The value of creative culture


05 June 2023

Drama, dance, music and the visual arts have been influential in the enlightenment of humankind for millennia. Multiple local and international studies point to the positive influences that learning about, and participating in, the arts can have on a student’s success in academic subjects and other essential lifelong skills.

Until recently, at least one – if not a suite of arts subjects – was considered part of a comprehensive school curriculum.

The National Advocates for Art Education (NAAE), a network of national professional arts and arts education associations representing arts educators across Australia, says there is a strong relationship between the cognitive capacities developed through learning and communicating in dance, drama, music, media arts and visual arts, and students’ academic and social skills.

The NAAE says the many positive effects for young people involved in arts-rich education programs include reading, language and mathematics development, increased higher-order thinking skills and capacities, increased motivation to learn, and improvements in social behaviours.

The AEU has been actively campaigning in the arts curriculum area for some time and feedback from members accords with NAAE’s advocacy.

In learning through the arts, students gain understanding of social cohesiveness, diversity, cultures, identities, values and ethics that enable them to better participate in democratic society,
the NAAE says.

But funding for arts education – in schools and universities across Australia – has been decimated by neoliberal governments since the mid-1990s.

The past decade has seen cuts to courses and subjects, jobs lost and student access to the arts – especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds – drastically reduced. However, following the election of the first federal Labor government since 2013, there are calls to resuscitate funding to the sector.

University of Sydney professor Emerita Robyn Ewing, whose research focuses on arts education, says it is “central to our development as compassionate and responsive individuals because the arts help us make meaning of ourselves, others and our worlds”.

In addition to boosting creativity and imagination, an arts education benefits cognitive development, increases motivation to learn, has a positive effect on students’ emotional wellbeing and ability to build social skills, and heightens “higher-order thinking skills and capacities” says Ewing.

“And if we can get our social and emotional wellbeing right, then of course they’re going to achieve across the curriculum.”

Future proof

National Association for the Visual Arts executive director Penelope Benton says despite assertions that STEM subjects are the key to preparing “job-ready” students, an arts education makes students more employable.

“Skills learned through arts include creativity, innovation, agility, intellectual curiosity, resourcefulness, exploratory thinking, communication, collaboration and teamwork, problem solving, professional ethics, entrepreneurship and even learning the courage to take risks,” says Benton.

“All of these things are really important and essential in the working environment now. So not recognising the arts component of education makes us a lot poorer as a society, almost to the point that it feels a bit irreparable.”

There is a high correlation between a quality arts education and active inclusivity, according to Dr Patricia Thompson, a professor of education at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

Good arts teaching is a “fine example” of educational inclusion, Thompson said in a keynote address to the 2022 Australian Association for Research in Education conference.

“When taught by arts teachers who understand all children to be capable, rather than starting from the position that some children have talent and some don’t, then all children can and do produce work that could be described as ‘high quality’
or ‘excellent’,” she says.

There are also unexpected benefits, says Thompson, which are especially noticeable in students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. These students become more engaged in the arts outside of school, more civically engaged in society and even vote in stronger numbers than their fellow students who did not experience a “rich arts education”.

Time for renewal

During his stint as minister for school education in the Gillard Labor government, Peter Garrett acknowledged the value of the arts in education, enshrining it in the Australian Curriculum in 2011. He proposed that drama, dance, music, visual arts and media arts should be compulsory throughout primary school, and that students could choose to specialise in secondary school.

“It is really important that every kid in Australia, no matter where they live or what school they attend, has the opportunity to engage with the arts, to broaden their understanding of the world through experiencing various art forms, and to have the confidence to show their creativity,” Garrett said at the time.

Unfortunately, resources to implement the curriculum were never provided. In fact, funding continued to drop over the years.

Despite this neglect, the Australian public’s appetite and appreciation for the arts has never been higher, boosted by the pandemic lockdowns when people turned to books, music, podcasts, films and television to keep them occupied, as well as building online communities for creative discourse. Ewing says people were desperate, not just for entertainment and escapism, but to connect with people with similar interests. To support the arts however, first we must allow all children to participate.

Towards Equity, a 2021 research report by Australia Council for the Arts, shows that “Australia’s arts and culture do not yet reflect the diversity of our people” and highlights “strong new evidence of the impacts of arts and creativity on our wellbeing, particularly our mental health; on childhood development; and on education and employment prospects… benefits [that] should be enjoyed by our whole community”. The lack of representative voices in creating content stems from the lack of accessibility to the arts for those from low socio-economic backgrounds, those living with disability and those from culturally diverse backgrounds from a young age, including in public schools.

“Funding is necessary from the earliest years of a child’s education – and beyond – in order to produce the future arts educators and artists who will create this very entertainment and content,” says Ewing.

After all, as the Towards Equity report states, “cultural participation is a human right”.

Alana Schetzer

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2023