Australians have leapt online to participate in arts events. More than 30% of Australians have engaged with arts events online and more than 40% have participated in some form of art-making in any of the artforms, dance, drama ,music, media art or visual arts.
That shows the Australian appetite for arts of all kinds. But what happens at a school level? The arts is one of the eight learning areas in the Australian Curriculum. While each state and territory has a particular approach to how the curriculum is put into place, schools are best placed to determine how to deliver the arts to their students.
Ultimately the school principal decides the allocation of time and resources for learning areas.
Not every principal is going to love the arts, but every arts teacher does. High-quality arts occurs when students and teachers share the tools of creation and this collaborative approach cultivates the student’s individuality rather than focusing on fulfilling pre-specified outcomes. I undertook case study research of eight NSW Specialist arts teachers. These teachers identified that it was not actually the curriculum but other factors within the school which influenced how the arts were positioned.
The values held by the school are led by the school principal who must fulfil required accountability requirements from NAPLAN to mandated curriculum, in addition to managing the day to day running of the school. The principal may be focused on the outside perception of the school, evident in the number of student enrolments, NAPLAN ranking on the My School website and other external high stakes test results such as the Year 12 school completion rankings. Yet, the principal could be focussed on the internal workings of the school including the students’ learning experiences, teacher autonomy and a sense of community within the school.
Six factors were associated with the principal’s focus which determined the place of arts education within the school: student numbers; curriculum regulation; resources allocation; teacher autonomy; student autonomy and interest and a culture of community. Within these factors I found that the teacher’s anecdotes identified if the principal held an outward focus on the public perception of the school or an inward focus on the student learning experience.
Student enrolments and curriculum regulation
Outward focussed leadership centred upon numbers of students enrolled in the school or within a subject.
One teacher reported that in one year group, French was timetabled for just four students, but although ten students wished to enrol in it, drama was not timetabled as the school had set a minimum quota of twelve students.
Curriculum regulation in NSW also played into this situation as languages are mandated in years 7 and 8 but drama is not. Schools may allocate lower priority to learning areas that are not directly associated with high stakes testing such as NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate. Independent school teachers in my study noted that their principals considered the My School profile of the school contributed to public perception of the school.
By contrast, two other teachers reported high levels of student participation in the arts supported by their respective principals who were inwardly focussed on the student experience. Creativity was valued in learning at one school where the principal recognised that students who participated in the arts achieved top academic results across learning areas. At the other, a primary school, students were busy with rehearsals for the musical production as well as class activities leaving no time for behavioural issues. Additionally public perception of the school was enhanced through the whole school musical production.
Timetabling the arts within the school day, provision of physical resources such as paint, instruments, suitable space and allocation of specialist arts teachers contribute to positive arts experiences within the school.
Teachers with strong subject-knowledge and belief in their students’ capacity continue to teach the arts against the odds within their schools. But collaboration and collegiality among teachers across learning areas in a school is more conducive to teacher career satisfaction and job longevity.
Student autonomy and interest
The random allocation of arts curriculum to teachers who are not confident to teach the arts may limit the learning that takes place and potentially make the classroom boring for students. Students need to have control over their learning, and particularly in the arts students will develop their creativity, risk taking and collaborative problem solving. These serve to inspire the students’ interest. But, expectations of outcomes limit the students’ view and force them to measure themselves against pre-specified outcomes. In the arts students learn through making mistakes . Curriculum interpretation that focusses on only on the final outcome, misses the meaningful learning that actually occurs in the process of making the artwork or performance.
A culture of community
Teachers in this study reported a range of arts activities in their schools that created a culture of community. One regional teacher ran a school holiday drama camp which gave more isolated students the opportunity to connect with peers. Teachers reported that through their participation in the arts students felt they were contributing to and were part of a larger community.
The student experience is more than curriculum
The inclusion of the arts in the Australian curriculum legitimises it as a learning area. As teachers in my study have reported, it is factors outside the curriculum that ultimately determine the place of the arts within the school. High stakes testing and the MySchool website do not provide a true three-dimensional picture of the student experience in any school. School principals need to focus on the students’ learning experiences within the school. Additionally, teachers need to buy into curriculum reform to ensure positive action.
And principals should get behind their hard working staff.
Linda Lorenza has a PhD in arts education and curriculum policy and is head of course for CQUniversity’s Bachelor of Theatre degree, lecturing in acting and theatre studies. She is recognised for her education work in the Australian arts industry at Bell Shakespeare, where she was involved in the Theatrespace longitudinal research study into the influences on young people’s attendance at theatre; and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Her recent research includes teachers’ responses to curriculum change in the arts.