For four years, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra has been running a project of pioneering significance that has no real equal anywhere else in this country. Crescendo is the name it gives to a teaching and social development program that takes place in two primary schools in the socially disadvantaged region of Kwinana, south of Perth.
With its basis in Venezuela’s famous El Sistema program it aims to “develop confidence, resilience, and emotional and social well-being” in a close relationship it has built up in those schools – Medina Primary School and North Parmelia Primary School.
Where other El Sistema-type teaching methods introduced in Australia have struggled to get going, WASO’s Crescendo has been a startling success. It has taught violin and classroom music to more than 350 children since it began in 2014, and will by 2020 will be providing music lessons to every student from Pre-primary to Year 6 in both these primary schools.
But where Crescendo gets really interesting is in how it has lifted NAPLAN results. A recent ABC News report has shown how the program has improved literacy and numeracy markedly, and it makes compelling reading. North Parmelia Primary School experienced a rise in results “above the national average within a year of starting the Crescendo program in 2014”, it reports. Additionally, “7.8 per cent of the school’s students scored in the top band scored in the top band of the ACER social and emotional wellbeing survey” last year, which compares with a national average of 3.6 per cent.
Both schools say the program has contributed to their successful NAPLAN and ACER scores.
Crescendo is managed and coordinated by Cassandra Lake, WASO’s executive manager of community engagement.
“I am hugely impressed with the kids’ achievement and improved NAPLAN scores and ACER rating,” she says. “For me NAPLAN is one of the measures, but ACER scores are just as important by measuring children’s social and emotional development. We have some kids who have responsibilities and difficulties that are well beyond their years. The program works to make them happy, resilient and well-rounded members of the community.”
“We establish a strong relationship with the schools to build music into their timetable,” Lake says. “The strength of any El Sistema program is the relationships it has with community – with schools, families and teachers. The success of this program lies in those relationships.”
All children from Pre-Primary to Year 4 in both schools receive music teaching in Crescendo, and by 2020 it will be every student up to Year 6. The program works by first giving children foundational experiences in music-making through welcome songs, goodbye songs, storybooks, meditation through music, games and other classroom-based activities.
“It really grounds the kids. The object is to use whatever means to draw their interest,” says Lake.
In later years, they learn the basics of notation and are given the opportunity to learn violin. “When they’ve achieved a gold star on violin in behavioural and musical aptitude, they can continue onto being a violin student,” she says.
The program now has more than 50 students learning violin.
Initially, there were three schools were involved in Crescendo, but one of them, Kwinana Christian School, unfortunately closed down at the end of 2015. That left just two, Medina and North Parmelia primary schools. “But what was really interesting was how many parents took their kids to Medina specifically to stay in the program – it was 10 to 12 kids,” says Lake.
WASO itself monitors the progress of Crescendo by using a ‘button feedback’ method. In this, the child presses a happy, neutral or sad face after each teaching experience. It is a simple method, but one that creates a consistent baseline of data. “The purpose is to track a happiness scale if you like,” explains Lake.
“It is now tremendous to discover how NAPLAN results are also showing the program is working,” she says. “The teachers often say to us that the level of concentration children acquire in Crescendo is wonderful and that they are able to take that back into other areas of the classroom.”
The evidence coming out of this program is heartening news, and it confirms that Sistema programs do indeed work. However, WASO’s initiative also clearly shows that in order to make them successful, considerable organisational resources, commitment plus a lot of work are needed to fully integrate them in with schools and local communities – it is not just a matter of implanting an idea and hoping it takes root by itself. Run the right way, the benefits can be profound.
See our earlier story on Symphony For Life, an El Sistema-inspired orchestral program in Sydney’s western suburbs, here.