20 Sep 2017

Politics: Are National Standards degrading Arts and Music education?

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 20 September 2017

Last week on Upbeat, we interviewed spokespeople for the arts from some of the major political parties.

Grant Robertson from Labour, Mika Haka from The Opportunities Party, Barry Coates from the Greens, Marama Fox from the Maori Party and National’s former Arts minister Maggie Barry contributed to the discussion.

As did many listeners, especially teachers, who say arts and music education has fallen by the wayside because teachers are snowed under with National Standards paperwork.

Zoë George looks at how National Standards requirements are turning the next generation of teachers away from the profession and asks what can be done.

Students draw in class

Photo: 123rf

The National government first introduced National Standards in 2010 to test competencies in numeracy and literacy.

According to a number of groups in the education sector - and some political parties - this has led to arts and music education becoming diluted.

New Zealand First Education spokesperson Tracey Martin says there has been a definite move away from creative subjects. “I don’t know whether it’s been diluted or crushed to death quite frankly,” she says.

In 2007, the New Zealand curriculum was developed (with more than 10,000 submissions from those in the education sector) with the purpose of teaching the core curriculum but also to ensure children are creative, energetic and enterprising, Martin says.

“The government took all the funding… and squashed creativity to focus on two narrow areas of the curriculum.”

The narrowing of focus also concerns New Zealand Education Institute’s president Linda Stuart.

“One of the things that we notice particularly in primary schools, with the advent of National Standards, the focus on arts and the creative areas seems to be diminishing in our schools and that’s a huge concern,” she says.

“We highlighted that when National Standards were first mooted.”

Each student has different skills and talents and the system should be supporting those talents, and helping in areas where students aren’t as strong, Stuart says.

Tm Carson is the secretary to the board of MENZA (Music Education New Zealand Aoteroa) and a Year 7 and 8 teacher in Wellington.

He says teachers are prioritising maths and literacy in the morning, with other subjects including arts and music being “squashed” into the afternoons.

Teachers are drowning in paperwork and this is having a direct impact on teachers and students, he says.

“I do worry that some students haven’t been able to let their light shine in these particular subjects because teachers have not had the time or the opportunities to deliver a quality music programme or it’s been left to after-school programmes,” he says.

“So there are students there who may not necessarily be thriving because this is an area which they could have really grown in but they haven’t been given the opportunity.”

Post Primary Teachers Association President Jack Boyle is a former drama teacher. He says the National Standards have a flow on-effect into secondary school and the rhetoric around students choosing subjects that will get them high-paying jobs in the future needs to change.

“I’ve seen through my own children’s schooling career and through my experience across secondary schools across New Zealand the absolute power of a liberal arts education for all New Zealanders, not just those who are going off to be the next Lorde or the next Colin McCahon,” he says.

“For every young person to have those opportunities and to not feel like they are making a counterproductive choice because it will stop them from having high paid employment. We need to ditch that narrative and give young people a whole person education.”

Fewer students choosing creative subjects has a direct impact on teachers, with many having to teach multiple years in one class, Boyle says.

And with diminishing numbers come questions about the validity of offering creative subjects, this in turn has led to fewer aspiring teachers in creative fields.

With fewer students studying arts and music, there’s also been a lower number of students studying towards becoming teachers in creative fields.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, those completing secondary sector initial teacher education qualification in the creative arts (performing arts, visual arts and crafts, graphic design, communications and media studies) dropped by nearly 40 percent between 2011 and 2015.

A 2015 survey led by a Ministry of Education, PPTA, NZSTA and Education Council working group found that of 2246 graduate teachers with specialities, there were only 110 in art, 28 in dance, 70 drama, 89 music, one painting teacher and one design and no photography teachers.

Social Studies had more than 300 teacher graduates, and English and PE/Health had more than 250 each.

With one in five secondary teachers aged 60 or older and the number of graduates coming through at the lowest rate in a decade, arts education is facing a hard road ahead, PPTA’s Jack Boyle says.

Attracting new people to the profession is vital and issues around money and conditions needs to be included.

Greens Education spokesperson Catherine Delahunty says better support needs to be put in place for teachers in schools, including the introduction of a “schools hubs” programme providing schools with lunches and nurses. 

“The joy’s gone out of teaching because of the social issues teachers have to deal with. Teachers are not social workers. Those kind of programmers make a real difference to keeping teachers in the profession because they get to teach rather than trying to pick up the pieces.”

Act Party leader David Seymour has pledged an extra $1 billion to the education sector this election in the hope of attracting and retaining top talent.

Even though he believes arts and music education is being adversely affected, he says National Standards should not be cut.

“I think that sadly true. It varies from school to school. But just remember we have got to have numeracy and literacy, and it tends to be at the schools that are struggling with numeracy and literacy that the arts and music have suffered. At schools that are doing well with numeracy and literacy already they haven’t been affected,” he says.

“So the overall effect of National Standards has been to make sure that we’re getting those basic life skills right first. Yes that has come at the cost of arts and music. I think that’s a shame. But I don’t support abandoning them and abandoning numeracy and literacy in the process.”    

But not everyone agrees with David Seymour. MENZA and NZEI, along with the Green Party and New Zealand First agree National Standards need to go.

If the Greens were to form a coalition with Labour they would reintroduce a specialist to oversee arts and music education at the Ministry of Education.

According to the ministry, arts and music currently fall under a number of different managers and there is not one dedicated arts or music manager.

The Green Party’s Catherine Delahunty says bringing back programmes such as Artists in Schools would greatly benefit students.

“When the government came in with National Standards they basically cut programmes like artists in schools which was only about seven to nine million dollars. Programmes like that have incredible value to teachers and students and to inspiring primary school children to learn, and are much more valuable than meaningless national standards,” she says. “So we need to restore those programmes and allow our teachers and students to benefit from the wonderful advisors and wonderful artists that exist in our country who used to add value to our children’s day.”

Nikki Kaye says National will introduce National Standards Plus which will allow parents to track their child’s progress. Labour’s Chris Hipkins believe National Standards need to be scrapped. They spoke at length about this issue here.