The report1 of the National Review of School Music Education dates from 2005 and unlike the multiple previous reports of its kind, stretching back over decades, it is actually the subject of discussion and action two years after it was published. It is 280 big A4 pages and is full of facts and insights about music education as it is, and vision and detail about music education as we want it to be.

The review was instigated by the then Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson. It seems to me that there broadly are two reasons by governments for commissioning reports like this. When there is a hot issue that the government wants to cool down and maybe get out of the public eye and off the agenda, it can commission a review, make sure it takes a long time, bury the report and hope everyone has forgotten. Alternatively, when a government has a genuine interest, it can help to have a report because in a sense it gives currency to the issue and a better basis for successful action. But above all, it can be used as an advocacy document.

We had never managed to make a hot public issue of the poor situation in music education, so the government didn’t need a study to take it off the boil. That takes us to the second motivation. We already had a series of studies and their recommendations were remarkably consistent. We didn’t really need another one. So unless I miss my guess, this review of school music education was never intended primarily as a study. It was intended as an advocacy document.

And therefore, I am going to address the issue of advocacy.

At any music education conference, the papers and the discussion are mainly about the curriculum and the classroom. This is an interesting and also essential focus. It is essential not only because new information, new ideas are presented, but because it maintains the vitality of the profession.

However, the fact is that if there were no more curriculum research, no more discussions, no more conferences, music education could continue at a competent level. The people in this theatre already are expert.

The main obstacle to an adequate music education is not the need to invent the perfect curriculum. The main obstacle is the inadequate provision of resources. We have the evidence that most schools, especially primary schools and especially in the public sector, don’t have sufficient trained teachers, or facilities, or budgets, or some combination of the above, to do a good job.

The Steering Committee for the National Review called it a crisis. If we don’t want to live forever with this crisis, we have to persuade our political and bureaucratic masters to provide the resources so we can fix it.

Advocacy can take place at various levels. A school teacher can persuade parents to help to persuade the principal to hire staff or provide time or materials. Then there is another level of advocacy where for instance we try to persuade the State Education Ministers to put in the funds needed to pay for primary school music specialist teachers. A school teacher can write letters or submissions, join in an advocacy campaign such as Music. Count Us In2, by having the students perform the campaign song, or even take a leadership role.

The teachers’ professional associations definitely can take a leadership role.

The work involved here is not necessarily more complicated. It’s just different. But getting a positive outcome is much more difficult.

Basically, there is no-one else to do this work but us chickens.

Frequently I am told that ‘We teachers are just so overworked. We don’t have the time or the energy to become advocates too.’

I have no doubt whatever that many music teachers are exhausted by the end of the day, just in keeping up with the school’s expectations, the students’ expectations, the parents’ expectations, often with little support from anyone at all. That, of course, is one symptom of the problem of under-resourcing.

But if we accept that no-one has the time or the energy to work for a change, then we won’t have any change and we are defeated. Are we willing to settle for that? Forever?

So I am here making a proposition to you and to our professional organisations: and that is that for the next few years, we set as our highest collective priority, advocacy to achieve a satisfactory provision of music education in schools, especially public schools.

Let me point out to you that while we are by no means home and hosed, that the position of school music education has moved forward over the last couple of years and at the very least, it is now on the public agenda and on the Federal Minister for Education’s agenda. And there is no question that our advocacy has been a factor.

Be encouraged. It can work.

Let me take you over some of the contributing events.

As I have noted, the National Review of School Music Education is one of a series of studies going back to at least 1968, with the report by the Australian Society of Music Education (ASME)3 stalwart, Dr Graham Bartle. Basically, the response has been lip service, as is daily evident.

The present National Review is of course a very well produced, well considered description of the music education we have and the music education we want. But as I have said, I think it was intended by the then Federal Minister as an advocacy document.

It is a document that was born out of advocacy and is being followed at every step of the way by advocacy. That is brand new.

The process began with the Music Council of Australia, with support from the AMA, ASME and the Music Board, commissioning Associate Professor Robin Stevens4 to undertake research to see whether there were any trends in the provision of music education in Australian schools. We suspected that the trends would show declining provision and that the study would produce evidence that could be used in advocacy. The results were published and also presented to then Federal Minister for the Arts Rod Kemp and Minister for Education Brendan Nelson.

Robin did an excellent job, but the study as conceived was impossible to bring to fruition because with one exception, national trends could not be shown. The reason was that the various state education systems did not collect the statistics in any but a fragmentary way nor did they retain them over some years. Maybe they didn’t feel proud of them. There was great variability between regimes.

The Catholic systems collected even less. Of course, the independent schools are not actually a system, so there are very few statistics for that sector.

Well, statistics schmatistics. Who cares about statistics anyway? But how could we have claimed that only 23% of state school students have access to a specialist music teacher, except by having access to Stevens’ data? We really need those numbers. You can see why.

For all the deficiencies, the Stevens report does include some arresting data. For instance, it verifies that pre-service music training for primary school classroom teachers is in many cases so minimal as to be laughable. I mean, how can you teach music every school week for six years on the basis of 12 hours of pre-service training?!

Ian Harvey, the head of the Australian Music Association5 and MCA Treasurer, managed to extrapolate two statistics I would like to cite here: only 23% of public school students have access to a specialist music teacher in school. On the other hand, 88% of students at independent schools have such access.

23% to 88%. That is a very interesting comparison. Independent schools of course have the prerogative of charging to parents the costs of music instruction. On the other hand, they are not going to do so if the parents are not interested in paying.

