SOARING fees are putting music tuition out of reach to thousands of pupils in Scotland - despite campaigns to stop it becoming the preserve of the wealthy.

Campaigners are demanding action as new figures show numbers are continuing to plummet where councils have introduced fees.

According to the latest Improvement Service study, 2019/20 marked the third successive year of decline in pupil numbers - a drop of 1296 in one year alone.

There are now 56,198 pupils getting instrumental music lessons from their local authority - which equates to just 8.1% of all school pupils.

The report indicated that it was the lowest participation since their first survey was carried out eight years ago.

The concerning figure come after it emerged that pupils are being further starved of music tuition in Scots schools because of coronavirus restrictions.

READ MORE: A healing power? Concern as pupils are starved of music tuition in Covid-hit Scots schools

A meeting of the instrumental music teachers network of the EIS teachers union in September highlighted "serious concerns" over the impact of Covid-19 with tutors having limited access to schools.

According to the new survey, West Lothian, formerly a leading light in UK instrumental education has seen participation levels down to 4.2%, one of the lowest in Scotland following a "disastrous move" to ditch its free music tuition policy two years ago. It now charges £354 for group lessons, one of the highest prices in the country.

Just seven of Scotland's 32 local authorities are offering instrumental music tuition free and the  proportion of children taking part are amongst the highest in the country.

Orkney is top of the participation list with 23.2% of pupils learning music - and there is no charge. Similarly Dundee City which does not impose fees is seeing one in five pupils taking part.

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Meanwhile in Clackmannanshire, home to some of the most deprived areas of Scotland, there is a £524 music tuition charge, the highest in Scotland. And just 4.6% of pupils take part - around half the national average. Campaigners are concerned that not enough is being done to halt the continuing decline in pupils taking instrumental music.

Almost two years ago the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Education and Skills Committee released a report in which it said all schoolchildren should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument free of charge.

The report, titled A Note of Concern, had been commissioned after large numbers of children started dropping out of music lessons, with the growing practice of charging for a musical education resulting in many families being priced out.

This was of concern to the committee given the pivotal role music has been proven to play in pupil attainment as well as the positive impact learning an instrument and playing in an ensemble has been shown to have.

Campaigners have for years been demanding music tuition is classed as a core education subject alongside Maths and English so that it is ring-fenced for funding - and are upset that things have not improved.

Alastair Orr, a music teacher, campaigner and contributor to a Holyrood inquiry into problems of councils charging tuition fees said: "It is tragic to see such a dramatic decline in the numbers of children able to access instrumental and vocal lessons in Scotland's schools.

"The evidence clearly shows that, in many cases, the high levels of fees charged by many local authorities are acting as barriers to participation.

"It is time for local councils to follow the recommendation of the recent Holyrood Education and Skills Committee Inquiry into music tuition in schools and make instrumental and vocal education free of charge."

The survey found that between 2012-13 and 2019-20, in non-charging authorities, there had been an increase of 31.4 per cent in pupil numbers, but in charging authorities there had been an overall decline of 12.7 per cent in pupil numbers.

John Wallace, the chairman of the Music Education Partnership Group charity and the former head of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland said there was deep concern that even before the effects of the pandemic the number of children served by the music services was being "decimated".

"It shows that a dangerous slide has started in the numbers of kids taking instruments," he said. "It could be said truthfully that we are now well positioned on the slippery slope downwards for the final ski jump to oblivion."

The Improvement Service which detailed the results of its 2020 National Instrumental Music Survey said that while tuition fees and the available resources are "important factors" in understanding the rate of participation other important factors include class sizes, selection procedures, geographic spread, and availability of instruments.

"Despite these factors, local authorities have made a concerted effort through a range of concessions and exemptions to ensure that ability to pay should not impact the ability of any pupil to participate in instrumental music tuition," it said.

READ MORE: How 'blended learning' has returned to Scottish schools

It said their findings also highlight the importance of continually monitoring the cost of tuition fees and available concessions annually "to ensure equity of access, particularly given the introduction of fees and increasing fees in several local authorities, and the subsequent decline in pupil numbers over the past three years".

Dumfries and Galloway registered the lowest proportion of its pupils taking instrumental music in 2019/20 out of all Scotland's local authorities. It had a 3.9% participation rate - while charging £200 for group sessions.

In 2020-21, just four of Scotland's local authorities increased fees for group lessons, a lower percentage than in any previous iteration of the survey. All four of these local authorities increased fees by three per cent of the previous year’s tuition fee, ranging from £4 to £9 in cash terms over the academic year.

The analysis found that all those which charged for instrumental music lessons in 2019-20 also offered some form of concession for families with low incomes and students sitting Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) qualifications.

It comes as concerns were raised about music tuition cuts in March as local authorities in Scotland revealed their savings plans.

The biggest proposed cut was in Aberdeen City where £733,000 was to be saved by axing instrumental music tuition from city schools.

A Scottish Government spokesman said the Improvement Services report "demonstrates the barrier to participation that fees present and all local authorities should consider the Education and Skills Committee’s recommendation that instrumental music tuition should be provided free of charge.”