Primary School Music Still Alive Despite Years of Neglect

Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

Research Report: Irina Petrova

The PhD thesis What makes good music programs in schools? A study of school music across Australia (2012, UNSW) addressed the issue of and unresolved crisis vis-à-vis the delivery of classroom music education and student access. Music is a compulsory subject for all primary school children in all Australian states and territories. However, there is great inequality in the provision of music education especially for primary school children.

The evidence shows that the quality of music teaching at primary and secondary schools, and teacher education at tertiary levels, are interdependent. The lack of quality at the primary school level undermines the interests of secondary and tertiary school levels. Therefore, all issues about pre-service and in-service training are of paramount importance in school music education at both primary and secondary levels. There is a lack of adequate music education in primary schools and a lack of teachers who know music. This leads to poor musical attainment in secondary schools. As a result, young people become teachers despite having an inadequate music background, and the process starts all over again. This process of a ’vicious circle‘ is well defined in the literature.

In Australia, primary school music may be taught by generalist or by specialist teachers. The generalist teachers are not provided with sufficient training in music and therefore avoid teaching music to their students. In Australia, the provision of music in primary schools needs more attention than in secondary schools. This problem should be addressed at the tertiary level, particularly when preparing generalist teachers for teaching music in primary schools.

Four national surveys that involved 258 primary and 141 secondary school teachers who taught classroom music, 10 primary school teacher educators from Australian universities, and 12 teacher music advisors and consultants were conducted. The surveys identified teachers’ musical backgrounds, formal qualifications and pedagogical training, and linked these to their perceived confidence in teaching music. It is confirmed that teachers’ musical qualifications are the major factor impacting the quality of music programs.

Student Access to Music Education in Australia

The analysis of the literature (1968-2009) showed that none of the historical articles provided evidence that the quality of the provision of classroom music in Australian primary was ever satisfactory. The state of classroom music was connected to its place within the curriculum, to student access and learning outcomes, to the provision of qualified teachers, and to the quality of teaching. The state of music education in Australian primary schools was always seen as tending towards crisis because there was always a lack of music provision, and where music programs were taught, the standard of teaching was inadequate.

A research project was conducted across all Australian states and territories in 2009. Every attempt was made to contact all schools in order to define a level of student access to music in Australia. The study revealed that out of 6,284 schools across Australia that provide a primary level of education, 3,946 (62.74%) have no classroom music. There were 2,338 primary schools that provide classroom music education. It is reasonable to conclude that Australian primary school music education is in a state of crisis: there are simply too many primary schools without music. However, the findings may also be seen in a positive light: regardless of being neglected for over 40 years, classroom music still exists in all the Australian States and Territories.

Who exactly makes good music programs in Australian primary schools?

The evidence that music is taught by generalist teachers in schools where music education exists for all children, comes from the government sector (the ACT, SA, WA and to a greater extent in NSW) and from the Catholic sector (one school in the ACT, a few in WA and a number of schools NSW). There were also such teachers in at least one independent school in South Australia.

Who Are the Teachers Who Teach Music and What Are Their Musical Backgrounds?

The literature stresses that teachers’ personal qualities (e.g., commitment, dedication, and enthusiasm) are not a substitute for musical qualifications, proficiency, and competence. . The evidence strongly suggests that school music is a specialist area of study at all levels of schooling.

The findings from the surveys show that a large proportion of primary school teachers has no music qualifications, or little or no musical attainment.

Age demographics show the ageing nature of the workforce. A significant number of teachers have been teaching music for 16 or more years. This suggests a high level of music teaching experience in the profession. The older teachers were more educated in music compared to younger teachers; , musical training of primary teachers was routine and much more extensive. .

While in most states and territories the majority of teachers that participated in the survey had a high level of music education – a Music Degree or Diploma, a Bachelor’s Degree with music specialty, or a Master’s Degree in Music, or a Master’s in Music Education Degree – there were no respondents with such qualifications in the Northern Territory. New South Wales was the only state where almost half of the respondents indicated a low level of musical attainment or no musical attainment in terms of qualifications.

Those with little or no musical attainment included respondents who had a Bachelor’s Degree with no music component, and reported either a preliminary grade or having reached Grades 1 to 4 on a musical instrument, or had no formal music education. Although teachers with a high level of music education dominated in Victoria and South Australia, there was also a large percentage of teachers who achieved a low level of musical attainment or none at all. The independent sector employed more highly qualified teachers and fewer teachers with little or no musical attainment in comparison to the Catholic and government sectors. The latter two employ approximately a third of teachers with a low level of musical attainment or no musical attainment.

