The councillor who failed in his bid to stop charges being introduced for musical instrument lessons in Shetland’s schools will try to get the decision reversed next month in favour of an in-depth review of the free service.
Rick Nickerson intends raising the matter at the next Full Council on Wednesday 24th March to try to prevent the £160-a-year charge coming into force after the summer. He said this week the plan was “seriously flawed” and believes the £130,000 that the council hopes to raise could be found by remodelling the service while keeping it free.
The council is facing mounting public pressure to scrap the new charge with well over 2,000 people, including many of the islands’ top musicians, joining online campaigns and signing a petition in protest. Shetland’s most famous son, fiddler Aly Bain, has added his name to the campaign, dismissing the council’s decision as “very strange”.
However it has emerged that ending free instrument teaching is only the first in a wave of controversial education and social care cuts set to emerge in the coming weeks. Free knitting lessons could be for the chop along with the popular annual Careers Convention and the Science and Technology Fair and possibly some more secondary teaching jobs.
It promises to be an uncomfortable year for parents, pupils, education staff and councillors with the unexpected cuts and all the battles to prevent up to seven small secondary schools and nine primaries being axed.
The fee for instrument lessons was agreed among a range of cost-cutting measures across the council last Wednesday as it hacked £18.3 million from its over-inflated spending plans for 2010/11 and braced itself for a squeeze on government funding for the next few years.
Music lessons in schools will continue to be heavily subsidised by the council but the charge is expected to save £130,000 a year from the £750,000 budget which is used for instrument teaching, travel expenses, instruments and some extra general music teaching. Currently 840 pupils receive free tuition in a wide range of instruments including fiddle, accordion, guitar, and piano.
So far there is no sign that the storm of protest might persuade councillors to raise the white flag and effect a U-turn, which is perhaps not too surprising given that their focus has been on an even more delicate matter. Mr Nickerson said some of his colleagues were uncomfortable about the move but believed that the bigger picture of finding savings in council spending had to take prominence.
Head of schools Helen Budge warned this week the cut was only one of a range of savings being forced on her to save £1.2 million from the schools budget for the coming financial year, which has already included cutting three secondary teaching posts in technical, home economics and music.
It has also been decided not to introduce free school meals for primaries 1-3, not to extend nursery education from two-and-a-half hours a day to three and to increase the charge for school meals by 15p.
Mrs Budge said: “These things haven’t attracted the [same] interest but these have all been agreed and there is more to come. I still have £484,000 to find.”
The figure of £484,000 was agreed as a cut last week without councillors even being told what it would involve. Now officials are having to come up with the sacrificial lambs to present to the services committee to fulfil that target. The cut was passed under the heading of “education and social care discretionary services” and when an explanation was sought councillors were told only that it involved cutting or charging for a range of non-essential services which had been “nice to have”. These are understood to include knitting teaching.
It has also emerged that schools have known for several years that free music lessons might be stopped, despite claims otherwise from some protesters. Mrs Budge said it had been discussed for several years between the schools service and Shetland’s headteachers. For the past five years they have prepared a list or rolling programme of different areas which could be reduced to cut the budget. In previous years some of the cuts have been implemented, including stopping foreign language assistants, cutting supply teacher budgets and reducing support staff at Hayfield House, including assistant advisers in primary and secondary education and reducing the number of quality improvement officials from six to four. It was known that free music was to be sacrificed this time around.
Mrs Budge said: “Over the years we have continually cut back and we are coming to the more difficult things now. Music instruction is one that has come up every year – that we should consider charging for it. All headteachers have been aware that that was one of the options and when we next have the headteachers’ meeting they will be prioritising with me other areas.”
She said she understood people’s frustration and empathised with the passion being displayed by those backing the protest. “Any kind of change causes folk to be concerned,” she said. However, she added: “I have a budget I have to make cuts in and this is just the first of many cuts that we will have to make this year and probably next year and the year after in the schools service.”
The meeting between headteachers and the schools service was due to have taken place on Wednesday but had to be postponed until next week. They will draw up a list of priorities, including cutting teachers and stopping non-statutory events and services.
Mrs Budge said: “There has been a variety of different things that has been very nice to have but are not actually statutory. I can totally understand folks’ concern about [music tuition charges] but there is more to come.”
More details of the proposed music charges have become available this week. They will only take effect after the summer and will not apply to pupils who have already embarked on music courses leading to Standard grades or Highers.
To clear up any confusion, there will be no effect on normal music teaching, which is part of the school curriculum.
Only a small percentage of children (considerably less than 10 per cent) will qualify for continued free lessons. The criteria to be used are likely to be that they should be already eligible for either free school meals or the clothing grant, which is information the council currently holds. Council figures show that just 248 pupils get free meals, which is less than 6.7 per cent of all Shetland pupils, which shows that the vast majority will have to pay to play in future.
Mrs Budge said some help might be available from the Zetland Educational Trust, a fund which is linked to investments in the stock market and is highly fluid, having been worth £30,000 before plummeting to £7,000 last year during the crash.
The Shetland charge of £160 a year was described to councillors as “middling” compared with those applied in other Scottish local authorities. But Orkney and apparently the Western Isles still have free tuition, as Shetland has done since Dr Tom Anderson taught fiddle in the mid-1970s.
According to figures for some authorities provided by Mrs Budge the lowest charge is £75 a year in Renfrewshire and the highest is £258 by Moray Council. Usually lessons are not provided for pupils below primary six but in Shetland they are often offered to children at an earlier stage, including P4.
Despite the free lessons, many parents choose to send their children for private lessons which can cost upwards of £15 an hour or, in one case, £11 for 30 minutes.
The new charge emerged at the same time that councillors agreed a wide range of other cuts and new charges. So far there has been no public outcry about saving £580,000 by scrapping the Christmas grant to elderly and disabled people who are not on benefits – the so-called winter fuel grant scheme. It was only introduced by the SIC last year after Shetland Charitable Trust removed its traditional Christmas grant from those considered not to be in need.
Councillor Bill Manson, who is the council’s spokesman for young people, said he saw little sign that his fellow members were rethinking their stance on music charges in the light of the powerful protest campaign. He said nobody wanted to cut back but he felt compelled to back the charges as part of all the other austerity measures agreed last Wednesday. “Nobody wants to cut and I would like to see more being free but we don’t have the resources.”
He said he would consider the protesters’ case when they presented it to the council, but added: “The simple case is that unless the council is minded to put the extra £130,000 into the education budget then we need to find something else to cut in its place.”
Mr Nickerson, who lost last week’s vote 11-9, sees it as eminently reversible. But he now wants a root-and-branch review of the way music tuition is done in the schools.
Although he did not want to get into “a squabble” with officials at this stage he said they had not done a proper assessment of the effect of charging, including what percentage of pupils would stop taking lessons because parents could not afford it. He mentioned one unnamed family who are currently facing over £600 a year in fees for their four children who are currently taking music.
He calculated roughly that the schools service would be lucky to earn half of the £130,000 saving it has estimated for 2010/11 due to the drop in music student numbers, the cost of administration and the fact that nearly half the year would have passed before the charge is applied.
“They haven’t thought it through,” he said. “My view is that perhaps a more realistic approach might be to review the service and how it is provided, what range of instruments we provide. That hasn’t been done. They have just picked the charge because other local authorities are charging.”