Education experts concerned Queensland high school students abandoning arts subjects over ATAR result

Eden Gray got into university this year with an impressive ATAR, achieved partly with high school arts subjects, but her path is becoming rarer as students turn to science-based subjects in the belief they will deliver a higher ranking.

The 18-year-old attained an ATAR of 95.35 after studying music, music extension, drama, literature, specialist maths and mathematical methods at Brisbane’s Stretton State College last year.

She plays the saxophone and percussion, and participated in six musical ensembles while at school.

“Personally, I did not like science … it would have caused a lot of stress,” she said.

“They brought joy to my year 12.”

But educators and creative industry leaders are concerned for the future of some arts and humanities subjects in Queensland high schools, as students abandon them in droves in the belief they will secure higher ATAR with science-based subjects.

44pc drop in arts wrappings

In 2012, data from the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) found 23,035 year 12 students were enrolled in one of the five arts subjects, which include music, visual art, drama, dance, and film, television and new media.

Last year, there was a total of just 12,772 enrolments — a drop of more than 44 percent.

Humanities subjects have also seen a reduction in class sizes during the same period.

While there had been slight increases in enrolments for philosophy and economics, there were far fewer enrolments in geography, ancient and modern history, and legal studies in 2021, compared to 2012.

Across all six humanities subjects, grade 12 student numbers over the same time period dropped by around 6,000 or 20 per cent.

Meanwhile, QCAA data also found the number of enrollments in grade 12 engineering had more than doubled from 630 students in 2012 to 1,359 students in 2021, while enrollments in physics, chemistry and biology dropped by 7 per cent.

Drama Queensland president Stephanie Tudor said one of the biggest declines in enrollments for arts subjects coincided with the introduction of the ATAR system.

“In drama alone, we’ve gone from 6,500 students in 2012 to around 3,000 students in year 12 last year, and the biggest drop happened between 2017 and 2019 when the new QCE (Queensland Certificate of Education) and ATAR system was introduced,” Ms Tudor said.

Art subjects scaling lower

The ATAR is a mechanism used across Australia for university admissions.

It is a number between 0 and 99.95, measured on a student’s best academic achievements, which indicates their position relative to other students in their age group.

The higher the ATAR, the higher the ranking. As part of the process of calculating an ATAR, subjects are scaled.

Boys sitting a school exam.
The drop in arts and humanities enrollments has been attributed to the introduction of ATAR.(ABC News: Nicole Chettle)

For example, a student who achieves 80 percent in an assessment may find their results are actually worth less (or more) than 80 percent, according to how that subject scales.

This scaling can change from year to year, depending on a cohort’s grades and subject choices, but in two years of ATAR in Queensland, arts subjects have typically scaled lower, while science subjects have generally scaled higher.

“What we’re seeing is that the arts subjects are scaling the lowest as a learning area,” Rachael Dwyer said, a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at the University of the Sunshine Coast and co-chair for Queensland Advocates for Arts Education.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Stephanie smiles.
President of Drama Queensland Stephanie Tudor says some students who excel in the arts are not opting to study the arts out of concern for subject scaling.(Supplied: Stephanie Tudor)

Dr Dwyer and Ms Tudor said the message that comes from “subject scaling”, sends high-achieving students away from the arts, even if students excel in those areas.

“I think while parents try to understand the system, they are pulling away from subjects that are perceived as scaling poorly,” Ms Tudor said.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School principal Jacinda Euler said too much emphasis is placed on the impact of subject scaling.

“It does lead to some poor choices,” she said.

“The reality is that any subject that you pursue at secondary school, if you perform very well at the top of that subject, scaling will have minimal impact.”

Jacinda smiles at her desk.
Brisbane Girls Grammar Principal Jacinda Euler says emphasis on subject scaling can lead to “poor choices.”(ABC News: Sally Eeles)

Queensland Advocates for Arts Education and Drama Queensland are working with education stakeholders QCAA and QTAC to see if “they’re doing all they can to make sure that if the scaling measure is valid and that it is an adequate comparison between subjects”.

“We need … to make sure that the arts are valued in schools and that students who take arts subjects in schools are rewarded for their efforts,” Dr Dwyer said.

Getting ahead in life beyond school

The QCAA, which is responsible for syllabus development and testing in schools, said the drop in arts and humanities enrollments over the past decade also coincided with more students turning to applied and vocational subjects.

Ms Euler agreed that vocational education and training had become more sought after.

Ms Tudor said the hardship brought about by the pandemic played a role in deterring students from Pursuing a career in creative industries, with artists, crews and venue staff out of work.

headshot of rachel.
Rachael Dwyer says arts subjects teach you creativity, collaboration and to think for yourself.(Supplied: Rachael Dwyer)

Arts education experts also believe the falling popularity of the arts is the consequence of a wider societal trend promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“For the past decade, we’ve seen a really strong push for STEM education,” Dr Dwyer said.

While she said these subjects were important for a strong economy and workforce, they “miss out” on creativity and collaboration that arts subjects foster.

In June 2020, then federal education minister Dan Tehan announced plans to offer cheaper university degrees for jobs in engineering, science, health, IT and teaching, while degrees in humanities, social sciences, communications and law would become more expensive.

The newly sworn-in Albanian government is yet to indicate any changes to the cost of university degrees.

Different routes to university

Ms Gray, who plans to be a teacher, is now a first-year student at QUT, studying a double degree in education and fine arts, majoring in music.

Despite her high ATAR, Ms Gray’s acceptance into fine arts hinged on an audition.

Eden plays saxophone
Eden Gray didn’t use her ATAR result to get into university where she majors in music.(ABC News: Lucas Hill )

Dr Dwyer said of the 241,000 students who applied for university last year, 61 percent of them did not use their ATAR as the means of entry to university.

They gained “early entry” because of their school results or other qualifications, or were accepted on the basis of a portfolio of work or audition.

posted , updated


Leave a Comment