Music education in Australia

Not every principal will love the arts but every arts teacher does. They need support

Australians have leapt online to participate in arts events. More than 30% of Australians have engaged with arts events online and more than 40% have participated in some form of art-making in any of the artforms, dance, drama ,music, media art or visual arts.

That shows the Australian appetite for arts of all kinds.  But what happens at a school level?  The arts is one of the eight learning areas in the Australian Curriculum. While each state and territory has a particular approach to how the curriculum is put into place, schools are best placed to determine how to deliver the arts to their students.

 Ultimately the school principal decides the allocation of time and resources for learning areas.

 Not every principal is going to love the arts, but every arts teacher does. High-quality arts occurs when students and teachers share the tools of creation and this collaborative approach cultivates the student’s individuality rather than focusing on fulfilling pre-specified outcomes. I undertook case study research of eight NSW Specialist arts teachers. These teachers identified that it was not actually the curriculum but other factors within the school which influenced how the arts were positioned.

The values held by the school are led by the school principal who must fulfil required accountability requirements from NAPLAN to mandated curriculum, in addition to managing the day to day running of the school. The principal may be focused on the outside perception of the school, evident in the number of student enrolments, NAPLAN ranking on the My School website and other external high stakes test results such as the Year 12 school completion rankings. Yet, the principal could be focussed on the internal workings of the school including the students’ learning experiences, teacher autonomy and a sense of community within the school.

Six factors were associated with the principal’s focus which determined the place of arts education within the school: student numbers; curriculum regulation; resources allocation; teacher autonomy; student autonomy and interest and a culture of community. Within these factors I found that the teacher’s anecdotes identified if the principal held an outward focus on the public perception of the school or an inward focus on the student learning experience.

Student enrolments and curriculum regulation

Outward focussed leadership centred upon numbers of students enrolled in the school or within a subject.

One teacher reported that in one year group, French was timetabled for just four students, but although ten students wished to enrol in it, drama was not timetabled as the school had set a minimum quota of twelve students.

 Curriculum regulation in NSW also played into this situation as languages are mandated in years 7 and 8 but drama is not. Schools may allocate lower priority to learning areas that are not directly associated with high stakes testing such as NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate. Independent school teachers in my study noted that their principals considered the My School profile of the school contributed to public perception of the school.

By contrast, two other teachers reported high levels of student participation in the arts supported by their respective principals who were inwardly focussed on the student experience. Creativity was valued in learning at one school where the principal recognised that students who participated in the arts achieved top academic results across learning areas. At the other, a primary school, students were busy with rehearsals for the musical production as well as class activities leaving no time for behavioural issues. Additionally public perception of the school was enhanced through the whole school musical production.

Resources allocation

Timetabling the arts within the school day, provision of physical resources such as paint, instruments, suitable space and allocation of specialist arts teachers contribute to positive arts experiences within the school.

Teacher autonomy

Teachers with strong subject-knowledge and belief in their students’ capacity continue to teach the arts against the odds within their schools. But collaboration and collegiality among teachers across learning areas in a school is more conducive to teacher career satisfaction and job longevity.

Student autonomy and interest

The random allocation of arts curriculum to teachers who are not confident to teach the arts may limit the learning that takes place and potentially make the classroom boring for students. Students need to have control over their learning, and particularly in the arts students will develop their creativity, risk taking and collaborative problem solving. These serve to inspire the students’ interest. But, expectations of outcomes limit the students’ view and force them to measure themselves against pre-specified outcomes. In the arts students learn through making mistakes . Curriculum interpretation that focusses on only on the final outcome, misses the meaningful learning that actually occurs in the process of making the artwork or performance.

A culture of community

Teachers in this study reported a range of arts activities in their schools that created a culture of community. One regional teacher ran a school holiday drama camp which gave more isolated students the opportunity to connect with peers. Teachers reported that through their participation in the arts students felt they were contributing to and were part of a larger community.

The student experience is more than curriculum

The inclusion of the arts in the Australian curriculum legitimises it as a learning area. As teachers in my study have reported, it is factors outside the curriculum that ultimately determine the place of the arts within the school. High stakes testing and the MySchool website do not provide a true three-dimensional picture of the student experience in any school. School principals need to focus on the students’ learning experiences within the school. Additionally, teachers need to buy into curriculum reform to ensure positive action.

And principals should get behind their hard working staff.

Linda Lorenza has a PhD in arts education and curriculum policy and is head of course for CQUniversity’s Bachelor of Theatre degree, lecturing in acting and theatre studies. She is recognised for her education work in the Australian arts industry at Bell Shakespeare, where she was involved in the Theatrespace longitudinal research study into the influences on young people’s attendance at theatre; and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Her recent research includes teachers’ responses to curriculum change in the arts.

Curriculum review: where was NESA’s consultation?

