Music tuition charges will be introduced after all, prompting culture spokesman to resign

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Charges for children to receive music tuition will be introduced after all at the start of the new school term because councillors opted today to overturn an earlier decision to delay their imposition, prompting SIC culture spokesman Rick Nickerson to resign from his role.

Despite Mr Nickerson’s best efforts to persuade his colleagues otherwise, members sided by 12-7 with Betty Fullerton after she called for the £140-a-year charges to commence in August.

A root-and-branch review of how pupils are taught to play musical instruments in schools across Shetland will go ahead as planned, but at Wednesday’s Full Council some members suggested the outcome of that could be an increase in the charges levied.

The decision prompted Mr Nickerson, who will continue as a councillor, to voice his fear that arts and recreation will “bear a disproportionate brunt” of the swingeing cutbacks the SIC will have to usher in over the next few years.

The fee will be paid by parents of any child receiving tuition who does not receive free meals or clothing grants, while those who are sitting SQA music qualifications will also be exempt.

The latest policy rethink came after head of schools Helen Budge issued new figures to members this week in response to information tabled by Mr Nickerson contradicting Hayfield’s initial savings estimate.

Some 823 pupils, more than one third of all eligible pupils, received tuition in 2009/10. Mrs Budge’s note to councillors showed that the planned savings of £131,000 had been revised downwards to £91,840 having taken into account those exempt from the charge. That is still well above the £26,400 worst-case scenario presented by Mr Nickerson a fortnight ago.

Mrs Budge said reducing the duration of lessons from half an hour to 25 minutes would hopefully allow for more people to receive tuition. Her report noted: “We do not anticipate that there will be a high non-take up rate. There is currently a waiting list for music tuition, and any spaces would be filled from this.”

At present, 55 pupils can be taught each year by an instructor, but according to schools service figures that could be increased to 66 by trimming the duration of lessons. Councillor Allan Wishart said shorter lessons sounded “unrealistic”, but the review was essential because he finds the way music tuition operates at present “totally confusing”.

The review, which has to be completed by December, will still be carried out as previously planned but Mrs Fullerton won majority support when she said the council “must start charging in August” given the eye-watering financial challenges it faces.

Councillor Jonathan Wills reluctantly supported her for the reason that “we ain’t seen nothing yet” in terms of cuts, adding that while he had doubts about how much could be saved and did not like the charges, they were unavoidable.

During the Accounts Commission’s two-day hearing on Monday and Tuesday members had been carpeted by outside bodies for their inability to stick to decisions. Less than 24 hours after the hearing’s conclusion, Florence Grains bemoaned the fact that they appeared to be “back to the situation we were rapped over the knuckles for”.

To confuse the picture a bit more, Bill Manson pointed out that members were now discussing the reversal of the services committee decision last month, which itself had been a reversal of sorts on the outcome of members’ earlier deliberations in February.

Mr Nickerson said many parents he had spoken to who were not going to be eligible for an exemption were saying they simply would not be able to afford the charges. He stressed that he had not intended to mislead people with the figures he produced last month.

Gary Robinson held the view that Mr Nickerson was “very good at making emotive arguments”, particularly when it came to culture and the arts. But people were only being asked to make a “small contribution” towards a service which he was “not against in any way”, but which had “grown arms and legs” since pupils started being taught how to play the fiddle many years ago.

As a consequence of his resignation, Mr Nickerson said he would also be stepping down from his positions with Shetland Amenity Trust and the Voxter Centre Trust. He said he was “not a quitter” but his belief in collective decision-making and responsibility meant he could not remain in the role and “defend a policy which I so strongly oppose”.

“This is definitely not a question of sour grapes or of me being a sore loser,” he said. “As economic pressures continue to impact on the activities of the council it is obvious to me that based on today’s decision, culture and recreation services will bear a disproportionate brunt of future cuts.

“It is also clear to me that, despite my best efforts, my persuasive skills have not been sufficient to meet the challenge of influencing my colleagues and therefore [I] hope someone else can achieve better results.”


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