Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Focus on national tests robs children of true learning

Wake up, Australia, or we'll have a nation of unimaginative robots.

School is back and it is a matter of regrettable fact that large numbers of children in state and independent schools will be subjected to a style of teaching directed exclusively to producing satisfactory results in national literacy and numeracy tests and consequently scoring high ratings with My School.

I want to make my stance very clear from the outset: NAPLAN tests and My School have nothing to do with the education of a child. This abhorrent and insidious method of assessing children, teachers and their schools needs to stop now. Principals, teachers and parents need to stand up and be counted and resist this unnatural activity, which only succeeds in turning education into some sort of cheap competition in which the last consideration seems to be the mind of the child.

Screaming the words literacy and numeracy from Canberra does not constitute having an educational policy. In fact, the race to become the most literate and numerate schools with the best rankings nationally is exacting a terrible price.

Evidence is now available that schools all over the country are cutting back on arts education to devote more time to subjects that will make children literate. It can be demonstrably proven that activities used in teaching for the national tests destroy individuality, stifle creativity, stultify thought and make all children respond in the same way - a sort of educational circus in which the children are the trained animals and the teachers the poorly paid ringmasters.

The very things that promote literacy and numeracy are the arts, beginning with serious arts education in the early years. If we want a creative nation, an imaginative nation, a thinking nation and a nation of individuals, then we must increase the time for arts education, especially music education. If we want a nation of non-imaginative robots who can do tests, then we are well on the way to achieving that condition.

Parents need to know that it is through participation in arts subjects that the mind, imagination, spirit and soul of a child are stimulated. Through this stimulation comes a bonus in all other areas of learning.

Music, for example, when it is properly taught, requires an extraordinarily high level of listening and concentration from the student. It requires the student to have a capacity to work in the abstract, an ability to work across several skill areas simultaneously and the ability to rationalise this verbally.

Children's involvement in musical activity has a profound effect on the development of the child's general learning. It is now proven beyond doubt that children who are engaged in arts activities, especially music, have advantages in all areas of learning. The research is in, proven and beyond doubt. Why, then, with the evidence so overwhelmingly supporting children's involvement in arts education, would schools decide to reduce teaching time in these important fields?

In supporting statements of this nature, let's examine one school in Victoria, the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, where senior students spend half a week on the academic curriculum and half a week on their chosen arts discipline. Each year the students from this school seem to do extraordinarily well at the year 12 examinations in spite of only spending half the time on academic work.

How can this be? My view is that they are highly motivated children who have, early in their lives, encountered enlightened parenting and teaching and are motivated to work hard in all disciplines in an environment that promotes creativity, imaginative thinking and individuality. In short, most of them have had early, prior opportunities.

All children in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark seem to have such opportunities; why can't all Australian children? By ignoring arts education we say to our children: ''You are too stupid to have good education in the arts - your brains will never cope with intense learning in music, for example, so we will only do the bare minimum with you in any arts education and really concentrate on getting you through your NAPLAN tests.''

Wake up, Australia, before it's too late. Teachers, parents and children need to let governments know that we are heading into a cultural and educational crisis unless we address these issues now.

Richard Gill is the music director of Victorian Opera.

This article was first published in The Age on 9 February 2011


  1. I saw you speak at Tedx in Sydney and was inspired and excited. Thank you for your commitment to a better education for our children.

  2. I haven't read a captivating debate for a while. I like your arguments and children should not have to subject to competition at such an early stage in their life. I guess it just depends now on the ratio of individual self learning against teamwork or cooperation.

    I was heavily involved in music during high school and sadly I struggled in the sciences field when I continued on to university. There's a sense of not achieving anything worthwhile because music is not regarded as a proper job. I just hope there aren't others who feel lost like myself.

  3. more fucking twaddle from the moronic mr gill

    1. Typical from someone with such a limited vocabulary. Shame you can't disagree with someone's point of view without being crude.

    2. Please, elaborate on your opposing view.

    3. The trauma that Naplan causes the underperforming child can be horrible. I have seen several students at high school cry at one sitting. The push on literacy and numeracy is important, sure, but limiting the arts is not the way. I have a diverse Year 12 Music class, from a lower economic area where students have a limited range of opportunities. The high achievers in Music in that class also have gained high grades for other subjects. The lower range achievers have taken Music in order to give them a reason to go to school. They are upset they can't do more than one subject as Music. I cannot emphasize enough how important the arts are for our students who struggle with school and other issues. Thank you Mr Gill, for supporting my opinion about these tests.

  4. @Anonymous: at least he has the courage to put his name to it, unlike you and your pointless comment.

  5. Hey Richard,

    Sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn't find any contact info on the blog, and wanted to ask about a possible guest post. Please drop me an e-mail!



  6. Dear Richard,

    Just wanted to let you know that my Finnish exchange student (Sara) really enjoyed your masterclass at Central Coast Conservatorium yesterday. She was very chuffed that you mentioned Finland during your discussions with the other Students. One thing that she has learnt since being in Australia is to be proud of her own country and you gave her something else to be proud of.

