Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 September 2006


Music Education

7:25 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I add my own best wishes as well. When Australians think of the basics of a good education, the first things they think of are literacy and numeracy—English and Maths. The next things they think of are history, geography, science, art and music. We are all well aware of the decline in focus on literacy and numeracy in years gone past, which has been addressed by Ministers Kemp, Nelson and Bishop. They are really efforts to hold the states to account. I fear in raising this I may again be the subject of Senator Marshall’s attention but I will run that risk anyway.

This government has put steps in place to ensure objective testing of literacy and numeracy to make sure the states are doing their jobs and to make sure parents have the information they need about their children’s education. We are also aware that in many states history is not taught as a standalone subject. The history summit happened a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, that is also the case with geography. It is not taught as a standalone subject in many states. It also is a part of studies of society and the environment.

On this side of the chamber, we believe that every school student should experience all of the major disciplines, including the arts and music. Tonight I will be talking briefly about music education in schools. Music is an important part of life. There is no better, more natural alterer of mood than music. Filmmakers realise this. That is why they put such effort into the scores of movies. They know that through the musical score they can affect—they can alter—the mood of the viewer.

A recent survey by the Australian Music Association found that 87 per cent of Australians—almost nine out of 10—believe that every Australian child should have the opportunity to study music at school. The Australian government wanted to know what the situation was in Australian schools in relation to music education, so in 2004 the government commissioned a review of music education, which was chaired by Professor Margaret Seares. The findings were alarming. You might wonder about the percentage of kids in government schools who have access to music. Ninety per cent? Eighty per cent? Sixty per cent? No. Fifty per cent? No. Thirty per cent? No. Only 23 per cent of kids in Australian government primary schools have access to any form of music education. In contrast, 80 per cent of kids in the Catholic and independent sectors have access to some form of music education.

This is a complete abrogation, again, by state Labor governments of their responsibility to make sure that children have a good, comprehensive education that covers all the disciplines. It is an outrage. It is a total abrogation of state Labor government responsibility for what is their core business. This lack of music in schools is no doubt one of the many reasons parents have been voting with their feet. Since 1970 government school enrolments have declined by nearly 11 per cent, 37 per cent of junior secondary students now go to non-government schools and 30 per cent of primary students now go to non-government schools. Clearly a need is felt for what these independent schools provide—a need parents feel is not being met in the government school sector.

I think the lack of music education is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise in the state education system. When the Seares inquiry called for submissions they were overwhelmed. They received 6,000 submissions, which I think is a record for the number of submissions received by a government inquiry. Of the submissions received, 66 per cent indicated that the quality of music education was variable to very poor in government schools and 76 per cent indicated that the status of music compared with other subjects was variable to very poor. The review reached a number of alarming conclusions: it is possible for some Australian students to complete 13 years of schooling without participating in any form of music education, teachers in training receive on average only 23 hours of music training, over half of music teachers who responded indicated their morale to be neutral or low and 42 per cent of Australian secondary teachers indicated a strong desire to change their career direction. A conservative estimate suggests that one in 10 schools does not have any sort of music program. Music is, in effect, being treated as an optional luxury, not a key part of learning and education.

The key recommendation from the review is that every Australian student should participate and engage in continuous, sequential, developmental music education programs as a core part of their education. There are good reasons for this, apart from the sheer enjoyment of music. National and international research suggests that music does have a very direct effect on learning in other disciplines. Music education has been directly linked to better learning and better social outcomes. That sort of education can enable up to 70 per cent of young children to show significant improvement in other areas of study, which means improved concentration, reading skills, communication, teamwork, classroom participation, self-esteem and confidence. It can also help with school retention rates.

In recognition of the significant findings of the report, the government convened a National Music Education Summit a few weeks back. The summit brought together music and education experts and parents and teachers to discuss the recommendations and to develop a response. One thing that could be done, which would help dramatically, would be to have national reporting on music education. The last national annual report on music in schools was done in 1998. That is how far back you have to go to find that sort of national assessment. If it is good enough for maths, if it is good enough for literacy and if it is good enough for numeracy, then it is good enough for music education and for Australians to have a handle on the status of music education. This sentiment is supported by the Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia, Richard Letts, who said, ‘Our kids deserve no less.’ The Director of Music Play for Life program, Tina Broad, noted that music education must not only be implemented but also be effective, and she echoed the findings of the report that music education should be ‘continuous, sequential and developmentally appropriate’.

One organisation has taken steps to fill this gap in music education. It is a great not-for-profit organisation based in Melbourne called the Song Room. The Song Room was founded by opera singer Tania de Jong, and it provides music and performing arts programs for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Since 1999, the Song Room has provided programs for over 60,000 Victorian children. In 2005-06 alone it provided 80 twenty-week workshops in schools. What is important is that the Song Room particularly targets disadvantaged schools and students who have some disadvantage in their background, such as those with learning difficulties, with limited English language skills or who are disengaged from school.

The Song Room undertakes performances, helps schools establish their own music programs and assists the sourcing of second-hand instruments for the schools. The Song Room wants to reach even more children than the 60,000 it has already touched. It is seeking to establish a three-year national pilot program, and it is seeking $1.8 million. If it gets that funding, it thinks it can reach 115,000 school students Australia-wide, which would be a great thing. The pilot will focus on schools with no specialist music education, that are rurally or regionally isolated or where students are from low socioeconomic backgrounds or where English is a second language.

I visited the Carlton and Fitzroy primary schools, in Melbourne, where the program is in operation. I have seen the work of the staff and have seen the students perform, and it is just a wonderful program. The Song Room is seeking to fill a gap in music education. I would like to commend the founder, Tania de Jong, the president, Richard Price, and the CEO, Caroline Aebersold, for the fantastic work they are doing.

Music should be part of every child’s education, but we also should make provision for those who can excel. One of the first things I argued in this place, in my maiden speech, was that we should have centres of excellence in music, in agriculture and in other endeavours. I am very pleased that the Victorian state opposition has proposed the establishment of those schools for music, science and language. We need to cover both sides. We need to make sure that music education is a basic part of every child’s education, but for those who have a particular aptitude we need to make sure we have avenues for them to explore that. State governments have to recognise that they have a key role to play.