Controversial plans to axe funding for Wrexham’s school music service have come under fire from some councillors, again with criticism over the lack of information being provided on the proposals.
Currently Wrexham Council provides a music service to schools, including peripatetic instrument tuition (i.e. tutors visiting different schools), facilitating orchestras and youth choirs to a number of pupils.
However as this service is not a legal requirement, as part of its Difficult Decisions consultation, Wrexham Council have proposed the funding is withdrawn on such non-statutory services, with this saving due to save approximately £300,000 in 2019/20.
The proposal has been seen as one of the more controversial put forward in the Difficult Decisions document, with a petition calling on Wrexham Council to reconsider receiving over 15,000 signatures online.
Such criticism of the planned funding axe featured heavily in last week’s meeting, with officers and the lead member coming under fire for the proposals.
The meeting itself was unusual as at one point council support staff jogged out of the meeting to get advice from the legal department over if an individual could address the committee.
Committee chairman Cllr Rob Walsh described it as a ‘request from a member of the public’, which appeared to blindside some officers and councillors, when it turned out that the person was a council employee involved with the music service.
After various messages were passed and a senior officer attended, the advice was such ‘public speaking is designed for members of public and not for employees of council’.
The meeting was told there was a ‘proper mechanism for employees’ via employment protocols, employment management lines and trades unions and it was ‘not appropriate for members of staff to address meetings directly’, with it noted a similar request had been previously declined.
With the debate progressing, the meeting was given a range of data that did not seem to be public until that point, and was being read out at great speed by the officer, rather than appearing to be circulated beforehand.
Councillors were told there are 1500 pupils across the county borough receiving music tuition, which equates to 7.6% of Wrexham’s school population of 19,500.
Of these pupils 165 are in receipt of free school meals, around about 11% of those getting music tuition, with the officer contrasting that to the overall school figure of 16% in receipt of free school meals. The free school meals group was described as being ‘under represented’ for the music service.
Budget information was outlined with £532k being the current relevant budget, with £345k being devolved – which was explained as ‘ring-fenced’ rather than delegated budgets where schools have complete freedom over spending, with in the region of £187k ‘coming back from schools’ which is then used to fund additional hours.
The service operates on a buying hours, with 16 of 58 primary schools not buying additional hours. The Officer said of those 16 schools 10 are are in ‘FSN group 3 or above’, described as a measure of depravation.
Ranges of purchased additional hours was described, with some schools buying 15 minutes extra, with others buying 8 hours.
However concerns were raised about the seemingly lack of alternative models explored to retain the music service if the funding was cut.
The meeting was told by the Council’s head of education officer, Ian Roberts that further options haven’t been looked into at this point as it could “prejudice” the process and decision and that the department won’t be doing so until the council decide whether the proposals will continue forward or not.
Cllr Dana Davies pointed out such things ‘should strengthen, not prejudice the process’.
Mr Roberts explained that the department had been approached by third party providers interested in taking over the service, but noted that these have been “batted back” as discussions about an alternative model of delivery is ‘not appropriate at this time’.
He added: “Should the decision be made, a political decision, until we know what the efficiency is, whether it’s £300,000 or a varying percentage, we don’t know what models can deliver from a finite pot.
“We would need to engage with schools about their ability to buy back would be. Until we know the pot of money, it is difficult to come up with different models.”
However Cllr Paul Jones described this as ‘nonsense” and “ridiculous”.
He said: “I am more concerned of the potential impact on students and the removal of funding and the service on students.”
Mr Roberts noted that should the funding cut proceed, that it would be the school’s decision to buy back hours at a current level or increase them.
However it was noted that current and future financial pressures (debate in length later in the meeting) on schools “could mean, could be, a significant decrease number of pupils across the borough who receive free music tuition.”
These concerns were echoed by Cllr Dana Davies, who said: “I don’t think schools can afford to pick up the cost. It worries me that children are going to miss out.
“I need that reassurance that there is a model out there that is going to work so children are still going to have the opportunity to learn an instrument if they want and because they choose to.
“I’m looking at the impact to the Eisteddfod and the Urdd, there is a wider effect as well as GCSE music.
“Is there an indication from schools that they can afford to meet the cost?”
Lead Member for Education, Cllr Phil Wynn said there are models where local authorities “do not put a penny in” and that school’s focus is “understandably the impact of a standstill budget”, but thought Wrexham could ‘step up to the challenge’ like other local authorities where there is no funding to still deliver the service, confident ‘it was not beyond the wit of Wrexham’ to do that.
Cllr Davies pointed out that schools projected outturn was just £168k, noting that figure had ‘plummeting from £2.5m two years ago’, adding “What chance do schools have to fund this a different way?”
Cllr Frank Hemmings pointed out that music has a wider impact for students, stating: “The point I wanted to make is we are talking about music as an art, it also has other benefits.
“A few weeks ago I was able to see a group stand in front of a school and play a violin. The confidence it builds is phenomenal.”
Cllr Dana Davies also queried how schools could fund the service with a budget that has “plummeted” and the impact it could have on students studying music at GCSE level.
Cllr Davies added: “My worry is the impact on GCSE music. A lot of children who take it, do it on the basis they play an instrument as they have more of a chance of passing.
“The impact on this at GCSE level could be huge, I don’t think there has been a consideration” adding that she believed those in ‘deprivation’ would see their chances of playing an instrument be hit hardest.
