An extraordinary shift is taking place in China’s schools, largely unobserved by the rest of the world.

One person who has noticed is Professor Peter O’Connor, an internationally recognised expert in applied theatre and drama education at The University of Auckland.

O’Connor is frequently invited to South East Asia and says drama and the arts are taking off in Chinese schools at a scale that is “almost unimaginable”.

“Part of that is that they’ve recognised that their very traditional education system produced really compliant workers, but that doesn’t give them the edge. They need workers who can think outside the square, think like artists, being able to improvise and make it up as they go,” he says.

China has been inviting arts educators from all over the world, to shift their education system to get that edge.

“And what we’re doing [in New Zealand] is running back in the opposite direction.”

O’Connor was the national facilitator for drama overseeing the introduction of the arts curriculum and has a deep interest in the arts and what they can offer.

He is very troubled by the impact of National Standards.

“When national testing regimes have been put in place internationally, one of the most significant casualties in terms of curriculum depth is the arts. The arts disappear and they disappear for a number of reasons. The focus on literacy and numeracy means the arts are seen as fringe, irrelevant, optional. And schools – especially if they’re driven by league table results – focus in on literacy and numeracy, often in a decontextualized way, and the arts disappear. The international evidence on that is absolutely clear,” says O’Connor.

O’Connor is dismissive of the government’s early assertions that New Zealand would be spared that fate because National Standards are not a national examination or test.

Ministry of Education figures confirm the slump, with secondary school enrolments in arts subjects falling by a quarter – from 201,432 in 2005 to 163,915 in 2015.

O’Connor says it’s harder than it’s ever been to be a creative teacher – but there is hope.

“Teachers work on from a base of hope, that they do make a difference in young people’s lives, and that’s what sustains them.

The arts are worth fighting for, says O’Connor, because they “provide another way of thinking about life which suggests there are other things in life that are as important as work itself – the importance of beauty, the importance of creating things of lasting value besides things which earn dollars.”