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How about it, Mark and John - funding for arts education for Australian kids!

By Helen O'Neil - posted Friday, 24 September 2004

Amid multi-billion dollar budget allocations and globally driven security concerns, a national election campaign gives a rare chance to bring important but generally low profile issues to public attention.

The case for Government leadership in the provision of arts education to Australian school children rests on its proven effectiveness, for a very low outlay, in improving learning across a wide range of skills.  Even a modest outlay of $10 million directed at making music, drama, dance and visual arts more widely accessible to Australian students as well as arts teaching programmes of high quality, would spark change to boost literacy and numeracy skills in Australian schools. In contrast to the big ticket election promises, a small fund to pay for transport costs for touring arts companies, for example, can change learning for thousands of Australian students. A new commitment to teacher development in arts learning would see many more students able to take advantage of the benefits.

The demand is for education that prepares young Australians for a competitive work environment in which flexible creative thinking will be crucial. Literacy and numeracy skills are more important than ever, but students will also need visual literacy to cope with the design and image based communications of the future. Over recent years, both international and Australian research has shown arts rich education boosts overall learning and helps children become more focused and confident in their adult life. The results hold for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds as much as those from the higher socio-economic backgrounds for whom school plays and concert bands are a normal part of life.


Perhaps the major research project to ignite interest in arts education was the US Champions of Change. This collection of seven major studies of the role of arts education on the academic, behavioural, and thinking lives of children was produced by the national Arts Education Partnership, the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the GE Fund, and the John D.and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In a Chicago study, to take one example, students involved in the arts had 20 per cent better maths results than those not involved, and were 14 per cent better in reading skills. However the findings which have set off advocacy campaigns for change in many education districts across the US were those which showed the improvements came whatever the background of the children. Kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds - as well as those from more advantaged districts - showed gains in standardised tests and reading proficiency.

In Australia the first results are coming in from a cluster of research projects which are evaluating the outcomes of incorporating arts into learning in new programmes. Two inquiries launched this year within the Australian Department of Education Science and Training will evaluate the already existing programmes in music and visual arts across the country and should map the gaps in resources and curricula.

The Minister for Communications, IT and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan, and Education Minister Brendan Nelson, have already released the results of the first Australian research which looked at four arts-education programmes including a music education project for indigenous kids in the Northern Territory.  It was found that the children involved learned team-work skills, boosted their academic results and developed a new confidence and self esteem.

These and other findings  have underpinned new interest in incorporating arts-based learning into schools across the US and in the UK. Here in Australia the long tradition of school tours, and the commitment of many performing arts companies to bringing students to the theatre or concert hall give us a strong base to work from. The 28 member companies of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) have placed a high priority on education and schools programmes in recent years, particularly in making sure teacher training and materials are integrated into learning.

However, although the arts have been part of curricula since the early days of state education, there are gaps between states, and between cities and regional areas, and these gaps have serious implications for aspiring students

Both State and Federal ministers have acknowledged gaps in access to touring programmes taking quality performing arts to schools, and taking students to theatres and concert halls. Curriculum requirements vary across the states, while many arts programmes are funded by  parent contributions and fees - which are unaffordable for some families.  To enable more schools to have access to performing arts, AMPAG calls on all parties seeking Government to:

  • bring high-calibre artists and productions into Australian schools, especially in disadvantaged or remote areas, through a touring fund, which would also fund school classes to visit theatres and concert halls; 
  • establish programmes to develop the quality of teaching in the arts across music, drama, dance, opera and circus; and 
  • institute a small fund to help schools purchase or lease musical instruments to enable more schools to establish bands and orchestras.

While nearly one third of Australian children are already involved in organised cultural activities outside schools (ABS survey of April 2000), a national strategy would allow more schools to participate and close the gaps between city and country areas.

What it would take to spark change is surprisingly simple.

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About the Author

Helen O’Neil is the Executive Director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences has more than 100 member organisations covering universities, the learned academies, collecting institutions and professional associations and learned societies through the sector. She was previously a director of an independent publishing company.

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