When I stepped into a music room at Portobello High School in Edinburgh in 1977 to be assessed for my suitability to play a musical instrument, I had no idea that I would be leaving with a tuba – and that I was at the beginning of a musical experience that has lasted for over four decades.
Thanks to the free music tuition policy of the former Lothian Region Council, I received an instrument and weekly lessons at no cost to my parents. It is no exaggeration to say that but for this enlightened approach by the council, I would not be enjoying a career as a musician today.
That is why I find myself at the heart of the campaign to save instrumental and vocal education in our schools.
Music tuition was first established in Scotland’s schools in the early 1960s. Its founding principle was to offer children, many of whom would otherwise not be able to afford private lessons, the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument or to sing.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of children have benefitted from this enriching experience. In 2018, around 62,000 children are receiving music tuition in primary and secondary schools on a weekly basis. Many of these pupils also participate in local authority orchestras, bands and choirs. This not only develops their playing and singing abilities but also heightens literacy, numeracy and social skills, according to 2015 research undertaken by Professor Susan Hallam, of the UCL Institute of Education.
One of the key issues facing campaigners is the lack of equity being shown by councils towards instrumental music services. At present, 10 local authorities offer free music tuition to pupils in their areas. The remaining 22 authorities are levying a shambolic lottery of charges on parents for their children’s lessons.
Annual amounts range from just under £200 in North Ayrshire to an eye-watering and disgraceful £524 in Clackmannanshire. There is no doubt that instrumental education, owing to its non-statutory status in schools, is seen as an easy target, both for cuts and for raising revenue.
In 2012, following a vociferous and energetic public campaign, the Scottish Parliament banned charging fees for pupils sitting SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) music exams. Earlier this year, however, Midlothian Council took a decision to charge individual school budgets for every child sitting a National, Higher or Advanced Higher certificate in music.
Please don’t stop the music
This appeared to be nothing more than a sleekit and underhand attempt to thwart the will of the Scottish Parliament. What is just as concerning is that, to date, our MSPs have seemed largely unable or unwilling to challenge the council on this point.
Both first minister Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney, education secretary and deputy first minister, have now made belated entries into the debate around the future of music tuition in Scotland’s schools (see bit.ly/SturgeonMusic).
The Scottish government’s standard response has been to cling, limpet-like, to its continued investment in the Youth Music Initiative (YMI). It is true that the YMI is reaching many thousands of children across the country. What is never acknowledged is that this project is a brief, time-limited introduction to learning to play an instrument. Many children wishing to continue tuition are then hit with unaffordable and unrealistic financial demands to gain access to a local authority music service.
The government, along with councils, has been using the YMI as a shield to avoid its responsibility to help stabilise music tuition in schools. What has been going on is a cynical, political two-step, as Holyrood blames local authorities, and the same argument boomerangs back from councils. Against a depressing backdrop, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Scotland is a world leader in music education.
In February, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland was rated fifth in the world for the performing arts, when compared with similar institutions. Its students enjoy among the highest success rates in finding employment after their studies.
For young Scots seeking a career in the arts, the higher education sector is currently delivering impressive results. Local authority music services have made a substantial contribution to this success over many years. The calculated indifference of the government to the future of instrumental and vocal education, however, places these achievements in jeopardy.
Campaigners and the Scottish government will, however, sit down together in the coming days. I would like to make a plea that our arguments are not just listened to, but genuinely heard. A solution can and must be found.
Scotland’s reputation and achievements in music education are the envy of many countries around the world. Not to find a lasting and secure future for music tuition in our schools would mean something precious being lost to Scotland – and that cannot be allowed to happen.
Alastair Orr is a brass instrumental teacher in Stirling, and a campaigner against music cuts and increased charges