Reassessment of The Music Trust advocacy program in support of school music education
Richard Letts with assistance from the field
February 5, 2015
The Music Trust education advocacy program in late 2013 took over the work led by Dick Letts at the Music Council of Australia. Encouraged by the publication of the National Review of School Music Education in 2005 and subsequent national attention to arts education under the Commonwealth project to develop an Australian Curriculum: The Arts, it attempted to devise and advocate system-wide structures for music education.
That curriculum has now been published and it is to an extent possible to assess the probabilities that the education systems will adopt practices that will enable it to be taught in schools and for its modest achievement standards to be realised. This would require substantial new commitments that so far as we are aware, have been proposed by no system. The reassessment describes the obstacles and concludes that while it is important to continue to attempt to achieve systemic change, at this time, it makes sense to shift our efforts to a more local and opportunistic strategy that builds success from the bottom up.
Our basic expectation
We want all children to receive a high quality music education throughout the school years.
What might that look like? Here is a reasonable minimum expectation.
• It begins in “Foundation” (Kindergarten, Preparatory) and is continuous until the end of the primary years
• It is provided or offered to every student. (There is a discussion to be had around providing or offering.)
• It includes at least one class every week of at least 40 minutes duration. (In K-2, if music is taught by a skilled classroom teacher, it might be spread across the week in shorter periods.)
• It includes creating, vocal and instrumental performance, listening and contextual understanding
• It is taught by a teacher competent to facilitate learning in all the above processes, enthusiastic, who arouses enthusiasm in the children
• One outcome is that at each year level students can perform accurately and expressively and by Year 6 can, for instance, sing songs in several parts. (I choose that as an example because it is a test of whether the teacher is sufficiently skilled.)
Do you agree that this is a reasonably expectation?
It isn’t going to happen.
That is the conclusion after watching developments over the last decade since the instigation of the National Review of School Music Education.
What isn’t going to happen? The provision of this opportunity to all children. Some children, especially the children of the affluent, by one means or another already receive such a music education. Most do not.
As stated here so often already, the main problem is that our primary school teachers are given the responsibility for teaching music but for the most part are not given more than a token music education. Why cannot that be changed?
Here are the important obstacles to adequate music education for teachers
• Universities providing graduate and post-graduate teacher education are not willing to commit the resources to mandatory pre-service music education necessary to enable all (or any of) their graduates to teach the music curriculum
• State accreditation authorities are complicit in this: they do not require that this basic standard should be met even though it is they who have set the curricula
• Education Ministers do not require that the accreditation authorities should mandate that standard
• The primary school workforce as a result of three or four decades of token pre-service education in music through no fault of its own has little musical competence
• No Australian government has a plan to offer adequate remedial music education to the workforce nor is one likely because of scale and cost: perhaps 100 hours of professional development for more than 100,000 teachers.
The solution that is logistically feasible and pedagogically preferable is to employ specialist music teachers in primary schools (as in Queensland government schools and most private schools, and in secondary schools).
• No state shows any sign of adopting this scenario for their system (on the Queensland model or any other). Nor does the Commonwealth indicate an intention to support such a scheme although Minister Pyne favours the introduction of specialist teachers generally
o The use of specialist music teachers was recommended by the recent Victorian government inquiry into school music education. While Victoria is introducing improvements to music education, we have heard of no systematic plan for using specialist teachers – nor, indeed, for musically educating all primary generalist teachers.
• There are insufficient accredited primary school specialist music teachers. Because most education departments do not employ them systematically, there may have been an assumption that there is insufficient employment. However, it is our understanding that provision may be gradually improving.
• Principals in every state can employ primary school specialist music teachers for their own schools using discretionary funds; there are varying requirements for accreditation. (In some cases, they could be trained musicians without a teacher qualification, for instance.)
• The Australian Primary Principals Association does not support the training of specialist teachers for primary schools (stated in a letter to NAAE). (We are inclined to think that that position will not long be tenable.) It states its support for arts education as a “foundational entitlement” but not a “core subject”. What in practice does that mean?
