Quiet overture for budding musicians

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Details of plans to fund one year's instrumental tuition for all primary pupils are now being worked on, says James Allen

Children's dreams of following in the footsteps of Darius, Evelyn Glennie or Nigel Kennedy would seem to be a step closer to reality with the Scottish Executive's announcement in February that it will give pound;17.5 million to local authorities so that all children can have access to one year's free instrumental tuition before they reach Primary 6.

In what may seem an unusual move, the money will be distributed over three years by the Scottish Arts Council, rather than going into local authority budgets.

The arts council's involvement is part of a wider remit to put in place a youth music strategy for Scotland, which will embrace traditional, popular and orchestral styles.

It is as yet unclear how the council will distribute the money. What is known is that pound;15.5 million will go to the primary sector. The remaining pound;2 million will be used to support independent organisations that provide places where children can develop their musical skills, such as workshop and rehearsal venues, community bands and national orchestras.

What is actually delivered could be different in each authority. The underlying aim is not to turn all children into musicians but to enable them to participate in an artform that has been proved to enhance linguistic and interpersonal skills, problem solving and spatial awareness.

Availability of music tuition in primary schools varies widely across the country. Researchers at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama estimate that 82 per cent of primary schools have some form of instrumental tuition and say that 19 of the 32 unitary authorities charge fees for the service. Rough estimates put the total spend at pound;6.5 million and there are many permutations of charging, testing for musical ability and loaning instruments.

Reports carried out in the late 1990s by The TES and the Scottish Council for Research in Education gave only a partial picture of what was happening in the primary sector. As is the case with much education research, a lot of the data for primary schools is bundled in with figures for secondary provision.

The arts council is now commissioning an audit of music in primary schools.

This is a follow-on from the recent What's Going On? report, published by the Scottish Arts Council in collaboration with Youth Music and the Musicians' Union, on youth music provision in Scotland.

Nod Knowles, head of music at the SAC, says it is necessary because there is not enough precise information available on what is being spent and provided across Scotland. Many reports deal in estimates. Precise information is needed, he says, if the distribution of the pound;15.5 million is to be equitable.

"In order to spend that money effectively you have to know the detail of what gaps need plugging," Mr Knowles says."We need to do that research to build up a clear, detailed understanding of where everyone is in order to be able to do the delivery."

Among the questions he wants answered are how many teachers would be needed to deliver the Scottish Executive's pledge by 2006, whether there are enough instruments in the right place and what the projected demand for tuition is. It may be that some form of reallocation of certain resources would be beneficial, something perhaps in the manner of Youth Music's Instrument Amnesty Scheme, which shuffled unwanted instruments in one area to another.

One idea put forward by the arts council is to use the first portion of the funding - the pound;2 million that has been available since April 1 - for deprived areas where need is greatest to bring their levels of access to tuition into line with those which are achieving good coverage already.

The timescale of the project, and the detail of who will get what has still to be worked out. There are rumours of pilot funding projects in the autumn, of a new funding formula being devised and money not being forthcoming until January next year. It is equally unclear as to what authorities plan to do with the money when they get it. The process is highly speculative.

John Stodter, corporate director for learning and leisure at Aberdeen City Council, thinks the funding is a great step forward but, like many others, he is in the dark about the details of the directive. "I have absolutely no information other than an announcement without any back-up circulars," he says.

"What is to be targeted? Is it that every primary school child gets the chance of instrumental tuition or would it be better to use the money to abolish fees for those who want it? If the new funding means there is equity in provision across Scotland that will be a major step forward."

One suggestion has been to provide free a basic package of recorder, singing and simple percussion to all P4 or P5 children for one year. That would give all children a basic musical experience, and, at the same time, would identify those pupils with the ability to take things further, though whether they would be charged for tuition after the free year is another matter.

Colin Bowen, the chairman of Heads of Instrumental Teachers in Scotland, whose members represent 30 local authorities, sees them as pivotal in the delivery of the service. He has provisional plans to use his allocation of monies to put a basic instrumental package into 20 out of 124 primary schools in his area, South Lanarkshire. These 20 do not get any form of tuition at the moment. Beyond that, he would hope to buy more orchestral instruments and, with the right level of funding, promote orchestral instruments that are less popular, such as the French horn, oboe and double bass.

However, he is concerned that there are not enough staff to support the initiative, and suggests it could take years to train them up.

"We are all vying for the same staff," he says. "There are limited numbers out there. We are struggling already to find percussion tutors."

Clackmannanshire Council is in the process of completely overhauling its primary music provision. It recently carried out a survey in its 19 primary schools to assess demand for instrumental tuition and as a result bought 66 orchestral instruments and refurbished many others. It has taken on more than 140 pupils from P5-P7, all of whom pay for tuition, and it has a waiting list.

The bigger question is for the Scottish Executive. It concerns what plans and funding it has for music provision in the secondary sector, which could well be faced with a bottleneck of aspiring young hopefuls.

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