ABRSM Survey Causes Alarm

As a teacher I rely on ABRSM’s examinations and use their products and services on a daily basis. So it was with considerable and genuine concern that I read the online feedback from colleagues who had taken part in the latest ABRSM Teacher Survey, many expressing very serious misgivings about elements of ABRSM’s plan for a new “Teacher Membership” scheme.

I determined to talk to as many as possible – on and off the record! – and find out what on earth is going on…

ABRSM “Teacher Membership”

The gist of the idea ABRSM are exploring, it seems, is to offer teachers the chance to pay an annual subscription (rumours suggest around £80) in return for a range of services that might include:

  1. Discounts on products, services and insurance
  2. Exclusive teacher resources and online support
  3. Priority booking of exam dates and times

Some teachers will no doubt consider this briefly and conclude: “it’s not for me, but thanks”. But it’s clear many aren’t so nonplussed, as evidenced by the discussion on the ABRSM Forum and elsewhere, including within the Piano Network UK group that I help to run.

We need to remember that we are discussing a survey at this point, not a finished proposal, and that ABRSM are inviting feedback from teachers. And I think that we must assume they are keen to provide a scheme that teachers will ultimately like. So if teachers are concerned about the scheme, it’s important for ABRSM to know about it.

One person who has given clear feedback is the well known teacher, composer and educational researcher David Barton. David has kindly allowed me to quote his comment here, which seems to sum up the mood and concerns of many:

“It’s a disgraceful idea.
It creates a two-tier system driven by financial considerations.
Music education should be at the heart of what we do. Fair access to ABRSM exams should be available to all.
Preferential treatment should not be applied to those financially solvent enough to pay a fee.”

Professional Services and Discounts

If it is ABRSM’s analysis that there are teachers out there who lack basic public indemnity insurance cover and legal support, offering those within this scheme would surely be a good idea.

However, there are a couple of potential pitfalls here:

  • Those who are already part of an organisation such as ISM, EPTA or the MU will in effect be paying twice for the same service, and people don’t like paying twice for the same thing. And if it comes to making a claim, which insurer will be liable? Hopefully ABRSM will structure their scheme in a way that will allow teachers flexibility in which parts they sign up and pay for.
  • Those who aren’t members of any of the leading music teacher associations actually need a comprehensive package, and it might be difficult for ABRSM to provide that without charging a fee close to other professional associations. Let’s hope that they invest in getting this right, so that teachers have all the support they need.

When it comes to discounts on other products and services, many teachers will again have good alternatives in place. Perhaps the main exception that ABRSM can uniquely offer would be discounts on exam fees, although this would presumably make the scheme less profitable for them.

Teacher resources and online support

ABRSM have a solid track record of providing quality training experiences, ranging from one day teacher events right through to the comprehensive CT ABRSM training programme (which has sadly been phased out now).

There are two basic aspects to consider here. Firstly there is training that relates to general instrumental teaching practice, and secondly there is training that relates more specifically to preparing students for ABRSM exams. The question is, who needs which?

  • Experienced teachers are perhaps unlikely to continue paying for generic instrumental teacher training every year on an ongoing basis.
  • But information that directly affects exam preparation surely must be made available to ALL teachers, not only those who subscribe to the scheme, or else there will be a perception that something very unfair is going on.

This is one of the main concerns I have seen teachers raise in the online discussions. For example, if the paying “Teacher Members” have access to privileged insight into how exams are marked, it could easily leave ABRSM open to the accusation that teachers are essentially paying for inflated pupil results, which would of course be a very damaging perception.

Priority Bookings

But it’s the idea of “Priority Bookings” that seems to have aroused the most concern, with many teachers expressing frustration that the present system isn’t working, alongside suspicions that “priority booking” would make things even worse for those not willing or able to pay extra.

Several I have spoken to suggest they have spotted a significant flaw in the idea. Their argument is that colleagues who decide to continue using ABRSM exams will most likely be those who are willing to pay for preferential treatment. But if all those teachers buy into a scheme, then who actually gets priority? Essentially this element of the scheme can only really work well if there is a relatively low uptake.

