A full review please, not a ‘tax on talent’

The council’s decision to impose a charge on musical instrument tuition to help save costs at a tough time for public spending has provoked widespread anger.

Here, council culture and recreation spokesman RICK NICKERSON calls for a grassroots review of the service rather than a “tax on talent”.

Many people often ask me why Shetland has so many talented musicians. Certainly there is an impression that, for a small place, we produce way above our quota of world-class musicians. I have never been able to answer that question. Maybe it is the sense of community that is so alive and vibrant here, or the creative environment we have, or maybe it could be the long­standing excellent provision of music tuition provided by our local authority. Perhaps we’ll never know? Maybe it is just in our genes.

Music permeates our whole society on a daily basis. I can think of very few events in Shetland where music doesn’t play a valuable role. If you look through the event calendar of any month music will be there, whether it is the traditional music festivals, of which there are many with worldwide credentials, the many Up-Helly-A’s, rowing regattas, weddings, the regular music nights in our pubs, clubs and community halls to name a few. Even the role music plays in fund-raising events such as the recent Relay for Life and Lerwick Lifeboat Day needs to be acknowledged. Our local musicians often volunteer their services for these events and when they are paid it benefits our economy. In both cases they are paying back the investment that the council and others have made in them for many years.

The current debate over the council’s policy to introduce a “tax on talent” for music tuition certainly has focused minds on the value of this service and the impact such a proposal will have on our young folk over the coming years. There is no doubt that all public service providers will need to tighten their belts over the next few years thanks to the greed of our bankers. The discussion we need to have, how­ever, is how best to accomplish this without damaging the values and principles that have made Shetland what it is today. Unlike many of our other colleagues in the public sector in Scotland, Shetland can and could, if it wished, manage the pain in a better and long term sustainable way.

There is another dimension to this discussion over and above the pound and pennies aspect. There can be no doubt about the contri­bution music tuition makes towards our culture, in particular the promotion of this culture to the outside world. It has enabled some folk to make a career in the field of entertainment or teaching or perhaps other endeavours and that is a good thing for them and Shetland.

However I believe music, as one of the expressive art forms, is a fundamental part of our education experience. It plays an important role in our personal development and our wellbeing. This year’s Schools Music Festival has shown me how music builds character, confidence and self-esteem. It also provides pathways to channel energies away from paths that are perhaps less productive and it certainly brings communities together.

There can be no greater sense of achievement than to reach that point in learning, whether it is playing or singing, where you transform your ability from just making a sound to playing or singing a piece in tune and all the way through. Music and the festival allows young people to demonstrate that achievement to others and in many cases reinforces their own belief that – yes, I can do this! So the instruction of music goes way beyond the ability to play an instrument.

We seriously risk losing all of this if this council continues with this policy. In my view it has a responsibility to support and strengthen its commitment to music tuition.

That is why I am so disappointed that some of my colleagues in the Town Hall have chosen to introduce a tax on talent for music tuition in response to a black hole in this year’s budget projections. I have consulted widely on this and apart from some of my fellow members and some officials no-one seems to believe that this proposal is justified, fair or will deliver its objective.

I have some sympathy for the schools service in their efforts to consult with staff, Parent Councils etc to implement what is currently council policy. To their credit they have been prepared to take on board some suggestions to make the proposed scheme more acceptable to some. However many believe that these concessions will never be fair or equitable. They will sub­stantially reduce the amount of income the council receives, thus negating the original objective of making efficiency savings. They will also involve a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy to implement, at an unknown cost, which is one of the main reasons I have difficulty with the policy. If they fail to achieve their financial objective, which I know will happen, the following year the tax will go up, making it more expensive and more families will not be able to afford the cost and drop out. The scenario is obvious. If there are fewer students each year this means less income and possibly fewer teachers or instructors; the result will be a music service in decline. A stealth tax by any other name.

What folk do acknowledge is that savings have to be made but there are alternatives to charging which is by its very nature a very blunt instrument. It has become clear to me that if colleagues are determined to push this through on the principle that we have made a decision and it will look bad if we reverse our decisions there is not much we can do about it. However, in my experience, taking decisions on political dogma and not being able to be flexible usually ends up in a worse situation. Bad policy is still bad policy, no matter how you dress it up. I believe what most folk want is a fit for purpose music service which is affordable, efficient, up to date in its objectives and delivery and continues to deliver world class musicians but also allows equal opportunity for those who wish to learn how to play music.

The art of politics is compromise. And I am proposing a grass roots review of the service. In addition to identifying long term and sustain­able efficiency savings (equal to those which might arise from the tax) it should develop a service which we all can be proud of.

This is what I will suggest to colleagues at the next services com­mittee on June 17th. Incidentally the concert to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Dr Tom Anderson as part of the Hamefarin 2010 will take place the night before this debate. As the man who championed music tuition in our schools I won­der what Tom would be thinking about this debate if he were alive. I could bet my last pound that he would doing more that just thinking. There is still time to contact your local councillor/s.


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