Overall, out of all (n=258) respondents who participated in the survey of primary school teachers, 48.45% (n=125) fell under the high level of music education category, 22.48% (n=58) fell into the moderate level of musical attainment category, and 29.07% (n=75) fell under the low level of musical attainment or no musical attainment category. While the majority of respondents with a high level of music education and a moderate level of musical attainment played one or more musical instruments, almost one fifth of all respondents with little or no musical attainment did not play any musical instruments.

The Relationship of Qualifications in Music and Confidence in Teaching

The findings of the study show that the major criterion that determines primary teachers’ confidence is their musical qualifications. Nearly all teachers with high and moderate levels of music education and attainment indicated that they were confident in teaching primary school music. In regard to the teachers with little or no musical attainment, almost a quarter indicated that they did not feel confident teaching music. At first it may seem to contradict some of the research that showed that most primary school teachers have little confidence. However, further analysis reveals that the reason why almost three quarters of the teachers with little or no musical attainment were confident teaching music was their experience of 16 and more years in teaching music. Therefore, in the absence of qualifications in music, experience in teaching music was a major factor that contributed to confidence among teachers.

What Content of the Music Curricula Teachers Found the Most Difficult to Teach

The effects of having a qualification were clear for the questions concerning how difficult teachers perceived teaching essential music-specific content to be. Overall, respondents with a low level or no musical attainment found teaching music-specific components of the school curricula the most challenging when compared to participants with the higher levels of qualifications or attainment in music.

What Content of Music Curricula Teachers Are More Likely Inclined to Teach?

The motivation for examining teachers’ inclinations towards teaching certain items in the content of the curriculum was provoked by the revision and evaluation of the curriculum documentation about what teachers ought to teach. The lower the level of musical qualification or attainment, the less likely the teachers are to be engaged in music-specific teaching activities. The respondents with a low level of musical attainment or no musical attainment indicated that they are unlikely to be engaged in a majority of teaching activities apart from singing and moving.

Pre-service Teacher Training

The motivation for researching pre-service teacher training arose from the literature which stressed the importance of teacher training and argued that teacher education and training in music or lack thereof, are factors contributing to or hindering quality teaching. The historical literature argued about reducing the amount of university music curriculum studies for primary school teachers. There was not sufficient time to equip future primary school teachers with knowledge and skills in music necessary for teaching music.

Primary school teachers. Responses to a number of music-specific questions about the content of pre-service training revealed that a majority of respondents with little or no musical attainment perceived their training as insufficient because it did not contribute to the development of their performance skills, knowledge of musicianship, music repertoire, and knowledge of methodology of teaching music. Memorisation of songs, singing, games, dances, movements and rhymes in the content of pre-service training may be advantageous for a majority of teachers who have little or no musical attainment. There are only a few teachers who are familiar with the secondary music program. This suggests that pre-service teacher training in music does not equip teachers to contribute to the continuity and progression in the musical development of children going from primary through to secondary school. Based on the teachers’ perception of the inadequacy of their pre-service teacher training in enabling them to teach classroom music, it is suggested that there is a need for changing or strengthening pre-service and/or in-service training for all teachers with little or no musical attainment.

Primary school teacher educators. An analysis of the surveys revealed that the focus of primary school teacher training in music was set on pedagogy and methodology of teaching music to primary school students rather than on the development of teachers’ knowledge and skills in music. Even though teacher educators were more likely to be engaged in a variety of teaching activities on average, there were respondents who did not see themselves as being involved in teaching performance on pitched instruments, computer music, music literacy, imitation of sounds, and singing.

All teacher educators indicated that time for music in their university timetables was insufficient. Many teacher educators also felt that their university had insufficient teaching staff to meet the demands of the primary music curriculum. There were also some teacher educators who thought that their university support staff had insufficient qualifications and experience.

In-service Teacher Training in Music

The importance of in-service training in music was stressed in the literature, which proved that deficiencies in pre-service training were fixed during in-service professional development courses. One of the objectives of the surveys was to gain a picture of in-service teacher training. Of particular interest was adequacy of in-service training received by teachers with little or no musical attainment, compared to respondents with high levels of musical qualification and moderate levels of musical attainment. Overall, the results confirm that teachers with little or no musical attainment indicated lower levels of attendance, and found workshops less beneficial and relevant to them than their counterparts with higher levels of music education and attainment in music.

Primary school teachers. More than a half of respondents who did not attend any professional learning (PL) workshops in music were teachers with little or no musical attainment. The statistics also showed that respondents who have been working for less than five years were the largest group who did not attend any music professional development workshops in music. Surprisingly, a third of teachers who did not attend any music PLs were teachers who have been teaching music for 16 or more years. The analysis of data across levels of qualification revealed that these categories did not affect teachers’ perceptions of their in-service training which was recognised as inadequate by the majority of respondents. Teachers with little or no musical attainment perceived the content of professional workshops in music as less beneficial compared to teachers with qualifications in music and a moderate level of musical attainment. A number of teachers with little or no musical attainment believed that they would benefit from developing musical skills and musicological knowledge.

