Z for Arts. Pyne’s review of the Australian arts curriculum

Post by , October 22nd, 2014

Christopher Pyne as Minister for Education decided to review the new national school curriculum instigated by the Labor Government. The review included the Arts curriculum.

I decided to take a look. Let’s see – where is the Arts section?

Uhuh. It comes last in the sequence in which subjects are listed. It’s a little like having a surname beginning with Z: it becomes your fate. Apprehension is automatic.
I was involved on the outskirts of the designing of the National Curriculum – later renamed the “Australian Curriculum”: The Arts. It’s interesting that the name changed. My guess is that the states resist anything that’s called “national”. There are fights you don’t need to have. I reckon ACARA, the curriculum authority, decided that was one of them.

That’s how it went. From a safe distance, I watched Rob Randall, the guy in charge, manage the clamour, the passions, the not necessarily noble and unselfish interests. Maybe I’m naïve (well I am, sorta) but it seemed to me there was integrity to it and a lot of skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted. There was an impressive amount of consultation and responsiveness over the four-year period. Zillions of people gave input. It seemed to be welcomed. Of course, you win some, lose some. If there are two opposing ideas, probably someone is going to be disappointed. And there was no avoiding the conflicting agendas of the states.

The arts curriculum was barely a done deal when Christopher Pyne announced the review. Give us a break! What is the agenda? Will all that work be thrown out?

This is important. It’s not that there are no good arts curricula around the place. But if we could get all the governments to agree on a perfectly reasonable curriculum, setting out what normal kids could normally expect to learn, then we could point out that most state and Catholic schools are quite unable to teach it. And maybe someone might be willing to do something about that!

At last we had a curriculum and everyone had agreed to teach it. Immediately the review. Paranoia.

And, as it turns out, well justified. The recommendations essentially call for a complete rewrite.

So far as it applies to the arts, this review is quite astonishing. And that is not intended as a compliment. It is full of important factual errors, incorrect assumptions, unsubstantiated assertions and in part, quite intemperate and even insulting criticism.

Here are some factual errors. These might not induce shock and horror but wouldn’t you think they are so basic that a serious review simply would not make them?

• The five artforms have a single curriculum, inappropriately sharing the same language. No, they each have their own curriculum using the usual language for each artform. There are some shared concepts and language in the background.
• Most schools are very active in at least four out of the five arts areas. Not true. For instance, the National Review of School Music Education found that only 23% of primary school children were taught music. Other research showed that 63% of primary schools have no classroom music program. For other artforms it must be comparable or even worse.
• The arts curriculum was not written by arts specialists. No, sheer invention. But all but one of the people known to us as responsible for the arts review were not arts specialists.
• The arts curriculum assumes that you must be either a producer of art or a member of the audience. No, it explicitly doesn’t. It states that they are interrelated.
• The curriculum is a compromise among the advocates of the five art forms. As a music advocate I can say that the only such discussions were about which terms or concepts were shared.
• “Not a lot of realistic thought has been given to the structure and sequencing of the components of each area.” The key part of the document after four years of thought is titled “Scope and Sequence”.

There are points and recommendations with which we strongly disagree.

• The review says that the arts should not have ancillary status but then recommends that Drama be subsumed into English and Dance into Health and Physical Education.
• Media Arts should become a separate standalone subject and substantially reduced in content. This seems to mean that Media Arts would be cut down and expelled from the Arts learning area. But Media Arts are the arts of the 21C.
• The arts should not be introduced formally until Year 3. In K-2, they should serve only as a “rich source of resource material” for a curriculum which would focus on literacy and numeracy. But if the arts are properly taught, key arts-instigated brain development happens during these years of brain plasticity.
• “The core content of all five strands should be reduced.” The need to do this was simply asserted. But the entire structure for five art forms for the 11 years from K-10 fills eight pages. 0.15 pages per artform per year. For the complete document, 2.5 pages. What would be reduced?
• “The content of each of the arts forms needs to be restructured and re-sequenced along the lines suggested by the subject matter specialists. The documents need be expressed in clearer language.” So a complete reconceptualisation and rewrite. One of the two “subject matter specialists” is in fact Dr John Vallance, the principal of Sydney Grammar and his special area is the classics. The other, Michele Chigwidden, whom we think is an arts teacher in an Adelaide primary school, does not make this recommendation. There is little indication of the “lines” for revision, rather just assertions of inadequacies. Dr Vallance complains that the language of the curriculum cannot be understood by students. It should have been written for 7 year-olds?

There are some important points of agreement.

• To teach the arts curriculum, specialist artform teachers will be needed for “advanced” levels. There could hardly be a more important recommendation. For music, advanced levels are year 3 and beyond. It probably varies from one artform to another.
• The resourcing costs associated with delivering the arts curriculum need greater consideration.
• Elements of the current arts curriculum should also be integrated into other learning areas such as English, health and physical education, history and technologies. We agree provided this is not a substitute for teaching the arts subjects in their own right.
• “The arts curriculum should be available to all students throughout all the years of schooling.” “Available” is weak but there is also a recommendation that two art forms, “probably music and visual arts”, should be mandatory. No reason is given for that choice.

In the curriculum meetings I attended, there was very strong, indeed universal agreement that the emphasis should be on art making. There is a much older view that students are qualified to make art only after they have been filled from the top with information. The recommendations of this review clearly adopt the opinions of Dr Vallance and it may be that he believes in that older approach. Things have moved on. Students need knowledge, skills, yes – and they need the opportunity to apply them continuously in creating art. That is how they, and we, will get the greatest benefit.

Whatever the source of Dr Vallance’s opinions, this review does an extremely poor job of explaining them. It is up to the states to decide on the fate of the various curricula. Some are already writing their syllabuses and testing the arts curricula in the classroom. We can only hope that they very carefully scrutinise the detail of this review before adopting any of its recommendations.


The commentary here is based on a much longer paper prepared by Richard Letts, Prof Gary McPherson and Mandy Stefanakis. This can be found at http://musicinaustralia.org.au/index.php?title=Response_to_the_Review_of_the_Australian_Curriculum,_Final_Report 

The Australian Curriculum: The Arts
Review of the Australian Curriculum. The arts section begins on page 212



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