The Education Minister has given the broadest of hints that councils should drop charges for musical tuition. Brian Wilson told a seminar run by the Scottish Office and the Musicians' Union that the "sheer diversity of charging arrangements" led him to believe that councils could learn from one another.
Mr Wilson singled out North Ayrshire, which covers his own constituency, because it offers free tuition in all secondary schools and in 44 of its 52 primaries. SNP-controlled Perth and Kinross charges pound;180 a year.
"Then there is a pretty haphazard sliding scale until at the other end 13 authorities still have no charges," he said.
It is believed that some authorities are finding charges not worth the candle: they create administrative problems, for example in collecting fees, and they discourage pupils from playing an instrument. Later the minister said he would not rule out ring-fencing budgets to stop fees being introduced.
But Bob McKay, director of education for Perth and Kinross, told the seminar at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston, that he had no evidence of a fall-off in numbers. All authorities were faced with cuts of one kind or another, Mr McKay said. "There is no point in taking from Peter to pay Paul." Tuition fees had to be part of the wider debate on council funding.
Ross Martin, West Lothian's education convener, said that although the area - home of a school brass band that has won international awards - had a well deserved musical reputation, it was "no paragon of virtue". There were no fees but the amount of tuition had had to be reduced.
Gordon Jeyes, director in Stirling, said there had never been "a golden age" for tuition. In his authority, where there had been gaps, the funding issue focused attention on managing the service better, making it more socially inclusive, investing in instruments and seeking sponsorship.
The provision of visiting instrumental teachers was being "quietly decimated", Sylvia Dow, senior education officer of the Scottish Arts Council, said. But Graham Norris, HMI in charge of music, pointed to a healthier uptake in Scotland compared with England and Wales. At both Standard grade and Higher, instrumental performance plays a major part.
Earlier, Mr Wilson stated that 15 per cent of pupils now take S grade music. There were 690 Higher candidates in 1991. Now the number is just under 3,000, 40 per cent of whom get an A-band pass.
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