Fees forcing children to hand back musical instruments, MSPs told

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Hundreds of children across Scotland have been forced to hand back musical instruments because of unaffordable tuition fees, MSPs have been told.

Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee heard that in one instance a young girl had to give up her instrument in tears and was only able to rejoin lessons after her mother had a whip-round.

Campaigners are warning of an “unjust” divergence in musical tuition as a result of fees, with instruments passing from the hands of poorer children to those whose parents can afford it, as well as a “lost generation” of musical talent.

A petition lodged at Holyrood by musician Ralph Riddiough calling for a change in the law to make free musical instrument tuition a statutory right in schools has attracted almost 10,000 signatures.

He told the committee that over the last decade there has been a 50% reduction in number of specialist musical instrument teachers in schools while fees range from free in some council areas to a “completely unaffordable” £524 a year in Clackmannanshire.

“It’s not fair, it’s not consistent and it should be a matter of grave concern to the Scottish Parliament,” he said.

Mr Riddiough said early indications from Clackmannanshire were of a 40% drop-out rate while in South Ayrshire 216 children out of a total of 1,200 had handed back their instruments, 100 of whom were on free school meals.

Of West Lothian, where fees are £345 a year, he said: “I have friends who teach in that area and they are telling me that 90% of their students have handed back their instruments.”

In East Lothian, where music tuition is £280 a year, he added: “A teacher has approached me to say that a girl handed back her instrument in tears at the end of the year, can’t afford the fees and then she reappeared after the summer to say that her mum had had a whip round and could she please have lessons again.

“In areas where there’s sufficient affluence you will see an unjust movement of instruments from children who can’t afford it who then have to watch the instruments turning up in the hands of children who can afford it – that’s divisive.

“No child should have to come back to school and say ‘I can’t afford to carry on with lessons’. That is just wrong.”

He accused the Scottish Government and councils of playing a “backwards and forwards blame game” on the issue.

“I use the image of politicians shrugging their shoulders and blaming each other. It is not good enough. This is really important.”

Composer Mick Cooke, former trumpet player with the Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian, said free tuition at schools had benefited Scottish musicians such as KT Tunstall, Ricky Ross and Eddi Reader.

He told the committee: “From a commercial music point of view, I don’t think we would be where we are today without the support that people had when they were children.

“I think you are going to see a kind of lost generation, all that is going to die really without the support.”

The petition received cross-party support from the committee, with the SNP’s Angus MacDonald saying it made a “strong case” and Tory MSP Liz Smith  describing it as “very persuasive”.

Members agreed to write to the Scottish Government, local authorities and unions to seek more evidence on the issue.

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