In addition to these issues about the availability of musically trained teachers, music and the arts face other problems.
• NAPLAN and the emphasis on literacy and numeracy. The preoccupation with NAPLAN test scores consumes time and resources that in some schools were previously available for teaching of other subjects such as the arts. On top of that, we have discovered that the time given to some other areas such as the social sciences has expanded under the national curriculum while the time for the arts has contracted.
• Most departments do not collect data on the incidence of school music teaching nor its outcomes. They may not know in which schools music is taught nor have any idea of outcomes such as standards achieved. So there is no accountability at any level except as related to the HSC. This would not be countenanced for subjects that departments view seriously. What is worse, they may pretend that there is activity because there is a syllabus that is supposedly required to be taught – but is not.
• Gonski in doubt. While the Gonski reforms would provide more funding to disadvantaged schools and they then could have chosen to spend some of it on music education, the Federal Government’s policies have thrown implementation into doubt.
• The five art forms. The Australian Curriculum includes five art forms on an equal basis: dance, drama, media arts, music and visual arts. Music and visual arts have until now generally been favoured over the other three. Now, in principle, all compete for classroom time. Some children have little affinity for music and a strong affinity for another art form and it is right that they should have the opportunity to explore that. But there will be problems for schools in finding class time and teacher expertise in all the five art forms. Any pre-service, post-service or specialist training we promote for music could be quintupled if applied to all of the arts. That obviously can be an impediment to our plans.
In summary, the dream of a good school music education for all children seems to be sabotaged, for now, by these quite enormous obstacles.
Where are today’s positive indicators?
Music and arts education are on the official agenda. A Commonwealth inquiry into music education reported in 2005 and a Victorian inquiry reported in 2014. The arts, after initial omission from the national curriculum, were added after lobbying by the NAAE. All states except, we understand, New South Wales, are adopting the Australian Curriculum: The Arts or their own adaptation thereof. Most are developing their own teaching materials (NSW is not and intends to teach its own existing curriculum). The national curriculum sets achievement standards against which performance can be evaluated. Accountability is possible (if not guaranteed). While there are serious questions about governments’ real intention to ensure that the syllabuses are taught, this is at least a step forward.
Media reports about the value of arts education seem to proliferate. Presumably they would not be published were it not believed that they are of interest to the readership. We have the impression that while a couple of decades ago, the arts were widely viewed with various sorts of antipathy, they are now much more widely accepted as an expected part of life. On January 2, 2015, on the ABC 7.30 News, there was an excellent story about arts education in a Sydney primary school. The message was that children need to learn to be creative, not that they need arts learning for its own sake; but the involvement of the arts was taken for granted. The message that we have been putting out there for so long may be feeding back to us.
Musically active principals. The successes that are the most relevant may be those brought about by committed principals in regular schools. If, as seems likely, we cannot get meaningful system-wide support from the Primary Principals’ Association, then we can bypass it and go to individual principals. (APPA may eventually follow.) Around the country, there is a move to greater autonomy for individual schools and this gives more power to principals. Our task could be to identify, encourage and support principals who are willing to initiate or develop their school music programs.
As a corollary, we could encourage Ministers and Departments to facilitate and support the principals’ decisions.
Promotion by pedagogical systems. Example: Musical Futures. This is a student-centred pedagogical approach developed in England and promoted commercially in Australia in the last few years. It has been adopted by 400 Australian schools. The pedagogy was conceived for secondary school students but in Australia, has been extended downwards to years 5 and 6 – even to 3 and 4. The general point is that the promotion has been successful, there could be more of it and it could even be emulated by other pedagogies such as Orff or Kodaly. We are especially interested in adoption by schools that do not yet have music education programs.
It might be noted that Musical Futures has secured support from the Victorian government as it implements recommendations from its inquiry. Part of the appeal probably is that it offers a new approach. It is probably more difficult to persuade governments to do things they have failed to do for decades past. Musical Futures also put in the hard yards in advocacy and promotion, over an extended period. That is an object lesson.
