Why the arts are key to promoting social inclusion among Australia's migrant students

A study has found the arts and music provide ways for students from diverse backgrounds to succeed in the Australian school system and unite with fellow classmates.

Yadavi Jeyakumar

Yadavi Jeyakumar (right) says dancing helped her fit in at school. Source: Supplied

Yadavi Jeyakumar says the arts and music were a large part of her life from a young age.

The 19-year-old’s family migrated from the Sri Lankan coastal town of Valvettithurai in the late 1990s and even though she was born in Australia, she says dance helped her “find her tribe”.

This was particularly true during her schooling years in the Western Sydney suburb of Seven Hills as she navigated both her Australian and Sri Lankan identities.

Whether it was learning the intricate steps of classical dances from her Tamil Nadu background or popping and locking in hip hop classes, dance was weaved into Yadavi’s every day.

“They are really nice memories because I met a lot of my school friends there. It was like a common interest of ours,” she told SBS News.

“We bonded over that really easily and then at lunchtimes we would just have fun and make up our own dances.”

Yadavi and her sister have always loved dancing.
Source: Supplied

Research released by Monash University this week suggests the teenager is not alone in experiencing the positive impacts of arts and music in assisting with integration at school.

The study, Beyond the dots on the page, which was published in the International Journal for Music Education, found the arts and music gave students opportunities to succeed in the Australian school system.

It also showed students from non-English speaking and refugee backgrounds particularly benefited, with the arts and music providing an avenue to develop important personal and social skills.

The arts remain one of the most powerful ways to connect with each other, said Dr Renee Crawford, a senior lecturer in Monash University’s Faculty of Education, who headed up the research.

“They draw from a range of learning styles such as fostering creativity, imagination, and emotional responsivity.”

The study, published in the International Journal for Music Education, explores the perceptions, experiences and practices of teachers directly or indirectly involved with the music education program in three Australian schools.

The schools have more than 1,500 students combined from a number of countries, including Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Thailand and Burma, and were assessed over 30 weeks.

All schools delivered the standard Australian curriculum, as well as intensive English language courses and cultural immersion opportunities for refugee students.

Key findings indicate that intercultural competence and socially inclusive behaviours are embedded in the music learning activities that are student-centred, active, practical, experiential and authentic.

Yadavi says dance helped her navigate her Australian and Sri Lankan identities.
Source: Supplied

One music teacher who took part said: “Beyond the dots on the page, there is an expressive quality to music that transcends cultural boundaries and academic limitations … engagement with lyrics builds vocabulary, comprehension and pronunciation.”

The study follows the federal government's announcement earlier in the year that university costs for some future arts and humanities courses will be raised by 113 per cent.

The changes are designed to help fund an increase of 39,000 places and cheaper degrees for those who study so-called in-demand courses including teaching, maths, science, nursing and engineering.

But Dr Crawford said all students needed balanced pathways.

“We have this emphasis on 'we've got to get back to the basics; English, maths, science,' without realising that some of the amazing benefits that come out of the arts can actually inter-relate English, maths and science,” she said.

Morgan Graham is the youth engagement producer at the Information and Cultural Exchange in the Western Sydney suburb of Parramatta.

Her music and arts programs provide students from various cultural backgrounds with a safe outlet to explore their identity.

She argues that stifling funding may reinforce the idea that the arts are only for a certain subset of people.

“Art should be accessible to people from all walks of life and from all socio-economic backgrounds,” she said.

Keira Bury, the owner and director of cheer and dance studio Powerhouse Elite Australia shares a similar concern.

Keira Bury doesn't want to see diversity in cheerleading disappear.
Source: Supplied

She said she fears the diversity of students pursuing more unique forms of artistic expression such as cheerleading would decline if programs aren't as widely accessible.

“It does bring in a different range of people from different suburbs and different backgrounds, and different diversities, and it's really good for them,” she said.

Ms Bury, who studied a Bachelor of Dance Education, said she worried increasing costs for public arts and music degrees would discourage others to follow a creative path.

“I feel like we're going to lose a lot of quality, qualified potential artists coming through because they might feel like they need to study an area that is taken a bit more seriously and they're offered a little bit more funding and opportunities in.”

Published 12 July 2020 at 9:22am
By Sonia Lal