This column by Debra Batley is the first of two columns discussing the recent NESA announcement.

NESA’s announcement on Monday 15th January that its curriculum overhaul was powering on into 2021 by cutting over 80 elective school developed courses not deemed “core” had several disturbing aspects to it. There was next to no consultation in this decision and it was particularly unsettling given that it followed closely on the heels of NESA’s December blanket dis-endorsement of all providers of professional learning in NSW (with the exception of DOE, AIS NSW and Catholic Schools). The decision around professional learning was also done in the name of curriculum reform, and was completely without consultation – the Professional Teacher’s Council lost endorsement, along with almost every professional teaching association in NSW. 

This is not what the Geoff Masters‘ review promised. This document was aspirational: it gave a reasonable time frame, talked of the importance of collaboration with key stakeholders in the writing of new curriculum documents, and left teachers with hope that the review process would be positive for both students and teachers. 

Unrealistic timeline

Instead, we have an unrealistic timeline. How can curriculum possibly be written, piloted, tested, sent out for consultation, adjusted, and teachers trained in the 18 month time frame that the Minister’s office has given NESA? The results of a short timeline are already emerging, with shortcuts in collaboration and consultation with key stakeholders being taken. Education is often a political football, however there is a growing perception that minority parties such as One Nation are ‘running the table’. It would be good to see the evidence basis for these latest reform decisions. 

Had teachers had been consulted on the culling of elective subjects, they probably would have replied that a large body of evidence suggests students do better when they are intrinsically motivated in their learning, have self-determination and autonomy. They maybe would have mentioned that researchers such as the late Sir Kenneth Robinson have found that educational outcomes are improved by learning across domains. 

Furthermore, they may have argued that school developed electives are particularly relevant to the school’s context. The culling of electives assumes a ‘one size fits all’ approach for their organisation (100 hours or 200 hours). Some schools in NSW take the opportunity to offer electives on a semester basis (50 hour courses). One well known Northern NSW School includes subjects such as Philosophy and Cosmology amongst their semester long elective offerings. Performing Arts High Schools have developed courses such as Circus Skills and Musical Theatre. Two of the biggest electives at my school are content endorsed courses; they are looked forward to by students, and I am certain they attract enrolments to the school. As a teacher I dread finding out that Year 9 Music has been placed on the same line as Outdoor Education – I know this means a small music class. 

Whilst the Hon. Sarah Mitchell may not see the value in these courses, for some students, these are the subjects that ignite their passions. 

It is somewhat ironic, that whilst the curriculum reform agenda is pushing for a depth as opposed to a breadth of understanding, the NSW Government is opposed to the idea of a child becoming an expert in printmaking – “this can be included in visual arts”. I would have thought that 100 hours of printmaking – which can include nine main types, and a multitude of subtypes – would actually model deep learning and provide students with practical skills. Disturbingly, even though the  Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration expresses a desire for “all learners to explore and build on their individual abilities, interests, and experiences”, the recent curriculum review decision seems to contradict this. 

What is core curriculum anyhow?

The elective decision also raises the question of what is ‘core’ curriculum. A blanket rule with this decision was that all languages were to be retained. The result of this is that some subjects with very low enrolments are protected (such as Sanskrit), whilst subjects with large enrolments (Physical Activity and Sports Studies – CEC) are potentially listed as electives to be ‘cleared out’. The weight of evidence supporting the idea that educational outcomes are better for students who have access to a broad curriculum is enormous. Furthermore, it is the students who need it most, who are the ones in danger of missing out. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration states that students, whilst needing the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, also require learning in other domains. The study of elective subjects can contribute to this learning. Often through the well-being and motivational benefits this brings, a student’s overall learning is supported. It is clear that there is an academic hierarchy in NSW; however, a blanket decision to remove electives won’t fix it. A better solution would be using the knowledge of teachers evidenced in designing and writing some of the outstanding Endorsed Courses available for everyone. Philosophy anyone?

Debra Batley is a high school music teacher in North Western NSW. She is a current doctoral student at UNSW and her research area is in educational equity and its interaction with creative arts curriculum. In 2017-2019 with funding from AIS NSW she completed a 2 year long school based research project, examining the impact school based music tuition could have as a remediation tool for older readers who were not meeting stage outcomes. Debra is also the Chair of ASME NSW and is a passionate advocate for high quality music education for all students.

Music ed isn’t a luxury. All of our children should be learning music

Learning music can increase thinking skills, enrich strategies for learning and creativity, and enhance connections across subjects. We keep discovering more reasons to foreground music education in our schools. So why haven’t state governments acted to support music education and reform?

As I see it, music education has now been in the ‘too hard basket’ for at least a generation of Australian students. We continue to suffer a malaise in long-term governmental policy direction.

