The brutal sound of cuts slashing the music budget

4th March 2016 at 00:00
Playing an instrument benefits both brain and body, but cuts mean deprived children won’t have a chance

Instrumental music tuition in schools has started to look increasingly vulnerable to cuts. TESS explores the implications for pupils around Scotland.

Is instrumental music tuition in schools really under threat?

Yes, if evidence from several councils at the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee last week is anything to go by. Local authorities argue that, with the protection for teacher numbers still in place, they must consider cuts in other areas that might not otherwise have suffered as much. The committee heard that music tuition, classroom assistants and school transport were some of the areas that were vulnerable.

How hard could music be hit?

Very. The most high-profile case in recent months has been Edinburgh’s proposal to cut the music tuition service’s budget by 75 per cent. The idea has been parked after a public backlash, but may only have been deferred by a year: £1.7 million of savings could start to bite from 2017-18. The council stresses that it is one of the few authorities currently providing free tuition, and that the most vulnerable pupils would still not be charged.

How many councils offer free tuition for all?

Perhaps as few as seven in 2015-16, according to statistics from the Improvement Service: Edinburgh, East Lothian, Glasgow, Orkney, South Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian (

How bad could things get?

The EIS teaching union fears that there could be budget cuts of almost £1.9 million to music services over the next few years, with almost 40 full-time equivalent posts lost and 3,600 children potentially missing out on tuition. But at a conference held in Glasgow last year, Aileen Monaghan, the Education Scotland specialist music inspector, said that instrumental tuition would never disappear as it was a Curriculum for Excellence requirement.

How many pupils receive instrumental tuition?

The numbers vary markedly between areas, from a high of 19.9 per cent of the primary and secondary school roll in Orkney, to 5.3 per cent in Clackmannanshire.

How many children from deprived backgrounds are learning to play instruments?

There are different pictures around various local authorities: 31 per cent of pupils in P4 and above registered for free school meals in Glasgow receive tuition; the rate falls to only 6 per cent in Aberdeenshire and Shetland.

Who charges most for music tuition?

Aberdeen’s 2015-16 annual cost per pupil is £340, although that falls to £272 for tuition as part of a group.

Have tuition charges dropped anywhere?

Yes. Dumfries and Galloway, along with Dundee, scrapped tuition charges in 2013-14, for example, although they still charge for instrument hire. Midlothian halved them in 2015-16 and has plans to remove charges altogether next year, saving parents around £93,000 a year in total. Bob Constable, cabinet member for education, said this would “make sure pupils from all walks of life can enjoy the developmental, social and experiential benefits” of learning how to play music.

How much can cuts to music tuition help ease councils’ financial difficulties?

The cost of music tuition makes up no more than 1 per cent of the education budget in any council.

How important is music education?

A recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland review of research from the UK and beyond found that musical aptitude could be linked to improvements in hand-eye coordination, arithmetic and dyslexia-related difficulties. Researcher Rachel Drury also discovered evidence that controlled breathing – which is important for wind instrumentalists and singers – could benefit the respiratory system and alleviate symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Were there social benefits?

Yes. A 2014 German study suggested that music training helped migrant children adapt to new cultures. A number of studies show that long-term experience of playing a musical instrument may help people when they come to learn a second language.

Were there any caveats?

Dr Drury said that care must be taken when interpreting academic studies: rather than music increasing intelligence, it could be that people of higher intelligence had the capacity to excel in music. And, when she presented her findings at a conference in Glasgow, there were concerns about justifying the existence of instrumental music lessons through its knock-on benefits to students: as one delegate put it, this could lead to the principle that “you’re only going to study opera to stop bad boys trashing cars”.


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