No sweet music as government turns a deaf ear to policy failure

No sweet music as government turns a deaf ear to policy failure

by Alastair Orr
article from Tuesday 11, September, 2018

THE FUTURE OF INSTRUMENTAL AND VOCAL TUITION in Scotland's schools has been grabbing headlines and occupying the attention of politicians in recent months. Decisions by local councils to end free music tuition, or to greatly increase fees, are seeing parents struggle to pay for local authority music services for their children. 

Reports from East Lothian, Midlothian and West Lothian councils, all of whom voted to end free music tuition earlier this year, indicate that alarming numbers of pupils are abandoning lessons.

Why should this matter to the people of Scotland? The answer is that instrumental and vocal tuition in schools is a Scottish success story. From small beginnings in the early 1960s, local authorities have offered children the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument or sing. Hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from an enriching experience that reaches far beyond the practice room. Many participate in local orchestras, bands and choirs, developing their musical skills and building confidence in performance. These ensembles contribute much to cultural life in their communities and in Scotland as a whole.

Beyond the cultural stimulus is an educational gain. Recent research by Professor Sue Hallam, of the UCL Institute of Education, states that children receiving music tuition show heightened literacy, numeracy and social skills. A two-year study by Assal Habbi, of the University of Southern California, argues that children taking music lessons display advances in decision-making and impulse control. These are high-value skills, vital to their life chances. In June, following months of campaigning, the Scottish government agreed to meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and representatives of the Music Education Partnership Group to try to find solutions to the developing crisis in music education.

Fresh impetus to the campaign was added last week when COSLA established a working group to examine all the issues surrounding instrumental and vocal teaching Scotland's schools. The voices of pupils, parents and others will be heard at a hearing of the Public Petitions Committee at the Scottish Parliament later this week. This follows months of passionate campaigning on social media securing the signatures and support of almost 10,000 people. They will argue strongly that music tuition should be free to all. The Scottish government speaks loudly about equity in education but stands by as councils levy a grotesque lottery of charges on parents for their children's music lessons. Fees range from £156 a year in Falkirk to £524 in neighbouring Clackmannanshire, yet the City of Edinburgh and Glasgow City councils have maintained their enlightened policy of free tuition for children attending primary and secondary schools.

Much greater urgency is required from all concerned if the haemorrhage of children withdrawing from music tuition is to be halted. The lack of equity shown by councils towards instrumental music services cannot be ignored any longer. The Scottish parliament's decision in 2012 to ban charging fees for children sitting SQA music exams must be respected by all local authorities. An urgent review of the government's Youth Music Initiative is essential, as too many children drop out when its time-limited funding is withdrawn.

If music tuition is to thrive in our schools then local and national politicians must work together to stabilise its future. It is fitting to remember the words of Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer and former president of the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama: "The art of music above all other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation."

Alastair Orr is a brass instrument teacher in Stirling and a campaigner for instrumental and vocal tuition in schools.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Scottish edition of The Times.

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