Lack of funding – heads in the sand

It’s been 14 years since the 2005 National review of school music education “recommended placing a priority on improving and sustaining the quality and status of music education in schools and providing sufficient funding to support effective music education”. 

The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into the extent, benefits and potential of music education in Victorian schools made 17 recommendations to improve music education in Victoria. A future direction of the inquiry was for the “Victorian Government needing to develop a music education strategy to ensure that all Victorian students can have the opportunity to experience a quality school music education program.” This too remains patently neglected.

The South Australian government is acting on compelling benefits by committing to a four-year strategy of investment and impact for long-term outcomes to lift music education in early-years classes, teacher upskilling and resource development in that state.

Yet, most states endure cuts to music education, and in Victoria government funding of instrumental music education has not improved in over 20 years. The number of schools and students in Australia with no instrumental music tuition available continues to increase.

Many Victorian students in government schools, along with students in other government schools around the country, do not receive a continuous, sequential and developmental music education.

When it comes to music education, there are stark differences in equity between public and private schools, and urban and rural centres nationally.

How music impacts wider domain learning

A growing body of evidence supports the developmental benefits of music learning. Findings from recent neuroscientific research have highlighted the benefits music making has on learners’ brains. It helps develop:

A recent 2019 Canadian study of over 112,000 secondary students found that students who participate in music-related activities – particularly instrumental music between years 7-12 achieved significantly higher scores on science, math, and English exams in high school than non-musical classmates.  

So parents’ growing concern with maths and science education, instead of music, may be an ill-considered approach to their child’s schooling. Responding to parental urge to encourage a maths/science or music learning, the study asserted:

the irony that music education—multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level—can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.

How does music enhance learning?

  • Learning an instrument and playing in a band enhances diverse modes of thinking and cognition. Music tuition is replete with formative feedback and assessment, where teachers continually assess and give feedback during the learning process. Consistent expert demonstration, feedback and dialogue develops a powerful learning relationship that promotes self-efficacy and motivation to learn. Research behind the Australian Teachers Toolkit asserts formative assessment can advance a students’ learning by 8 months over their high school life.
  • The learning environment and teacher dynamic greatly support metacognition, where students ‘learn how to learn’. They develop reflective skills (thinking about what they have learned) and reflexive skills (responding immediately to feedback), behaviours and specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning to get better. Additionally, this cultivation of personal impulses and self-regulation of learning nuanced socially by band/ensemble activity can additionally advance learning by 7 months.
  • It immerses learners in authentic interdisciplinary learning by integrating languages, maths, science and other arts in a sequential, creative, reflective and purposeful learning adventure.
  • Music tuition offers a way for students to grapple with emotions and learn how to express them as they mature. They experience teamwork and an understanding of collective good and how to develop it, including goal-setting, motivation and ambition and how to attain it, and artistic creation for its intrinsic value.
  • The “neurological benefits of music education and its contribution to personal and skills development” were showcased in the ABC TV series ‘Don’t Stop the Music’. The support and development of this production was assisted by the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME), the peak body supporting music education and advocacy nationwide.
  • Further, my research on the learning processes involved in acquiring improvisational musical skills shows how effective music education develops layered metacognitive capacities for learning and creativities across individual, teacher-to-student and group/ensemble activities.

Start purposefully and early

The late Richard Gill, renowned artistic director of the Sydney Symphony education program, asserted that music holds the key to providing a quality education system. General education can be greatly enhanced by music education, but impactful and habitual learning of music needs to start early.

Most Australian primary school Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses include an average of 28 hours of music learning ­­- this pales in comparison to training in music education in South Korea with 160 hours and Finland with 270 hours. In Finland music learning starts in kindergarten as an essential part of early childhood learning.

An increased allocation of funding together with a more equitable outreach to primary and secondary schools for instrumental music can start to turn the tide in government/private school inequity. The significance of music departments in private schools highlights their awareness to the benefits. Yet government attitudes seem to be that music, and the arts in general, are a luxury for the financially able – perpetuating a societal cognitive poverty.

Considerable research now asserts that a significant factor in improving student academic outcomes is a holistic approach to schooling where students are engaged and enjoying their learning. Music and the arts are central to such improvement and engagement with school and in wider society.

Much work needs to be done in developing innovative teaching skills and strategies in Initial Teacher Education, supporting teacher professional development, providing time in the curriculum and funding public school music programs towards sustainable and impactful music education.

 Two decades of government inaction must end. Our students – the workforces of the future deserve better.

Leon R. de Bruin is an educator, performer and researcher in music education, creativity, cognition, collaborative learning, creative pedagogies, and improvisation, and works in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He is ASME National Vice-President and co-editor of the Brill Publication: Creativities in Arts Education, Research and Practice: International Perspectives for the Future of Learning and Teaching, and co-author of Creativity in Education in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education