A last attempt is to be made to save free musical instrument tuition in Shetland schools next week. Councillor Rick Nickerson will try to halt the imposition of charges when the services committee meets on Thursday to discuss how the scheme is to work when introduced after the summer holidays.
He is renewing his call for the music service to be reviewed instead to see if savings can be found from efficiencies rather than what he called “a stealth tax on musical talent”.
Councillors agreed in February to scrap free instrument tuition, voting 11-9 to bring in a £160-a-year charge for each pupil with an exemption for some families on low incomes. The fee would amount to about £4 a lesson for the 40-week school year. Pupils who are studying music as a curriculum subject will not be charged.
The fee is supposed to raise £130,000 a year to help plug a £1.2 million gap in this year’s schools budget. The council has been spending £750,000 a year on instrument teaching, travel expenses for music teachers and on instruments.
Mr Nickerson, who is the council’s spokesman on culture and recreation, says nobody but a few councillors and officials think the charge is justified, fair or will save the money it is intended to.
Opponents believe the drop-off in numbers of pupils taking lessons and the bureaucracy and staff time to collect the money will mean the council saves nothing.
Mr Nickerson said: “The scenario is obvious. If there are fewer students each year this means less income and possibly less teachers or instructors, the result will be a music service in decline. A stealth tax by any other name.”
It is understood that some music tutors have written a letter opposing the charging system. Others have come to accept it but have concerns about how the schools service proposes to implement it.
One tutor, who said they were told they could not speak to the press, criticised a proposal to introduce group tuition to replace some of the one-to-one lessons and was also opposed to cutting sessions from 35 to 25 minutes, which is intended to standardise practice across the schools and put more pupils to each tutor.
The tutor reckoned that the charge would help sort out the serious students from the time-wasters who refuse to practice or who are being pushed to take lessons by their parents because the sessions have been free.
Other concerns include the lack of discounts when more than one child from a family is taking lessons or a child is learning more than one instrument. Also, if a service is being charged for how will parents know the tutor’s teaching is of an acceptable quality?
The details of how families will qualify for exemption from fees are not currently known. The report written for Thursday’s meeting is expected to be released tomorrow.
The schools service has already agreed some other cuts to its spending, including axing three secondary teaching posts in technical, home economics and music, not introducing free school meals for primaries 1-3, not extending nursery education from two-and-a-half hours a day to three and increasing the charge for school meals by 15p.
The £160-a-year fee for music tuition was previously described by the schools service as “middling” when compared with those of other Scottish local authorities.
Figures given out last month showed that the council employs the equivalent of 19 full-time instrument instructors – more than double the total for Orkney and the Western Isles combined. However, Shetland has 750 pupils receiving tuition, which is more than double the combined total for our island cousins.
Mr Nickerson, who is still a gigging musician himself, having toured Europe and made albums in the early 1970s as part of Scottish folk band Rankin File, said: “I believe music, as one of the expressive arts forms, is a fundamental part of our education experience. It plays an important role in our personal development and our well-being. 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.”
The campaign against charges has attracted the support of many local musicians, from the latest crop of young fiddlers up to Shetland’s most famous, Aly Bain.
A Facebook group opposing the charges has nearly 3,200 names while its associated online petition has nearly 1,400 signatures.