Labor boost to school music

Dandenong South Primary School students get into the music of The Song Room. Photo: Jason SouthThe gym at Dandenong South Primary is throbbing with #thatPOWER, a dance track by American recording artist will.i.am featuring teenage heart-throb Justin Bieber.
Nanjing Night Net

”And ooh, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive … And I’m loving every Second. Minute. Hour. Bigger. Better. Stronger. POWER.”

The year 3/4 class are not children, they are robots, frowning in concentration as they punch the air in time to the beat, fists clenched. ”Show me your robot position,” shouts Colette MacLaren, a teaching artist from The Song Room, a non-profit organisation that runs arts and music programs at disadvantaged schools. The robots flex their muscles. ”From the top?” asks Miss Colette.

”Yeeeees!” screams the class, as #thatPOWER cranks up again, and the children enthusiastically repeat the routine.

”Look at the behaviour of the kids,” whispers leading teacher Angela Savaglio. ”A couple can be quite challenging (in other lessons), but you don’t see it when you come to The Song Room because they are so engaged.”

Eighty-six per cent of students at Dandenong South Primary speak English as a second language; 20 per cent of families are refugees from countries including Sudan, Albania, and Afghanistan. But right now the only language any of them speak is Bieber fever. The class chose #thatPOWER as their song and they are utterly absorbed in practising the dance they will perform at the school concert on August 27.

In 2010, an evaluation of The Song Room program by international research company Educational Transformations found students who participated improved their NAPLAN reading scores by the equivalent of an extra year at school.

The evaluation, conducted in 10 schools in highly disadvantaged areas in Western Sydney, also found 65 per cent less absenteeism, higher grades, including in science and technology, increased confidence and decreased levels of depression.

”The findings were stunning. I have been engaged in educational research for nearly four decades and I have not seen anything like it,” lead researcher Professor Brian Caldwell said.

Education Minister Bill Shorten said federal Labor was determined to address the fact that 63 per cent of Australian primary schools currently offer no classroom music.

”There’s a recognition that schools that are offering music do better overall … I think that’s the same for all performing arts,” he said in an interview with Fairfax Media. ”Schools should be about putting children in touch with their imagination.”

Mr Shorten said the federal government would invest $1.25 million in music education programs, including $600,000 for The Song Room to help it expand its school workshop program, develop its website and provide resources for the national arts curriculum.

It had also allocated $450,000 to the Music Council of Australia’s Music Count Us In program, which helps teachers develop song-writing skills and $200,000 to complete digitisation of Australian musical scores, manuscripts and recordings for use in classrooms. The funding is already included in the budget.

The announcement comes in the middle of a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into music education in Victorian schools, established amid fears some schools are sacrificing subjects such as music for NAPLAN preparation.

In a submission to the inquiry, Educational Transformations said about 700,000 students in public primary schools in Australia have no opportunities to participate in arts programs, which may be putting Australia in breach of UNESCO’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

”UNESCO considers education in the arts to be a universal human right,” the submission says.  It says the tens of millions of dollars spent on other strategies to improve NAPLAN results have had minimal effect and there should be a reallocation of funds to support arts education – including music – for all students, with disadvantaged students the highest priority.

The inquiry is expected to publish its findings by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Dandenong South Primary year 4 student Jessica Costa Tchu is ”waaaay” looking forward to the school concert.

Principal Leonie Fitzgerald says while it is too early to assess whether NAPLAN results at the school have increased as a result of The Song Room, there has been a measurable improvement in attendance among the participating year 1 to 4 students.

”The kids show up on Thursdays (when The Song Room classes are held) – they are never sick,” Ms Fitzgerald says. ”They are so engaged – it’s the sort of thing that makes them happy to come to school. That’s so important because if they are not here, you can’t teach them in other subject areas. There is a real flow-on effect, so it is very exciting.”

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