Sound of silence: Fees blamed for creating a middle class culture in Scots music lessons

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THE introduction of charges by local authorities has created “a middle-class culture of music education” with costs to families per year typically reaching over £700, a new study has revealed.

While children and young people from poor or working class households in Scotland are increasingly excluded from instrumental music education those from more affluent families were more able to afford it, or by going private, seeking alternatives out of school, according to the University of Strathclyde study.

It revealed that one typical family was forking out £415 a year plus travel costs on top of the local authority-imposed costs of lessons of £295. Across Scotland fees can be as high as £524.

And the research warns that if the issue continues to be left unchecked access to music tuition will “increasingly becoming reserved for those from middle-class and more affluent households”.

The study has been forwarded to MSPs by music teaching campaigners who are concerned that an official briefing on the latest Improvement Services study circulated to them found a “weak negative relationship between the proportional uptake in music tuition and charges for tuition”.

The Improvement Services study for 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Alastair Orr, a music teacher, campaigner and contributor to a Holyrood inquiry into problems of councils charging tuition fees said there was concern that MSPs including the education secretary John Swinney were not being briefed properly and that the University of Strathclyde study highlights that there is cause for concern between the haves and have-nots in education.

“We had to get this to MSPs so that they understood the picture which is concerning,” he said.

The new report exposing what it called the inequalities in music education drawing on “in depth” case studies of three local authorities covering island, urban and rural areas was compiled by academics from the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde, including Alastair Wilson, the course director for the MSc in Applied Educational & Social Research.

The report makes the argument that “in an era of austerity the social and cultural values of the middle class are dominant and effectively increasing inequality in access to music”.

It warns: “Children and young people from poor or working class households are increasingly excluded from opportunities to engage with formal music provision.”

One teacher told the researchers: “For me, I was acutely aware of the fact that instrumental provision is elitist here. It is elitist based on finance, if you can afford it you can get and if you can’t you don’t.

“It sounds like a very curt thing to say but it is the truth and it means that providing for kids that can’t access that is difficult.”

The authors said: “The case studies illustrate a general consensus at different levels that there should be equality of opportunity for all children and young people. However emerging systems of provision tended to favour those children and young people from more middle-class and advantaged backgrounds.

“This occurred in different ways. In the face of the re-organisation of school-based provision, those from more affluent middle-class households were better positioned to meet the new costs of tuition or seek alternatives in the emergent market outside of school.

“In addition, the cumulative cost of engaging in music was substantial when considered in terms of the different, sustained expenses incurred throughout primary and secondary school or of supporting more than one child.

In parallel with the introduction of tuition costs was the reduction in school based provision.”

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They found that the emphasis on charging for instrumental tuition combined with a drive on attainment promoted a focus on performance-based criteria.

This tended to favour higher attaining children and young people who were more able to demonstrate academic ability and “overlooking the intrinsic value of participation in musical activity”.

“It produced a tension in the system between ensuring access and participation for all and the achievement of performance standards and attainment,” the report said.

“Children and young people from working-class or poor households are effectively excluded as this form of practice becomes established.

“These issues were not peculiar to children and young people from working-class or poor households. Disabled children and young people and those with additional support needs were similarly at risk. Provision for these groups was stunted and there was no evidence of strong models of inclusive practice.

“The children and young people…identified as being excluded from different forms of formal provision were not without musical interest or reluctant to seek it for fun or pleasure. Instead their social and cultural experiences in family and community life were unexplored and discarded.”

But it said that finding solutions was not just a funding issue and that it also required an understanding of how inequality in society exists and also working out the intrinsic value of music. It also points out that parental and community involvement would be key aspects of an “effective strategy to raise attainment of marginalised students”.

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.

In 2020-21, four of Scotland’s local authorities increased fees for group lessons. 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.

A Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesman said: “The impact of the pandemic has significantly distorted the ability to provide instrumental music tuition. The Improvement Service Report survey notes that Local Authorities have not been charging for lessons during the pandemic, and in line with our previous position, we have continued to ensure that no one in receipt of free school meals is charged for lessons across Scotland.”

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