By Finbarr Flynn, Bloomberg.com
U2, the rock band that headlined Glastonbury's music festival this year, is investing its own money to fund music schooling for Irish children as the state cuts spending on education.
The band, which started out in Dublin, is funding musical equipment and the hiring of teachers to tutor thousands of children across the country, supporting a series of projects.
While lead singer Bono is well known for his activist work in raising awareness of issues in Africa, the property market crash in Ireland has left the one-time Celtic Tiger with problems of its own. In a country renowned for its musical heritage and for producing contemporary acts such as Westlife and the Corrs, only about 1 percent of secondary pupils receive music tuition.
"While we have a very rich musical culture and heritage, access to music tuition is like a geographic lottery, it depends on where you live and it depends if your parents can afford it," said Rosaleen Molloy, director of Music Generation, which is funded by U2 and international charitable network The Ireland Funds. "There is an assumption that music is being provided for in mainstream schools, while in the reality it is not."
With Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny's government needing to make 6 billion euros ($8.6 billion) in savings this year to meet the terms of the country's bailout, finding funding to expand education initiatives is difficult. Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said after taking office in March he was "very grateful to U2" at a time when the state isn't "in a position" to provide more investment in education.
U2 is providing 5 million euros through 2015 on a phased basis for the music program, together with an additional 2 million-euro commitment from the Ireland Funds, which is supported by people of Irish ancestry across the world. The aim is for the government to later take over that funding.
The government has cut comparable expenditure on education by about 3 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to figures from the Education Ministry. Quinn told teachers in April "further difficult measures" can't be avoided even as student numbers are expected to rise by about 100,000, or 10 percent, in the next seven years.
"U2 had been looking for some time for a way to invest and support access to music education in Ireland," said Molloy. "U2 wanted to give something back."
The donation came after the band drew criticism for moving their music publishing company to the Netherlands in 2006, to save tax. The Labour Party's Joan Burton, now welfare minister, said at the time that move "seemed odd." Lead guitarist David Evans, known as The Edge, said the band was trying to be "tax- efficient. Who doesn't want to be tax-efficient?"
The members of the band have a combined fortune of 455 million pounds ($741 million), according to this year's Sunday Times Rich List.
A Dublin-based spokeswoman for the band said nobody was available to comment on this story.
In 2001, the government commissioned a report into the feasibility for a publicly supported music education program, which failed to get beyond two pilot programs, one in Dublin and the other in Donegal, in the northwest of the country.
U2 is adopting the model to provide 50 percent financing for projects developed by local educational groups. Music Generation selected three Irish counties -- Sligo, Mayo and Louth -- for funding in May after receiving proposals, according to Music Generation's Molloy.
"It wouldn't be happening without the funds" from U2, said Shaun Purcell, head of Sligo's Vocational Educational Authority, which is partnering with Music Generation in the county. The funding will be used to provide music tuition to 16,000 children through classes after regular school hours.
Purcell said he hopes the funding will help produce "many Westlifes" -- the Irish pop band, which has had 14 No. 1 hits in the U.K. and some of whose members came from Sligo -- as well as providing children with better social skills.
While U2 have received plaudits for their work on the music project, some warn about relying on a famous rock band to support education initiatives.
"What is so special about education is that it is the way through the mess, it's the way out of the recession," said Pat King, general secretary of Ireland's largest second-level schooling union, ASTI, which is calling on the government not to implement a 350 million-euro round of cuts on education.
"What U2 are doing is symbolically very important, but we should never come to depend on the benevolence of private individuals," he said. "It's the state's responsibility to invest in education and to ensure there is equity and equal access to all children."
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