In Australia, there are three school sectors: public, government-owned and -operated schools; private or ‘independent’ schools; and a Roman Catholic sector. Other church or religious schools are included in the independent sector.

A good number of the private schools are very wealthy and charge fees that exclude all but the rich – except that most also have means-tested scholarships available. Commonly, there are special scholarships available for musically talented children. Many of these can be found on the MCA website.1

The music education provision in Catholic schools varies. On average, it probably is lower than for government schools. However, some Catholic schools charge high fees and their musical offerings are comparable to other affluent private schools.

The public schools are operated by the state governments. They have about 70% of the student population. Most legislation governing school education is state legislation.

However, the Commonwealth is wealthy and in addition to providing the states with the funds to operate the education systems (and most of their other functions), provides some direct funding itself. It is inclined to give the latter funds to the state systems on conditions that it decides and with which they may or may not agree. Such conditions in recent years have included e.g. inception of assessment systems for the effectiveness of teaching or the relative performance of schools. A current issue is agreement to a national curriculum to allow students to make easier changes between state systems and probably to permit imposition of greater accountability for academic outcomes.


There are various divisions within systems between pre-school, primary and secondary levels. The traditional plan is for kindergarten plus six grades of primary, followed by another six of secondary. However, among the systems there are variants in the middle years.

Early childhood music education will have a separate section in the Knowledge Base.

The main strengths of school music education are found at the secondary level. The main failing overall in school music education is at the primary school level.

In all states except Queensland, primary school music teaching falls mainly to generalist primary classroom teachers. The argument for this practice is that music learning is then integrated into overall learning. Music can be introduced as content or as a teaching device in history or mathematics or any other subject.

The theory has merit but generally the practice is deeply flawed. New South Wales has such confidence in the approach that it has made music a mandatory subject throughout primary school. But its primary school teachers are not trained to teach music. Depending upon which tertiary institution they choose for their ‘pre-service’ training, they will receive between zero hours and perhaps 30 hours of music and music pedagogy training in the course of their entire undergraduate years. Research has shown that the effect of this training can be simply to confirm in their minds how little they know and to remove any naïve confidence they may have had in their ability to teach music. The consequences in the classroom are as might be expected. The generalist teachers who are capable of teaching music mostly depend on prior music training received privately.

At the secondary school level, all subjects, including music, are taught by specialists. A major difficulty for teachers in the circumstances is the wide variance in musical preparation among entering students; those who have depended upon primary school music instruction have won or lost in the lottery of teacher competence, those who have had no real primary school instruction have won or lost in a separate lottery of whether parents have arranged private instruction. Nevertheless, many secondary schools somehow find their way around these difficulties and produce good musical outcomes.

In some states, subsidised instrumental music lessons are offered through the schools. These include Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. The programs may include instrument rentals.

In many primary schools, principals may have the financial means and prerogative to bring in music specialists. In Victoria, for instance, the decision to employ a music specialist is taken by individual schools. It is a prerogative delegated by the state government.

Indeed, in Victoria for instance, such is the decentralisation of authority that the Department of Education has not been able to provide information on how many schools employ music teachers. It once was the case that all state education departments included a music section which supervised music in schools. This is the case now only in Queensland. It is interesting that Queensland has the most developed and comprehensive school music program among all the public school systems.

Very often, parents will raise funds to pay for or subsidise music programs. These usually are after-hours ‘co-curricular’ programs for instrumental instruction, school bands or choirs. As might be expected, this is more likely to happen in more affluent areas than in economically disadvantaged areas.

In most states, there are state schools specialising in education of the musically talented. Search for information on the system websites listed below.

Recent Research and Politics

The National Review of School Music Education

This was initiated by the Commonwealth Government and published in 2005.2 It found that music education in Australia is in crisis. In particular, the provision in primary schools in most states is patently inadequate. Of course, there are fine programs in some schools. In the state schools, these usually are at the secondary level. The more affluent private schools may have programs of great depth and diversity. On the other hand, the majority of children simply miss out at primary level and enter the secondary level as musical illiterates.

Implementation of the recommendations of the report would be costly. It would require, over time, that all primary school children have access to a music education provided by specialist music teachers. It would be necessary to invest considerably more at the tertiary level in teacher training.

At the core, these improvements can be implemented only by the state governments. They have to agree to recommendations formulated under a Commonwealth inquiry. There is general resistance, not to say sensitivity, to such propositions. The Commonwealth could arouse a more sympathetic response with a promise of abundant funding and that is genuinely an option that it has. Whether it will be inclined to take it has yet to be seen.

