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Thursday, 27 November 2014
Page: 9630

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (19:40): I rise tonight in this adjournment debate to make some comments with regard to arts education in Australia. I would like to commence by establishing the context in which I make my remarks. I am talking about the role of a very important agency in Australia that perhaps some people listening might not be 100 per cent aware of. So much work gets done in government—whoever is in government—but the public servants and the agencies that do work for our nation are often overlooked and under recognised. I want to pay tribute to an organisation known as ACARA, which is the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.

There are many definitions of what a curriculum is, but essentially it is all the things that happen at school. The curriculum can be the formal curriculum, which is something that can be contained within a document. There is also the informal curriculum—all the other things that happen around the edge of it. There is the intended curriculum and there is the unintended curriculum. Then there can be the hidden curriculum as well. Schools are such complex places in which there are so many different kinds of learning go on.

That is why the role of this organisation is so important. It attends to all of those matters fully. But often the debate around curriculum is limited to what is in the written and formal curriculum. ACARA, which does this very important work, I am pleased to say was established on the watch of a Labor government on 8 December 2008. It was established under the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Act 2008. It began its operation with the appointment of the board in May 2009. It is a very important agency because it does acknowledge that we are a federation and a nation. It is integral to making it possible for the state and federal jurisdictions to have very important conversations and plan for the learning of every Australian student.

Let's face it, when we stand up and sing the national anthem we do not sing, 'Tasmanians all,' or 'New South Welshwomen and men all,' or 'Queenslanders all'. We sing, 'Australians all let us rejoice.' But in the history of our federation we have had a very differentiated set of formal curriculum documents across the country. Frankly, having spent over 20 years of my life in the education sector I thought the day would never come when we would be able to have the sophisticated kinds of conversations necessary to develop a national curriculum. I always had reservations that we live such a long, long way from other countries that if we got it wrong we would get it all wrong together. The advantage of having a little differentiation between states was that if one state was investing in curriculum development we might learn from that state—we might learn from one another.

That is why ACARA and its role is so important now. And that is why it is important to keep watch on this and make sure that the government does not do what it has done to many other agencies, which is to cut them back to a point where they are unable to do the work that is vital to building our nation.

This conversation between states and the Commonwealth government enables Australians and young people who are captured, as I say, for 13 years of their lives, by law, in schools, to learn the things that we value. We value being able to work with other people. We value being able to understand that we live in a global world and to embrace cultural difference, understanding difference and physical differences. We value kids being able to express themselves through literature, in their understanding of mathematics, in their reflections on the scientific world. All of these things matter. So the richness of that curriculum is very important.

When the determination was made to push for a national curriculum there were very many difficult conversations to be had by people who are passionate about what they teach and who they teach. Over the last five years it is very clear that ACARA has undertaken a huge number of consultations across the country and, in doing so, they received an incredible response from the teaching, learning community—parents who participated in doing much more than just the local barbecue as a fundraiser for the school or the fete, vital as those things may be. Teachers need to understand and parents need to understand that it is together we can create a wonderful curriculum and learning experience for young people and that is what we saw in this process. There were 13,000 consultation submissions from individuals, groups and organisations. I am pleased to note from the ACARA report, which I will speak to more fully next week if the opportunity arises, they have implemented the Australian curriculum for English, mathematics, science and history for foundation to year 10. And that is happening right across the country.

Obviously the development of the Australian curriculum is continuing with the publication of the arts curriculum in February 2014. Very importantly, the Australian curriculum in technologies, health and physical education, economics and business, civics and citizenship was noted and made available for use in February 2014. That indicates a significant buy-in by all of those curriculum areas and by all of the jurisdictions across this country who have been reconciled now to the view that a national curriculum is in the national interest and that there is indeed a great deal of consensus.

