RISING tuition fees for pupils interested in learning music have led to an increase in those dropping out of classes. More than one-third of councils in Scotland put their fees up – or introduced them – last year. Experts warn it could lead to widening of the gap between the rich and poor, with only the wealthy able to develop their talents. Andrew Denholm reports

THE performance of the day came from Linlithgow Academy pupil Alice Ferguson, although it was her vocal chords rather than her trumpet that sounded the last post for equality of access to school music tuition.

Appearing before the Scottish Parliament's education committee to talk about the impact of rising charges for tuition, Alice said some of her friends had given up playing because they could no longer afford the higher fees introduced by West Lothian Council.

"It is the privileged that are getting to do music now which is going back to Victorian times where only the elite get to do music," she said.

"A lot of my friends have now dropped out of music because they cannot afford it. Why should somebody be denied the opportunity to play an instrument because they cannot afford it?"

Alice, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for Linlithgow, is in good company. Earlier this year, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti hit out over rises in tuition fees across the UK, signing a joint letter with other musicians calling for all primary pupils to be taught an instrument at no cost.

Mick Cooke, a former member of the indie band Belle & Sebastian, also spoke out saying he and other musicians such as KT Tunstall, Ricky Ross and Eddi Reader had all benefitted from free lessons.

The impact of the rising charges in West Lothian has been significant. Since officials introduced fees of £354, more than 1,000 pupils have dropped out. David Dodds, executive councillor for education in West Lothian, admitted reductions are more pronounced in poorer areas.

Other councils that have either raised charges or introduced them for the first time have also flagged the disproportionate impact on poorer families.

Worryingly, Fife Council said more than 80 pupils from poorer families who were entitled to free tuition under a concessionary scheme had discontinued simply because of the climate of uncertainty the introduction of higher fees had created.

The issue of access to music tuition is one that will resonate with families across Scotland, regardless of their financial background.

More than a third of Scotland’s 32 councils either increased charges or introduced them for the first time in the 2018/19 school year. Currently 21 local authorities charge for instrumental music tuition, with fees for group lessons ranging from £117 to £524.

In order to offset hardship for poorer families, councils have introduced concessionary schemes, but the evidence suggests these do not always have the desired impact. Families who just miss the threshold can be particularly disadvantaged.

Figures published before the impact of the latest increases showed the number of pupils accessing instrumental music tuition across Scotland fell from 61,615 in 2016/17 to 60,326 in 2017/18.

It is not just increasing charges which are causing concern, with a fall in the number of music instructors over the past few years, particularly those working full-time. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union said there are currently just 667 dedicated tutors serving primary and secondary schools compared to 1,043 in 2007.

The perfect storm of declining music tutors and rising charges means providing instrumental music lessons to all interested pupils is proving impossible.

The Improvement Service, a support organisation for local government, found only five councils currently able to provide provision for all interested pupils, with the rest operating unpopular selection processes and waiting lists.

A recent survey by parent body Connect highlighted the trend with one family responding: "The current system of testing for aptitude in P4 without warning favours young people whose parents have already invested in music lessons. Anecdotally, those in my son’s year who have passed the test are all already receiving private music tuition."

Experts believe the long term impact of the squeeze will create a situation where only the wealthy will be able to develop their talents to play at the highest level. Andrew Dickie from the Scottish Association for Music Education has warned membership of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland is already "almost exclusively" from private schools.

Tudor Morris, director of the Edinburgh Music School, said: “Talent is not handed out by postcode. The cultural history of Scotland has been permanently enriched by the creative genius of individuals from less advantaged backgrounds."

Morris argues another consequence of charging is that certain instruments, such as the double bass, bassoon, oboe, French horn and viola, will become "rare or even extinct” as pupils choose cheaper instruments or ones more commonly taught in school such as acoustic guitar.

Kenny Christie, chairman of the Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland, said the situation was the worst he had ever seen. "As the network comes into its 21st year it would be fair to say that never before has the concern and fear for the future of instrumental music education been so profound."

Campaigners estimate it would cost about £30 million per year to ensure all children have a right to instrumental lessons, but say the benefits make the investment worthwhile economically and educationally

The Such benefits are well-researched. Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education at University College London identified wider improvements benefits in language and literacy skills, numeracy, intellectual development, general attainment, creativity and personal and social development.