Digital learning packages. Interactive music learning packages have been developed by a number of Australian organisations including Musica Viva, The Song Room and Jellybeans, as well as foreign organisations. They are designed in particular to assist generalist teachers in primary school classrooms. They train students but also directly or indirectly train teachers. As a rule, it is intended that teacher education is based on live workshops, face to face or online, supplemented by the packages. They make it possible for keen teachers to continue with self-instruction in their own time. The usual courses depending totally upon face-to-face workshops confront impediments of cost, and therefore time; for instance, they usually require payment for teacher time or for replacement teachers. We understand that generally, students do not persist with digital learning packages and there is massive dropout. This may be in part a consequence of the design of the contents but probably an even greater factor is that the learner is alone with the package. Will the face to face involvement with mentors be sufficient to retain teachers’ commitment? Probably, we should not expect as an outcome that teachers achieve musical competence comparable to that of a music specialist teacher.
There also are commercially available instrumental instruction packages which might play a role. Some include online lessons with expert teachers.
Teacher education by music organisations. Music organisations offering classroom performances and workshops for children, such as Musica Viva, most orchestras and opera companies and various small ensembles, in some cases also offer workshops for teachers. Such service seems to be expanding. These workshops usually are one-off, or short series and therefore are unlikely to deliver more than basis skills. One of our commentators writes that “They are good but not immersive enough. They also tend to have the teacher working in isolation. The better models have them working in groups.” Nevertheless, given the paucity of pre-service music education, they may bring about a useful expansion of teacher skills.
Advocacy at school level by parents. Parents have been the key movers in many schools in causing the introduction of a music program. The school principal may not be the instigator and might act only as a result of approaches by parents. Parents can go beyond advocacy and offer active support. In many schools in affluent areas, parents fund programs. In disadvantaged areas, they may be able to offer other types of support.
So what do we do?
Firstly, do not give up the dream of system-wide solutions and press for them when the circumstances are promising.
But secondly, adopt a strategy for now, to suit the times. What suits the times? Since system-wide decisions by Ministers or bureaucracy that will result in competent delivery of the music curriculum to all children seem very unlikely, we can opt instead to cause decisions for music at the school level or possibly at the school cluster or regional level.
Initiative 1. Persuade and support principals.
Rationale. With growing delegation of authority to schools, the principal has the authority to make program decisions and usually a modest discretionary budget from which to fund them. Already, many principals employ music specialist teachers – most primary schools in Tasmania and the main centres in the NT, high proportions in ACT, SA and WA, unknown but probably lesser percentages in NSW and VIC. With lively encouragement and support, probably many more principals would act. Probably, similar decisions could be made at cluster or regional level by those in charge.
The best strategy would include advocacy and support. What follows is a set of possibilities rather than a plan.
• Advocacy – direct to principals, indirect to wider audience
• Direct advocacy
o Prepare statements about intrinsic and instrumental benefits
o Find ways to deliver these to principals; collaborate with other advocacy groups and service organisations; use emails etc. and direct presentations at, for instance, PPA conferences
o Attempt to have the message delivered by other principals; see under Support below
• Indirect advocacy: Create a supportive context in which principals can take decisions for music education without fear of criticism and with expectation of support
o Advocate to Ministers and system decision makers to ensure their access to, even understanding of the arguments, and to enlist their support for, or at least lack of opposition to, principals’ positive decisions
o Contribute to positive media coverage of the issues through eg placement of articles, proposals for TV segments, documentaries etc
o Place stories linking music education with Australia’s international success in music or music business
o Speculation: principals are likely to listen to arguments from other principals. Build on the passion of some principals for music education. Perhaps attempt to form a principals’ interest group in a state or region where success is most likely (later, extend to others). Devise a strategy where this passion can be displayed, indulged by the converted and transmitted to others. For instance, there could be an annual one-day conference that includes performances by a couple of marvellous school ensembles, reports/boasting by some principals, attendance by a famous artist, canvassing of brilliant ideas, reports of new research – a day that leaves everyone breathtaken. Principals who are thinking of adding a music program could also attend; in due course, such people could be recruited to attend.