Out of those 13,000 submissions and consultations a tremendous curriculum has been developed and is being implemented. But despite that, the government in charge of the country right now decided and put about an incredible degree of misinformation about the need for curriculum reform, curriculum review. Tonight I want to particularly direct my remarks to the arts curriculum as it was reviewed in the Donnelly and Wiltshire curriculum review. I urge those listening to join with me, as an Australian who believes in the power of education for our young people, to wholeheartedly reject the nonsense that is the Donnelly and Wiltshire curriculum review. I do this because I have the deepest respect for our teachers in our classrooms and the students for whom they care, and I reject this review because I know from my own experience as a teacher that what learners need in a classroom is not the top-down didactic lecturing, throwing information into the top of kids' heads, that old model of learning that is so often spoken about in the papers. Young people in a technology-rich world still need to learn basics, but they can interact in learning them in such an interesting range of ways and powerful learning comes out of making sure that learners are engaged.

In terms of attention theory for learning, if we do not get students attending to the learning, their brains do not get into gear well enough for them to be able to connect and synthesise the new information that teachers are absolutely responsible for putting in front of those children. What students really need is to be excited by learning and to have a deep connection, a deep understanding and a deep respect for their own identities, cultures and lives and great learning that is differentiated and different in every context, and different for every child. It becomes possible when you attend to the reality that we are teaching individuals. Yes we teach subjects to individuals but we always have to be mindful that children's success is at the heart of good teaching. Too often teaching is characterised as somebody standing at the front talking at people. You can talk at people all you like and the Acting Deputy President would be well aware of that from sitting in the chair and the experience he is having right now. It does not mean that people are paying attention and it does not mean they are going to recall what you say. There can be a very big gap between that delivery of information and the real act of teaching, which is making learning happen.

People have been talking about this for a very long time. As long ago as 1969, there was a futuristic book called The school I'd like. In it, a student who was 16 years old and named Linda explained that:

The mind is forced to be filled with disjoint bits of knowledge which are reeled off in exams. It is very rare that anyone needs this complete knowledge stored away for they can, if they need, look it up in a book.

With our mobile phones at hand everywhere we go, we can very quickly access information but a quality education in the 21st century is about what you do with that information and a synthetic thinking that is required to respond to an increasingly complex world means that dumping information into kids' heads, getting them to spit it back at you can only lead to a very low level of engagement and a very low level of learning. It is part of the journey but it is not the end game. We need to do much more than that. We need children to appreciate learning, children who believe in their capacity to learn and how to enjoy the beauty of our cultural complexity in all its forms—in the arts, in music and dance, in drama. Indeed, having worked very closely together, there is now a compilation of the arts. Five subjects have broken down the language barriers between them to make the curriculum so much easier for teachers to access. They have connected the subjects of dance, drama, media arts, music and visual arts. This curriculum was endorsed by ministers from around the country in July 2013 and is now being used across the country in a range of states. The arts curriculum is particularly important. I know that we really need to think about how we make sure that that remains a part of what we do.

We know that ACARA and, in fact, most stakeholders in the area of education acknowledge the robustness of this new Australian curriculum. However, what we have seen with the Donnelly-Wiltshire review is that the government, in that document, really did seek to implement a deeply ideological, profoundly restricted and poorly executed re-ignition of the culture wars. From the outset, the review was clearly loaded with baseless declarations, saying, for example:

For too long curriculum development in Australia has been left in the hands of educators, rather than subject specialists …

It is simply not correct. These assertions were baseless. The incredible waste and hype of going through this curriculum review exercise should not be lost, and that is why I really wanted to speak to it this evening. The flawed logic of this review is exemplified in the call for less content in the arts curriculum, which is an idea incompatible with the review's statement that currently the curriculum seems too pedagogical. And yet there is a concomitant reduction in the allocation of time for the arts.

Perhaps we should consider not whether we are teaching too much but whether we are providing enough time to learn something that is deeply valuable, deeply engaging and complex, and deeply human. In that same book that I quoted from a little earlier, The School I'd Like, there is a quote from a 17-year-old boy who says what I feel many of our students want to articulate:

I would like to see the barriers surrounding art, music, literature and drama broken down. I would like these forms of self-expression to be understood and enjoyed by all, not just a bourgeois minority. This is where I feel that my education fell through.

