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Apiscope at Avalon Intermediate – photo by year seven Avalon Intermediate School student So’otaga Tuifao
Apiscope at Avalon Intermediate – photo by year seven Avalon Intermediate School student So’otaga Tuifao

ArtJune 27, 2020

The debasement of art in schools

Apiscope at Avalon Intermediate – photo by year seven Avalon Intermediate School student So’otaga Tuifao
Apiscope at Avalon Intermediate – photo by year seven Avalon Intermediate School student So’otaga Tuifao

This month, the Ministry of Education’s Creatives in Schools programme received a $4 million boost. But leading arts educators say the scheme fails to create lasting change for a system in crisis. New Zealand has led the world in this area before, writes Mark Amery. 

From the 1880s through to the 1930s, influential American philosopher and former primary and secondary school teacher John Dewey wrote passionately about the role of art in education. For a glorious period in the mid 20th century, his ideas were to come to flourish in New Zealand and encourage a cultural renaissance.

Dewey believed in learning through doing, rather than passive receiving. He would have struggled with learning by Google. Dewey believed art was vital in extending connections for young people with what is good and right; expanding their perception of the need for understanding of others and our environment, creating in them a desire for action. Art, he wrote, excited potential for meaning and for insight into society. Dewey believed every person was capable of being an artist, and living an artful life of social interaction that would benefit the world.

“Transformative experiences,” he wrote in 1934, “occur when people intuit new concepts that occasion seeing in valued ways.” For Dewey, art allowed people to come to understand and empathise with the environment around them. Art was a tool to “erase bias”, tied to “democratic citizenship”, enabling people to be self-directed and responsible: “to take charge… adapt to change… participate in the shaping and directing of those changes”. It would do well to remember this when looking at ways to deal with reports of rising violence in primary schools and the knock-on effects of Covid-19.

In other words, boy do we need Dewey now.

Room 1 Avalon Intermediate School students rapping in 2019 Yellow Black Nation STEM to STEAM project.

And yet John Dewey’s ideas remain out of step with an education that nurtures consumers of information, rather than producers, makers and critical minds. A system that silos different disciplines away from a more holistic (and potentially mātauranga Māori-based) learning. A system that sidelines the central role of the arts to act as a connective tissue, at a time when the contemporary arts have become foremost about ideas and bridging fields of knowledge. Introduced in 2002, NCEA has not made this better.

This is an education system that has commodified the fine and applied arts as part of a huge tantalising menu of tertiary courses with huge fees, and loan schemes to match. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, consider the news this week that in Australia, university fees are to double for some arts courses, while fall for STEM subjects.

Meanwhile here, as Dionne Christian reported in the NZ Herald last month, NZ Principals’ Federation president Perry Rush recently argued for arts education in schools that is integrated with other subjects, going “beyond dance groups, school productions or instrumental music lessons”. School principals, Christian wrote, want the arts back in classrooms, to see “better critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, insight and empathy developed”.

In May, a group of Auckland-based arts organisations under Auckland arts regional trust Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi wrote to the government asking for a ngā toi advisory group within the Prime Minister’s Office; a review of the way the arts are being delivered in schools; better resources; better understanding of the arts’ role; and “a national strategy to embed ngā toi across government policies and departments”.

This followed leading school arts educators gathering for the first time in decades, at Te Papa in January, to speak out about arts in schools in crisis.  Resources and delivery of the curriculum at primary schools is such that Francis Potter, president of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Arts Educators, told RNZ that at Year 9 secondary school entrant level, they are having to teach the primary colours.

In response to frustration over a lack of action by the Ministry of Education, in May the University of Auckland’s Professor Peter O’Connor joined with the NZ Principals’ Federation, NZEI and the John Kirwan Foundation to develop Te Rito Toi, an online resource to help teachers teach the arts as they returned to school under level two. In a month, O’Connor says there were over 250,000 page views and more than 30,000 teachers using the site.