  7. We probably need to get the issues into the media .... check this out ...

  8. Mr Gill. I am currently at a school where my department head and I BUILT a musical monster. We grew and blossomed and retained students despite the socio/economic disadvantaged govt school limits. For the past two years we have seen all the hard work shot down. So much so that we are cut to the quick. Music did not lose one student from tuition and classes, we had the first VCE music class in the history of the school, soirees, concerts, out of school performances, doing one major musical with real kid musicians in the pit. Still year 2012 is being cut even further.
    Any advice to survive?

  9. Dear Richard, I am the bassoon teacher at Blackburn High School.I have been there 13 years and given 150%. They have just sacked me because they say they don't have enough money to continue my contract.Other instrumental teachers have been sacked too. We are all teachers without Dip Eds. They have sacked us regardless of the value of our contribution but purely because we are easier to get rid of than teachers with Dip.Eds. The bassoon will now be taught by the oboe teacher- a deplorable situation and a significant drop in teaching standards by a high school which generally sets them. Do you have any suggestions on how we might fight this? Linda Pearson

  10. I am an instrumental music teacher in Victoria concerned about the decision this year to restrict instrumental teaching during school hours till after 1.00pm. I have yet to find out the true rationale behind this, but it is not looking good.

  11. Mr. Gill,

    I was unsure of how to contact you so I thought I'd just leave a message here. A large thank-you for the inspired and emphatic lecture you gave to me and my fellow TOK students last week: I must say I've never been lectured by someone so genuinely interested in being disagreed with! It was clear that you were truly concerned with what the students had to say, and it's only for that reason that none of my classmates were sneakily playing first-person shooters whilst you were speaking.
    TOK, whilst being a great subject, is not often the most thrilling of classes to sit through, but very honestly, I was enthralled with your lecture and the ideas you presented (particularly when you presented them through song or ironic monologue!).

    So Thank you! Truly, a class worth remembering.

    A Year 12 IB Student
    AKA The Girl Who Presented You With The School's Gift At The End.

  12. Hi Richard,
    This is Stephen McCulloch who taught with you at St Jude's in London in the early 1970s. Would love to catch up.

  13. Richard,

    I am a massive fan of your thoughts and ideas, so much so I built a solution to help musicians connect and collaborate.

    When you have a few minutes please take a quick look at and let me know if you think this might be a useful tool to help musicians everywhere.

    Any help with sharing this initiative and activating musicians would be massively appreciated.

    You can find out more about me on the map and

    I'm hoping to get around to writing about some of the ideas you've shared at the talks i've seen you at.

    Kahne (Violin)
    Founding Director @
    A free service developed by musicians, for musicians.

  14. Hello Mr. Gill,

    I am writing to let you know about a musical documentary I am making called BIG VOICE about the year long journey of a visionary high school choir director and his most advanced co-ed ensemble. This film delves deeply into the profound value of music education both in terms of the intellectual challenges it presents students and the profound life lessons that emerge from the study of music and musical collaboration.

    We have completed principal photography and are now heading into a year of post production. This is a grassroots effort that can only be achieved with the support of those who believe in inspiring others to teach, study and appreciate the incredible gift of music.

    I'd like to invite you to explore our project and if you are so moved spread the word about it. Here's some links that will give you a taste of what BIG VOICE is all about:

    YouTube Clip:

    Thanks very much for your consideration. I look forward to your thoughts.


  15. Inspiring as always

  16. Hi Richard

    I have been enjoying catching some of your thoughts with your passionate delivery. Very engaging. I am a child of an exam driven generation & any fostering of music was done through a positive peer network who all happened to be muso's.
    I was always good at maths as well & it wasn't until I got into music sequencing in the 90's that I realised the correlation between maths & music. Indeed I must have had a kind of "Matrix" experience when for a while there I wasn't looking at the notes in the sequence but reading the numbers; especially when it came t things like quantising. My wife (also a musician) tells me stories about how she used to remember important exam facts by putting them to music; 40 years on she even a sang me a song that she had used in an English exam.
    I'd be curious to see your thoughts on some of the above. Cheers & thanks
    Mick Mc
    Now in my 50's I'm wondering about the correlation between numeracy & music

  17. "It can be demonstrably proven that activities used in teaching for the national tests destroy individuality, stifle creativity, stultify thought and make all children respond in the same way - a sort of educational circus in which the children are the trained animals and the teachers the poorly paid ringmasters."

    Is this not the whole point, though? It is much easier to deal with people who have no individuality, creativity or an original thought process. Therefore, it is in the states interests to turn people into trained animals, is it not? Or am I just being too cynical?

  18. Hi Richard - Great blog. The Independent Education Union would love to interview you for the next issue of our professional magazine to members, IE.

    The interview would focus on your views about the benefits of quality music programs for children, plus your own access/experience growing up.

    IE goes to more than 70,000 members who work in non-government schools nationally.

    If you are available/interested we would ideally conduct the interview this week or next.

    Can you please let us know? I can be reached on 0421 238 914 or return email via

    Thanks Richard.

