Decline in arts ‘a concern’, says senior educator

'Chalking a Flower' (David Woo, Flickr Creative Commons)

One of the most senior voices in Australian art education has said she is concerned about a significant fall in the number of high school students taking art subjects in the UK, and says the same is happening here.

Margaret Baguley, President of Arts Education Australia, was responding to a recent study by Britain’s Education Policy Institute, which found fewer British 15 and 16-year-olds are studying music and art than at any time in the past decade.

The study laid the blame for the shift at the feet of government reforms pushing students towards more academically-focused subjects like maths, English and geography.

They also found falls in the number of art teachers being employed in Britain, and declining school budgets for art subjects.

While the same reforms aren’t underway in Australia, Art Education Australia (AEA) President Margaret Baguley says interest is falling in art subjects here, and says many Australians regard art as additional rather than integral to a holistic education.

“We are fortunate in Australia that the arts are mandated in the curriculum. This means all children and young people have the opportunity to engage with the arts through their schooling,” she told Hatch.

“[But] the arts have been increasingly marginalised over the last few decades.

“This situation appears to be linked to the increasing emphasis on standardised testing to measure student achievement in the current performance-based climate.”

Declining popularity

Earlier this year, Box Hill High School removed their art programs from its curriculum. Some arts subjects can still be taken by VCE students – but they have to travel to another school to attend them.

“We still allow art in our school, it is just by choice now,” school principal Theresa Iacopino told Hatch.

Ms Iacopino said the decision to stop teaching the subjects at Box Hill was because they had become less popular.

“Not a lot of students wanted to study drama – or arts in general. It wasn’t a subject that appealed to a large amount of students,” she said.

In junior levels (Year 7-9) art subjects such as, drama, music or general art are compulsory, but Ms Iacopino says they haven’t proven to be popular.

“I found the younger year levels were uninterested in doing art subjects,” she said.

The school is increasing its focus on more traditional academic subjects, such as advanced English, a move Ms Iacopino hopes will help students later on when taking the VCE.

Ms Baguley says it is problematic that arts education “is not systematically valued in institutional policy and practice, despite its well-documented impact on learning and engagement.”

Ms Baguley says this impact includes the development of important skills that transfer across all subjects and into adult life, including risk-taking, collaboration, perseverance and creative and lateral thinking.

And she says students who study art often show improvement in other learning areas such as literacy and numeracy. – Tahlia Zaloumis (@tahlzaloumis).