Music education in Scotland is "a tremendous success story", a recent Scottish government report into instrumental music provision proudly proclaims.
A wealth of young talent receives a range of excellent opportunities, bringing huge cognitive, personal, societal, cultural and economic benefits, it says.
Proportionately, there are many more applications to UK conservatoires from Scottish students than from any other part of the UK, it points out, drawing on data published last year by the Conservatoires UK Admissions Service. And when compared with Greater London, more than three times as many applications to British conservatoires are received from students residing in Scotland.
Instrumental instruction in Scotland, it would seem, is something of a success - and that is perhaps even an understatement. Scotland is apparently "leading the way internationally", according to a former chief executive of the European Association of Conservatoires, Martin Prchal, who is quoted in the report.
"The fact that Scotland is making this investment despite the global financial crisis is nothing less than remarkable," he said.
Meanwhile, the National Music Council (NMC) commented last year, after its annual awards ceremony, that: "In many ways, Scotland has again shown us the way."
Success, of course, follows funding. Music provision in Scotland has been relatively free from the funding constraints that has afflicted English local authorities, the NMC commented, with Scottish councils on average spending nearly twice as much as their English counterparts.
What is interesting is that this is not how it feels on the ground. Indeed, in recent years, Scots have taken to the streets in protest over unprecedented cuts to instrumental music services; the instrumental music report was produced by a group set up by the government in December last year in response to the disquiet.
The challenges faced by the sector were of "a different scale altogether" than in the past, the chair of the group, David Green, concluded. The group was charged with investigating the provision of music tuition across the 32 local authorities, with a particular focus on charging.
Scotland has a lot to boast about, but there is room for improvement, its report, published last month, said. The report, Instrumental Music Tuition in Scotland, made 17 recommendations (see panel, page 12).
The recommendations have yet to be endorsed by the government, but the report has already made an impact. The inspectorate has made a commitment to include a statement on the quality of instrumental music tuition in all its reports, from September. Meanwhile, the education directors body ADES has promised to organise a national conference on the benefits of music tuition.
However, perhaps the group's greatest achievement to date has been to persuade the five local authorities that were charging fees for music tuition to students sitting Scottish Qualifications Authority exams to end the practice. The charges meant that even though a student was sitting an exam in which playing an instrument counted for up to 60 per cent of their final mark, they were still being charged up to pound;340 a year.
But some say that the group and its findings have not gone far enough. Commenting on the report, Labour's finance spokesman, Iain Gray, who last year instigated a parliamentary debate on the value of music tuition, said he was "disappointed" that it made no recommendation on free tuition. Others also question why the report stopped short of recommending that all charges be scrapped. For example, they ask why senior pupils should be exempt while younger children have to pay to play.
It was an issue which divided the group itself - "several members aspire for a situation where instrumental music tuition services are provided free to all participants," the report says. However, it concludes that "charging for this discretionary service in the current economic circumstances is perhaps inevitable".
But the divide is clear. Fees for instrumental music tuition are not necessarily a bad thing, said Mr Green, a former convener of Highland Council, who was chair of the Cairngorms National Park Authority until last year.
Of Scotland's 32 local authorities, 24 charge for music tuition, but the report found that there was no correlation between uptake of a musical instrument and the charging of fees. Other important factors included the availability of instructors and instruments, the degree to which the service was promoted and the concessions available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
One local authority - Midlothian - experienced a larger drop in student numbers following staff cuts than when they introduced charges, the report found. And Dundee City Council charged fees but had a higher proportion of students learning an instrument - almost 13 per cent - than any other mainland authority, it said. (The authorities with the best uptake were Shetland and Orkney, where about a fifth of students - 20 per cent and 18 per cent respectively - played a musical instrument.)
Demand for instrumental music lessons already "highly outweighs resources", Mr Green said. In Moray, there were between four and six applications for every violin tuition place, the report found. In September last year, at Bishopmill Primary, Elgin, there were 25 students applying for four available spaces in violin lessons.
