Dan Harris

What is the tension between Jason Clare and Tony Burke?

Dan Harris has given two keynotes at national education gatherings this year. This post is based on those keynotes and addresses a gap in education policy research the tension between arts and education.

Education in conflict with cultural portfolio?

There is an urgent tension playing out between two national government portfolios, one which is creating confusion and regressive decision-making in Australian education. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare’s response to emergency-level teacher shortages and an inability to retain the ones we have is characterised by what is known as the TEEP Report, “Strong Beginnings”, which advocates for direct instruction of literacy and numeracy in all teacher training and schools, and increasingly a turn away from embodied, experiential and 21st skills like collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Arts Minister Tony Burke’s National Cultural Policy, ‘Revive’, however, mentions education 37 times, linking arts and education as core to the recovery of a post-COVID vibrant cultural landscape.

National Education review

Last July, the Strong Beginnings: Report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel, otherwise known as (TEEP), set out 14 recommendations to revamp Initial Teacher Education in Australia’s universities. The recommendations were emphasised across four domains – a) strengthening ITE programs to deliver confident, effective beginning teachers; b) strengthening the link between performance and funding of ITE programs; c) improving the quality of practical experiences in teaching; d) and improving access to postgraduate ITE for mid-career entrants.  Creativity nor the arts are mentioned even ONE TIME in its entire 128 pages. Wellbeing is mentioned just once, and only in relation to students. Education experts pushed back: “The loss of agility and likelihood of sameness is thus concerning, cookie cutter education programs seem to be the antithesis of what we need to ensure we attract and graduate a diverse teacher workforce,” wrote Griffith University’s Professor Donna Pendergast. 

Despite an embedded ‘Critical and Creative Thinking’ General Capability (CCT) in the Australian Curriculum, and participation in the global PISA Creative Thinking test, our government responds to burnout in the teaching workforce, declining teacher retention, and increasing student disengagement, by ignoring the evidence-based research and pushing a one-size fits all approach to teacher training. To suggest that spelling and adding up are the most important skills our students need for 21st century success is just playing short term politics.

One size doesn’t fit all

In January, The Guardian reported that

“Overwhelmingly, students want to learn anywhere, anytime, but they also want to learn in ways that suit their individual needs. Sixty percent of the students we surveyed are juggling work or family commitments, and increasingly students need to learn at times that suit them. What’s more, 17% of students report having a disability, which may require an adapted approach. For many reasons, the one-to-many traditional model of university teaching is not the best approach for every student.”

Not only COVID, but its acceleration of automated decision-making and predictive AI technology can be seen as an opportunity to re-think and re-do our cultural, creative and educational sectors, including the coming ‘higher education revolution’. 

Minister Clare acknowledged last year that teacher workforce challenges cannot be addressed by any one jurisdiction alone and called on researchers to develop and publish data about teacher wellbeing and career intentions as part of his National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. We now have a chance to respond to this call with a holistic approach to reinvigoration as interdependent sectors in a larger national cultural and creative ecology. 

National Cultural Policy ‘Revive’

REVIVE links arts education as core to a vibrant cultural landscape: “Access to arts and culture through education and training will also assist the capacity of the industry through the development of future audiences for arts and cultural experiences” (p. 52, ). In other words, we have to work together to move forward. REVIVE reminds us that the more than 3.2 million Australian young people (aged 15-24) deserve experiential pathways into cultural and creative jobs. Are they going to get those pathways through a return to direction instruction in schools and teacher education? In fact, it seems as though the two ministers are not even aware of each others’ policies. But given’s Australia’s short-term desire to raise literacy and numeracy scores, and the longterm goal of improving wellbeing, a vibrant cultural sector, and global workplace skills, a combination of direct instruction and creative skills and capacities is one possibility.

REVIVE claims that “Creativity and design thinking have been shown to be increasingly valuable to a range of different disciplines, including to train and upskill individuals across a range of industries” (2023, p. 48). So how is this addressed by the direct instruction injunction to all Initial Teacher Education programs by 2026? REVIVE itself calls for a rethinking of our education system (p. 13). This is government at its schizophrenic worst, with departments not talking to each other, seemingly not even knowing what the other is releasing to the public. 

UNESCO Sustainability Development Goals

Australia is of course a signatory to the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals. Does a direct instruction approach align with SDG 3 ‘to ensure good health and wellbeing for all at all ages?’ Does an accelerated training program advanced by the Strong Beginnings report ensure that? Teachers need more training, and more support, just like artists and other precarious and overstretched sectors. Not less, like stop-gap “permission to teach” solutions. Just more short-term solutions to long-term challenges.

While REVIVE seems to respond to SDG 4’s call ‘to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (targets 4.3, 4.4, 4.5)’ by re-integrating arts-rich experiences all across compulsory education (not just the early years), the Strong Beginnings report refutes this. 

Lastly, do these contradictory policy and vision strategies enact our commitment to SDG 8’s call ‘to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’ (8.4, 8.5, 8.6) (UN 2020; Sachs 2015)? 

They do not. Teachers are leaving because it is, for many, no longer decent work. Surely sustainable futures – ecologically, economically and emotionally – depend upon longer term commitments than the ones currently on the table.

Daniel X. Harris is a professor at RMIT and a leading international scholar in creativity, diversity and social change. They were most recently an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, DECRA Fellow, RMIT Vice Chancellor’s Primary Research Fellow, and are currently research professor in the School of Education, RMIT University, and Co-Director of Creative Agency research lab: www.creativeresearchhub.com.