The flame could be kept alive during the year through some sort of communication – newsletter, reports, videos of kids’ performances etc. Principals are leaders and there is no reason that they could not organise this, but may need hand-holding or industry connections at first. (How to do this? Need an expert group.)
o More prosaically: Provide information on such matters as possible program structures and choices, new research, criteria for teacher selection (crucial), how/where to find teachers, funding methods
o Provide information about supplementary resources: PD options and providers, live performance and workshop providers, available digital learning packages including comparative information and evaluations.
o Overall, find ways to make is easier for principals to institute or improve a music program.
Initiative 2. Persuade and advise parent advocacy and support efforts
• Recruit parents’ groups
o Primarily, the objective should be the formation of groups which would initiate music programs in schools that lack them. This probably means in most cases the initial recruitment of an individual who will form a group. How to reach these individuals who by definition probably are not yet known? Work through state P&Cs? Other possibilities?
o The recruitment material probably paints a picture of what their children could be receiving. It would also include advocacy materials used firstly to persuade the recruits and then secondly for them to use to persuade other parents and principals
o A strategy to develop parent support for an existing program is to create performing groups for parents, or even for parents and children together. Apart from the advocacy/support potential, there can be pedagogical benefits for the children.
o A possibility for schools that already have a music program is to set up a performing group for parents. From there, they are more likely to extend their activities to support of the children’s music program.
• Provide advocacy materials
o These materials would be used by parents to persuade principals and therefore would be essentially the same as those developed for our direct advocacy. Possibly they would be repurposed so as to be understood by inexpert parents rather than expert principals.
o Materials can be presented in other, innovative ways. For instance, a memory stick could lead to an advocacy page which has links to all manner of materials including short videos by famous artists or to inspiring performances by student groups in many genres. The Music Trust could set up a Facebook page where parents can discuss ideas and problems.
• Provide operational advice
o Develop written materials that give some guidance about setting up an advocacy group and devising its plans and activities
o If possible (probably requires funds) offer a consultation service to assist parent advocates to negotiate the tricky bits.
o As a supplement or possible alternative, an online arrangement could be set up to enable exchange of information among activist parents.
o As with the principals, perhaps there could be parent enthusiast groups that occasionally organise inspirational gatherings for a particular geographical area.
Initiative 3. Encourage provision of tertiary education to produce specialist music teachers.
There is a move towards specialist education in many disciplines. In music, the model that we hear about most often is for an initial music degree of three or four years followed by an education course of 18 months to two years. There is de facto employment in that quite large number of schools in which principals have decided to employ music specialists: most independent schools and a number of public and Catholic schools. In the state schools, the most common source of funding is the money provided to give classroom teachers relief time from the classroom. The replacement teacher must be accredited and therefore, if teaching music, should be an accredited music specialist. If our scheme is successful, the opportunities should expand. These arguments can be made to tertiary institutions.
• People with generalist teaching accreditation could add a music qualification. This may not be as satisfactory because of a lesser depth of musical skill and understanding. Most people taking a tertiary qualification in music began their music education in childhood. People taking a qualification in education usually begin their training as adults at university.
• It is suggested that skilled instrumental teachers without accreditation could seek accreditation and in the process also seek expertise in teaching classroom music. Suitable courses would be needed.
• A strong criticism of the output of some specialist music teacher courses is that the graduates lack the music skills needed in the classroom and rather, have concentrated on the less relevant skills of high competence on a single musical instrument. Thought needs to be given.
Initiative 4: Research support
There is an abundance of research from recent decades. It has had an impact on public opinion, if not on the actual education system. For instance, most politicians to whom we speak accept that the case is proven that music education causes improved results in reading and mathematics.
A broad EU evaluation of Western research discovers many other benefits but finds that much of the research does not convincingly demonstrate causality. Most research attempts to show correlations from which causality can be inferred but unless there is strong control of variables, other explanations can compete with the one showing music education as cause.
We have an entire Australian state, Queensland, in which nearly 90% of primary school children receive at least a weekly music class from a music specialist teacher. This occurs in no other state. There would seem to be here a wonderful opportunity – experimental state vs control states – to show that music education causes improved academic outcomes. But the academic outcomes of Queensland primary school students are not superior to those from other states. There are too many uncontrolled variables to attempt to show such a broad consequence of music education.
