Music gets small boost as arts sector steps up criticism of curriculum review

Story by Sue McCreadie 

richard_sqOctober 22, 2014:  Music appeared to be the winner this week in the proposed shakeup of the national arts curriculum.

The federal government announced a new music education mentorship scheme worth $594,000 to be led by Richard Gill, one of Australia’s most impassioned advocates of music education.

But the announcement was not enough to diffuse criticism from the arts community of the government’s review of the national curriculum and what they claim is under-resourcing of teacher development.

Richard Letts, executive director of the Music Trust, established a year ago to advocate for music in education, said he hoped the mentorship initiative would inspire further action. But he cautioned that on its own it was “a drop in the ocean”.

The three-year pilot mentorship scheme, announced on Monday by arts minister, George Brandis, and education minister, Christopher Pyne, will partner just 50 teachers in the first year with music education professionals.

“There are some 250,000 primary school teachers and 150,000 of those are not able to teach the arts because they have not received the education that would equip them to do that,” said Letts. “We estimated that each teacher needs 100 hours of professional development to get them up to scratch.”

The latest debate over music education comes amid ongoing criticism from the arts community of the Review of the Australian Curriculum undertaken by Kevin Donnelly and Kenneth Wiltshire and released by the government last week.

The report went against a new arts curriculum supported by ten major arts organisations, and endorsed by all education ministers in July 2013, to recommend that only music and visual arts should be compulsory for Foundation to Year 10. Drama, dance and media arts would be subsumed into other subjects.

The report ruffled feathers by claiming the new curriculum appeared to have been “cobbled together to reach a compromise among the advocates of all five art forms”. The authors also claim “making” had been privileged over “learning how to make” and called for a major rewriting of the arts curriculum.

But Julie Dyson, chair of National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE), whose membership embraces approximately 10,000 arts teachers, said that it had taken five years of consultation to develop the new curriculum. “There shouldn’t be an argument at this point. It’s about providing an education to all children across all five art forms, including those in disadvantaged, regional and remote schools. It’s not about producing elite artists or instrumentalists,” she said.


Bethwyn Serow, Executive Director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, said the curriculum aimed to provide a base level of exposure to each art form, which in primary schools would amount to just over an hour a week.“So I don’t think there’s an issue here about overcrowding the curriculum,” she said.

In its formal response to the report the NAAE said the review was premature. “There has been little opportunity to test the five arts subjects in the classroom.” NAAE wants the arts curriculum to be enabled in its present form and for the process of refinement to be managed by classroom teachers.

The NAAE response rejects the assertion that the curriculum had been ‘cobbled together’. “It is well documented that Australia’s five arts subject curricula were in fact written by some of the most experienced leaders in the disciplines.”

However, the review team did not consult NAAE or other peak bodies in the arts. Instead it took advice from several subject specialists including Sydney Grammar principal John Vallance, whose report was highly critical of the arts curriculum.

The Music Trust accepted that Mr Vallance was a friend of arts education and supported his call for high quality mentoring and training for teachers across the country. But Letts said there was still no strategy to make that happen. “It isn’t practical to train 150,000 teachers to the level required,” he said.

The Trust had put forward an option based on the Hong Kong model whereby teachers would specialise in a group of subjects and children would learn from three or four teachers with complementary skills.

“The only other option is to use specialist teachers, which is the secondary school model. But the risk is they become outriders. Under our proposal pastoral care would still achieved and they would remain entwined with the school”, said Letts.

Several arts bodies have criticised the report’s recommendation that formal learning in the arts be delayed until Year 3.

NAAE said research showed that frequent planned art-making activities in the early years stimulate brain development that supports accelerated learning in other areas. “The arts curriculum should be taught in F–2 and teachers must be trained to teach it.”

Music Australia said research has shown music education has a significant impact on the cognitive reaction of children to learn how to read, write and to understand number systems. NAAE did support the report’s recommendation that “the considerable resourcing costs associated with delivering the arts curriculum need greater consideration.”  

Christopher Pyne plans to table the report at a December meeting of state and territory education ministers.