School principals want to "bring the arts back" into classrooms, saying in a post Covid-19 society education needs to be different to meet the needs of students facing greater uncertainty in daily and working life.

In his May newsletter, NZ Principals' Federation present Perry Rush argues for greater arts education in schools that goes beyond dance groups, school productions or instrumental music lessons. He says it means using the arts to prompt expressive language and creative endeavour in ways that integrate with other subjects and parts of the curriculum.

Rush, the principal of Hastings Intermediate, says in a world where alternative facts and fake news abound, the importance of the skills the arts teach - critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, insight and empathy, among them - is self-evident.

"Any society that strips its education system of what it means to be human and denies its young citizens the opportunity to explore and celebrate human expression, should be concerned about how this affects a healthy functioning democracy. There has never been a time to be more vigilant and protective of the humanities and artistic expression than now."

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Rush has outlined a three-point plan for re-building arts education. It involves continuing with changes to teacher training, building pathways for arts curriculum leadership and removing the focus on literary and numeracy which came with National Standards.

Perry Rush, principal of Hastings Intermediate and president of the NZ Principals' Federation, says the arts need to be given a greater place in day to day teaching. Photo / supplied
Perry Rush, principal of Hastings Intermediate and president of the NZ Principals' Federation, says the arts need to be given a greater place in day to day teaching. Photo / supplied

He says schools lost their way with the arts curriculum, partly because of successive government policies that saw the amalgamation of teachers' colleges with universities, which placed too much emphasis on academia rather than practical teaching skills.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government scrapped National Standards in 2018 partly because studies show that rather than bolstering achievement in literacy and numeracy, these went backwards because the curriculum was too narrowly focused.

Hipkins agrees that now is the time for discussions about the future of education but says the core New Zealand curriculum doesn't need a make-over because it has space for greater integration of the arts in all their different facets.

Teacher training programmes are also being overhauled, with the Teaching Council, universities, wānanga, polytechnics, private training establishments, teachers, educational leaders and experts releasing new requirements late last year.

Teacher education providers are revamping programmes so trainee teachers spend more time in classrooms on placement, further develop the use of te reo and tikanga Māori and have new ways to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Rush's comments follow the release in April of the first significant arts teaching resource given to schools in more than 10 years. The NZPF worked alongside the University of Auckland, the NZ Educational Institute Te Riu Roa and the Sir John Kirwan Foundation to produce Te Rito Toi, a website and teaching resources for arts-based learning.

Te Rito Toi spokesman Professor Peter O'Connor, from Auckland University, says it provides teachers with evidence-based practical classroom activities to help their pupils better understand the changed world and to see themselves as being part of a new and better future.

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Professor Peter O'Connor. Photo / Chris Loufte
Professor Peter O'Connor. Photo / Chris Loufte

Since it launched, the site has had more than 70,000 views with inquiries from schools all over New Zealand as well as Australia, the United States and Hong Kong.

"There is a hunger and a need for us to do things differently and the tool that will help us is arts," says O'Connor, describing the response as extraordinary. Many experts will say we need to settle kids back into the old routines as soon as possible, but the world has changed and there is a lot of talk about not going back to 'routine' or 'normal'.

"This is not about tinkering or providing bullet points for teachers; it's about seeing a fundamental opportunity for us to re-think our practices in schools to benefit of all our children. Kids need tools for the now; this gives them access to ways to express their feelings and develop their thinking processes. If we don't, we deny them opportunities for healing and growth."

Lesson plans include poetry by former Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh, a unit on dealing with anxiety supported by the John Kirwan Foundation and Māori arts resources curated by a bicultural team in Wellington.

Warren Owen, principal of Lower Hutt's Waterloo School, says the arts are mistaken for being a "nice to have" and an add-on to core curriculum subjects like numeracy and literacy. But he says better integration of the arts expands possibilities for learning.

"For many of us, our strongest positive memories of school are those provided by the arts (music, dance, drama, school productions, visual arts) and sport. All these pursuits provide contexts where students need to cooperate as a team and where socialising is important. Both are major sources of joy and achievement, providing valuable opportunities to develop leadership skills, self-esteem and cooperation which are all necessary life and workplace competencies."

Owen says the focus of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – needs to be broadened to STEAM so it includes art.

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