Could we not assume that if the parents of public schools were asked, they also would want their children to have access to a music education — and that if governments funded the public schools to meet this demand, 88% of public school students also would have access to a specialist music teacher in school?

Interestingly, this 88% figure lines up with a study called Australian Attitudes to Music, commissioned by the Australian Music Association. Here are two questions from this very extensive study. Respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree:

All schools should offer instrumental instruction as part of the curriculum.

87% agree, 11% disagree. 2% don’t know.

Music education should be mandated by the states to ensure that every child has an opportunity to study music in school. 74% agree, 16% disagree. 10% are confused. Maybe they didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘mandate’ or thought it meant dinner and drinks.

The Stevens report created a context of information in which advocacy could take place. Other lobbying followed. Chris Pearce MP, a former music teacher, wrote a private members bill in support of school music education, which was passed by the House. Various people got to the Ministers. Ian Harvey and the Australian Music Association have done an enormous amount. Richard Gill pointed out to Rod Kemp that music education these days is far less thorough that it was a century ago. Kemp took him to Brendan Nelson to repeat the story.

Brendan Nelson was personally interested in the issue and gave a receptive ear. He instigated the National Review of School Music Education. Robin Pascoe and a team from Murdoch University here in Perth were appointed to run the study.

Word came through to the Music Council via the AMA that it was very important that when the Review called for submissions, there were many responses. The Music Council and our campaign for music making, Music. Play for Life6, encouraged the field to respond, as did ASME and the AMA. The result was nearly 6,000 responses. This was by a factor of nearly 4, the greatest number of responses ever received to any study initiated by the Federal government. It let the pollies know that the issue is of interest to more than just a few self-interested school teachers.

Brendan Nelson and Rod Kemp accepted the completed report with some enthusiasm. Nelson announced that he planned to have a summit to recommend how the recommendations should be implemented. At the same time, he announced a small commitment of funds to a curriculum plan and the ASME music teacher awards. Then he was promoted to Minister for Defence and we anxiously hoped that his replacement would be similarly positive.

Julie Bishop eventually took over, but had to find a staff and her feet and forward movement ceased for some months. Eventually the summit was organised for last year by the AMA. Its recommendations went to the Minister and as you have seen, she has made some small commitments to implementation, hopefully as a down-payment to the major commitments that we so much need.

Let me touch briefly on the recommendations of the Review and the Workshop7. I will be very brief. My colleagues will have more to say.

One reason for brevity is that there are 99 recommendations, grouped into 16 strategic directions. It would be a long paper that attempted to summarise them. There is an excellent literature survey, a research framework, a snapshot of current school music education in Australia. There are guidelines for effective music education, to set standards, benchmarks; these could be the basis not so much of a national curriculum but of some sensible national coordination. There is a set of issues, challenges and opportunities.

From all of this plus a couple of days discussion, the National Workshop drew out some priorities and made recommendations for moving forward with implementation. The priority area for all concerned is to fix primary school music education. There are recommendations for better training and resourcing of primary school generalists. But what many of us really want are primary school music specialists. Queensland and possibly Tasmania have specialists, so it’s not actually impossible. It could be done, even in Australia. But obviously, it would cost a lot of money.

The states control the government school systems, so they have to come to the party. So far, we are not seeing any paper hats and party whistles. Indeed, a colleague told me the other day that her Minister told her bluntly to ‘Back off’. His government was not going to respond to initiatives from the Commonwealth. Oh yes Minister? That moment of macho is more important to you than providing for the needs of your citizens?

We don’t know how the Commonwealth is going to handle this problem nor indeed, whether it intends to come to grips with it at all. A lot of the messages coming from the Commonwealth are about better sharing among the states of resources such as curricular materials. That’s certainly worth while but it’s a bit like ‘Bobby, share that sardine with your brother and sister!’ We want the full can!

The Federal Minister has made some modest commitments. You know about the music education portal, the curriculum project, Musica Viva, the Children’s Music Foundation. And she has responded to the recommendation that the status of music education should be raised by instigating the Music. Count Us In campaign.

In the unlikely event that you do not know about it, the idea for Music. Count Us In is borrowed from a project in Canada called Music Monday.8 A song has been commissioned from a pop musician, John Foreman of Australian Idol fame,9 and has been recorded in a performance by John and some Victorian school children. Arrangements have been written for various school ensembles, along with curricular materials. These have all been made available free of charge to schools. The idea is that at 11am on Thursday August 30, the song will be performed by children in schools and communities all across Australia.

In the time until August 30, Music. Count Us In will seek all sorts of media coverage boosting school music education. And of course, it will attempt to make August 30 a big media day.

So Music. Count Us In is not itself a program of dazzling educational worth, but it could be something that captures the public imagination and also gives the Minister the opportunity to make the case for music education. The more positive an atmosphere we can make, the more awareness we can create, the easier it will be for the Minister and the government to see the breadth of positive public interest and to commit to music education the funding we so desperately need.

I am very pleased to note the accumulating response from schools. Some hundreds have already signed up to participate but we want to get up to at least a thousand. As with the submissions to the National Review, a high response will be persuasive of the interest in school music education. And where there is high interest, there are votes. In this case, music teachers can be advocates simply by including the song in their curriculum and performing it at the appointed time. That’s familiar territory. Not much time to do it, but we are stuck with that. Begin, or continue, your new life as an advocate by joining with Music Count Us IN. Easy schmeasy.


Richard Letts. Last updated 27 August 2007.

This paper is slightly adapted from a keynote address to the conference of the Australian Society for Music Education, Monday July 9, 2007, Perth, Australia

Category:School Music Education Category:Issues



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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