COUNCILS are facing a backlash after supporting the right to scrap free school music tuition for pupils.

Local authority umbrella body Cosla agreed new guidance which says elected councillors should continue to have the power to introduce or increase charges.

The move comes despite a nationwide campaign to oppose spiralling fees for instrumental music tuition in Scottish schools involving leading musicians, composers and educators.

The move also flies in the face of a report issued last month by the Scottish Parliament’s education committee which recommended that music tuition should be free in schools.

Cosla had been urged to defend free tuition - or at the very least ensure fee increases were capped to rises in inflation.

However, while the new guidance acknowledges concerns over the impact of charging, it states: “The financial situation facing local authorities means many take the view that without some level of charging the sustainability of instrumental music tuition is at risk.

“The provision of instrumental music tuition, and the policies adopted in terms of charging, concessions and other aspects of the service, is a matter for local democratically elected representatives who have to balance a range of priorities.”

The document concludes: “This guidance does not change the position that decisions about charging are a matter for local discretion including the decision to charge, the level of any charge or to apply concessions beyond those outlined in this paper.”

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union, which has campaigned on the issue, said the document paved the way for the continuation of “unacceptable practices”.

He said: “We believe instrumental music is a key part of the curriculum within our comprehensive education system and should not be treated as an add-on, as it is throughout this document.

“The guidance outlines very limited and short-term approaches to limiting fees or exempting certain categories of students, rather than acknowledging the need for sufficient investment to guarantee free access to instrumental music for all young people.

“There is growing evidence that the introduction of charges is having a serious impact on levels of uptake, with young people from less affluent backgrounds being most likely to miss out on the opportunity to learn music.”

Mr Flanagan, who has written to Cosla to express his concerns, called for local authorities to show “collective leadership” to defend key services rather than overseeing “death by a thousand cuts”.

Music instructor Alastair Orr, who took part in the Holyrood inquiry, also hit out at the guidance.

He said: "Cosla's guidance to local authorities continues to show their indifference to the plight of pupils and their parents who face paying exorbitant and unaffordable levels of fees to access instrumental and vocal tuition in Scotland's schools.

"Education Secretary John Swinney must challenge this monolithic thinking and encourage Cosla to acknowledge that this situation must end."

However, Stephen McCabe, Cosla’s children spokesman, defended the new guidance and said it would ensure greater consistency in support for poorer pupils.

He said: “All local authorities are having to make very difficult budgetary choices on a wide range of services including instrumental music tuition.

“Charging for services is an important part of that decision making which can ensure that a service is sustainable. Nevertheless, no local authority makes the decision to introduce or increase charges for any service lightly, but with another extremely challenging budget it is an option that councils have to consider.

“The guidance also points to good practice and consideration of the impact and potential unintended consequences of charging policies and reflects our decision there should be no charges for pupils eligible for free school meals or those sitting Scottish Qualifications Authority exams.”

The guidance has been backed by Scotland's 32 local authorities and will now be discussed further with the sector and the Scottish Government.

There was also support for the guidance from John Wallace, chairman of the Music Education Partnership Group, which has been discussing it with councils.

He said: "It expands on concessions and gives examples of solutions to problems and pitfalls to avoid.

"In my meetings with council leaders and directors of education across the country I have been impressed at their passion for maintaining their music services despite multiple financial constraints and the introduction of charging in many authorities to maintain services.

"The per capita public spend on instrumental music education in Scotland through local authorities is many times as great as in England and we aim to keep it that way."

Evidence shows rising fees have led to greater numbers of pupils dropping out of music classes.

More than one-third of councils put their fees up or introduced new fees last year with the highest more than £500.

Experts warn it could lead to widening of the gap between the rich and poor, with only the wealthy able to develop their talents.