Exclusive Interview with Michael Elliott, Chief Executive, ABRSM
Having attended a few ABRSM conferences in recent years, the 2018 event was notable in many ways. On a visible front, it was noticeable that the venue was teeming with enthusiastic professionals.
More subtly, it seemed to me that ABRSM as an organisation was invigorated, the spring back in its collective step, its message an especially positive one, in spite of the challenges which presently face music education.
Against this backdrop, it was unusual too that in his welcome address, ABRSM’s Chief Executive Michael Elliott refrained from listing a string of achievements and announcements for the future, as has typically been the case.
Happily, I later in the day had the chance to sit down with Michael, together with ABRSM’s new Communications Officer Kerry Sheehan, to follow up on a few announcements from previous years and other rumours doing the rounds.
Michael gave generous and full answers, outlining his vision and a raft of forthcoming developments which will undoubtedly please readers here. And he was happy for me to audio record our interview and publish this full transcript, in which I hope readers will capture something of his enthusiasm and positive message!
Recorded, Saturday 3rd November 2018.
Andrew Eales: Thanks for talking to me today…
Michael Elliott: A pleasure!
Andrew: I loved what you said, chatting earlier, about your very positive reason for not doing announcements today – can you remind me so I can share that?
Michael: Yes. I think that since my arrival three years ago have been at these events saying “these are things we are going to do”, and I think that now we’re much more so in a space where we are doing so many things, putting out so many digital products, publications, new assessments, new genre for assessments, that it is starting to speak very solidly for itself, and we can talk now with confidence about what’s coming for the future as well, because the evidence is there.
So not to stand there this morning and give a catalogue of what we doing but to say it is self-evident through the day and what you’ve seen us doing. But if you really want to go and get the real detail then go and talk to the experts at the ABRSM Village (the publicity area at the conference) and they will talk you through those things.
Andrew: Yes, that’s great.
Andrew: So I’ve been here during your previous two speeches where you’ve talked about some things, and there’s a few things I was hoping for an update on.
First of all you’ve talked about the “rock and pop” instruments, and obviously the first update to that is that the Singing for Music Theatre syllabus has started to roll out, which is really exciting. Can you talk about any other developments there that can be shared yet?
Michael: Yes, I’m very excited about popular music, because it’s the next step, if you like, after the Singing for Musical Theatre. But Singing for Musical Theatre is a new venture and genre but it’s based upon the graded music exam structure.
Popular music we’ll launch into next year with electric guitar, which will be entirely digitally based learning resource for beginners on the guitar.
And we will look then over time as to how we develop that platform to look at assessments and to consider what the intermediate learners want in ways of feedback.
But it’s a very exciting platform which I can’t talk about in detail at the moment because it would be too much of a giveaway, but that’s the next step, and you’ll hear more about that in 2019.
Andrew: That does sound very exciting! So then maybe go onto drums, keyboards …
Michael: Absolutely! Absolutely right, yes!
As I say, and each of those instruments, and voice as well, in terms of working our way through how we then assess that. And it might be that we revert to a model not too far from our traditional examiner in the room, but it’s as likely we might do assessments online and feedback and comment on the progress of those learners.
Andrew: That would be very innovative and quite a different approach from ABRSM…
Michael: Yep, absolutely!
Andrew: Another thing that was talked about that’s already come to pass is the Music Theory app, which I know is just out. I’m guessing you are quite excited about that launch too…
Michael: Yes, I am excited with that as a resource for learners, and I know people are enjoying playing with it down at the Village today.
We’ve also made modifications to the exam papers, and we’re making moves that will ultimately see us I hope doing more both in the supporting of learning and the assessment online as well.
Because it is that sort of activity where we’d be able to consider putting it onto those platforms. And that would give us an ability to integrate the learning of theory more, and support the teacher better through the learning of the practice of the instruments through lessons and between lessons.
And I think the other thing I would add in is that we are very much working on a digital platform which will support learners in the practice between lessons, and the ability to work with the teacher to review their progress in practice. So again, early in 2019 I hope we’ll have some big statements to make about that!
Andrew: You mentioned the words “digital platform” in that answer, and the “digital platform” was talked about last year of course in perhaps more of how it would impact the existing grade exams, so with teachers perhaps being able to have more control over when exams happen, and examiners being able to record exams perhaps, or upload the marks.
Any news there – how’s that developing?
Michael: Yes, I mean that development continues, it’s absolutely fundamental to everything we do, as you’ve indicated. We will be making more announcements in 2019 about what’s to come in terms of those platforms, which will give applicants the choice of dates when booking their exams.
And we are working on the technology in the exam room for the examiner, that will embody the mark form, the scoring, the resources they need, and the connectivity back to the candidates and applicants in terms of results. So that’s a huge, complex project, and in 2019 we will be making some big announcements about the timing of all that arriving.
Recording of Exams
Andrew: The actual recoding of exams themselves is something that’s been talked about quite a lot by teachers, and other examination boards, GCSE, A’ level and so on have been using those kinds of strategies … is that something that you are still looking into?
Michael: Yes, we will as part of what goes on in the exam room be recording the exam, but we’re not recording it for assessment purposes, we’re recording it for quality assurance.
So that for all those incidents that happen around exams and in the exam room there is some evidence that can be referred to as a check, but it’s not going to be used for assessment. Because you can’t replicate the live experience for the candidate, and the examiner, and what goes on in the exam room.
But if you do get an appeal or you get some concerns, you’ve got enough material there to say, well the examiner did or didn’t do something in the moment that was right or was wrong or, you know, the right scales were or weren’t selected. There are things that people raise subsequent to the exams that are question marks about, was it done properly? And it’s that which the recording will be used for.
A Positive Approach
Andrew: Finally, and thank you for answering so many questions, but are there other things that you want to talk about that I could tell Pianodao readers about?
Michael: I think, probably what I was saying this morning really. Just to impact that a bit, we will be publishing a Music Commission Report soon, and our analysis is that there is lot that is going very well in music education, there’s a lot to celebrate, there’s a lot to learn from, and there are challenges, yes, whether it’s the way resources in schools impacts, all those sorts of issues that are well rehearsed…
But actually despite all the odds and despite very difficult catchment areas, diversity of intake and so on, schools at primary and secondary level across the UK are doing fabulous work with music right at the centre of the curriculum, that’s having a real impact on their academic attainment for those kids as well, and Head Teachers and Governing Bodies “getting” all of that.
And I think that my message is, for piano teachers or any teachers, that whilst we shouldn’t take a blasé approach to the challenges we face, the fact is it’s about leadership at the end of the day and we can all make a difference.
ABRSM will, but teachers can, Head Teachers and so on. And the more we can do in a positive manner to sell the value of music and the understanding of what it brings to young people, to the school environment, achievement and so on, the more we will impact on policy makers and others that we are concerned are not quite getting the message.
There’s green shoots; OFSTED is making some moves in the inspection of schools that will make a real difference, I personally know that the Schools Minister is passionate about doing something around the curriculum area, and so on. So people are getting the message, but I think the most influence comes for us in taking a positive approach.
Much to celebrate, great practice out there, we want more people to take it up, not the sort of “everything’s caving in” that everything’s terrible in music education. That negative message isn’t right, isn’t getting an impact. The positive approach I think will.
So it’s a plea from me to everybody involved in music education actually: let’s celebrate the positive!
Andrew: Thank you so much!
Michael: My pleasure Andrew!
Thanks to Kerry Sheehan for taking photos and organising this interview.
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