Singing from a different sheet;Comment;Opinion

6th March 1998 at 00:00
Brian Wilson has a personal commitment to school music and he is involved with the proposal to site a "Fame-style" school for young musicians in Ayrshire. Judging by his speech at the Livingston seminar organised by the Scottish Office and Musicians' Union, he is also experiencing frustration.

He would like fees for instrumental tuition to be abolished but he cannot ordain change. It is a matter for the local authorities, whose cash problems are particular evident in this budget-setting week. There is a temptation for ministers to ring-fence grants for favoured projects, but a limit has to be set on such intervention, not least at a time when councils and central government are jostling over who will do what once the parliament is in being.

If there was firm evidence that fees have deterred pupils from taking up an instrument or pursuing their studies, the minister would feel on stronger political ground. He has asked for research into the pattern of provision in the councils, some of which charge nothing whereas others demand up to pound;180 a year.

Ideally, music tuition should be free, as it is for pupils offering instrumental performance at Standard grade or Higher. But, as the seminar heard from local government leaders, they are not in an either-or position. Where free tuition remains, the amount may have had to be reduced, as in West Lothian, famous for its prize-winning brass band. Nor was there a golden age before free tuition. Provision was often patchy, determined by whoever was able to teach a particular instrument in an area. If there is a bias towards middle-class players, as seems obvious in the line-up of some school-based orchestras, that is not a new problem.

Reductions in the educationally desirable to protect the essential are inevitable given the Government's determination to stick by spending limits. But the seminar at St Margaret's Academy was not just a litany of complaints. Inspired by the concert of young musicians which preceded the discussion, it also highlighted success stories.

One of these is the increased number of pupils taking music from S3 to S6. The uptake is twice that south of the border. Another is the commitment of teachers and instructors despite the funding cuts. Mr Wilson asked rhetorically if he could be accused of hypocrisy in voicing his own commitment but appearing without promises of cash. That question could be better asked of the Government in general. Mr Wilson has little or no budget freedom but the Prime Minister and Chancellor are sitting on a cash pile.

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