The axeing of free musical instrument tuition has sparked anger and disbelief with a fast-growing campaign being spearheaded by young musicians at home and away.
The campaign started on the internet social networking site Facebook on Wednesday evening, hours after the councillors had voted to introduce the charge. Yesterday afternoon 2,180 people had joined the group Keep instrumental tuition free in Shetland which believes that charging will mean fewer children taking advantage of what they call a “wonderful resource” and that will “damage to Shetland’s cultural heritage”.
At the same time an online petition, started on Friday as an offshoot of the group, had gathered 989 signatures by yesterday with many more expected to have signed the printed copies of the petition which have been circulating.
The protesters say there has been no consultation with teachers, parents or students about a move which is “a big mistake” and could see families with three children having to fork out £480 a year for lessons. “Inevitably there will be a reduction in student numbers so that’ll mean staff redundancies. Also, the lack of instrumental teachers will mean classroom teachers will have to take the extra strain. We appreciate the need to make savings but these charges have not been thought through.”
The grassroots protest campaign echoes the popular uprising that played such a major part in saving young Thai man Sakchai Makao from being deported after he was arrested in a raid by police and immigration officials in Lerwick in June 2006. Over 8,000 people eventually signed a petition calling for his return to Shetland and the government listened.
The Facebook group’s creator, fiddler Lois Nicol, set it up after being told of the council’s decision by music development officer Bryan Peterson. It is being run by a number of young Shetland musicians, including fiddlers Maggie Adamson, Ross Couper, Lyn Anderson and Alison Laurenson. Well-known Shetland musicians and public figures who have already signed up include Gary Peterson, Steven Spence, Brian Nicholson, Andrew Gifford, Kevin Henderson, Maurice Henderson, Miriam Brett, Sheila Henderson, Peter Gear, Eddie Barclay, Kenny Johnson, Grant Nicol, Davie Gardner, Bryan Peterson and Tom Morton.
There are a number of senior council employees on the list too, including Alastair Hamilton and Brian Smith. However, the council has blocked Facebook and other social networking sites like Shetlink during most office hours in a bid to stop staff using up work time.
The group has been attracting some music figures from outside Shetland, including singer-songwriter Ivan Drever of Orkney, the Irish fiddler Matt McGranaghan and Irish fiddler and concertina champion Niamh Ni Charra.
Ms Nicol, a student from Lerwick studying in Newcastle, said: “The response so far has been amazing. We had 1,000 members join within 48 hours of the group being set up and a further 500 over the weekend. The group was really just a starting point however, to gauge public opinion, and provide a place for people to comment.”
She said that while it was great to get so many people joining the group it was really important to get as many as possible to sign the petitions.
The petition’s creator was Marie Goodlad from Trondra, who is in her fourth year of teacher training in Edinburgh. She said she was “absolutely delighted” with the response and encouraged anyone interested to sign up as soon as possible.
She said: “Over 600 names in three days shows how passionately people feel about this issue. The potential damage to Shetland’s musical heritage has obviously got people thinking, and acting! The members of the group have written letters to the papers and their local councillors and I would encourage others to follow suit. The more voices that are heard about this the better.”
No decision has yet been taken about how long the petition will run for before being delivered to the Town Hall.
Aly Bain, speaking on BBC Radio Shetland, called for the “ridiculous” decision to be reconsidered and the savings found elsewhere. He said education should be free, not just for people who are well off. The music and TV celebrity questioned why the council was attacking a service that did a lot of good for the islands and for its children.
Many of those who learn an instrument at school go on to study music full-time at college and play in bands outwith Shetland, helping spread the islands’ reputation as a musical hotbed.
As one Facebook contributor, Susan Davidson, wrote: “This was a social lifeline which gave ALL my children the skills to continue with this skill into adulthood and forever beyond. The ambassadorship that the young musicians take with them into the wider world cannot be replaced. This would be a backward step and a sad day if Shetland’s musical heritage was depleted because of this. There is more to life than money, find another way of saving money SIC.”
Another, Carole Radford, said: “My son owes his career to the music tuition he received at school in Lerwick, he was provided with a cello at the age of seven and an excellent music teacher, this then led him to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh when he was 15, then onto the Royal College of Music in London, he has been involved in music ever since.”
Group members have also been expressing their disgust that councillors agreed to pay out £250,000 to get rid of chief executive David Clark while killing off free tuition to save £130,000.