WHAT is it to be part of the Gwent Music Support Service? As Newport council considers whether or not it will axe its funding to the service, DAVID DEANS investigates how it touches the lives of thousands of children it works with every year.
AS AUSTERITY bites, councils across the country are facing tough decisions on where to save money as gaps grow in their budgets.
Newport council is not immune and its recent draft budget controversially proposed to axe 100 per cent of its £292,000 funding to the highly respected Gwent Music Support Service (GMSS).
The authority has proposed that the service, which is run out of Newport council but is also funded by Torfaen, Monmouthshire and by schools in Blaenau Gwent, become more self-sufficient.
It says that it is not a statutory service – meaning the council does not have to provide a music service by law.
But the Argus understands the cut, if it is put into practice, could mean that students from the Newport area are excluded from the service altogether, or face paying higher charges than their counterparts in other areas.
The situation could be similar to what has happened in Blaenau Gwent – where the council has delegated where schools spend their music budget to the schools themselves.
Schools that have opted out are unable to attend any activities.
At present the service works with 18,000 students across the region, gives employment to more than 100 teachers, and operates 15 regional orchestras and bands.
They include the Greater Gwent Youth Orchestra, the Greater Gwent Youth Brass Band and the Greater Gwent Youth Choir.
In addition each local authority area has its own ensembles.
It runs six music centres in schools across Gwent, where students of all musical abilities are invited to take part in a range of ensemble and other activities.
Students can take part in activities there free of charge, although parents do pay a contribution to music tuition provided by teachers.
Those charges range from around £35 to around £70. As well as Newport’s funding of £292,000, Monmouthshire pays £262,000, while Torfaen provides £217,400 a year.
Blaenau Gwent passes £209,000 down to its schools for them to decide where the money is spent.
Among those who benefit from the service are the family of Sarah Mao, of Ponthir, whose children, Evie, 16, Eliza, ten, Reuben, six, and Florence, 13, are involved in the service.
While Florence takes part in a number of groups, including the Greater Gwent Celtic Band, Evie is in the Greater Gwent Youth Choir, Eliza plays harp and violin and Reuben plays cello.
“People look at us now and assume we are a musical family and my children would have learned anyway. That’s just not true,” said Mrs Mao.
“My husband and I grew up locally in ordinary families without a history of learning music - We can’t read a note.
“GMSS with its schools projects has given my children the chance to try instruments that we couldn’t have offered.
“The staff at the music centres have also shown my children what is possible and given them support and inspiration.
“My children turned up as beginners and took part in concerts and national festivals without any music grades.”
She said if the service charges more many families will find it difficult to find extra money to keep their children in classes.
Mrs Mao added: “I know things are tough financially, but what next? No PE, no French, no history?”
Sarah’s family were among those who attended a protest at Newport Civic Centre against the proposed cut in funding by Newport council.
Also there was Hilary Petrie, of Monmouth, a former music teacher whose family have also greatly benefited from the music service. With the confidence that music has given them, she said, GMSS has helped her sons pursue a career in music and even set up businesses.
She says her eldest son, Jon Petrie, 28, went from taking part in GMSS activities, doing a music degree to running his own musicbased business in Monmouth, DS Music.
Christopher Petrie, 25, is now a composer, and has been recently commissioned to write music for the Berlin Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.
Meanwhile Mrs Petrie’s youngest son, Matthew Petrie, 20, is a bassoonist at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Jon and Matthew’s achievements came despite the fact that both of them suffered with glue ear as children – Matthew was 100 per cent deaf when he started primary school. He also has his own bassoon and oboe supply business , but still finds time to play with the Greater Gwent Youth Orchestra.
“GMSS for our family has been very important, it’s been the most pivotal thing,” said Ms Petrie, herself a former music teacher.
“It’s the confidence that music gives you. It gives you a strong sense of belonging, and community, feeling, and a sense of selfesteem to that child.
“It gives you a belief in yourself that you can achieve things.
“It doesn’t matter what background you are from. You’re all equal. If you can’t speak the language you can still take part in music.”
Jon Petrie said GMSS has “transformed” him as a musician and had certainly contributed to the establishment of DS Music, the sheet music and instrument sales firm of which he is managing director. The company, which was set up in 2004 and opened a shop in Monmouth in 2007, has supported the service over the years. Mr Petrie said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the knowledge and confidence he gained through the service.
Mr Petrie said he “went through the whole system” from when he was 12.
“The people skills I have gained, the skills I learned from the violin, and general musicianship as well made me into who I am today,” he said.
“I was going to be a barrister in London but I fell into music, I enjoyed it so much. It developed my confidence, my ability, my knowledge and my social skills.
“I can’t ever thank GMSS enough for what they have done over the years,” he said.
He fears that if Newport pull out then the other counties will follow suit.
A proposal on the table from the council is that the service becomes self-sufficient, with a fund set up to help children who need assistance to pursue their interest in music. Tory councillor David Williams, who wrote on the GMSS petition that the proposal was a form of “cultural vandalism”, said he was aware of the need to making savings at Newport council.
But he said the proposal should perhaps have been mooted to the community before it was proposed that Newport’s funding was axed in its entirety.
He suggested protests may have not been so vocal if the council had been upfront over the issue.
“If they have got ideas about how GMSS can be self-sufficient that’s fine,” he said, “but they should have got those into the open before they cut the budget.”
‘Nothing’s decided but education must come first’
THE Argus asked to speak to a cabinet member at Newport council about why it had proposed to axe its funding for the Gwent Music Support Service.
However, a spokeswoman said that would not be possible.
Cabinet members decided to include the proposal in the consultation on the 2013/14 draft budget at a cabinet meeting late last year.
A statement from the council read: “Newport City Council is currently undertaking detailed consultations on a number of savings proposals as it looks to address a shortfall of more than £8 million in next year’s budget.
“The council has to make choices in challenging economic times and these become increasingly difficult. All responses received during the consultation will be carefully considered before the final budget is approved for 2013/14 in February.
“The proposal relating to Gwent Music Support Services is to remove its funding, not to end the service.
“It aims to help make it become self-sufficient while also finding ways to offer some financial support to less well-off students.
“This could include the creation of a local fund supported by the city council, local businesses and parents to ensure that any child who needs a small amount of funding to pursue their interest in music can be helped.
“As with other extracurricular activities, schools – many of whom have surpluses in their budgets – can opt to “buy” the service for their pupils.
“Music is a central part of the schools’ curriculum, with 147 pupils across Newport gaining music qualifications in the summer of 2012.
“While the council recognises that GMSS does some excellent work, the priority has to be ensuring all Newport children receive a first-class education and there is a commitment that school funding for 2013/14 meets the Welsh Government funding target.
“The central education budget is also facing additional challenges.
“For example, the number of primary school pupils in the city is set to rise by more than 300, costing an extra £500,000 over the next five years.
“Services previously funded by grants will now have to be met from the council’s central education budget.
“From 2013/14, the council will take on the financial responsibility for post-16 special-needs pupils.
“The grant being transferred by the Welsh Government is £1.39 million, but this will leave a shortfall of at least £500,000, which will have to be met by the council.
“It should be stressed that no decisions have yet been made on any of the budget proposals which are currently out for consultation.
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