Support of Music Advisers

Primary school teachers. This study also investigated primary school teachers’ perceptions of their past experiences with the curriculum advisory services. The analysis of the surveys shows that primary school generalist teachers make fewer contacts than music specialists. More than a half of respondents have never contacted music advisers/consultants. Approximately three quarters of teachers with little or no musical attainment never sought advice in music. In contrast, approximately a fifth of teachers with a high level of music education and a moderate level of musical attainment were still making contacts with music advisers and requesting professional advice. The lower the level of musical attainment the teacher had, the more useful they found the music adviser visiting their school to be. Out of those teachers whose school was visited by music advisers, half of the teachers believed that their teaching practice did not change after the visits. The majority of teachers with little or no musical attainment believed that the visits influenced their teaching practice.

Music Advisers. The survey of Music Advisers was designed to learn about their functions, musical backgrounds and qualifications in music, and their confidence in providing advisory services to teachers. Out of 12 respondents, there was one adviser who did not have any musical training prior to formal pre-service training, and two participants who achieved only a beginning level of practical examination. A quarter of all music advisers did not feel confident in giving advice in music to school teachers.

Overall, music advisers did not see themselves providing advice on a variety of issues related to the content of music taught in schools. In particular, advisers did not tend to advise regarding moving or dancing, and performing unpitched instruments. Only a third of respondents provided advice relating exclusively to primary music. Commonly, advisers provided advice on the other subjects from the arts learning area.

Advisers believed that teachers’ knowledge and understanding of the relevant syllabus, professional skills, confidence and practice, and capacity to improve learning outcomes may be enhanced as a result of the music professional development workshops. Advisers indicated that knowledge of the methodology of teaching music to primary school students was the most needed focus of professional development. This was followed by knowledge of music repertoire and development of performance skills. Generally, advisers rated their departments as being insufficient in meeting the demands of teachers who teach music and the demands of the school music curriculum, particularly at the primary level.

The Levels of Resourcing and Support for Teaching Classroom Music

The historical and international data emphasised the importance and necessity of music-specific resources, facilities and equipment for raising the status of music in schools, and effective teaching. However, a lack of resources, and equipment and facilities for teaching classroom music has been an issue for music education in Australia for years (based on data about the government schools of SA, VIC, WA, the NT and QLD).

Teachers’ perceptions of how their school fulfilled the demands of the music curriculum vary significantly across Australian states and territories. Many teachers across Australia indicated that the practice of having support staff with qualifications in music and combinations of teachers specialising in one or two art forms, supporting classroom teachers, was insufficient. Therefore, compared to issues pertaining to availability of teaching staff and time and facilities for teaching, support for teachers who teach music was perceived as the least adequate of all the issues. As consistently indicated by teachers across all levels of qualifications, staff meetings at their schools also were not very helpful in fulfilling the demands of the music curriculum. The key resources highlighted by respondents from all states and territories that were perceived as the most inadequate were computer software, video recordings, and electronic instruments. While inconsistent, the provision of all resources – computer software, video and audio recordings, electronic and traditional instruments, and books and written resources – were better in independent schools when compared to Catholic and public schools. It is also worth mentioning music-specific curriculum documentation and its place in supporting teachers in their classrooms. The main argument is that without music specialist advice, assistance or consultancy, curriculum support materials make little sense and are of little use to non-specialist teachers.

Thus, the issue of student access to classroom music remains unresolved. The thesis exposes the apparent reluctance of the relevant agencies to address the problems in the provision of quality classroom music education. As defined by the historical literature, the expected quality of provision is captured in the following statement: music education to all Australian children should be delivered by music specialists. The outcomes of this study predict that the “vicious circle” in music education will continue. The basis for these interpretations is rooted in a number of deficiencies inherent in pre-service primary school teacher training in music.

It is important to address the issue now when the mechanisms for the implementation of two recent national initiatives – the School National Curriculum and the National Professional Standards for Teachers – are being established. In Australia there is a need for changes in teacher training in music at a tertiary level in terms of content of study and hours devoted to music, especially for primary school generalist teachers. As the national government initiatives will not happen immediately, the findings of this thesis may be taken into consideration by the educational authorities. It is suggested that the content of teacher preparation courses, standards of teacher accreditation and registration, and content of school syllabi are measured against similar benchmarks. This arrangement should include collaboration with teacher education institutions, teacher registration institutions and educational policy makers. The change needs to start sooner rather than later as the voice from the educational field calls on behalf of others that: “Classroom music needs all the help it can muster before it dies completely. Cheers” (a comment in the survey by a music teacher, primary school, QLD, July 15, 2009).


Irina Petrova is a school teacher and gainer her PhD with this exceptional thesis at the University of NSW. It can now be read, all 1200 pages, at