The reason this is so important is that pedagogical research, in particular, shows us the value of integrated and interrelated knowledge. These words resonate with parents, teachers and groups like the National Advocates for Arts Education, who tell us that separate and siloed subject areas are more difficult for primary teachers to facilitate in a classroom. Powerful words like we heard from that 17-year-old resonate because we all know deep down the value of the diverse and colourful tapestry of human knowledge and culture. Through diversity, we learn, we grow and our imaginations are freed. The capacity to respond to the challenges of the fast moving century that we are a part of is absolutely vital.

It is in the arts that we see some of the most powerful imaginings of young people. Recently at the Sydney Opera House Ben Folds said of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: 'Theirs is the greatest art because it is an expression of the best of civilisation and our striving to achieve harmony.' Sadly, those opposite, rather than strive for a rich cultural experience—one that recognises the value of our artistic expression—say, 'Let's chop it all out, because it is just too hard to implement. And who cares about the arts anyway! It might cost us some money to do that.' I do not think the government's view on this is the one that resonates with Australians. We love our music in all its glorious forms. We need to make sure that our children have access to it to understand it, to do it, to make it, to experience it. Many millions of parents care about the arts not just for art's sake; they actually care about the intellectual growth that is enabled by creative expression in their children.

We really need to remember that thousands of Australian teachers, too, care about that deep understanding and pedagogical value of arts in their classrooms. If we do not provide opportunities for young people who are wonderfully gifted in the arts to enjoy school though the expression of the arts, then we really force them into the servitude of attending a place where they will so often fail in subjects that simply do not engage them. To help somebody learn to read who does not really like the act of reading but absolutely loves singing is a great way for a young person to be engaged—to get that attention that is necessary for them to engage in the complex cognitive tasks of learning to read. When we cut out music because it is too hard and is too expensive, we take away from some of our students that opportunity to learn in a particular way.

We know that education in the arts can be absolutely transformative. We need only look to Cate Blanchett's recent remarks at Gough Whitlam's memorial to see what Australian students can actually aspire towards. Cate, on that occasion, used her address to really help us remember. In quoting Gough, she captured the value of the arts in our schools. It is quite a profound comment:

In any civilised community, the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my government, none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts—the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage. Indeed I would argue that all other objectives of a Labor government—social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities—have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish. Our other objectives are all means to an end. The enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.

In the two minutes that remain here for me in the chamber this evening, I would like to just recall for you my experience of being at an event on the weekend on the Central Coast, in the great suburb of Woy Woy, put together by Coast Community Connections

It was called 'Discobility', and it was I think the third or fourth time that a gathering of young people with disabilities of an enormous range and their carers and the local community gathered to express joy—and you can imagine the disco ball hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the day. It was just absolutely wonderful.

It was set up so that there were a number of different zones. There was a quiet zone for people who felt a little overwhelmed by the action and movement to go to and have a bit of quiet time; in there, they were playing a few quiet games. But there was also a drumming circle that was provided by The Rhythm Hut. There were open mike performances in the Acoustic Corner. In the middle of the hall, at Boogie Central, there was a wonderful, wonderful young man, who is very visually impaired, by the name of Ty McGill, who had the place absolutely rocking as he sang. I had the privilege of introducing him, and I said to him, 'Ty, what are you going to sing?' and he said, 'You'll just have to hang around and see!' He's just a wonderful man with great confidence, whose expression of joy in living came through in his capacity to sing and to show his knowledge and learning in that way and absolutely to share that with others. There was a Workshop Haven. There was a wonderful barbecue put on by the local Rotary. And I want to congratulate the sponsors: Bendigo Bank, Northcott, The Rhythm Hut, Rotary and Coast Community Connections. A celebration of the arts—we should never, ever sell it short.