Not Just For Fun

Music, the visual and dramatic arts have been criticised for being non-essential, but what should we really think about arts education in schools?

Are we right to relegate arts to the confines of luxury? We’ve all heard the criticisms. Why should your child be spending time learning how to paint, sing, dance or act when they could be utilising that time to learn multiplication or read and write?

Further down the line, how will having learned to read music and play an instrument, act in plays and paint help your child achieve in school and eventually go on to university and secure a good job? Armed with an ever-expanding arsenal of evidence, international schools are leading the artistic charge with their deeply rich fine arts programmes.

The Value of an Arts Education

Many of the popular criticisms that the arts receive are unfairly perpetuated without close examination. Take the commonly-levied critique that the arts distract students from learning more necessary skills like mathematics, reading comprehension or memorisation of scientific facts. The reasoning behind this line of argument tends to revolve around an idea of finite resources, both that of the intellect of children and hours in a day, and the urgency of teaching necessary skills over luxury ones.

But the Head of Performing Arts at elc International School Sungai Buloh Campus, Mr. Martin, argues otherwise, stating that, “Sound (music), movement (dance/ drama), and visuals (art), just like the sense of smell, help to build memory. Show me a children’s television programme that doesn’t have these elements. At the very least, there is a theme song – one you can remember 10, 20, or 30 years later. The arts help us to learn and, on a physiological level, create necessary connections between the synapses in our brains.”

So, quite the opposite from what you might expect; rather than distracting children from classically core subjects, education in the arts can help strengthen those connections and improve your child’s recall even outside the arts. It’s not just a hunch any more, either; contained in a report compiled by the USA’s National Assembly of State Arts Agencies called “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement” is a host of empirical evidence supporting these claims, including that education in the arts improves attainment in mathematics and literacy.

Engaged children are more likely to absorb information than disengaged ones. Do you remember zoning out during a long and dull lecture at school? Education in the arts can help to involve more at-risk children with concentration problems or other issues as it cuts through classic delineations between the top and the bottom of the class with its demand for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, making it able to reach children of all academic levels.

Director of Music at Malborough College Malaysia, Geraint Watkins, told us, “At Marlborough, we are firm believers that music is an important aspect of any young person’s upbringing. It is an activity and academic subject that can stimulate creativity and inspire passion. It demonstrates intellectual competence, independent thinking and, in many cases, a desire for integration with others through ensemble participation.”

His point about stimulating creativity and inspiring passion is just what engaging otherwise flagging children is about. And more and more, universities and employers are seeking creative thinkers to engage with and solve complex problems, so exposing children from an early age to the creativity the fine arts invokes is vital in equipping them with the skills to fulfill this demand.

But the value of a strong education in the arts goes far beyond its utility in providing benefits outside of itself. While it’s certainly reassuring to know your child won’t sacrifice their test scores by learning artistic skills, we don’t learn about arts to recall our times tables quicker or because they make us more employable. There is a value to arts in and of itself as it connects children to fundamental aspects of the human experience: creativity, imagination, passion and much more.

If you don’t want to hear it just from the arts teachers, Campus Principal of Tenby Schools Setia Eco Park, Mr. Andrew Auster also agrees with this outlook, saying, “The Tenby vision is a United World at Peace; through Education. One of the most powerful unifying forces is music, which can touch the heart and soul.”

What Principal Auster says reflects the fundamental value of arts education, which should inspire us all to collectively fight for its fair representation in schools. Think about the movies you watch or the music you listen to, the paintings you admire or even the buildings you walk by every day. These are the imaginings of creative minds who we can either stifle or support from the moment they walk into a school building. We have a precious opportunity we can’t waste and must cultivate, not cripple creativity and its artistic offspring.

International Schools in Malaysia and the Arts

So how are international schools in Malaysia enriching their curriculum with the arts? What programmes, activities and initiatives are they implementing to further the teaching and learning of the arts in their schools? Given what we’ve discussed about the value of arts education, it’s encouraging to discover that across the board, international schools are recognising its value and engaging their students across a number of artistic platforms.