In any case, the proposition that the addition of music education, unspecified, of any kind, will result in improvement in a broad range of academic scores, self-confidence, self-esteem, social skills and more seems too ambitious. Some more acute researchers believe that particular types of music education can result in particular types of instrumental benefits; we must be much more specific about the nature of inputs and outputs.
As a more general observation, it seems that much of the research showing non-musical benefits involves learning to perform on a musical instrument. But most school music paid for by governments is “classroom music” which may or may not include performing on instruments; if it does include instrumental performance, there is a strong likelihood that the instruments are classroom instruments used for a short time once a week in the classroom. There is no daily practice. In Queensland, the state with the best overall provision of music education, practically everyone is in a classroom music program but only 11% receive instruction on real world musical instruments.
Most probably you and I value most highly the intrinsic benefits of music education. But we can infer from the general preoccupations of politicians and the political discourse that advocating the development of music education on the basis of its intrinsic benefits will be futile. Instead, we must make a case based upon the extra-musical benefits. So far, that also has been futile but perhaps shows some promise for useful decisions in the indefinite future.
The strategy proposed here will seek to prompt decisions at school level. Our attention to research activity therefore also should focus at school level.
If we are to attempt to persuade more principals to take a decision to begin or develop a music program, what arguments can we offer from the research and what research should we encourage?
• The Music Trust website already includes research surveys that can assist.
• If resources allow, it would be helpful to evaluate selected projects so that emphasis can be placed upon those that convincingly demonstrate causality.
• Some principals may be persuaded only by research that shows that a music program designed within specific parameters will produce school-wide benefits that are measurable. Is there existing research from which such propositions can be developed?
• Further, if a principal takes a decision to set up a specific music program in order to achieve specific outcomes, we should be able to propose a way to attach a research program to test the results.
• It could be possible to work backwards: My school has poor maths outcomes. I will tackle this by setting up a music program designed to improve maths scores. We suggest this with some reluctance since the priority for us is the intrinsic benefits. But perhaps such a program would deliver the intrinsic as well as the extrinsic benefits. That could be evaluated too.
• The Music Trust has set up an annual award for research demonstrating the benefits of music education. Award guidelines can be used to encourage rigorous and relevant projects.
CODA: The ‘Hong Kong” solution: all primary school teachers are specialists
Primary school teachers would specialist in a few subjects. Children would be taught by teams of teachers with complementary skills. The creative arts would be more secure because they would have the same base as all other subjects. For more information, see the Appendix.
The Hong Kong model, adapted to Australia
All primary school teachers would be subject area specialists, each teaching their choice of, say, 3 or 4 subject disciplines. Disciplines would include the arts. Sets of disciplines would be complementary.
Children would be taught by say three teachers with complementary sets of disciplines covering the entire curriculum. For instance, a set of disciplines might be mathematics, science, music. English literature, history, dance, drama. English language, geography, visual arts, a foreign language.
Under this scheme, future teachers would choose subjects for which they have enthusiasm and probably some talent in which to specialise. This enthusiasm and skill must carry through to the classroom.
One of the three teachers is assigned in addition to be the classroom teacher for one particular class – the point of greatest stability.
Pastoral care is improved because children are no longer hostage to the success of a relationship with a single classroom teacher; they still have regular contact with a small number of teachers with whom they form relationships.
This is an elegant and cost-effective solution to a situation in which the curriculum is both diversifying and requiring increasing discipline expertise from teachers – to a level which it appears many are unable to achieve.
The costs of teacher training and school operation are not increased. Rather, tasks are redeployed. Teachers are trained in the same number of hours overall. The same number of school students is taught by the same number of teachers during the same time frames.
Implementation would be gradual over a number of years.
Arts teaching provision problems would be solved.
Despite its obvious attractions, the concept departs far from business as usual. It could mean a tremendous revitalisation of primary school education but would require courage and determination on the part of the Minister and senior bureaucrats.