Moray Council makes pound;133,000 a year from tuition fees. Meanwhile, Highland and Aberdeen City raise about pound;500,000, with Perth and Kinross bringing in more than pound;250,000.
Remove councils' ability to charge and you could "decimate" music provision in some authorities, Mr Green said.
He added: "The other argument is that the government could find the pound;4 million currently paid by parents. But that would not be fair on the authorities that have chosen not to charge."
Children in Edinburgh, the Western Isles, East Lothian, Glasgow, Orkney, South Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian currently receive instrumental music tuition free of charge - a situation that was common across Scotland in the early 1990s.
The group concluded that more prudent than attempting to ban charging was to ensure that it was fair.
It called for councils to review their charging policies and concessionary schemes to make sure that students were not prevented from learning a musical instrument "because of their background, location, disability or financial circumstances". It also called for "a national vision statement" on music education from the government to help iron out local differences.
Most local authorities that charged offered tuition free to children from low-income families, the report found. The rest offered concessions, with the exception of South Lanarkshire.
While charging was just one factor influencing uptake, it could have a major impact at individual local authority level, the report found.
In Renfrewshire, uptake of a musical instrument has dropped by 40 per cent since 2008-09, when the authority increased charges, and in Dumfries and Galloway charges are set to be scrapped next year after their introduction led to uptake falling by 42 per cent in just a year, from 2011-12 to 2012- 13.
In North Lanarkshire, charges for instrumental music tuition were reintroduced in 2010-11. There, the music service is concerned about the impact that the change is having on students from middle-income households that are not entitled to concessions.
Nevertheless, the clear picture that the report offers of the postcode lottery of access to music tuition that exists in Scotland could itself bring about change, Mr Green suggested. Aberdeen City, for instance, now knows that it charges more than any other council for instrumental music tuition - pound;340 per year, more than twice the Scottish average of pound;166.
Authorities have already shown that they do not have to be strong-armed into change by scrapping fees for students sitting exams, he added.
Mark Traynor, who sat on the instrumental music group and is convener of the EIS teacher union's instrumental music teachers' network, said: "The problem for instrumental music in the past has been that, because it is a discretionary service, it has been on the periphery. What this report has done is draw instrumental music to the fore."
The report calls for an implementation group to be set up to take the report and its recommendations forward. If the government agrees, this would keep music tuition centre stage - where most agree it deserves to be.
pound;27m - Cost per year of instrumental music tuition in Scotland
pound;3.8m - Amount contributed by parents to instrumental music tuition through fees
633 - Number of FTE instrumental music instructors in Scotland
55,000 - Number of students benefiting from instrumental music tuition
4.9% - Proportion of students in Renfrewshire learning an instrument
20% - Proportion of students in Shetland learning an instrument
8 - Number of councils that do not charge fees
pound;166 - Average annual cost of music tuition in Scotland
Sources: Instrumental Music Tuition in Scotland, Scottish government; Instrumental Music Services, Improvement Service
KEY RECOMMENDATIONS ON MUSIC PROVISION
- A national vision statement for music education should be produced.
- Local authorities should review their charging policies and concessionary schemes to ensure that students' individual circumstances are not a barrier to music tuition.
- Local authorities should share best practice in music tuition, particularly concerning children with additional support needs.
- Local authorities should use the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland audit of instruments to derive the maximum use from these assets. The introduction of an instrument apprenticeship scheme should be considered.
- Research should be carried out to examine the contribution of instrumental music learning to Scotland's economy and culture and to children's learning and development.
- Data on councils' instrumental music services, including charging policy and participation, should be captured in a standard form and maintained.
- The government should set up an Instrumental Music Implementation Group to take the group's recommendations forward and report back by December 2014.
For the report and recommendations in full: bit.ly150BP8P
Photo credit: Murdo Macleod