A fresh overhaul of instrumental music tuition for school pupils will “go some way towards repairing what was becoming a broken service”. That is the firm belief of SIC education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart.
Councillors agreed on Wednesday that, from August, the use of group tuition will be explored. A part-time senior music instructor post will be created to take care of timetabling and overseeing how tuition is delivered.
Ms Wishart said group teaching may allow pupils to receive longer lessons for the existing £140 annual tuition fee.
She believes gaps in the provision of brass and stringed instruments can be gradually eliminated.If a piano tutor retires or departs, for instance, “we’ll advertise for brass or woodwind or something else” to restore a better balance.
Another council source said music tuition had descended into a “shambles” at the tail-end of the last council. The unpopular fees were introduced, and children’s names were being pulled out of a hat in an “utterly crazy” attempt to reduce the number of pupils receiving tuition.
Numbers have dropped by nearly a quarter, from 743 last February to around 570 now.
Nearly 18 months ago the outgoing council asked Hayfield officials to examine raising fees by 50 per cent to £210 a year; reducing the number of instruments taught, and cutting the percentage of pupils receiv-ing tuition from 40 per cent to 25 per cent.
Those measures would have saved a combined £350,000 from an overall £611,000 annual budget. But Ms Wishart was having none of it after she took office, instead setting up a new “working group” – the outcome being that fees will remain pegged at £140 a year.
A scaled-down cuts package will save £182,000, in line with the target set in the 2013/14 budget. Over £101,000 had already been found mainly by not replacing two tutors who retired last year.
It is hoped group tuition will contribute to the remaining savings, while a “re-balancing” of the service should help to plug gaps over time. Those cropped up following the departures of violin teacher Alan Gifford and brass tutor Roy Hughson in 2012.
Ms Wishart outlined her passionate belief in music’s cultural value to the community. She pointed out that learning an instrument helps pupils to develop skills and improve their emotional wellbeing.
“When I came onto the council last year I discovered a service that was developing holes and in danger of being lost altogether,” she said. “I was not prepared to sit back and watch that happen.
“This goes a long way not to completely mending all the problems there are since charging was introduced, but goes some way towards repairing what was becoming a broken service.
“Music is such an important part of Shetland culture. We really need to make sure it grows and expands and is not taken away. I know it’s not statutory, but I think it should be.”
Children’s services director Helen Budge said that, because a lot of youngsters went on to play in bands, many favoured learning instruments as part of a group.
Councillor Davie Sandison hailed the shift in focus towards group lessons. During last year’s election campaign, he spoke to a tutor who had worked in other councils where it was “the norm”.
“There’s no reason whatsoever why that wouldn’t work perfectly well, except in the remotest parts of Shetland,” Mr Sandison said.
West Side councillor Frank Robertson said the service was “definitely starting to disintegrate” during the last council. He feels appointing a tutor to oversee music tuition will be “extremely worthwhile”.
But Lerwick member Peter Campbell said he feared the new measures would still reduce opportunities for young people.
“[We] have seen a significant percentage of school leavers pursue a musical career,” he said. “I think [this] … will make it very difficult for that to continue. We are reducing brass to a tenth, almost, of the provision of drumming; we’re reducing strings to a third of drumming.”
Ms Wishart said the whole point was to “bring back that brass and strings tuition over time”.
“Let’s hope it’s successful,” Mr Campbell responded.