The number of children learning a musical instrument in Scottish schools has plummeted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to fears cash-strapped councils may streamline the service on a permanent basis.
Data was gathered by The Ferret under freedom of information law. It shows that across 26 of Scotland’s 32 council areas the number of children learning a musical instrument halved from 52,578 in the 2019-20 academic year to 26,780 in the autumn term of 2020-21.
The biggest reduction was in East Renfrewshire where pupil numbers fell by 65 per cent from 1,855 to 650. Only one council area – East Ayrshire – saw student numbers rise although at one per cent, from 976 to 989, the rise was small.
The widespread fall can in part be explained by the fact that many councils have been unable to recruit new pupils for music lessons in the current academic year.
Children are normally given the chance to learn an instrument for the first time from P4, but of the councils that supplied data nine said no children had been offered the option of music lessons this year.
Though the data is incomplete, the FoI responses indicate that the number of pupils taking up music lessons for the first time fell by around 75 per cent, year on year.
No comparisons could be made for pupil numbers in Glasgow, the Highlands, North and South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and South Ayrshire because these local authorities did not supply figures.
When schools returned after summer in 2020 all local authorities looked to minimise face-to-face contact, particularly for those learning woodwind and brass instruments, by shifting school music lessons online.
While the move ensured lessons could continue digitally it also played a part in the plummeting figures.
East Renfrewshire strings teacher Gerry Doherty told The Ferret that some pupils had chosen to take a break from lessons until face-to-face teaching restarted.
“I’ve found online teaching very successful for kids who are already well set up – and kids focus well,” he said of children who had been learning their instruments for some time.
But he claimed it was harder for beginners who needed more hands on help with posture, hold and tuning. “Some parents have said they’ll [take a break and] come back when we start doing it face-to-face again,” he added.
Kirk Richardson, convener of teachers’ union the EIS’s instrumental music teachers’ network (IMTN), said the drop-off has been particularly acute in primary schools, in part because new-starts pupils have not been brought on board. He also said it is harder to manage online music lessons with primary pupils than it is with secondaries.
“Primary schools have had great difficulty with online lessons,” he said. “You can go online at secondary school and the child can leave their class to log in. At primary, they need supervision and that can’t be facilitated.”
He added that IMTN members had raised concerns that, as council budgets are under increased pressure because of the pandemic, some may not want to build the school music service back up to the position it was in before.
This is a particular fear given the “huge job” and investment that will be required to rebuild the service “from the bottom up”, he said.
The reduction in pupil numbers comes after the introduction of fees in some local authority areas had already led to a high drop-out rate in previous years.
School music tuition fees
Although several councils have suspended or reduced their fee levels as a result of the pandemic, just seven – Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Orkney, Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire and the Western Isles – charge nothing on an ongoing basis.
In the 2019-20 school year West Lothian, which scrapped free provision the previous year in favour of a £354 annual fee, saw pupil numbers plummet by 45 per cent while in Clackmannanshire, where fees doubled to £524 a year from £258.50 in 2017-18, they dropped by 28 per cent.
The Scottish Government provides funding to local authorities to meet the cost of education but because music lessons are classed as a discretionary rather than core service, funding for them is not included in the settlement.
Council umbrella group the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) argues that the Scottish Government should make funding for music lessons available as part of the local government settlement, given that Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee found in 2019 that music lessons should be provided free of charge.
A Cosla spokesperson said that councils are “continuing to do their best while putting the safety of pupils and staff first”, but they would seek to engage with government on how to increase pupil numbers once the pandemic has been brought under control.
“Scotland’s councils remain fully committed to supporting all aspects of the curriculum in our schools with formal agreements in place about how that is delivered,” the spokesperson added.
“We will work with the Scottish Government as our society begins to recover from the impact of the pandemic and how we increase the participation in music will be a part of that.”
Campaigner Alistair Orr, who teaches brass instruments in Stirling and has repeatedly called on the government to foot the bill for school music lessons, said that an injection of cash from central government is likely to be required in order for the school instrument service to recover.
He said the Scottish Government should use this as an opportunity to cover the £30m cost of providing music lessons in schools, eliminating the need for any council to fund the service through charging fees.
“Let’s say for the sake of argument that we can pick up the pieces at the end of the summer holidays – there will be an enthusiasm and a willingness to open the doors to as many children as we possibly can,” he said.
“Money is being thrown at lots of things at the moment, and for good reason. The cost to end charging for one and all would be tiny – local authorities are spending £30 million collectively and they recoup £4.6m of that from parents and carers.”
However, a Scottish Government spokeswoman indicated that responsibility for music tuition would remain with councils and that funding currently provided for them to meet their obligations is considered to be fair.
“The provision of instrumental music tuition is for local authorities to determine depending on local circumstances, priorities and traditions,” she said.
“Councils are responsible for ensuring that all children and young people have access to the full curriculum and the Scottish Government has continued to ensure that local government receives a fair funding settlement despite cuts to the Scottish Budget.”
Top of page: Children playing music during a culture festival in Connemara. Picture by Bill Heaney