Change the Tune: Because Children Need Music!

Cuts to music education contradict the aims of Curriculum for Excellence and the life-affirming impact which music has on all of us.

Can you imagine a life without music? Imagine getting on the bus to school or work and popping your headphones on, but hearing only white noise. All your favourite music streaming services become obsolete, and CDs and vinyl don’t work anymore. You never again go to a gig, a concert or a festival. Adverts, films and TV shows no longer invoke laughter, terror or tears with stirring soundtracks; and no one picks up a guitar at parties or plays with a band.

It’s a pretty dystopian thought, and one that those of us who enjoy music on a daily basis find hard to imagine. But there is a paradox at play: the value that the Scottish education system places on music seems to be diminishing, while our exposure to music, enjoyment of it, and realisation of its centrality to human life increases. This paradox must be challenged.

Leading the challenge is the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, which represents 80% of teachers in Scotland, including a large body of Instrumental Music Teachers (IMTs), and which has been running the ‘Change The Tune’ campaign over the last year. The campaign is urging both local and national government to change direction on music education. We are urging the Scottish Government to protect and expand instrumental music in schools. In parallel, we urge local authorities to reject further cuts to music services and recognise the inequity of current approaches.

In case anyone is in doubt that the current situation is unsustainable, let us set out some of the challenges facing music education. They include cuts to music service budgets; charging regimes which deter pupils from taking part in instrumental music lessons; cuts to IMT numbers; diminishing stocks of resources (including instruments, past exam papers and sheet music); and, crucially, instrumental music being perceived as ‘extra-curricular’ rather than a core aspect of children’s education which should be provided free of charge.  

A recent Improvement Service report highlighted that there was “a sharp increase in fees compared to previous years” in 2018/19. It found that 38% of local authorities raised tuition rates in 2018/19, including in several authorities which introduced charges where tuition used to be free. The average group lesson fee now stands at £234.76, up 10.6% since the previous year. In some areas the fees are much higher, even as much as £430 per child per instrument. In the EIS view, that creates a culture where ‘who pays, plays’, which we find unacceptable.

Although there were still 60,326 pupils who received instrumental music lessons from their local authority service in 2017/18, it was the first school year in which overall pupil numbers fell.

We believe that these developments sit in direct opposition to other education policies. The Curriculum for Excellence has creativity and self-expression at its heart. It is rooted in a deep appreciation of children and young people’s participation in arts and culture. The aspiration to excellence and equity for all children in school is undermined by a postcode lottery of access to music lessons, which we know boost pupils’ confidence, mental health, organisational skills, teamwork skills, literacy and numeracy. These benefits should be equally accessible to all, free of charge.

Be in no doubt that involvement in music is life-affirming and life-changing for young people. One local authority recently surveyed young people who took part in a residential rehearsal weekend for young musicians. The results both surprised and inspired the instrumental music teachers taking part and the teachers and parents who had organised the survey.

At a time when there is increased concern for children's mental health, over a fifth of the responses referred directly to mental health issues - words like "calm", "relax" and "chill" came up repeatedly. Other common themes included "increased confidence", "skills for life" and "a creative outlet". Children talked about "meeting like -minded people and wanting to spend more time with these types", "limitless creativity", "sense of purpose".

About making music they said "It makes me happy", "gives me confidence and makes me happy", "it calms me down" "it keeps me sane". "I meet new people through music, form connections". One child said simply, "It’s my life." Another captured the joy to be derived from music, saying “"I feel free when I play." In a stressful and fast-evolving world, how wonderful, and how important, for children to feel happy and free. That is the power of music!

An Instrumental Music Teacher recently shared with us that a parent had thanked her for the difference music had made to her severely autistic child, whose fine motor skills had significantly improved because of playing the cello, reminding us that music has the power to enrich the lives of children who face other challenges in our education system.  

For all these reasons and more, the EIS will be continuing our efforts to defend music education over the new school session. You can find out more about the campaign on our website. If you feel strongly about music education being freely available to all, please write to your local Councillors and your MSPs to let them know, and please support local demonstrations in defence of music services. We can’t let the world fall silent. It’s time to Change the Tune.