Thursday, November 27, 2014

Education and The Arts

Education and the Arts by Meg Upton, with Naomi Edwards.  Platform Papers No 41, November 2014: Currency House, Sydney.

Commentary by Frank McKone

Think of education as a living cell within the body politic.  The impermeable outer membrane of the cell has bas-relief oddly shaped indentations.  To access the inner cell, for good health – as Upton and Edwards intend – or for ill – as Donnelly and Wiltshire are bent on – a mirrored matching convoluted ‘key’ must insert itself.  Only then can the positive protein or the destructive virus make changes from within the cell.

Education and the Arts was already going to print when the recommendations of the
Review of the National Curriculum (August 2014) began to surface.  “What is of concern,” wrote Upton and Edwards, “is the growing sense that arts education for Australian children will become ‘optional’ as opposed to mandated."

The problem for Upton and Edwards is that they have not been given the key which has been handed on a silver platter by the Abbott government to Dr Donnelly and Professor Wiltshire, neither of whom show the slightest understanding of the nature of arts education, let alone its importance in a modern education system.

Here’s a quote:

The Reviewers heard substantial evidence that content was added to the curriculum to appease stakeholders, which has led to an overcrowded curriculum.  Such inclusions pay homage to the very evident inclusive development process undertaken by ACARA….

It was … apparent that many stakeholders believed the curriculum has far exceeded any nominal time allocations that curriculum writers may have been given.  One strongly argued reason was that this was due to the many compromises ACARA made to accommodate the very vocal advocacies of some groups about the essential nature of content relating to their discipline.  The arts curriculum was particularly singled out in this regard.
[My emphasis]
Executive Summary (p2/3)

There is a long history behind such snide language as ‘appease stakeholders’ who are ‘very vocal’ advocates, as you may see in the writings of Donnelly since he escaped from teaching to set himself up as an education ‘expert’.  There’s an interesting profile of both Donnelly and Wiltshire on the SBS website at

Of course, Upton and Edwards know the needs of the education cell: to have the arts placed on an equal footing in the curriculum, and indeed the teachers and government representatives across the nation have already recognised that need in the Australian Curriculum:

“An education rich in the Arts maximises opportunities for learners to engage with innovative thinkers and leaders and to experience the Arts both as audience members and as artists. Such an education is vital to students’ success as individuals and as members of society, emphasising not only creativity and imagination, but also the values of cultural understanding and social harmony that the Arts can engender
(National Education and the Arts Statement, 2007).” See

A teacher quoted by Upton and Edwards, who are active in bringing live theatre to school students, brings their work into focus:

If there were no education programs, I could still take students to the theatre; but what I love about education programs in theatre companies is that they offer experiential learning; students learn through doing and it emphasises their emotional engagement in the form.

A source who once worked on a committee headed up by Donnelly (when he claims to have personally written John Howard’s education policy) has told me that he simply could not appreciate such feelings.  And indeed  it is clear from the Review that Donnelly and Wiltshire have produced, that the language changes as the Departmental team of four have had to try to find the appropriate words that can be seriously published at this level of importance.  Read the Review while imagining yourself in that committee room as it was put together and you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s a bit that won’t please Upton and Edwards (or the rest of us):

The impact the bloated size of the Australian Curriculum was having on a school’s ability to offer a school-based curriculum was regularly brought to the attention of the Reviewers. So much mandatory content is included that some argued it was taking up more than the total teaching time available in a school year. This is having an impact on the amount of time available for co-curricular offerings…
Executive Summary (p5)

“Co-curricular offerings” include the arts, according to this Review, so education programs in theatre companies may as well give up the ghost.

If this quote was written by Donnelly / Wiltshire, then you can see in the next – the conclusion to Chapter One: The Australian Curriculum and the purpose of education – where the departmental team have done their best to write a proper paragraph or two:

“... the Australian Curriculum represents a compromise where a number of conflicting models of curriculum exist side by side and where, in an attempt to meet the demands of all the key players, rigour, balance and standards are weakened. The need to ensure that all involved would commit to a national curriculum has also led to a consensus model of decision-making and an overcrowded curriculum that has weakened the process of developing the Australian Curriculum. Yates, Woelert, O’Connor and Millar describe this as follows:

One particular issue is a new form of content cramming (even though the ACARA website cites an explicit guideline that this should not happen). Here the public circulation of documents and the search for a reasonable degree of consensus around the country tends to lead to things being added (especially history) rather than taken away.
  Yates, L, Woelert, P, O’Connor K & Millar V 2013, ‘Building and managing knowledge: Physics and history and the discipline rationales in school curriculum reform’, paper prepared for the Australian Association for Research in Education 2013 Conference.

“Evidence of this can be found in the way the Australian Curriculum burgeoned from the initial four subjects to embracing the entire Foundation to Year 10 curriculum in eight learning areas, as the various stakeholder experts and subject associations argued that their particular subject or area of learning should not be left out.

As a result, while the Australian Curriculum privileges a combination of a utilitarian, a 21st century, a personalised learning and an equity and social justice view of the curriculum and the purpose of education, it undervalues introducing students to the conversation represented by ‘our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements’.

The Australian Curriculum being implemented across the Australian states and territories also fails to do full justice to the Melbourne Declaration’s belief that the curriculum has a vital role to play in the moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians.”

Have a look closely and you’ll see that Donnelly / Wiltshire are what I would call ‘museum’ thinkers.  Anything like actually doing the arts is, as Donnelly has often literally complained, ‘left-wing’.  After all it means children will be creating new cultural artefacts, being critical of their own creations, as well as learning where their culture fits into the past – which is also always open to critical thinking.  Not for Donnelly, who already apparently knows the accepted canon of ‘our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements’ and is confident he understands what should be ‘the moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians’.

With his virus key in Donnelly's hand, all the attempts not only by Meg Upton and Naomi Edwards, but of all those hundreds of people who have produced the as yet incomplete and not yet fully implemented Australian Curriculum will be defeated.  Those of us who have worked since the mid-1970s to get drama, dance, and media arts into the curriculum alongside the earlier successes of visual art and music will now have to overcome the Donnelly virus from within.

But I fear that this Federal government’s attitudes and funding will leave the ‘co-curricular’ activities of institutions like the theatre companies with no protein key to activate.  The full title of this Platform Paper is Education and The Arts: Creativity in the promised new order.  I fear this will be another broken promise in the body politic.  My thanks to Upton and Edwards for an excellent paper; but my commiserations for the future they may never see.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Frank, Kevin Donnelly here. Instead of being conservative, the quote about best validated knowledge and artistic achievements is from the 'left-leaning' Blackburn Report. Obviously, the arts are vital and that is why my model on page 145 includes the arts from F to year1 10. Yes, it is an elective but that is because I don;t believe the entire curriculum should be centrally mandated. If you read chapter one carefully you will see that we argue against a utilitarian, technocratic view of education and one that deals with moral, spiritual and aesthetic values and traditions - the arts are vital.