Image for Te ora Auaha: Creative Wellbeing Alliance Aotearoa

“Great sentiments, little strategy” has been the criticism continually levelled at the government in the wake of the 2019 launch of a Creatives in Schools programme.

Calls for change come at a vital time. In the wake of disaster the arts have historically played a vital role in helping us adapt to change and think differently. We should have learnt this from the Christchurch earthquakes. The Covid-19 lockdown, meanwhile, has provided time for many to mull on work-life balance. Left to their own devices, people got busy baking, planting, crafting and connecting in new ways. And many suddenly had kids at home with them, learning alongside them. The questions kept popping up for me: are we teaching our tamariki to live, or just to work and consume? Why do we struggle to recognise art’s role in innovative and critical thinking that builds confident, collaborative citizens, and put it at the heart of policy?

STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths), rather than just STEM, is the rallying cry. It reflects how in the last two decades the arts have become increasingly focused on developing thinkers able to visualise and bridge the gaps between different disciplines. Think of recent New Zealand representatives at the Venice Biennale as examples: Lisa Reihana, Simon Denny and Dane Mitchell. Our images of the artist are multiplying: some are creative facilitators and collaborators, embedded in teams looking for new out-of-the-box solutions. This is something we have a long way to go in valuing in society. And that starts at school.

Gordon Tovey in workshop with school arts advisers

The Tovey generation

And yet we’ve been here before. John Dewey’s ideas had a significant impact in New Zealand after the election of the first Labour government in 1935. It was the last great depression. In America, Dewey got to see the implementation of Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project, which saw artist employment projects, federal art commissions, and community art centres in every state.

In New Zealand, then minister of education  Peter Fraser (later prime minister) was determined to initiate changes in schooling. As Luit and Jan Bieringa’s 2016 documentary The Heart of the Matter tells us, the New Zealand 1937 conference of the international New Education Fellowship saw a new wave of educators embrace John Dewey’s theories, principal among them in the arts, Gordon Tovey. The Bieringas smartly illustrate how Tovey, as a national supervisor of arts and craft after World War Two, under the leadership of director general of education Clarence Beeby, enabled an “army of men and women” to establish “a thoroughly bicultural and arts-centred education system”. Utterly progressive for its time. Jan Bieringa says of their motivation in making The Heart of the Matter: “New Zealand needs a strong story that challenges the notion of the arts as a ‘frill’ in the educational process. Not arts or science – but both taught creatively for our children, students of all cultures, and the public at large to enhance and partake of the challenging future.”

Pine Taipa teaching Para Matchitt finer points of carving

After training at teachers’ college with Tovey, a national network of arts specialists worked to train other teachers in schools throughout the country. Particularly strong was a focus on the Māori arts. Tovey inspired a wide range of post-war artists, from Colin McCahon to Ralph Hotere and Marilyn Webb. The change has been called revolutionary.

“I cried when I saw it,” says artist and teacher Judy Darragh of The Heart of the Matter. “All that we’ve lost. It was joyous and holistic. And integrated.”

“We led the world,” says Peter O’Connor. “Tovey and Beeby understood that democracy was made with your hands; you created the critical citizen with your hands. People with agency who could make things. We’ve lost that. We threw it away. It’s gobsmacking what we’ve done, and really sad. For all the talk of reform this government was going to do, in education the arts has been shut out.”

In the last 20 years, the Labour government has not been shy of evoking Beeby and agreeing with John Dewey’s aspirations. In 2003, then minister of education Steve Maharey spoke of Beeby as a visionary thinker, establishing “a public good and right-of-citizenship basis for the education system”. Maharey noted that this provided a “contrary proposition” to the education policy of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw education as a commodity. “That new vision is one that those of us in this government opposed.”

Creatives in Schools

In 2019, the Ministry of Education launched Creatives in Schools. This welcome programme partners “artists and creative practitioners with teachers and kaiako to foster new learning experiences for students and ākonga of all ages”. Projects can last between eight and 20 weeks and range from the traditional arts disciplines to those like film-making, game design, fashion design and spoken word. Creatives in Schools pays a fee of $10,000 for the participating creative (or between up to a maximum of three of them) and for this they need to spend a total of 100 contact hours with the schools. This looks like good and welcome money for most artists. The first of seven rounds began earlier this year, with the placements now published online.

