Charges for musical instrument tuition might yet be avoided if a review of the service finds enough savings to replace the £130,000 that the fees are intended to raise.
Shetland South councillor Rick Nickerson successfully persuaded a majority of his colleagues on the services committee on Thursday to defer introducing the charges after the summer holidays while his “root-and-branch” review is done in the hope that better organisation of the music tutors and cuts in their expenses will save even more than would be raised from charging pupils £140 a year. He said some tutors spent most of their time in the car, travelling between schools.
However, some members who backed his review said they would still support the introduction of charges at the end of it to save even more money for the local authority. Tuition fees were first approved by the Full Council back in February. Since then it has been decided that all pupils will get their first term of tuition free as an introduction.
Possible savings a result of the overhaul will be reported to the services committee on 25th November. Those already put forward by Mr Nickerson include shedding tutors who are near retirement age and allowing tutors to teach more than just one instrument. With the expected closure of two secondaries and five primaries in future years there will be less call for tutors.
Mr Nickerson has also thrown into doubt the sums done by the schools service in estimating how much it will earn from the controversial charges. He believes income could be as low as £26,400 for 2010/2011, which is a mere 20 per cent of the anticipated target.
Mr Nickerson said this was due to the exemption from charges of pupils studying for music exams as well as those who qualify for free school meals or clothing grants and because more pupils than expected will decide not to take lessons. Next year he expects only £41,400 to be raised.
Head of schools Helen Budge is to check the figures in time for the Full Council meeting on 30th June but if Mr Nickerson’s version is proved wrong it could derail his review.
Opposing Mr Nickerson’s review, Gary Robinson said children were charged for many other activities. While PE was free, anything sporty beyond that had to be paid for. His own step-daughter did swimming, gymnastics and cello lessons and even with charges the cello would continue to be he cheapest.
Betty Fullerton said she thought members sat in cloud cuckoo land sometimes. She was angry that some were trying to defend free music tuition while also tearing the heart out of communities by closing their schools. She said perhaps the council should be charging more for music lessons than was being proposed.
“We can’t carry on like this. We can’t make decisions and then back down from them. For goodness sake, support Gary on this!”
Allison “Flea” Duncan was one of those who did support Mr Robinson but his idea was that the money to keep music free should come from sorting out the ferries shift system which was costing £750,000 a year due to workers each getting five hours’ overtime every week.
Caroline Miller said music tuition was not just lessons but the start of an industry. With the council spending millions of pounds a year trying to support economic development she said she would not support tuition fees if they were going to impinge.
But Jim Budge said he did not believe the scare stories that charges would kill off Shetland’s famous music culture, reminding members that none of the hamefarin fiddlers of 50 years ago had free tuition.
Alastair Cooper reminded members the decision to charge had been made in February as part of the budgeting exercise and to unpick that now would “open a Pandora’s Box”.
However, Mr Nickerson was undeterred, saying that bad policy was bad policy if it did not deliver the savings promised back in February. He won the vote 11-8. The decision could yet be overturned at the Full Council on the 30th.