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by Margaret Taylor
03 February 2023
Banging the drum: Music lessons are vital to education so must be funded

Banging the drum: Music lessons are vital to education so must be funded

Not so long ago I spent quite a lot of time writing about music lessons. About how they expand young minds and create alternative – fun, creative, visceral – ways of learning; about how not all Scottish councils were providing them free of charge, thereby creating yet more pockets of haves and have-nots; and about how everyone from school kids and music professors to pop stars and brass-band players were campaigning to make music-making something all Scottish children had the opportunity to enjoy.

There was the usual stand-off: the Scottish Government spoke of the importance of music in young learners’ lives and called on councils to cough up for lessons; councils raged about funding shortfalls and demanded the government foot the bill; kids sat on the sidelines dreaming about flutes and guitars while parents reminisced about their orchestra days and just how much they gained from them. 

Then, a breakthrough. The Scottish Government found some extra cash and councils were able to give kids free lessons after all. It was only ever a hallelujah of sorts, with dwindling teacher numbers, lingering Covid-era disruption and patchy national coverage meaning not every child who wanted to learn an instrument was able to. But still, to have gone from a position where some kids had to pay to get an instrument, a weekly lesson and access to orchestras and bands, while others were getting it for free, seemed like A Good Thing.

And yet here we are, less than two years later, and the mask is already starting to slip.

Midlothian Council, which has played fast and loose with musical education for many years – taking a scattergun approach to fees while continually wielding the threat of discontinuing the service – has once again indicated that music lessons are fair game. Instrumental tuition for all but those taking SQA exams is likely to be cut – which surely means tuition for all pupils in the long run when you can hardly get to the point of sitting an exam in music if you haven’t had any musical tuition in the past – and 8.8 full-time equivalent teaching posts are therefore up for the chop.

But, hey, the move would save the council a whopping £440,000 a year so totally worth narrowing kids’ horizons for. And where Midlothian has dared to tread, other cash-strapped councils are sure to follow.

Oh, how we scoffed when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested all English kids should be taught maths compulsorily up to the age of 18. Not everyone likes or is good at maths! Some kids prefer art, music, and literature! We’re all different and learn in different ways so stop forcing everyone to do algebra!

Yet preventing kids who have an affinity to music – whose concentration improves by being enveloped in sound and whose acquisition of maths is aided by manipulating numbers in a visceral way – from learning an instrument is tantamount to the same thing, whether extra maths is on the menu or not. Scotland really needs to own that.

It is a dangerous time for anything that falls under the catch-all term of ‘the arts’ right now. New projects have long failed to get off the ground – think St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross – while cinemas and theatres across the country have either already closed or are faced with an imminent axe. Millions will be slashed from Creative Scotland’s budget in the coming financial year, meaning scores more creative organisations – creative organisations that both educate and enrich – are expected to fold.

Preventing children from expressing themselves artistically makes it ever-more likely that those things, once lost, will never be regained. How can they be when the next generation won’t know what they are or what they are for? It is a dismal prospect. Saving a few pounds here and there might seem like a good idea in the here and now, but Scotland is a dark enough place as it is – we should be finding ways to let more light in, not to block it out.

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