On June 12 this year, the government announced it was increasing the number of projects being funded over the next three years from 304 to 510. All of this is a welcome shot in the arm for artists, schools and their communities, as the list of projects suggests, but some in the arts and education sectors have serious reservations about the programme’s design and context.

“The announcement of the extra funding for Creatives in Schools reinforces the complete lack of strategy informing government policies in the arts,” says O’Connor. “The media release suggests that the motivation for the extra funding was to provide more short-term precarious employment for artists rather than on the basis of any genuine understanding of the role and place of the arts in schools.

“There is no correlation between the skill and dispositions for a successful artist and a successful arts educator. My assumption is that this extra batch of artists will have no training, no support or mentoring into working with children.”

That last point is difficult to assess – the artists simply aren’t listed in the published programme of projects.

The one artist currently advertised with a round one project, at Taita College, Chevron Hassett (‘Selfportrait’, One Thirty Series, 2019)

Judy Darragh and fellow senior artist Professor Anne Noble of Massey University have similar concerns about the programme’s lack of integration.

“Is there support for artists to be given some basic teaching skills?” asks Darragh. “I’m a bit concerned with lack of consultation with artists and art departments. This has to work to see the value of getting art back into the curriculum… Maybe it will be a pathway for artists who were thinking about teacher training and can have a taster?”

Adds Noble: “I do wonder how the current art and technology teachers – many of whom have trained as artists, designers and crafts people – figure in this scenario. While bringing artists into schools may well be a good thing, they are not trained as teachers and they don’t necessarily understand how to position their practices in a way that is connected with the curriculum. It is still seeing the creative arts as an exceptional component of the curriculum led by ‘exceptional people’ rather than as a series of practices that can be integrated within the curriculum to broaden our regard for multiple modes of learning and expression of that learning.

“Put another way – art in this model is indelibly linked to the practices of individuals, rather than being more firmly in the service of cultural and community development. What we term nostalgically as the ‘Beeby and Tovey’ years are renowned for the policies based on the understanding of art as a series of practices essential to the health and wellbeing of communities and cultures. It can be said that the work of those artists in schools throughout New Zealand (Paratene Matchitt, Sandy Adsett and Cliff Whiting among them) contributed significantly to our current New Zealand cultural ethos of biculturalism. What an outcome!”

Noble also predicts the Creatives in Schools programmes will be “hit and miss” based on the skills of the artists as teachers. She, like other artists I have spoken to, is concerned about the lack of evidence of genuine development of relationships between the contemporary arts and the education system. When the programme was released last year, there was little evidence of this consultation, through CNZ or elsewhere.

“If you just plonk an artist in a school, I’m not sure you’re going to get much benefit from it,” says Noble. “It’s totally the wrong idea. The model is surely that of the artist teacher who works to grow the capability of fellow teachers. The idea of artist specialists who can go in and transform the way art is taught and can be incorporated into the curriculum. It’s a specialist skill, not just piloting an artist into a school.”

A return to the Tovey approach, in other words.

Northern Māori Project school performance session, from The Heart of the Matter

“It’s not about supporting the arts curriculum and that’s made really clear,” says O’Connor. “And it’s not about in any systematic way making schools any more creative. It’s piecemeal, it’s bitsy.”

What is at stake, I believe, is an opportunity to introduce the arts as a change agent in schools to challenge our assumptions and expands our ideas and ways of working, in the manner the strongest contemporary art can. This requires a programme that has the drive of Tovey’s 70 years ago, but with all the progressive changes that have happened in that time. That requires strong visionary facilitation to identify and really push artists and schools to develop projects that can be truly innovative in opening out the world to young people, and young people to the world.     