In a letter to the education committee last year, the Music Education Partnership Group said: "The practice of music develops transferable skills such as team working, resilience, discipline, performing, problem-solving, evaluating, abstract thinking, physical and fine motor coordination."

So why is it happening? The root of the problem is the fact instrumental music is a discretionary service provided by local authorities that is separate to the core music curriculum taught within the classroom.

With council budgets increasingly coming under pressure in the era of austerity, cuts to services which are not a statutory responsibility naturally come under scrutiny.

The extent of the financial difficulties in West Lothian which led to the increase in fees were explained to Holyrood's Education Committee by Dodds, who said an original budget of £993,000 had been almost halved to £500,000. "Instrumental music tuition, like many other areas, faces huge problems due to the underfunding of local government," he said.

Willie Wilson, from Perth and Kinross, said the council had introduced charges many years ago, but after a six-year freeze introduced a 20% increase last year.

"We thought long and hard before we put the charges up. We were faced with the traditional rock and a hard place. Either to diminish the service in some way or to maintain the service and increase the charges," he said.

So what are the alternatives? One of the recommendations of the Scottish Government-backed Instrumental Music Group from 2013 was that, in a challenging financial climate, councils should consider economies of scale such as collaborating with community groups, other local authorities and national music bodies in the provision of tuition and the purchase, repair and sharing of instruments.

There have also been calls for government funding to be ringfenced - or to have grant conditions attached to it - to ensure local authorities spend it on what was intended.

Others have suggested a national service removed from council control. A spokesman for the independent St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh, said: "It is simply unacceptable for children to be excluded from the study of music on grounds of cost due to a postcode lottery. It never has been sensible, reasonable or pragmatic to entrust music education to local authorities who have other funding allocations to consider."

Other attempts to preserve tuition include Highland Council’s transferral of the service from its education department to a charitable arm’s length organisation, High Life Highland, which has resulted in an increase in participation.

The Western Isles has been able to provide instrumental music tuition for all interested pupils partly because of its innovative use of technology, with e-lessons provided through a school video conferencing system.

In order to kickstart an interest in music, the Scottish Government currently funds the Youth Music Initiative (YMI) which provides £7.2m of funding to local authorities so every pupil in Scotland is offered a year of free music tuition by the time they leave primary school.

The 2018/19 YMI annual plan states it had reached an estimated 242,800 young people in 2016/17, but there are concerns the project will create an interest in music that cannot be fully explored, due to the cost of continuing tuition.

Kirk Richardson, convener of the Instrumental Music Teachers’ Network, run by the EIS, said the initiative gave little more than a “brief taster”.

"This initiative is no substitute for properly resourced local authority music services. If a child shows interest and ability, there must be an appropriately resourced instrumental music service to enable the pupil to continue developing their talent," he said.

Whatever solutions may help save the service, there is an underlying concern about a "disparity of esteem" between classroom music teaching and instrumental teaching.

As part of its inquiry into rising costs, education committee MSPs held focus groups with students from the Royal Conservatoire which highlighted the worrying trend. Examples included a tutor being asked to hold group string sessions in a school bathroom.

A report on the focus group said: "Students generally felt instrumental tutors are being provided with less quality time to spend with pupils. It was suggested that a lack of pupils in individual schools resulted in tutors being asked to travel between schools in a local authority in a single day on a very tight timetable, which led to both tutors and pupils feeling rushed.

"It was reported that this change to working patterns has also led to tutors feeling less embedded in particular schools, and therefore feeling less like part of the department."

Students called for music tuition to be viewed in partnership with classroom teaching because it was "unrealistic" to expect teachers alone to get students to the level required to achieve qualifications.

"Without tuition the classroom teacher would need to be able to play all of the instruments played by the class they were teaching," the report said.

Alastair Orr, a brass instrumental teacher in the Stirling area, called for the work of instrumental and vocal teachers in Scotland's schools to be recognised as fundamental, not only to music education, but more widely to the cultural and creative character of the country.

"The time has long passed for instrumental and vocal tuition to be regarded as some form of casual add-on to the daily timetable. There is a clear argument, highlighted by pupils, parents and others, for instrumental tuition to enjoy parity of esteem with every other subject being taught in schools," he said.