Schools without music

I have started some preparatory work on a new community outreach program for one of the training institutions here for young musicians. One part of the program will be the development of partnerships between the academy and local primary schools, so the program coordinator and I set off this week to visit a couple of the schools and fill them in on the program as it is shaping up.

It is well-known here in Australia that many primary schools do not have music specialist teachers. In fact, there are lots of specialist teachers that they don’t have – ‘specialists’ can include visual arts, library, PE, drama… and people rarely mention dance, but that too, could and should be taught by specialists. It is well-known… but as a music teacher, I tend to work in schools that DO have a specialist – they have me!

When I think of this well-known fact, I think there is a part of my brain that equates “no music specialist” to “disadvantaged school with limited resources, who are stretched in every capacity, and who have to prioritise things like additional Teacher Aides ahead of specialist teachers to support their students’ additional needs”. So it was quite a shock ad an eye-opener to visit two fairly well-off schools (if their parent population is any indication) and to hear that there was virtually no arts learning taking place with specialist teachers at all.

“Our parent group is very … professional“, one principal told us, meaning that, they tend to have high-powered, corporate jobs, are highly-educated, and apparently very quick to give the school feedback if they feel something is amis in their child’s education. Music as a specialist subject option rated highly on a recent parent survey (though got pipped at the post by Physical Education). Yet the principal thought he could “count on one hand” the number of children who might learn an instrument outside of school.I found myself shocked that such a parent group would not more actively seek out music experiences and learning opportunities for their children.

At another school, we were told that in the past, students had had the opportunity to learn an instrument during the school day, coming out of classroom work to have a 30 minute private or small-group lesson once a week. However, this system was now considered “inappropriate”, as it meant children were missing too much school work (I am tempted to insert the word “real” here… but I’m not sure the principal actual said “real school work”, even if it seemed implied). The school population was scoring low in  numeracy tests, and something had to be done about this.

What seems amazing is that numeracy targets not be met, and music or the arts be seen as the culprit! “The test results are bad – we must have spent too much time on music!” I have read about these attitudes, but perhaps it is the first time I’ve heard someone in a senior position speak openly about it. (Clearly I have led a sheltered life).

Another teacher said they didn’t see it as their role to help students develop actual skills in any of the arts. The simply aimed to give them some exposure and hope that a spark of passion or interest might be lit, that would lead the child to explore the area further outside of school. I found this alarming too. These subjects are mandated parts of the curriculum.

How much of this is about teachers’ own comfort levels, I wonder? Many of my older teaching colleagues tell me about how, when they were are teachers’ college, they all had to learn the guitar, and the recorder, to be a generalist classroom teacher! One principal admitted that this discomfort on the part of teachers was a big part of the problem – the three areas that the majority of teachers feel weakest in, he said, are music, art, and science.

It would not have been appropriate for us to challenge or question any of the decisions these schools had taken – that wasn’t the purpose of our meetings, and the teachers we met with were honest and direct with us about what they felt they would like to gain from a partnership with our program. Changing attitudes is a slow process, but hopefully, by building valuable and enriching partnerships, we will be able to demonstrate the way that powerful, demanding arts experience with integrity can bring about a diverse range of positive student outcomes.

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