Of the selection process, the ministry informs me the panel “comprised representatives from the Ministry of Education, Creative New Zealand and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage with expertise in education and creative practice and including an external youth assessor”. In that first round, 34 projects were selected from the 68 applications that met the criteria.

“The aim of the programme,” says Pauline Cleaver, associate deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement, “is for artists and creative practitioners to work collaboratively with teachers, students, parents, families and whānau to engage in creative projects drawing on the specialist talents and expertise within the community. We expect that the projects give students experience in working creatively across a number of curriculum areas and developing their key competencies. This is a valuable opportunity for creatives and schools to work in partnership in the interests of their students.

“We are undertaking ongoing review and evaluation of the programme and have made enhancements in response to feedback from creatives and schools and kura.”

Cleaver says interest remains high, with the Ministry of Education receiving enquiries from more than 70 schools even before applications for the second round opened. She also notes that Covid-19 has seen an extension of the deadline for completing many projects to the end of term four. Applications for the second round of Creatives in Schools, for 2021, opened on Thursday, June 25, and close on August 21.

This openness to change is welcome, but as O’Connor says, many are looking for a stronger overriding vision to empower all to see this really lead to change, not just decorate the edges. 

A former teacher at both secondary and tertiary levels, Judy Darragh is one of our most respected senior sculptors. Her work in art, advocacy and education was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours list with the award of an ONZM.

“Creatives in Schools really needs to work. The next stage is to get art back into the curriculum, that’s the end game: STEAM, not STEM. Make art compulsory right through. So it has to work.

“It feels to me the education department is a little siloed about what is happening generally,” she adds. “They’re probably not hearing from artists. I’d like some real proactivity in getting really good artists into schools.”

Darragh also considers the Tovey movement’s focus on arts specialists and working closely with teachers a good model.  Giving schools money, Darragh says, “is fantastic, but it needs ongoing shepherding in schools, and people with passion”.

Paascalino Schaller teaching video production at Avalon Intermediate

What change could look like

What placing the arts centrally in the classroom looks like was recently tested at two intermediate schools in Wellington. At Avalon and Newlands intermediates during 2019, Noble and fellow Massey University professor Tracey Riley led a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative through the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER).

Noble’s own practice has already demonstrated how an artist might work across disciplines to communicate complexities. Noble has worked principally with scientists around environmental urgencies, first with a focus on Antarctica and, for the last eight years, the predicament of the honeybee.

For Noble, teachers’ training college in the 1970s was instrumental in her picking up photography and becoming an artist.

“That education came out of the Tovey era. The fact that good teachers are people who are passionate, informed, creative and enjoy teaching from their strengths. There was a high focus on art.

“I’ve always been interested in how you engage with people in different disciplines, and in the university I’m always challenged to think this way. Photography works very well alongside other disciplines. A lot of what I’ve done has been inspired by working with fantastic people, with scientists – that kind of parallel knowledge you receive from other people’s passions feeding into your own. Projects don’t come out of you, they come out of conversation with people who might have a shared interest.

“I became a beekeeper, and anyone who becomes a beekeeper falls in love with bees. There’s the sense that the curtains are drawn on the complexity of living systems, but with bees you get to be an observer and participant in something. There’s something it does to your capacity to attune to attending to something – and as an artist you do that incredibly differently to a scientist. I philosophise and I muse and I meld together speculative ways of thinking entirely out of being an artist,” says Noble.

“Biodiversity is under threat. There is an ecological crisis in the threats to multiple species. And yet you ask a scientist why the bees are dying in the way they are and the scientist will say ‘Well… we can’t be too sure about that!” There’s the sense that science will only speak when it can be certain of something. What science cannot give us is understanding of the entire complexity and interrelationship of living systems. It wants to tease things apart and understand them piece by piece and then put it back together and imagine we might understand the whole.

An apiscope at Avalon Intermediate School

“I think what art can do is ask absurd questions and speculate in ways that are beyond reason,” she explains. “We have with artists this capacity to dwell on the marvellous; and that the ability to act on and change the world belongs to all of us.

