I do think, though, that we continue to underestimate the increasing challenges and complexity of being literate in our text and image saturated world. These challenges are magnified significantly for those from high needs communities who frequently begin their schooling with marked language deficits and levels of disconnection with the social institutions of schools.

Against this, as educators, we are also frequently assaulted by fundamentalist assertions that literacy standards are falling. These are simplistic misrepresentations of a much more complicated context. It is perhaps more realistic to observe that, as a society, we have significantly increased our expectations of levels and modes of literacy in a rapidly developing knowledge economy.

One of the seminal literacies we now demand is visual literacy: the ability to decode, understand and compose visual texts. We live in a world of images. Notions of literacy have also grown to encompass more than an ability to read and write. We demand more technical ability of members of our society in terms of their ability to communicate in a range of different ways, in a range of different contexts, within a range of different media.

There is also the imperative need for critical literacy: an ability to comprehend, authenticate and critique the increasingly complex and ambiguous messages conveyed through multiple media, especially in the post-truth world in which we live

Yet the challenges in developing contemporarily literate young people are magnified for those from high needs communities, some of whom have been generationally disconnected from the largely middle class discourses of schools and schooling. There is much research to indicate the “word gap” that exists for those who come from disadvantaged background. When children start their learning journey far behind their chronological peers, it is unsurprising that they struggle to achieve.

Educational inequality is increasing within Australia across a wide range of dimensions. One of the key causal factors of the gap in achievement levels resides in relative socio-economic advantage and levels of parental education. And the achievement gap grows alarmingly wider as students move through the school system. 

Without doubt, therefore, there are compelling reasons to look for educational interventions that will not only effectively engage young people from a range of backgrounds in school, but also enable them to build their skills to effectively manage the increasingly complex demands of an information and media obese world.

One of these is the key subject of Caldwell and Vaughan’s internationally acknowledged research described in Transforming Education through the Arts. Caldwell and Vaughan studied the impact of semester and year-long Arts Learning programs provided by The Song Room in primary schools in high needs communities in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Aside from the intrinsic subject-specific outcomes in the different domains of Arts Learning, what was most profound in the study was the consistent pattern of marked decline in absenteeism on the days that The Song Room was in schools – up to 65%.

This was matched by increased levels of engagement, by heightened measures of positive wellbeing, and by corresponding lifts in learning outcomes in other curriculum areas – from Mathematics to the Humanities. Additionally, there were enhanced NAPLAN results; students’ achievements in literacy and numeracy notably improved.

The core of the success of The Song Room’s programs lies in the provision of quality Arts Learning programs that engage young people more broadly in school and which provide them with opportunities for achievement.

Addressing the growing educational equity gap and lifting levels of literacy demands a shift in how we engage young people in the institutions of schools and schooling. This is particularly so for those from backgrounds of socio-economic disadvantage who begin their educational journeys with significant limitations in language and school readiness.

Opportunities for educative experiences in the Arts not only provide positive avenues to connect young people with broader aspects of learning, they also enable the development of necessary skills and capabilities in the complex business of contemporary literacy, and importantly introduce them in a practical way to the capabilities required from a 21st century learning.




The Song Room provides opportunities for Australian children to participate in music and the arts to enhance their education, personal development and community involvement, giving them the best possible start in life.

We deliver an impactful, sustainable and scalable approach to arts learning. We work in partnership with schools and communities across Australia to improve student outcomes and school engagement.