some cases a complete exemption from charges. About half of instrumental music pupils across Scotland did not pay full rates for tuition in 2013-14.

There are, of course, many reasons why it is desirable for local authorities to ensure that as many children as possible take part in instrumental music.

Earlier this year, TESS reported concerns over the future of Scotland's iconic bagpipers ("Traditional music shouldn't be a pipe dream for pupils", News, 9 January). David Johnston, convener of the Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships, said that if piping lessons were not available in schools, the future of the instrument would be under threat.

Tuning up the brain

But the effects of learning to play an instrument go far beyond ensuring a steady supply of pipers, or even supporting homegrown talent such as violinist Nicola Benedetti, a passionate campaigner for music education in schools.

As Stephen Broad, head of research and knowledge exchange at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, says: "If you are talking about the instrumental use of music, there are three dimensions to that: the cognitive side - that music makes you smarter in some way; the social side; and the physical benefit - how it affects the development of a young person's brain."

Playing an instrument also has benefits more obviously related to the classroom. "Tests show that children who have had instrumental music instruction score significantly higher in tests that measure things like the ability to understand spatial and temporal tasks, as well as tasks relating to arithmetic," Broad explains.

"Other research has shown a link between playing an instrument and cognitive development; music skills correlate with the skills that relate to language development. There has also been some work on how involvement with music can support people with dyslexia."

Lina Waghorn, head of education for preschool, primary, communications and culture at Dundee City Council, tells TESS that the council wants to make sure that every child has the opportunity to engage in a music experience. "We believe it is an entitlement," she says.

Waghorn adds that the number of children involved in music has increased in recent years, and not just because fees have been abolished. "We have introduced a new range of tuition, and are getting more and more young people wanting to have a go," she says.

The local authority has also launched Aspire Dundee, an arts and music programme that aims to help tackle deprivation by giving pupils the chance to learn and perform alongside visual artists and musicians. Some 2,000 children have so far taken part in the scheme, and reports show it having a positive effect on their attainment and personal and social development.

In addition to the benefit to learners, it is also in local authorities' self-interest to maintain music services. According to John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, music provision in schools is "almost symbolic of the standard of your service".

"It is discretionary, but who would want to run an education service that doesn't have bands, orchestras and everything associated with that?" he says. "If you can't afford this, there is something severely wrong, in my view. It's a jewel in the crown in Scotland. It's a remarkable success."

Stodter adds that applicants from Scottish local authority schools have high success rates in getting into prestigious higher education institutions such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Hitting the wrong note

But as cuts to council budgets continue to bite, concerns over the sustainability of current levels of instrumental music provision are growing. Larger group sizes and less manageable workloads for instructors seem unavoidable.

Teaching union EIS estimates that proposals currently under discussion as part of regular budget negotiations for the next one to three years could lead to cuts of almost pound;1.9 million in music services. This would mean the loss of almost 40 full-time equivalent posts, which could translate to more than 3,600 children missing out on tuition. Some 652 full-time equivalent staff provided instrumental music lessons in 2013-14.

Mark Traynor, convener of the union's instrumental music teachers' network, says: "Without financial assistance in the short term, say three to five years, we may begin to see the slow erosion of instrumental music services in Scotland."

He adds that short-term budget savings "may well set back instrumental music provision in Scotland for the next decade".

Paul Wood, chair of Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland, agrees. "While I understand the financial constraints that local authorities are under, it saddens me to hear of these cuts," he says. "Music-making is an important part of Scotland's educational and cultural identity and, as a country, the standard of music-making is very high."

Fife Council, due to confirm its budget next week, is proposing to make pound;300,000 in savings for 2015-16 through a "revision of service and increase in fees".

In Angus, proposals include cutting full-time equivalent staff from 18.3 to 11. In total, the council hopes to achieve a budget saving of pound;198,500 - a reduction to the service of 36 per cent.

"I am very concerned that so many talented young people are not getting the opportunity to learn music at school," Scanlon says. "This is not just a hobby. It should be encouraged to develop talent and allow Scotland's music and culture to continue and flourish."

But in the current financial climate a more dramatic rethink may be required. Innovative ideas, rather than a mere rearranging of provision, could be the only thing standing between music tuition and oblivion.

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