Scotland on Sunday is campaigning to introduce free musical tuition for all children in schools in Scotland. Three cheers from me.
Let the Children Play has shown that currently, provision is a postcode lottery with different local authorities either charging nothing at all or significant sums, not only for tuition but also for instrument hire. In some areas, children are even charged for tuition if they take music as a subject choice and study it for exams.
This kind of postcode lottery, defended on the right of local authorities to implement different policies according to local needs, has become commonplace in Scotland. It has never been less justifiable.
What is so different about the needs of children in Stranraer and Stornoway, Elgin and Edinburgh, Greenock and Galashiels, that some should pay for musical tuition and some not?
Research has shown – internationally and universally – that children benefit when they learn how to play a musical instrument. Anyone who has ever seen or read anything about the Big Noise in Raploch, a deprived community in Stirling, will know what music can achieve in terms of bolstering children’s self-esteem, confidence and happiness. Four years ago, one child was learning to play a musical instrument; today, there are 450 with 80% of all primary school children learning. They even have their own orchestra and the impact has been astonishing. Parents report their children being better behaved and better able to concentrate too. Such findings are replicated in studies all over the world.
Would the children’s orchestra in Raploch have been playing with the Simon Bolivar orchestra from Venezuela if fees had been charged for tuition? Of course not.
But it’s not just the cost which acts as a barrier.
In Edinburgh, musical tuition is free, but the local authority has created a hub approach to musical tuition, with classes available only in a handful of schools, on either a Friday afternoon or a Saturday. Consequently, many children are unable to participate. Like the chicklet.
Since he was a wee tot, he has shown a natural musical ability to hold a note, keep a rhythm and remember a tune. In primary two, he was selected to beat the drum and lead the musical accompaniment through the Nativity songs because he was the only child aged 5 – 7 who could keep the same pace going for three minutes. He spent ten minutes standing at a friend’s piano recently, tapping out his own compositions, understanding implicitly that if you place certain notes next to each other, you can create something that makes people stop and listen. I had waited patiently for him to reach the age at which he would be invited to learn an instrument, confident that he would not only take up the opportunity, but shine at it.
But because none of Edinburgh’s hub schools are within walking distance from his, and because I work full-time and there is no one else to take him on a Friday afternoon, and because he plays school football on a Saturday morning and while we could get him across town – at a push – to a class at lunchtime, he is not going to be learning to play an instrument through the local authority. He doesn’t want to risk giving up on his sport. And some of the reluctance about going to a strange school with children he does not know to an experience he cannot visualise or appreciate, is because of its very strangeness. So he has flat refused to sign up. No matter how much I plead, cajole and bribe.
This way of providing for tuition benefits certain children, not all children. It might enable the local authority to keep tuition free but it disadvantages those families who lack the capacity or the ability to transport their children across the city. It also pushes children – and their parents – into choosing music over sport, given that so much school and community sporting activity takes place on a Saturday morning. It would be interesting to know how many children from the poorest families take advantage of Edinburgh council’s free musical tuition in this format and if it is higher or lower than when they delivered it directly in children’s schools.
Scotland on Sunday’s campaign has ignited a debate which has already reached Holyrood. In response to questions from the Education committee about councils charging a cumulative £3million a year for such tuition, the Education Secretary replied that charging was undesirable but largely unavoidable in the current economic climate. Where possible, he said, tuition should be free and where not, it should be proportionate and take into account people’s ability to pay.
But his response highlights a fault line in government policy and indeed, wider thinking. We have plenty “free” policies – personal care, tuition fees, prescriptions, hospital parking, bus travel – but most have been designed to benefit adults. Children either already receive such benefits for free (and some only until a particular age) or any benefit is largely an indirect one. Initiatives primarily targeted at benefiting children – free school meals for children in primaries one to three, free fruit initiatives, free swimming – have either barely happened, been poorly resourced or fallen victim to cuts.
Our approach to the concept of universality and free provision is muddy and least consistent when it comes to children. When fuel poverty measures were introduced, they were aimed – universally – at older people, but it took considerable effort by charities to make the case for families with children to be included, and then only those in certain categories and income levels became eligible. Universality is viewed by all as desirable when it comes to our older people, and rightly so, but children – who mostly have no income of their own – are to be adjudged deserving according to the wealth or otherwise of their parents or on their level of need.
Thus, while we defend our right not to charge older people for their care, we shrug our shoulders at children having to pay for musical tuition. When the sums are paltry, compared to the short, medium and long term benefits for our children and our society.
Let the Children Play is a campaign we can and must all support. But as well as making tuition free, we must also ensure that provision of musical tuition is accessible and equitable, benefiting the many, not the few.