The Scottish education system devolves decision making to local education authorities to make choices that meet their local circumstances and needs. Scottish Government investment of £109 million since 2007 in the youth music initiative has made a huge impact, helping young people across the country to access opportunities. Since 2012, we have provided £2.2 million to Sistema Scotland, which is a charity providing opportunities for young people to get involved in its big noise orchestras. It reaches 2,000 children weekly.
Instrumental music tuition is, of course, a discretionary service provided by local authorities. I have received representations about the future of the service in West Lothian, and the 2017 survey from the Improvement Service shows varying service across Scotland in relation to numbers of pupils and the charging regime. Although the number of pupils has risen, charges have increased by 15 per cent over the past two years and the number of teachers is falling. I was surprised that the cabinet secretary did not make reference to the specialist music schools, which I look forward to meeting him to talk about, because I understand that they receive funding support from the Scottish Government.
Given the widely known benefits of instrumental music, can the cabinet secretary tell me what work is under way to review whether the recommendations of the instrumental music group have been fully implemented and will he consider the introduction of statutory guidance on the provision of instrumental music education across Scotland?
There are a number of issues for me to respond to in that question. On the music schools, the Government took a decision in 2007 to devolve funding for music schools to individual local authorities, on the basis that we expected them to maintain and continue those music schools and that the devolved money would not be used for another purpose. That would be wholly unacceptable and I reiterate the Government’s expectation in that regard.
On the question of instrumental music tuition, Mr Wightman is correct to say that it is a discretionary service—that is the existing position. I am able to give consideration to whether it should be made into a statutory provision.
One of the factors that would weigh in that consideration would be the enormous benefits, which I recognise, that come to young people as a consequence of involvement in musical activity. On many visits around the country I have seen the tremendous fulfilment that such activity brings to young people and the transformative change that it can have on young people’s lives.
However, the question gets rather to the heart of some of the issues that we wrestle with regularly in Parliament, around how much discretion individual local authorities should have to operate services in a particular way that they consider to be appropriate in their locality. I know that Mr Wightman is interested in those issues, and obviously they are issues that the Government seeks to make considered and sensitive judgments about. I will certainly give consideration to the issue that Mr Wightman has raised.
On the point that the cabinet secretary has just made, it is my understanding that 22 out of 32 local authorities are making some charge for instrumental music tuition. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the playing field should be levelled to ensure access for all? Perhaps he might give a bit more detail on how that could be done.
We come back to some of the issues that I have just raised with
Mr Wightman. I regularly stand here and face pressure from the Opposition to allow local authorities to do things that they choose to do and not to interfere in what local authorities want to do. However, Mr Lindhurst now wants me to interfere in what local authorities want to do.
In addition to wanting me to interfere in what local authorities want to do, Mr Lindhurst, I presume, wants me to put more money into the system to level the playing field, because in all of my experience, Government generally does not level the playing field by any means other than putting more money into the system. The Conservatives persistently come here and tell us that they want to reduce tax and reduce the money that is available for public expenditure, but then people such as Mr Lindhurst come here and ask us to spend more money. I have news for Mr Lindhurst; it is not possible to have it both ways.
What importance does the Scottish Government, as a matter of policy, attach to children learning a musical instrument?
Is the Scottish Government concerned that almost every council has increased charges for lessons, and some of them have increased charges to £378? Notwithstanding what the cabinet secretary said in relation to local government, how can we protect children from the poorest families who have an aptitude for music, but who might be excluded because of these policies?
Does the cabinet secretary think that there is any scope—notwithstanding the powers of local authorities to make decisions—to work in partnership with local authorities to ensure that the poorest children in particular are not losing out in learning to play a musical instrument, which I think we agree can be life enhancing for those children?
As I said to Andy Wightman and I will happily reiterate to Pauline McNeill, I see enormous benefits in young people being able to be involved in musical activity in schools. It is a core part of the curriculum—it is a core part of the curriculum for excellence—and that is why every young person has the opportunity to participate in music through our curricular model. I see that opportunity as transformative for some young people, particularly young people from deprived backgrounds, where it may be a route into their wider learning that may not otherwise be possible because of other experiences and obstacles that those young people may face. I will be crystal clear with Parliament that I think that this is a beneficial approach.
As I was trying to outline to Mr Lindhurst and, to an extent, Mr Wightman, the Government is asked to respect the discretion of local authorities and not to interfere in the activities of local authorities, but I understand Pauline McNeill’s concern that some local authorities may be charging what would be considered to be inappropriate levels of money for such services. There is a debate to be had about what the correct balance is.
The Government is very happy to work in partnership on all those questions, but we have to take into account the fact that local authorities might wish to undertake different approaches in different ways. I would encourage a focus on taking forward that activity in a fashion that enables young people, regardless of their background, to participate in it.