Opinion: Victorian values are an unqualified failure

girl playing instrument online

The recent furore around a tweet from examinations board ABRSM has been a long time coming and seems to have lanced a boil in the music exams sector. 

‘Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get,’ the exam board tweeted. ‘That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.’

For all the back-pedalling since, it was a provocative tweet. It wasn’t presented as part of a talk or a wider discussion. There was no context to consider. It was like an echo from the Victorian era where ABRSM originated.

Its members must be smarting at the backlash they’ve received from the wider music community. Smarting, because many of them realise what a twittish tweet it was. If you watch the video ABRSM hurriedly put out in response to the brickbats, you can see that the tweet is indeed taken out of context. But someone at ABRSM isolated it. ABRSM tweeted it out of context themselves and that says much about the organisation’s cultural lack of awareness.

In response to the outcry, ABRSM Chief Executive Chris Cobb said, ‘We understand the frustration that many felt in response to a tweet we published last week. We recognise that in isolation these few words, taken from a wide-ranging presentation, were misleading. We exist to inspire learners of music to experience the benefits and joys of developing as musicians and this value is at the heart of our work. Whilst we’ve taken steps to clarify our beliefs we recognise the depth of the reaction online and are reflecting on how we can continue to work with our community to express the love of music we all share.’

But by then the damage had been done.

The tweeter’s statement that music exams are a motivator stands in stark contrast to the recent Rocksteady Music School and Trinity College London survey of parents changing views on the role of exams. The September survey pointed to a swing from parents’ obsession with passing grades to parents prioritising their children’s wellbeing.

Parents have seen their kids unhappy, stressed and unfulfilled and they want it to stop

For all the hell of Covid-19, there’s no doubt that the pandemic has been an energetic catalyst for change. The catastrophic failings of the Department for Education in London over two years of lockdown exams, combined with millions of furloughed parents finally seeing what their children were going through, has encouraged these parents to analyse the purpose of education, the survey suggests. They’ve seen their kids unhappy, stressed and unfulfilled and they want it to stop.

More nimble-minded nations were adapting to this new thinking before Covid had a 19. Singapore, oft-quoted as the model education system by UK Conservative governments, set aside the importance of comparative exams in 2018, recognising the value of personal growth and achievement for each pupil.

Meanwhile, music teaching has been forced to modernise and adapt. Teachers worldwide have been forced to use technology that they and their schools had previously resisted. That technology has encouraged them to rethink their teaching methods and even the outcomes they want from their teaching. ABRSM was notably lagging behind the field in adapting to online assessment. But other exam boards around the world jumped on the opportunity to reach a global audience and challenge the tired status quo.

Music really thrives in musically-engaged communities in which everyone has a go and no-one feels intimidated

Of course, excellence in music depends on creating virtuosi, but very few of them, and those few float high above the highest of exams from any board. There is very little room up there and focussing too closely on that tiny elite, instead of pouring resources into encouraging everyone to engage in music, creates the teetering structure ABRSM sits atop. Watching the Kanneh-Masons is inspirational to young people, but music really thrives in musically-engaged communities in which everyone has a go and no-one feels intimidated.

Ask any private music teacher and the thing that they struggle with most is student retention. Losing students because they don’t enjoy what they’re learning is tough on motivation and tough on the pocket. Comments to the survey from teachers, students and parents told common tales of children driven away from music lessons by boredom with requirements of the exam boards.

The argument that this is a filter system to winnow out the chaff is offensive to the very concept of music. The idea that cramming for the next grade is motivational is naïve and myopic. The thought that learning music will enable a child to play their parents a passage of Bach or Bacharach or Bachman-Turner Overdrive is a far more effective incentive.

Add in the narrow limitations of exam repertoire and you’re closing the door to vast numbers of potential instrument and sheet music sales before they even exist. The law of probability says that the more people who start playing music from an early age, the more virtuosi will emerge from them. Invest at entry level and everyone wins.

Of course, Victorian values are not unique to ABRSM. Successive UK governments have obsessed about STEM subjects, ignoring even the CBI’s pleas for A for Arts to be added: STEAM. The current points-based immigration system only allows for STEM teachers. The emphasis on eBacc subjects excludes music from many schools. The Brexit deal the government signed shows nothing but contempt for people wishing to study or perform music. And the UK government’s employment of ABRSM, which has no curricular experience to speak of, to consult on the new model music education curriculum, was widely derided.

This repeats the historic mistakes of the British motorbike industry

Then there is the funding system. Look at the Covid rescue plans for arts and culture and the balance was skewed towards saving large, heritage establishments, while music teaching and community music suffered terribly. Few freelancers in music benefitted from the taxpayers’ largesse. Theatres, concert halls and venues had help for the buildings and their management, while the people whose performances filled them rarely did.

This, and the ABRSM faux pas, repeats the historic mistakes of the British motorbike industry. Sissy stuff, the Nortons and Triumphs and BSAs thought as their sales drowned beneath the flood of Suzukis, Hondas and Yamahas with electric starts.

The days of monopoly and elitism are over

The Japanese made starting a bike easier. The new Ofqual-recognised music exam boards, including Trinity College, Rockschool, Music Teachers’ Board and London College of Music (all with headquarters in the UK) and the International Performing and Visual Arts Examination Board in Singapore, a partner of Online Music Exams, make learning music more accessible, less stressful, easier to measure without anxiety: more fun.

Certainly, the standards set by ABRSM are ‘world-beating’ to quote a certain blonde, but the days of monopoly and elitism are over. The organisation’s sales are slipping in the UK and Europe in the face of competition. China has taken away its operating licence across everywhere but Shanghai. Failure to recognise that change has come and ABRSM risks becoming as anachronistic as the empire that spawned it.

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