Don’t Take It Away

Posted: March 2, 2011 in Politics
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Since 2007 Arts Council England’s Take it Away scheme has helped approximately 50,000 people buy musical instruments, an achievement recognised by Darren Henley in his recent music education review. But despite such ringing endorsements, the scheme would appear to be under threat, writes Christopher Walters

Purchasing an instrument is a milestone in the career of any budding musician. But while most parents will do what they can to equip their child with an appropriate piece of musical hardware, many are taken aback at just how much instruments cost, particularly at the later stages of development. In the current climate even a starter instrument can be a stretch, which can easily prevent parents from low-income families from encouraging their children into music.

With such concerns in mind, Arts Council England (ACE) launched the Take it Away scheme in 2007, offering interest-free loans on the purchase of musical instruments. The scheme has so far helped some 50,000 musicians to get the equipment they need, and was recently described in the Henley Review as ‘excellent’. All the hallmarks of a genuine success story; but inevitably, cuts loomed.

First of all it’s important to understand exactly how Take it Away works. Individuals aged 18 and over can purchase an instrument for themselves or on behalf of a child by taking out an interest-free loan provided by ACE. Loans are available up to £2,000 (and can be put towards the purchase of an instrument worth more than this), and are repayable in nine monthly instalments. Instruments must be bought from participating stores (there are over 300), and a 10% upfront deposit is required from the purchaser.

But from 1 April ACE is to restrict the scheme to those aged 18 to 25 who work a minimum of 16 hours per week. In practice this means that the majority of parents will be too old to access it, which many feel will undermine the strategic goals laid out by ACE at the scheme’s outset:

  • To encourage children and young people to develop their interests and skills in music making
  • To inspire new players of all ages to begin learning an instrument
  • To enable those on lower incomes to acquire an instrument appropriate to their needs (or the needs of their children)

At the time of writing there was no information on Take it Away’s website regarding the changes, and a number of participating retailers have told MT that they have received mixed messages about the future of the scheme. Mike Coleman, director of Core Music, Hexham, is one retailer who has been made aware of the plans. ‘I am extremely disappointed that the Take it Away scheme is, in effect, being “taken away” from the vast majority of people,’ he said. ‘To offer the scheme only to 18-25-year-olds is a dreadful decision and will, in effect, mean that very few applications will be received or accepted.’

He added, ‘I am also concerned that young people in this age group will have their expectations raised that they will be able to purchase instruments through Take it Away when they may not have the ability to pay or, indeed, the credit record to qualify in the first place. It is a cynical move to limit the scheme, and hugely detrimental.’

Liz Turner of Turner Violins has also been informed of the changes. She told MT: ‘Changing the scheme to make it only available to 18-25-year-olds will rule out parents from buying instruments for their children, which will make it the opposite of what it was always intended to be.’

But Ronnie Orme, director of Rock Hard Music in Milton Keynes, has to date heard nothing definite. ‘All we’ve been told is that there may be changes to the way Take it Away operates,’ he said.

Orme can sympathise with the fact that ACE has had its budget reduced and needs to cut costs: ‘Take it Away has been a really good scheme for us, but I can see that it is expensive to run in its current form. The way it has operated pretty much anyone has been able to use it, and we have been given a lot of discretion about who to accept.’

It’s a matter of public record that ACE had its budget cut at the last comprehensive spending review, and Orme’s comments highlight the fact that many people can understand that belts have to be tightened. But are the propsed changes the best way to do this? Emma Russell, ACE’s media relations officer, told MT: ‘In line with the goals and priorities set out in Achieving Great Art for Everyone, our ten-year strategy for the arts, the Arts Council has decided to use its investment in the Take it Away scheme specifically to encourage 18-25-year-olds to continue and develop their involvement in music beyond school and into adulthood. By restricting the eligibility criteria in this way, ACE will ensure that its investment is focused exclusively on supporting the musical interests and talent of young people post education.’

But doesn’t this represent a significant departure from the scheme’s original goals? ‘With such a change to the scope of the scheme, it is inevitable that the original aims will need to be adapted. We believe that a large amount of 18-25-year-olds will be in a position to take advantage of the scheme, and although some of that demographic are students, many of them will also be in part time employment.’

Russell doesn’t shirk from stating that ACE simply cannot afford to maintain Take it Away in its current form. In response to MT’s suggestion that the scheme be kept open to the parents or guardians of those in education while preventing adults from accessing it to purchase instruments for themselves, she said, ‘From customer demographic data, we predict that offering the scheme to those in full-time education and their parents/guardians would generate sales over and above what our budget would allow us to support at present. We are currently exploring other opportunities for supporting children and young people in education.’

What about the Henley Review’s verdict that Take it Away ‘should continue to be funded’, but that it should be ‘focused on providing loans for those in full-time education of any age’? The government’s response stated that the matter was to be left in the hands of ACE. With that in mind, might now be the time to ask whether there could be a better way for ACE to juggle its reduced budget, in order to allow Take it Away to function in line with Henley’s recommendations? When so many people are agreed that the scheme is working well, and when less drastic ways to reduce its costs would surely be available, perhaps ACE should be encouraged to consider alternative solutions.

This article also appears in the March issue of MT


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