    All the best,

    Tara de Boehmler
    IEU Journalist/Communications Coordinator
    NSW/ACT Independent Education Union
    IEUA (NSW/ACT Branch)
    GPO Box 116
    SYDNEY NSW 2001

  19. Hey Richard...

    Tell us what you really think ;-)

    1. Coulda been Finland; gunna be America.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Bravo Mr. Gill,

    I am visiting my native Queensland right now after a 20+ year career in the Arts across the globe and I applaud your words of wisdom given to this country at will. It infuriates me that the current Premier up here believes that the Arts should just "be a hobby," and not something to take seriously. This deplorable naivete from government should result in removal from office because even if he doesn't value the Arts himself, he has no right to publicly undermine them. Particularly given that Australia produces more talent in the Arts per capita than anywhere else in the world.
    In addition to Music, Dance is a powerful tool for education and while dance thrives in private dance schools (at the expense of parents), it still carries the ludicrous stigma of being 'sissy' while sports, which clearly breeds aggression and often an unhealthy understanding of competition, dominates the nations education programs. Education on the whole stinks in this country. The introduction of computers has left spelling, grammar, and reading for dead and allowed open range to scour the internet for whatever kids stumble across which often ain't pretty.

    Thank you for your article,


  22. Every time I hear about what is happening with education back in Australia, the thought of placing my child into this type of system makes me feel more and more like never moving back home. While the German system isn't in the slightest bit perfect - as many would try to have us believe in Australia - they at least don't have this ridiculous system of "educational accounting" as the fundamental principle of excellence within education.

    It is unfortunate that the only person I see from overseas that regularly stands up to these politically inspired and flawed concepts seems to be Richard. Hopefully more people will speak out about this topic, irrelevant of their political affiliations.

    Graham Howard
    English Teacher
    Christian Albrecht's University in Kiel

  23. I would not usually agree with Richard Gill, but he is right and right to have articulated his views whether they were solicited or volunteered. The mess that Australian Education is in and quantifying and measuring of education are indicators that the claiming of it by high flying non-teaching academics and politicians has not worked. Teaching is hard work it is a craft that in the right hands can become an art and a lifetime resource to provoke the mind into curiosity and the willingness to learn at the smorgasbord of life. You cannot measure that. You cannot quantify it. Quantitative assessments always fail. Qualitative are better but subjective.There is a human being in there. This life is all that we have, we come from no where we go to nowhere. At least we should have the safest, happiest most fulfilling passage whilst we are here.
    Blair Edgar


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  26. Thank you, Maestro Gill.

    In addition to our shared love of Iris DeMent, you have shown with this post that we agree on another issue.

    As a music educator and teacher trainer at the tertiary level (I have a US doctorate in choral conducting and theatre), I was dismayed upon moving to Australia 8 years ago to find that there really were little to no opportunities for me to pursue my career, simply because there was very little teacher training needed, due to the appalling lack of arts education in the school systems.

    I was also a parent, for the person that I moved to Australia for had a child from a previous marriage, and we had full-time care of him. Because arts education is so important to me, we enrolled our child at an expensive private school in inner Sydney that purported to have an exemplary music program. From what I was told, this would be better than what was offered at public schools. Our child began singing in the primary choir and playing clarinet. I was, however, crestfallen when I went to the school's music concert and watched as the educators failed miserably. Not only were their conducting skills questionable, but the repertoire chosen for all of the ensembles was intensely inappropriate. The choir sang arrangements of pop songs by bands like Coldplay. The orchestra attempted to play Danse Macabre and nearly broke down completely at least three times. As a result, our child quit all music programs because they were not enjoyable. As a music educator, it cut me to the core, but I had to agree that it was not a valuable experience.

    The government's lack of support of arts education, whether at the federal, state or local level, is hideous. And it up-trickles to the tertiary level.

    It is no wonder that the arts are considered elitist in Australia, when it is undervalued in education, but also because of the lack of a true philanthropic system by which people of all ages can attend concerts at a fair price.

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  30. Article on music and learning

    Voice Charter School in Long Island City, Queens, credits its focus on music with its students outpacing their peers on New York State math and English exams.

  31. Dear Richard,
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  38. As a teacher for over 40 years, now a teacher educator, I cannot agree more! My area is science (and it gets a raw deal in primary too, thanks to the endless literacy and numeracy!), but I am also a musician and my parents reliably informed me I was singing from the pram! Back then it was Lonnie Donnegan's 'O Boys Can't You Line 'Em' but my tastes have expanded since then. These days, my choral exploits are folk songs in original languages. Music has taught me so much, I entirely agree with your statements. I also dabble with painting and other arts activities and I prize them all for the creative outlet. I could give up practicing science and survive quite well ... but I could not give up practicing music. I suspect I will be singing my way out of this life.
    Teaching has indeed been seriously limited and reduced in my lifetime in the job, children are undersold as far as their capabilities are concerned. Yes, literacy and numeracy are clearly important BUT the way we are going about developing this isn't working. We are declining in international comparisons and USA shows that more and more standardised testing isn't effective. We need to aim for a well-rounded education and encouraging them to think. Thank you Richard for speaking out.
    By the way, just found this by deciding to check out your website after watching a rerun of you on Spicks and Specks. You were such a good sport on that show, always a favourite of mine!

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