The National Music Workshop

The Commonwealth Minister of Education called for a national workshop to consider the recommendations of the National Review, and propose how they might be implemented. The workshop was held in August 2006 (see report). As of March 2007, there has been an initial response from the Minister, but as yet no commitment to implement the findings except for small allocations of funds to a curriculum development project, to awards for excellence in music teaching, and to a campaign to raise the status of music education.

The Stevens Report

Prior to the National Review of School Music Education, the MCA commissioned a review of the trends in school music education. It was conducted by Assoc. Prof. Robin Stevens with funding support from the Australia Council Music Board and the Australian Music Association and published in 2003.3 It provides a great deal of statistical information, most of it unflattering. The trends could not be established because for the most part, the data are not collected or if collected, are not retained. The one area in which data are collected by all states is the number of students sitting for final secondary graduation examinations in music. The Stevens Report was a precursor to and stimulus for the National Review.

Education Systems

Government Departments of Education

Catholic Education Offices

There are offices in the major cities, and a national website.

Independent Schools

The independent schools do not operate as a ‘system’. Each school is independent except possibly for its affiliation to a religious order. Information about independent schools is available from a voluntary association, the Independent Schools Council of Australia.

Live Musical Performances in Schools

Many such services are offered. Commonly, they are subsidised but usually the schools must contribute to the fee for the performances. Usually, the musical groups devise special performances that in some way address the school curricula in music or indeed, in other subjects. The programs also may offer special training to the school teachers so that the impact of the performances can be extended into subsequent classwork.

The MCA website has a directory of providers of live musical performances for school children.4

MCA itself offers a program called IGNITE.5 This takes bands into selected disadvantaged schools for a series of five visits. They perform for the school and lead a class in devising its own songs. Usually the children have had no prior music instruction.

The program is funded generously by the Freedman Foundation and newly by the Fairfield City Council for schools in its own area.

Associations Connected with School Music Education

Australian Society for Music Education

ASME is Australia’s only affiliate organisation of the International Society for Music Education (ISME), which exists under the auspices of UNESCO’s Music Council. ASME also represents music education on the National Affiliation of Arts Educators (NAAE).

As an Australia-wide organisation, ASME operates under a National Executive and representative National Council who work through Chapters in all of Australia’s States and Territories. The membership is comprised mainly of school music teachers and music education academics.

Association of Music Educators (Vic) Inc. (aMuse)

aMuse, formerly known as the Victorian Schools’ Music Association (VSMA), a subject association (ed. what does this mean?), open to all music educators and those interested in music education, is affiliated with the Council of Professional Teaching Associations and supported by the Victorian Department of Education and Training. aMuse organises professional development programs for primary, secondary and instrumental music teachers, organises student performance activities including master classes and festivals, and can provide independent advice on curriculum matters.

Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk

The Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk is an organisation promoting Orff Schulwerk (meaning music for schools or groups of children), developed by the German composer Carl Orff.

International Society for Music Education

Established in 1953 under the auspices of UNESCO, ISME leads and supports music education worldwide. The headquarters are in Perth, WA.

The Kodaly Music Institute of Australia

Music education method based on the research of Zoltan Kodaly.

National Affiliation of Arts Educators

Has a membership of the main national organisations for education in the various art disciplines. NAAE is concerned especially with ensuring that the arts maintain and improve their position in the school education systems, and with related curricular and professional issues.

Publications and Resources

International Journal of Music Education

From the International Society for Music Education (ISME, see above)

Music Forum

Music Forum is the quarterly journal of the Music Council of Australia. It always includes sections on music education and on Music.Play for Life. See MCA website.

Music in Action

Music in Action is a magazine for school music teachers produced by the Australian Music Association. Delivered free to all school music teachers. Music in Action is a magazine developed and produced in Australia for music educators. It aims to enrich, empower, support and inform music teachers in their work. There are five major topics covered in each issue: advocacy, technology, profile, nitty gritty and project.

Music.Play for Life

MPFL is the ongoing campaign of the Music Council of Australia in support of school music education and music-making generally. A free monthly e-newsletter is available. Register on site.

Music Scholarships

A list of some 250 scholarship sources available to Australians, including many music scholarships in schools.6

Music Teacher Employment, Opportunities

The Music Council of Australia eBulletin service offers an enormous amount of current information about jobs available, financial sources, competitions, conferences, workshops and much much more.

Music Teacher International Magazine

Music Teacher International Magazine is an Australian based publication, mostly for studio teachers.

Music Teachers Oz

Music Teachers Oz is a project that aims to bridge the gaps between research and teaching in music teacher education. We also hope to decrease isolation between academics, teachers and pre-service teachers.


Richard Letts. Last updated 13 March 2007.


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Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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