New report and book set agenda for music education’s future

Image via Unsplash by Markus Spiske

A comprehensive national report on music education in Australia has been released by the independent music publishing and production company Alberts, through its philanthropic arm The Tony Foundation. Entitled Music Education: A Sound Investment, its lead writer is Dr Anita Collins, the internationally recognised researcher in brain development and music learning whose major new book, The Music Advantage, has also just been published by Allen & Unwin.

The 54-page report, co-written with Dr Rachel Dwyer, Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at USC, and social impact consultant Aden Date, was commissioned by The Tony Foundation in order “to inform their vision to use music to achieve improved life outcomes for young people”. It can be accessed here.

The last time such a report was undertaken was in 2005. This was the National Review of School Music Education: Augmenting the diminished, commissioned by the Australian Government and authored by Robin Pascoe, Sam Leong, Judith MacCallum et al. It concluded that music education in Australian schools had reached “a critical point where prompt action is needed to right the inequalities in school music”; and it identified seven areas of “immediate priority” that demanded action, including improving access, participation and engagement in school music for all students, and improving teacher pre-service and in-service education.

Clearly much has happened since that last report was tabled. We’ve seen the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008, rollout of the Australian National Curriculum beginning in 2012, and a stimulation of public interest in the value of music learning brought about by ABC TV’s Don’t Stop the Music in 2018. This landmark three-part documentary was in fact supported by The Tony Foundation, along with other bodies, and notably featured Collins as the main speaker.

So this new report could hardly come at a more opportune time, and it is of singular importance in assessing whether the situation of music teaching in Australian schools has progressed or not in the last 15 years.

Sadly, the news it reveals is not good. Music Education: A Sound Investment concludes that “Music education in Australia continues to be inequitable, highly variable and in many cases undervalued and poorly understood.” The project team identified seven areas of concern:

  1. Systemic inequity – where support for music education in schools nationwide “is varied and differs across and within educational systems”
  2. Teacher education and training – where there are “currently insufficient numbers of trained and/or upskilled teachers of music”
  3. School leader education and expectations – where there is a “lack of access to, and understanding of, cutting-edge research into music education and brain development among school principals and other leaders”
  4. Australian Curriculum – where “Resources to inform the structure and interpretation across states/territories and systems of the Australian Curriculum requirements and benefits of music education are not available”
  5. NAPLAN and STEM – where literacy and numeracy have taken on “a privileged position over all other subject areas”
  6. Professional collaboration – where “not-for-profit organisations and representative bodies have worked largely in their own spheres” and without sufficient real collaboration
  7. The value of music education – where “There is not currently a shared understanding of the value or place and purpose of music education in every Australian child’s education.”

State by state, the report found that Queensland is the most successful jurisdiction in its delivery of quality music education, with around 85-90 per cent of government schools staffed with primary music specialist teachers and an Instrumental Music Program that has been boosted by $14.4m in additional funding over the next three years. The report observes that Tasmania has also been successful in assigning primary music specialists to almost all its schools.

However, other states have fared less well or have fallen well behind. The state-run NSW music curriculum, for example, “has not undergone a significant revision since the implementation of the Australian Curriculum in 2015”. In Victoria, efforts to improve music education “are still small and non-systemic” despite some positive recent funding initiatives. In Western Australia, the Instrumental Music Program there is described as “poor” in its reach outside metropolitan areas, while South Australia’s 10-year music education strategy is still yet to turn around a “crisis in the quality of music education”. The Northern Territory suffers from teacher turnover and a shortage of professional development opportunities.

The report focuses all its attention on the primary school level, where it says the most formative music education needs to take place, and it makes pointed comparisons between government-run schools and those in the Catholic and independent sector. It finds that the latter by and large offer high-quality music education. Comparisons are also made with Finland and Canada, showing that those countries outperform Australia in many respects such as curriculum delivery, workforce specialisation and resourcing.

Clearly there is much work to do. One of the main areas the report identifies is the need to increase the number and frequency of music classes taught in public schools. “The common result is one hour, once a week for one term in each school year”, it says, which makes it “impossible to reach the achievements standard” set by the Australian Curriculum.

The report finds that the responsibility for teaching most early childhood music is given to generalist early childhood teachers, rather than teachers equipped with music specialisations, and that only a small number of schools have the latter on staff. Furthermore, the standards of music specialisations are varied.

Music Education: A Sound Investment makes compelling reading. It gains its data from interviews with industry experts who are not only in education and music education but also in music organisations, research and philanthropy. It is backed up by an extensive array of research.

Meanwhile, Collins’ book, The Music Advantage, is a welcome addition to any teacher’s or parent’s library. Indeed it is destined to become the go-to source for all who are wanting to know the scientific reasons why learning music has so many flow-on benefits from infancy through to the teens and adulthood. It is a sophisticated book that weaves in the latest research whilst being easy to read. Its tone is conversational and approachable.

Drawing on her own neuromusical research and the work of many other experts, Collins starts with the proposition that sound is a natural part of a child’s life right from birth, and that music is integral to the processes of learning language, expanding social connections and gaining maturity. Each chapter deals with a different phase of a child’s life and the particular ways music acts as a powerful agent in the development of self.

There is much of interest. Along the way, one learns why babies prefer song over speech, why learning musical notation is important, how music helps stretch attention spans, and why Venezuela’s Il Sistema has been so successful.

The book is uniquely valuable for all readers who might have heard the “music is good for children” but wants to know why and how.

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