But there is an even bigger issue which some teachers have raised, and once again it has to do with basic fairness. “Priority Booking” might sound like something offered by a budget airline, as several have pointed out, but actually amounts to much more than reserving a prefered seat on a plane.

Here’s the illustration. The online booking deadline for exam entries for this term, Session 2016 B,  was Friday 6 May 2016. Entries were made on the basis that the exams themselves could be scheduled for any date between 13 June – 16 July 2016. Candidates needed to plan for the possibility that they might have just 5 weeks for final preparation, or that they might actually have 10 weeks – a huge difference.

Some obvious advantages of “priority booking” are:

  • The teacher can plan and deliver tuition more effectively
  • The candidate can plan their practice more intelligently
  • The candidate has more time to plan transport and organise their support network, ensuring they are organised and calm on the day

This would surely constitute a material advantage for students whose teachers pay the additional fee to ABRSM, raising genuine questions about the fairness of the assessment.

Some conclusions

For now I think we must assume that ABRSM are simply on a “fact finding” mission to establish what parts of this proposed scheme will or won’t work, and ascertain likely uptake. However, it appears that circulating a survey that raises such controversial possibilities has caused consternation.

While it’s fair to say that those who aren’t happy with a product or service tend to have louder voices in online discussions, the scale and nature of the concerns raised about this survey are significant. And many of those raising concerns are, like me, very much friends of ABRSM.

ABRSM will undoubtedly be listening carefully to all the feedback they receive, and it will certainly be interesting to see what form their Teacher Membership scheme eventually takes!

Addendum: ABRSM Response

I was delighted to hear from ABRSM today confirming that they are indeed listening to the feedback they are getting in general, and to this Pianodao article in particular.

ABRSM’s Jeremy Phillips has suggested I might like to share this as a general reassurance to all, and you can read his full response here »

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

4 thoughts on “ABRSM Survey Causes Alarm”

  1. A very fair assessment. I completely endorse David Barton’s statement. I hope that the ABRSM will be careful how they proceed and listen carefully to public opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent summary of the key concerns that have been raised. I agree with David Barton’s comments above. My choice of an examination board for my pupils- along with the decision as to whether entering for an exam is the best choice for them- is made with the student and on purely musical and educational grounds, never financial.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anything which affects students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds should be of major concern and not only to musicians. Teachers directing such pupils to aim for written qualifications or other records of attainment must be dismayed by any suggestions that those whose path is already easier should be given further opportunities to benefit from their head start through such schemes as ABRSM appear to be considering. It is not only the musically highly gifted who would suffer (and ABRSM does not exist just for those).
    Many parents only pay the examination fee after some soul searching, especially where they have more than one child to consider.

    From personal experience I would say that the successful obtaining of grade certificates by children apparently gifted in more than one direction (I am thinking of one old student who is now studying particle physics and a couple at least studying other subjects at university who took Grades 4, 6 and 7 plus some theory exams) for whom studying music was never likely to lead to them taking it up as a profession, but who were greatly assisted in developing good listening and contributing habits (knowing when to make a noise and when to be quiet)as the result of studying music. In some cases gains from having something agreeable to focus on outside the usual routines, being encouraged to think more logically, and to express themselves more clearly and with more confidence showed up in increased success in other areas at school. Success in music exams, most importantly for some, provided EVIDENCE that the student could make the sustained effort necessary to pass an examination, perform in public etc. etc. This helped a little to remedy the aforementioned disadvantages when a student (as inevitably happened) found him or herself engaged in school entry rat races at the age of 10/11 yrs. An ABRSM Grade Certificate can be quite an asset.

    At least in this area, let them enter the race (for race it often is) on equal ground with the other competitors. . No-one expects anything other than professional detachment in the exam situation – without this the grades would obviously be worthless. However, ABRSM should emphatically avoid drifting into loading the dice against anyone through financially motivated administrative practices.

    Choice over the date an exam has to be taken can be crucial. I should make it clear I have often found ABRSM to be as helpful in this area as can reasonably be expected. Long may this continue.

    Liked by 1 person

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