THE number of school pupils who have continued music lessons after controversial charges were introduced in East Lothian has fallen dramatically.

East Lothian Council introduced a £280-a-year fee for instrumental music classes at the start of the school year.

But three months into term, the number of returning music pupils who have registered for the previously free lessons has fallen to just over 50 per cent.

Some schools have seen the number of pupils taking instrumental music lessons drop dramatically.

Tranent’s Ross High School witnessed the biggest percentage drop in secondary schools, with only 56 per cent of the pupils continuing.

In the Prestonpans area, which has a proud piping history, returning pupils fell to just 41.6 per cent. One primary school reported a drop in returning pupils to just 14 per cent of the previous year.

Prestonpans’ Preston Lodge High School, whose pipe and drums band regularly wins awards and has been praised for the support it gives its musicians, saw returning music lesson pupils fall by a third.

In North Berwick the numbers returning were higher but were still down to 58 per cent across the school cluster.

The best cluster area for returning pupils was Haddington, where 67 per cent re-registered, and at its secondary school Knox Academy there was an 80 per cent return, while both primary schools in the town reported the number falling by over half.

The introduction of school instrumental music fees was approved by the council in its February budget.

In June the council’s cabinet approved the £280 annual fee while dozens of pupils protested outside their meeting in Haddington Town House, playing their instruments loudly and following the councillors down the street as they left.

The fall in pupils returning to tuition leaves a hole in the council administration’s budget after officials estimated the new fees would generate £240,000 in additional revenue this year.

Despite 230 pupils registering for instrumental music tuition for the first time, the numbers have fallen well below target.

Last year there were 1,210 pupils from P4 to S6 receiving the tuition. This year the schools have reported a total of 816 applications by Hallowe’en, 786 of which have been processed. Of those, 158 are exempt from fees due to them taking an SQA music qualification, qualifying for free schools meals and/or a clothing grant or currently being looked after by the local authority. That leaves 610 fee-paying pupils registered and an income expectation of £163,000.

Councillor Stuart Currie, SNP Group leader, said the introduction of fees was a “monumental failure of policy”.

He said: “The council administration were told by 4,000 people who signed a petition – pupils, parents and teachers – that this was a mistake.

“They went ahead anyway like a bull in a china shop. They should admit they got it wrong and reverse the decision.”

But Councillor Shamin Akhtar, cabinet education spokesperson, accused the SNP councillors of hypocrisy.

She said: “These are interim figures and applications are still coming in on a daily basis from schools.

“East Lothian Council has experienced an unprecedented reduction in its budget from the SNP Government, with cuts of £25million over the last five years, and a projected £12.5million shortfall over the next three.

“These huge cuts have made the introduction of more charges for non-statutory council services inevitable and it is pure hypocrisy from SNP councillors to say they oppose them.

“The majority of other Scottish local authorities already charge for music tuition, with some, including those led by SNP councillors, charging much more than here, including the highest in the country at £524 in Clackmannanshire.

“Just before last year’s local elections, Dave Berry, the former SNP leader of East Lothian Council, also proposed that the full cost of music tuition should be met by charges. The Scottish Government need to fund local councils properly in the Scottish budget.”

A council spokesperson said: “We remain committed to delivering a high-quality service and this is the first year that we have charged a contribution towards the cost of instrumental music tuition, which is a discretionary service provided by the council.

“New students continue to sign up to the service and registration forms are still being returned. This is in addition to returning pupils who are undertaking tuition. So far we have 786 pupils registered for the current session.

“Movement is always expected when S5/6 pupils leave full-time education or move from the authority area. We are also still accounting for the transition period from P7 to S1, which will have a bearing on the final figures.

“It is not possible to make direct comparisons between 17/18 and the current session as the number of teachers has reduced and the service is part of an ongoing review. The review is considering ways that we can continue to invest in instrumental music tuition.”