A call for a renewed and visionary commitment to arts-based learning for children in the Australian primary school system has come from the National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE). In February, this lobbying group, which comprises eight member organisations including Music Australia, met with Canberra politicians and arts department staff to urge a national rethink on the importance of arts education at primary level.
One of NAAE’s key points is that “arts skills are at least as important as literacy and numeracy”, and that arts subjects such as music should be prioritised alongside STEM-based learning (science, technology, engineering and maths) in order to prepare children for a rapidly evolving workforce. NAAE’s concerns are that while arts are a mandated part of the Australian Curriculum, this is “not translating into practice”, and pre-service training for primary teachers in the five arts areas – music, dance, drama, media arts and visual arts – is “perfunctory”.
“What is lacking is the provision of a properly resourced, logical, sequential trajectory throughout education and into work”, argues NAAE. “It is essential that all political parties make a commitment to the provision of effective training across all five arts disciplines to equip students for this future”. NAAE’s full statement can be found here.
Linda Lorenzo, Director of Learning and Engagement with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, is Music Australia’s representative on NAAE, and she says the arts have suffered as an area of learning for young people for a number of reasons. One is the overemphasis some schools have given to NAPLAN, which in turn has sidelined arts subjects.
“It really comes back to how individual schools approach NAPLAN,” she explains. “Testing is held in May, which means that if a school focusses all their attention in the first part of the year on getting their students through NAPLAN, with practice testing for example, arts are one of the first things that are dropped. NAAE is highlighting the idea that the arts are exactly what is important to get right, because they bring benefits to many other areas of a child’s education.”
Lorenzo believes part of the problem is that the media creates unnecessary hype, pressure and anxiety over NAPLAN. She says that the curriculum is not itself to blame but rather that it creates distortions in teaching.
“Unfortunately, a school’s reputation hangs on NAPLAN results. The original purpose of NAPLAN was to help identify where schools are at and to help identify resourcing needs, whether these might be in reading or numeracy – this was how it was established in the first place. However, one of the flaws in massive testing programs like this is that they ignore students’ individual needs and circumstances.”
“Schools should be allowed to get on with teaching, and they should be teaching to the curriculum, not to NAPLAN. The problems are not within the Australian Curriculum, which was developed in intensive consultation with teachers, schools and academics around the country. Teachers, notably primary generalist classroom teachers, using the curriculum are finding it functional and accessible.”
NAAE is also promoting the need for the arts to form an important part of preschool level. Lorenzo says they find a natural place in play-based learning, which is experientially based and allows children to explore and discover things for themselves: “That includes the possibilities of succeeding or failing in practical experience, which is the same idea occurs in science.”
Numerous studies show the benefits that music brings in young people’s overall development, she adds. “It actively engages both the left and right halves of the brain, so the logical and creative hemispheres have to work together if the child is listening to or learning to play music. Music also helps in recognising and perceiving numerical patterns. Plus it builds children’s confidence, self-expression and patience, because it takes time to learn to get it right.”