“A total focus on STEM subjects is like walking legless. It really privileges what we think we need to know to advance science, technology and economics as if those are all. It is also privileging the idea that education is about training the rational faculties of human beings, and actually, I reckon only a small percentage of people really flourish given that as a focus.”

The project with Avalon Intermediate and Newlands Intermediate saw apiscopes – observational beehives – put in classrooms to kickstart multidisciplinary learning.

Children wrote, illustrated and produced a series of picture books aimed at kindergartens based on their learning about the life of bees and the structure of the beehive. A further book, Yellow Black Nation, saw students at Avalon Intermediate write music, raps and create moving and still images. Teachers led teachers, tuakana led teina, and the resources of both the tertiary arts institution and local community employed, with the likes of Trinity Roots and Little Bushman’s Warren Maxwell from the Massey School of Music, local artist and photographer Chevron Hassett (the one recipient of funding in the first round of Creatives in Schools that’s been publicised), and film-maker and teacher Paascalino Schaller in support.

A report of this project as a model for how the arts can be central to engaging teachers in multidisciplinary learning, fulfilling curriculum objectives across the spectrum, is now going back to the NZCER.

A sound recording workshop with Massey lecturer Warren Maxwell

“Observation from a living system is very different from learning online,” says Noble. “With an apiscope you get to see it in the classroom as a parallel universe. It can just be there but it can also be the basis of a project, like a music video and story project about bees. It’s something authentic.

“It’s art not as an add-on but a way of bringing the Beeby/Tovey model right back up to date. Art is seen in schools as something that is peripheral to the curriculum, a subset of skills to be developed for those with talent, not as a means to experience and to think and to be a vehicle for the translation of learning about the world and expressing it.

“It’s no wonder low-decile schools are low decile, because literacy is defined and promoted in a manner which is so eurocentric – where you have to write it all down. Why should they write down a poem when they already have incredibly sophisticated abilities to rap and improvise in their heads?”

Peter O’Connor (Photo:

Valuing the arts

Peter O’Connor is surely the most outspoken critic of the Ministry of Education’s approach to the arts right now. Based at University of Auckland’s faculty of education and social work, he is director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation and the university’s Creative Thinking Project. He has worked extensively in theatre and drama education in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, earthquake zones and with the homeless.

“What we do in schools is part of a bigger puzzle about how we understand the place of the arts,” he says. “One of the things that the Warwick Commission, which looked into the arts and cultural life in the UK in 2015, said was that everything is underpinned by the quality of arts education in public schools. And we’ve abandoned the arts in New Zealand schools – for a very long time.

“Understanding art’s value and central role in making humans more human has never been embraced. We need a wider strategy and vision. The closest we got to it was with Helen Clark, who understood it in neoliberal terms – how you create a market and how we sell ourselves to the world. Jacinda gets closer when she talks about the innate value of the arts, but that hasn’t translated in any way into any policy or strategic direction.

“We didn’t lose arts in schools by accident, it was deliberate. We wanted cheap labour for a global economy. You do that by creating people who don’t think, challenge or use the arts to reimagine the world. We had a glorious moment at the turn of the century where for probably less than a year the arts were mandated to be taught in every school, and then it was snatched off us.”

“Inexplicable” and “criminal negligence” are words O’Connor uses to describe the neglect of the work laid down by Tovey and Beeby. Other arts educators commented in January to RNZ that inequities in resourcing makes implementing the arts curriculum difficult in New Zealand, particularly at primary school level. The tools, in other words, are available, the resources less so.

“We have the only indigenous arts curriculum in the world, totally from a mātauranga Māori perspective, and it’s been left to die. What an enormous indictment. You think of the power of Māori arts in our communities, what it would be to have in our schools.”

Instead, O’Connor says, for 20 years there has been a “grinding focus” on literacy and numeracy with “no understanding that that of itself doesn’t work, it doesn’t lift literary and numeracy rates. What’s interesting about that is that in a time of crisis, which is where we’re at, it’s the arts that schools will need to re-engage with their children with learning.”