Sunway International School (SIS) is giving creative control over to students by allowing the school Drama Club to manage all aspects of a production, from directing down to lighting, with only teacher supervision. On top of this, poetry slams, open mic concerts and other arts-related festivals are abundant at SIS with students having lots of opportunity to express themselves artistically.

At Straits International School, free instrumental programming is provided for violin, piano, guitar, clarinet, saxophone, flute and trumpet with extra opportunities to learn and gain support at after-school activities like guitar club and orchestra. What they term ‘Twilight Concerts’ are held every half-term in front of their classmates, parents, teachers and other community members, helping students gain experience in the performance aspect of the arts, integral to the IGSCE Music programme they run.

The arts are also alive at Tenby Schools Setia Eco Park, where Campus Principal Auster informed us, “There are a significant number of students studying music at IGCSE and A-Levels, and in the last two years scholarships to study in the Sixth Form have been awarded to four current members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.”

There are regular concerts by students and visiting musicians monthly at The Saujana Hotel, Subang and the ‘singing strictly for fun’ Carmina Burana concert, which features over 150 pupils, staff and parents across five Tenby Schools, helped by members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Head of Drama at Epsom College in Malaysia, Sophie Hill, told us that there has been a growth in popularity for Drama at GCSE and A-Levels and their inclusive attitude towards the arts by giving all those who audition roles for their upcoming March whole school musical, ‘Olivia’. Coming this June, the school will launch the inaugural performing arts festival, Epsom Edge, welcoming performance groups and schools from Malaysia and abroad.

Head of Performing Arts at elc International School Sungai Buloh Campus, Mr. Martin, also informed us, “We have a Performing Arts Department rather than a Music Department. It is called that because, although we only have scheduled music classes at this time, we do have related extra-curricular activities and we put on shows, recitals, performances and assemblies, enter competitions and produce musicals, all of which highlight all three facets of the performing arts - music, drama and dance.”

He added, “I personally prefer this ‘mix’ of the arts, a blurring of the lines so to speak, so that students have an experience with all three aspects and see how they are connected.” Mr. Martin doesn’t just stop at the classroom, either. He’s performed with his students multiple times at the KLPAC ‘Short and Sweet Competition for Original Songwriting’, winning awards along the way. He does it to give his students the chance to express themselves on a different platform.

The British International School of Kuala Lumpur’s approach to art also recognises the necessity of engaging students in different ways. It sees visual arts as a subject where students can work differently to other subjects, focusing on giving students strong skills in the discipline. For music, children are given opportunities through their whole school career to develop proficiency in an instrument, along with the chance to work with specialist teachers. Every student takes part in at least one of the school’s productions each year, with their whole school production being an adaptation of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ this year.

Lastly, at Malborough College Malaysia, Director of Music Geraint Watkins told us that the school contains 24 individual teaching and practice studios, three dedicated music rooms and a brand new, state-of-the-art recording studio, and has also witnessed an increase in the number of students choosing Music as an IGCSE or IB option.

He was also excited to tell me about new staff arrivals Head of Prep School Music, Jonathan Ang, and Musician in Residence, Mr. Philip Monk, with the latter being hired to respond to the increasing demand for instrumental instruction at the college. They have a College Orchestra as well as specialised groups like the Baroque Ensemble and even several Rock Bands!

Our collective scepticism about the value of funding and promoting arts certainly doesn’t end with schools, but often destructively, it’s where it begins. Our defence of the arts has to begin at schools if we want the best for our children and our society. These international schools in Malaysia certainly know this, and uphold it with their dedication to the arts. Education in the fine arts not only helps students grapple more effectively with their most basic subjects; it captures those unreachable in other ways, inspiring happier, attentive and engaged pupils and, more importantly, people.

Tags: Features, Music, Arts, MCM, SIS, TIS, ECiM
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