Andrew Pennay

Descale the arts machine now

The latest QTAC report is out, advertising (let’s face it) the ways that all general senior subjects in Queensland were variously scaled up or scaled down for students who completed school in 2023.

It’s as ‘league table’ as Queensland gets these days, with these published rankings used 1) by students to aid in their subject selection, 2) by schools to convince students to pursue high ranking subjects, and 3) by nefarious ATAR calculators that rub crystal balls and give students predictions based on assignments that they have not yet completed (!).

Just as arts educators suspected, arts offerings have fared (even) worse than previously. I’ll spare you my own analysis, but when paired with elective class numbers around the state, we see a glib picture. An old colleague has had to collapse Music into a composite Year 10, 11, 12 class this year. Other schools have been forced to reduce the number of senior arts subjects offered. I know at least two local schools that have tiny groups of Year 12 Music students working unaccompanied in the library without a Music teacher.

I keep getting this blinking error light

The QTAC report reminded me to revisit 2022’s ABC News article, penned at a time when arts advocates had sprung to life to defend extant syllabus offerings. By Sally Eeles’ assessment, kids were abandoning senior arts offerings “in droves in the belief they will secure higher ATAR with science-based subjects”.

That same year (2022), we saw invigorated lobbying and proactive steps by arts professional organisations. Drama Queensland, for instance, was on the front foot, seeking urgent meetings with QTAC to “ensure that we take active and informed steps forward to ensure a productive redevelopment of Drama curriculum provides the best possible opportunity for our students to succeed, against other subjects equally”.

Since then, though, curriculum change has been entirely negligible. The latest round of arts syllabus iterations were carefully curated by Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) following consultation, but this process was marred by confirmation bias (an insider joke) and tweakery. From an arts perspective, QCAA was shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.

Arts educators need to think bigger. Woes of inter-subject scaling are both no-one’s fault, and everyone’s fault, but QTAC and QCAA need to hear together from arts bodies and scholars. It’s time to descale the arts machine.

A bitter taste

To anyone outside of formal learning right now, I ask: When was the last time you did a two-hour, individual handwritten test in order to best demonstrate your understanding of something? And when was the last time you did that to demonstrate criticality, creativity, teamwork, sociality, tech-savviness, or any other 21st century skill (as identified by QCAA)?

To be blunt (and I stress, I am just talking as an individual artist-teacher-researcher!), the Queensland system has been characterised as cruel, unusual, biased, inauthentic, bland, and sad.

Watch out, though!

Watch out, though!

Where arts educators fail to react sufficiently to the status quo, we inadvertently subscribe to the hidden curriculum that shouts:

  • “Standardise me!”: The overt move towards STEM-at-all-costs through a neoliberal drive for standardisation—as demonstrated through the observations of Theo Clark (2022) and Morgan Rogers Wilson (2019)—has driven recent Queensland education imperatives. Education-as-meeting-quantified-objectives is entirely unhelpful for children, their parents, and their support dogs.
  • “Paint me into a corner!”: Queensland syllabi are so fixated on cognition over experience that arts learning culminates in written tests that are more-than-symptomatic of David Perkins’ aboutitis.
  • “Stop collaborating!”: Teamwork is deemed risky in high stakes testing environments, causing individual efforts to be reduced to quantified evaluations of individual students’ products uploaded to a (team-created) portal to be assessed by (teams of) assessors. It’s skewiff! Does any post-school worker reading this not lean on teamwork to produce work outcomes? Let’s team up.
  • “Creativity is great in theory!”: I hear so much about the importance of creativity and 21st century skills—and we all get it!—but I invite you to scan the latest Queensland senior syllabi and arrive at your own conclusions. Move beyond the corporatised rationales, and delve into the assessment practices. State-mandated creativity is great in theory, but it would be even better in practice.

A double shot

It is all well and good to blame statutory bodies and commissions on matters of zeitgeist, but there are two final shots to serve.

Firstly, the Queensland Government’s Creative Together roadmap for arts, culture and creativity falls far short of helpful policy orientation. The 30-page document fails entirely to mention ‘schools’, ‘teaching’, ‘learning’, or ‘students’. It mentions ‘education’ in the most generic sense, as you might expect for a public document, with phrases such as “arts in education has been linked to increased self-esteem, increased positive behaviour and enhanced academic achievement” (p. 10), and “strengthening the links between communities and other sectors, such as education and tourism” (p.16).

We might as well be watching an episode of ABC’s Utopia. Who does the government propose should be charged with identifying, fostering, and developing this magically appearing creativity in the young people (who will be the workers by the time this roadmap reaches its glorious endpoint around the Brisbane Olympics in 2032)? Are we to continue subscribing to the Romantic myth that creativity somehow drops on these children in their sleep?

Secondly, arts educators need to turn inwards. It’s a dark storm. Let’s look back—like never before—at arts curricula and pedagogy to ensure more relevance, robustness, and remarkability. It looks like we will need to do this despite vague/vanilla, mandated curriculum imperatives. Welcome to (yet another) era of pedagogical evolution. As any trumpeter will tell you, thankfully, we’ve got the chops!

Milking it, for all it’s worth

If syllabi, statutory bodies, and governments fail to recognise the importance of arts learning all the way through to adulthood, we need to keep evaluating arts learning itself.

To be honest, the quasi-science of ‘arts makes your brain stronger’ advocacy is becoming tired, and the vocational education slant could be dangerous. Arts educators know that arts learners are not just in our classrooms to become professional artists, just as they are not in German to become Germans, or in Biology to become biologists. In arts classrooms, children are with us to become adults who thrive in a world of uncertainty through creativity, collaboration, and criticality.

Well, at least, they should be. As I said, it’s time to descale the arts machine.

Andrew Pennay is an award-winning music teacher. He is currently undertaking doctoral studies in songwriting pedagogy at QUT. Andrew has taught in primary, secondary, and tertiary arts contexts for 25 years, and has presented to teachers and music education researchers nationally and internationally.