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Let music lead Ruddís revolution

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Friday, 22 February 2008

Quality teaching of music in all Australian schools must become a high priority in the education revolution Kevin Rudd promises. If it does not, he will disappoint a great many citizens and condemn the nation’s children to a second-rate education.

Why is this so? And what is necessary to deliver universal, effective music education?

As the Prime Minister stands there at the helm and Julia Gillard formulates her education policy, the answers are right there under their noses. And the two previous Ministers for Education, now Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, would do well to remind them of this.


National review of music education in schools

In 2004-05 the then Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, initiated the National Review of Music Education in Schools. It attracted about 6,000 submissions - an unprecedented response to a government enquiry. There was obviously a lot of passion among the public about giving all school students access to quality music teaching.

The Government funded a report by Professor Margaret Seares based on the findings of the Review. In her introduction she wrote: “Raising the quality and status of music education will have a positive impact on the breadth and depth of aesthetic, cognitive, social and experiential learning for all Australian students and, ultimately, for our society at large.”

The broad thrust of the report was summarised thus:

  • music education is valuable and essential for all Australian school students;
  • students miss out on effective music education;
  • high priority action is needed in a number of particular areas;
  • quality teaching is the key;
  • effective teacher education is essential;
  • the partners in effective music education need to take leadership and action roles; and
  • raising the status of music in schools will improve the quality of music in schools.

For substantial reform along these lines to occur, Seares pointed out, required “collaborative action and a leadership role for the Australian government”. The report made 99 recommendations in all.

The Seares’ Report led to a national summit convention of music educators and organisations. The result was a blueprint for government action.


Coalition support fades

Not long after the music summit in 2006 a cabinet reshuffle replaced Nelson with Julie Bishop. She made a couple of very helpful but minor funding announcements and apparently did little more in response to the Seares’ Report and the summit’s recommendations.

Bishop did, however, proclaim (PDF 605KB):

The educational success of our children depends on our creating a society that is literate, creative, and imaginative. Music education is an integral part of developing these key skills.

This surely must be taken as testimony that music education is essential for all Australian schools.

Quality teaching of music must be in the core curriculum

As a musician and long-time music teacher I naturally have a keen interest in the issue. For me, music is real life. After all, evidence suggests that humans were singing and making music before they had language, and there is even a substantial argument that the ability to sing was the foundation for language.

But my advocacy for music in schools is based on a solid foundation of not only personal experience but also a growing body of educational research. Consider for example the following.

  • Learning music enhances general memory and concentration.
  • Children who learn music tend to handle stress more easily.
  • Learning music significantly facilitates development in mathematics and English, both oral and written.
  • Students who have regular music lessons are inclined to learn foreign languages much more easily.
  • Children in a musical program tend to develop superior social skills and to manage their time more effectively.

Such findings provide a strong basis for including music in the core curriculum for all schools.

Yet most children in Australian schools do not have access to effective music education. A trained music specialist is essential to teach music properly in a school. The Music Council of Australia demonstrated that only 23 per cent of public school students had access to such a specialist, compared with 88 per cent of private school students. The same body also found that at least 74 per cent of the Australian public believes provision of music education should be mandatory in every school. (The figure was 87 per cent when the question was about “learning an instrument”.)

Music education excluded from the national curriculum debate

So it is clear that music is essential to quality education, that most children aren’t getting it, and that the Australian community wants it.

Yet the Federal and State governments do not propose to include it in the national curriculum. The four components are to be English, mathematics, science and history.

There is nothing surprising about the first three. More unexpected was the readiness to give history a guernsey ahead of all other possibilities. What, we might ask, does history have that makes it more important than music? For the evidence indicates that learning music could underpin students’ progress in history as well as English, mathematics, science and much else.

In contrast with Australia, in the last couple of years the United Kingdom has taken great strides. Its Music Manifesto aims to ensure that all schoolchildren get involved with music-making.

The education game - a match of mixed doubles

Now that the Australian Government is in the hands of the Labor Party, it will be interesting to watch the education game played anew. It will be a peculiar match of mixed doubles. On one side the two former Ministers of Education, Nelson now Opposition Leader, with Bishop as his Deputy and Shadow Minister. On the other side Prime Minister Rudd himself with Julia Gillard as his Deputy and Minister for Education. So far the government pair seems, by its silence, to be relegating music to the margin of the school curriculum at best.

Will Nelson continue to champion music education as he did before 2006? Will Bishop’s actions reflect her assertion that “music is integral” to our children’s educational success?

The Opposition could win plenty of electoral support by putting pressure on the government to give high priority to effective music education in Australian schools. The main winners, though, would be the Australian community, particularly the children.

Before long Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop should be settled into their new roles on the Opposition benches. Will they then face the music?

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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Related Links
Music Council of Australia
Music in Australia - Knowledge base

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