I ask O’Connor what countries, then, are getting it right. While he notes that everyone cites the Scandinavian countries, there have also been shifts in places like Singapore and China.

“In China the curriculum for a generation was about making compliant non-thinking workers who can replicate products, but they’ve worked out that doesn’t give them the competitive edge. They are increasingly embracing the arts in education as a way to do that. They’re not doing that because they see art linked to democracy – that’s the last thing they want – but they do understand that training in imagination has an economic impact.”

An artist teaching in schools 

Judy Darragh taught for 30 years at Auckland secondary schools, leaving just as NCEA was being introduced at the beginning of the millennium. She’s worked as an NCEA assessor since and believes the national certificate has “flattened things”.

Ever passionate about arts education, Darragh has been working as a creative in schools long before the Creatives in Schools programme was invented – four schools in 2019 alone.

“I did a two-day workshop out at Birkenhead with these juniors and I took a whole lot of stuff from my studio, a lot of 3D stuff – because 3D is not being taught. It’s gone. Teachers aren’t confident enough and they need resources. Materials. And they need storage. It’s considered too hard! So students aren’t encouraged to work three dimensionally. All the potters’ wheels have gone, the screenprints, everything’s gone.”

In workshops Darragh doesn’t necessarily use the word “art” or “sculpture”. Instead with juniors she asks them simply to join a soft material and a hard material together, and “to make the joining interesting”. She emphasises that there is no right or wrong.

“My god, they went off. One kid made 10 things. They were just making stuff – and they weren’t making ‘things’, they were making worlds they could own.

“Assessing NCEA, I saw very little 3D. A lot of digital design stuff and a lot of painting… But I don’t see the digital being used creatively. Maybe it’s to do with the format of NCEA. It’s quite prescriptive. I went into a classroom and they were googling a tree to draw a tree. They were using their phones to draw from. It was a Leunig moment – there was a tree out the window!”

Again and again, Darragh says it comes down to the teachers. Like at Hamilton Girls High School last year where she was artist in resident, working with “amazing art teachers who’ve gone through art school”. They created Bee Stunning, a temporary collaborative art installation using over 4,000 ping pong balls, and involving all students and staff.

Bee Stunning, Hamilton Girls High School

“At secondary school you’re getting arts graduates teaching art, but through early childhood and primary it’s a bit random. At college they might get an arts specialist but previous to that it’s a bit winky wonky. We need to have it right through the curriculum.”

Indeed, given the enormous growth in tertiary education and the parallel growth in leading artists finding secure careers as academics, is being a school teacher even an aspiration for artists any more?

Darragh, who has been a professional teaching fellow at Elam School of Fine Arts since 2005, isn’t so sure it is. She considers herself as one of a generation of art school grads who were also influential school teachers. She mentions the likes of sculptor Marte Szimay, painter Philippa Blair and in Christchurch, Bronwyn Taylor, who now lectures in sculpture at Ilam Canterbury University and has been involved in curriculum development at secondary and tertiary levels since 1972.

Darragh believes there is often a significant gap between what is being taught in art at school and the more socially engaged conceptual-based making of contemporary art practice today. She agrees with my hunch that things are probably well out of date.

“I’d say it’s very low risk. Maybe it’s a confidence thing. But there is a huge gap when kids arrive at Elam. In that first year you have to open them up again to art being about everything. A lot of them think they’ve just come to do paintings. We need to do that at secondary school.”

Again, the need for our artists to be educated as teachers, and our teachers to have the confidence to be artists and apply creative thinking across the curriculum, comes through loud and clear.

“We describe the arts as an industry,” adds Darragh, “which immediately defaults to the digital, and that someone is getting paid. But in actual fact the language is wrong. I don’t work in an industry. We have to change the language.”

The film The Heart of the Matter  is available at NZ on Screen to rent and or purchase at various locations.

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