Mr Roberts explained that there had been “significant reduction” in the number of students taking up GCSE music in the past year, with 98 students across Wrexham choosing to study the subject compared to 136 in the previous year.
A breakdown on the figures was also provided, with the highest number of students taking GCSE music being at 26 in one school, 20 in the second highest, 13 in the third and the remaining six schools with 10 or less.
Cllr Harper said the service had been subject to a cut already, which had result in charges being made for the service in some schools, which had resulted in the reduction of pupils taking up music: “Those who could afford it carried on, and those who could not did not. There is a huge equality issue here, this is going to have a disproportionate effect on lower income families”, adding that was not just those who get free school meals, but ‘lower income families in general’.
Cllr Wynn apologised for some clunky wording when referring to children in receipt of free school meals, which raised the eyebrows of a couple of members of the committee. Cllr Wynn went on to say: “Of the 19,000 pupils in the county, 1500 benefit from the valuable service and only 165 have free school meals, to put in context.
“As regards to other models I am in listening mode. No decision has been taken yet, but it is imminent as to where service deliveries will be cut.”
“I am here to listen to what alternatives or opinions you have to offer.”
Cllr Davies said she was “heartened” by the lead member’s comments about listening to alternative suggestions, but noted that there was only a short timescale to do so.
Cllr Alun Jenkins described the proposal as a “sad loss of a very valuable service” and called for a “reasonable cut” to allow time for alternative methods to be found, rather than axing the service completely.
He said: “I understand the difficult decision the department is in when facing such awful cuts.
“What I noticed about this is the saving is down to £300,000 from the year after next. The comment suggests the cut is made from September, it doesn’t give a great deal of time to consider an alternative.
“To do it in one swoop needs to be avoided. Schools are unlikely to pick up the cost of that and may find it difficult to carry on existing buy in arrangements. They are going to find it difficult to balance their budgets. It falls to parents to pick up the service.”
Cllr Jenkins added: “We have to consider the contribution pupils have made. Many go onto prominent positions in orchestras across the country, contribute to the local music scene as well as giving them the opportunity to play an instrument.
“It saddens me this could be put in jeopardy that through austerity we could lose such a valuable service.”
With the Wrexham’s local government settlement being slightly better than anticipated, Cllr Harper queried if the ‘additional £600,000’ could be a “priority” towards funding the music service.
However the meeting was told by Wrexham Council’s head of finance, Mark Owen, that there isn’t an extra £600,000 to utilise, rather it is “just reducing the gap in savings” that need to be made.
Cllr Parry-Jones asked for details of the exact number of hours peripatetic users of the service, and was told of the ‘free’ allocation there is 153.25 hours a week, with an additional hours 92hrs a week – around 245 hours a week.
As with the other four budget related scrutiny meetings to have taken place last week, there was criticism about the lack of information in the Difficult Decisions document and additional details provided in the meetings.
Cllr Derek Wright called on officers and the lead member to come back to the committee when they were able to “put more meat on the bones”.
He said: “I wouldn’t want to see vulnerable pupils in society be disproportionately affected.
“What the lead member and officer have said hasn’t filled me with confidence. I don’t want our children hoping a trust takeover what I feel we should be providing.
“You say no decisions have been made and there is so much emotion in the public, it would be better it comes to this scrutiny when decisions or consultation considerations have been made.
“I don’t think we are in a position to scrutinise the executive board as there is not enough information.”
Clr Wynn cites awareness of risk assessments over impact on music service cuts on certain children, Clr Harper says she does not (and Cmte) do not have access to them.
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) December 21, 2017
Cllr Harper was also critical of not having sight of various documents, including equalities impact assessments or risk assessments. Cllr Wynn did say he was aware of ‘risk assessments’ regarding the impact of the music service cut proposals.
Those documents along with consultation responses from schools themselves, that will detail their thoughts on the proposed cuts, were not made available to the Committee. The logic presented was that the Committee was part of the consultative process and therefore Cllr Wynn was ‘listening’ rather than it seems sharing, and therefore it was too early in the process to make such information available to councillors.
Cllr Wynn did make it clear he had ‘many letters’ on the topic, was aware of the petition and was ‘fully aware of the concerns’.
With the lack of detail on alternative options and such strong criticism over the proposals, a recommendation the committee advise the Executive Board that they do not support plans to reshape the music service was put forward by Cllr Davies with several other councillors chipping in to form the exact wording.
An amendment to this was put forward by Cllr Beverley Parry-Jones, who said that plans to axe the £300,000 funding should go ahead but a new £50,000 discretionary bursary should be setup to protect vulnerable children in education. No figures or basis for the seemingly arbitrary sum of £50,000 was given.
This recommendation was supported by fellow Cllr Debbie Wallice, who did not speak to explain her support of that proposal, or why she voted against the committees overall recommendation.
The amendment was voted down with three voting in favour and the remainder of councillors voting against. The initial recommendation put forward by Cllr Davies was voted through with a majority, with three councillors voting against.
2hrs 45mins later – Cmte decide recommendation to strongly tell the Executive Board they do not support proposed cutting of Music service, and additional costs to school budgets.
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) December 21, 2017
A final decision on whether the cuts to school music funding and various other budget proposals will go ahead, will be made by the Executive Board in January.
All 52 councillors will have the opportunity to have a vote on the final budget at February’s Full Council – so if there is something you feel passionate about that is at risk of being cut or seeing a reduction in money, make sure you get in touch with your elected representative!
Top pic: Lead Councillor for Education – Phil Wynn.