|Article on music education in schools published in The Australian on October 17|
October 17 2012
The article gives key facts about the lack of music education in Australian primary schools and argues the case for a great increase in provision.
Music education: pay for play
This letter was published in The Australian on September 27 in the Inquirer section under the title “Music in the classroom provides nourishment to young minds”.
My friend Tim wants his child to attend a public primary school that has a music education program. This is not as easy as you might expect. To get to the nearest one, he has to drive across Parramatta past four other primary schools with no music programs. The distance from home puts him ‘out of the area’ so his son cannot be admitted. Must he look to the private system? Tim is despondent.
If your child goes to primary school in Australia he or she is pretty unlikely to be getting any music education unless you are paying for it. Kids in almost all independent schools receive a meaningful music education. Students in public schools in Queensland and Tasmania do better than their peers in other parts of the country. In the rest of Australia, new research shows that the proportion of our government primary schools with no classroom music at all could be 80- 90%.
A few weeks ago, Julia Gillard stated a new ambition: that Australia moves up the ‘PISA’ international league table for school education. She mentioned the countries that had most decisively ‘beaten’ Australia in scores for reading, mathematics and science: Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.
Interestingly, these countries also have better school music programs than does Australia. Every one of them gives more time to music; for instance, across China there is school music for two hours a week. The latest draft of the proposed Australian Curriculum in the Arts gives music about 15 minutes a week, a poor base from which to build the kind of ‘continuous, sequential, developmental’ music education recommended by the 2005 National Review of School Music Education.
In most state and Catholic systems, if music is taught at all, it is the responsibility of heroic classroom teachers who, on average, have had just 17 hours of mandatory music education in their undergraduate degrees. In Finland, classroom teachers receive at least 270 hours of music education, in Korea, 160 hours. In the other three PISA countries, music is taught by specialist music teachers.
So while it might be a stretch to put the proposition that our PISA superiors rank more highly than Australia because of their school music programs, we can at the least say that music has not got in the way.
But that proposition is actually not so far-fetched. There are now decades of research showing that a continuous music education based around music-making contributes to better scores in core academic subjects such as maths and reading. There are studies where students were regularly taken out of academic classes and put into music classes; their academic test scores increased.
Music can also contribute to the development of confidence, social skills, team work, self-discipline and much more. To make music well, the player or singer is using intricate intellectual, emotional and movement skills simultaneously, often in a very exact way with other performers, for self-expression and communication.
There are physical changes in the brain accompanying repeated activity of any sort, so it is no surprise that the brain changes in response to regular musical practice. But what appears to be unusual is that music making invokes simultaneous activity in many brain centres, some of which are seats of other, non-musical skills. So those centres also will grow in response to musical activity – and there is greater integration of mental activity across the brain. That may account in part for music’s positive effect on the development of such a broad array of abilities.
The other thing about music is that kids love it. There are many instances where the addition of a good music program to an underperforming school has lifted test results – simply because on music days, the kids turn up. If they are in school, they could be standing in the path of a fact, albeit accidentally.
In Australia, the Music Council has a program called Music: Count Us In – the biggest school music event in the world. Kids in schools learn a specially written song then perform it at the same time on the same day – this year, November 1. Last year, 600,000 kids in 2,000 schools participated. We run it with support from the federal government, which helps fund training for primary classroom teachers who want to get their students more involved in music but who feel disadvantaged by their own lack of music training (remember the paltry 17 hours?). Of course, it will take more than this program to address the paucity of, and inequities in, school music education.
A 2008 attitudes survey found that 88% of the adult population believes that all children should have the opportunity for a music education in schools. But other research shows that only 23% of public (and probably Catholic) school music programs offer programs that would meet the benchmarks of the National Review. There’s a poor connection between what most parents want and what they’re getting in most schools. Some savvy public and Catholic school principals fight the flight of students by building up their music programs, emulating the independent schools’ strategy of using their music programs to recruit students.
Other principals compete in the school leagues table by switching resources to lifting their NAPLAN scores, often abandoning programs in areas such as music. How come, then, that despite all the effort, most national scores are unchanged? Could it be that the kids are bored? Uninspired?
If we are being outperformed by nations where classroom music is a central tenet of school life and where music learning features more prominently in teacher training, shouldn’t we be piloting similar programs here? What have we got to lose?