Prestige: Does it Matter?

Guest Post by Katrina Fox

The pandemic has accelerated change in almost all walks of life, and music education is no exception.

The release of the new ABRSM Piano syllabus has coincided with massive changes in the delivery of their practical and theory exams, which have been met with mixed responses from piano teachers, parents and pupils.

In a recent discussion on an online forum, the “prestige” of ABRSM was cited as a significant reason for continuing with their examinations. This point really struck a chord with me and left me feeling uncomfortable, and for the last few days I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

The Oxford Dictionary defines prestige as,

“widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.”

Is prestige a good thing?

Does it confer any benefits in real terms to users?

Does it benefit the majority, or a privileged few?

These questions made me reflect on my own educational experiences, and the impact of prestige in my own development.

Growing up in a working-class family (not poor, but certainly not “well-off”), prestige was something my parents valued enormously as they felt it would give their children better opportunities. However, in these last few days I have realised it has been something I have come to resent. 

Looking back, opportunities that I would have loved to participate in were closed off to me either due to finances or resources, or by attitudes I found alienating. My own teacher was both understanding and generous: understanding that my parents could not afford the longer lessons that were required as I moved up the grades, but giving me that time anyway. I was lucky. 

This was all three decades ago. But in 2020, should prestige even be a consideration in the education of our young people?

Feelings and Perceptions

The definition above clearly states that prestige is a “feeling” based on “perceptions”. Are these feelings and perceptions useful, and if so, to whom?

I will hold my hands up and confess that I have always entered pupils for the ABRSM exams because they are considered to be the most respected exam board, and I’ve never experienced any dissatisfaction with them.

But like many teachers, the pandemic has blown the situation wide open and we’ve been forced to consider alternatives. I am viewing this as an opportunity to look at how I use exams, which exams I will use (if any) and what benefits the experience of preparing for and taking an exam will provide my pupils.

I’ve been considering these issues for weeks. I had ABRSM exams cancelled as we went into lockdown, and pupils fully prepared with “nothing to show for it”. (I actually hate to say that, as they had beautiful music at their fingertips which is far more important than any piece of paper).

I waited. I considered using MTB exams. I doubted MTB (if I’m honest, I didn’t consider them “prestigious”). I reconsidered MTB and used my own children as guinea-pigs and found preparing the extra requirements challenging (in a good way) and worthwhile. The whole thing was positive and I’m glad I did it.

Do I miss the prestige?…

I honestly have no answers. Other teachers I have spoken to have been disrespectful about boards such as MTB and LCM. It annoys me, but it gets under my skin in a way that makes me KNOW that perhaps, as much as I hate it, I am sensitive to the “prestige factor” in spite of myself.

My next step is to purchase the Trinity Syllabus and get to grips with it. Pre-pandemic, I had looked at LCM and loved the books but there was no exam centre nearby. I’m guessing the future of online exams means this will no longer be a problem, so I will probably look at them too.

Fading Prestige?

The other issue is that the big changes ABRSM have made have brought them closer to the other exam boards. If they aren’t so different anymore, should their “prestige” (assuming we value that) not be a thing of the past?

So there it is. I dislike the thought of making a choice driven by prestige, but in all honesty, it does still seem to have a hold over me.

I can’t decide if it is like the memory of an old school bully sending shivers down my spine, or like a comfort blanket that is safe and familiar.

Either way, the challenges and changes wrought by the pandemic have made me determined to make informed decisions based on what is best for my pupils, and most importantly, continue to be open to change. 

The organisation/communication from exam boards has been “done to death” lately so let’s not give it another go here. I’m really hoping this post will prompt a discussion about how we as music teachers view the issue of prestige, and if/how it impacts on our decisions and on our pupils’ musical education.

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Katrina Fox

Katrina Fox has been teaching piano for 15 years, both privately and in primary and secondary schools in Bournemouth.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

7 thoughts on “Prestige: Does it Matter?”

  1. Prestige is a man made perception, something intangible, which I do not accept. I think the word RESPECT is a better word to describe this. However, respect needs to be earnt, and can be lost overnight.
    At one time the ABRSM was the only viable exam board with reliable quality controls. It also has a marketing arm which has a vast very high quality and reliable publications. However, it now has viable competition in the exam area. To add to this, the ABRSM has, over the years expanded the marketing arm and moved worldwide, which almost certainly, brings in a large amount of income. Moving worldwide has created changes in syllabus balance amongst others – which is quite understqndable. Unfortunately, I think it has recently begun to lose sight of its roots, and seems to be discarding the value of respecting, listening to and responding respectfully to those loyal teachers and musicians who have supported it actively o where it is now. The very real concerns of those teaching the next generation of musicians seem to have been discarded virtually overnight in a scramble to change the theory examinations – the details of which we are all to painfully aware at present.
    Unfortunately for many – and I am excluding teachers from this crticitism – the taking and passing of the Grade 5 theory exam will be reduced simply to a box ticking exercise (quite literally!) and its quality much reduced.
    Prestige, respect, gone overnight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I took both Trinity and Abrsm exams as a child, and remember my second teacher dismissing Trinity as somehow inferior. This is patently not the case. Trinity exams were cheaper to sit, you got the results faster, you learned fewer scales. But the supporting tests were more musically relevant, and – with a few exceptions (poorly thought-out improvisation exercises amongst them) that has continued to this day. So, I concluded, it was mostly a matter of snobbery. More expensive = must be better/more ‘rigorous’. Not a very musical thought!

    Exams give some pupils a goal to work towards; others don’t need them. I prefer to provide performance opportunities in the form of frequent informal and formal concerts, workshops etc. The challenge in a school environment is how and when to fit these into already overcrowded schedules!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sometimes I think we have a misconception about parents ideas on exam boards.

    I was taught the piano in the 70s and went through the ABRSM system . I do remember a school pupil friend took Guildhall exams . I spoke to my teacher about the Guildhall friend . My teacher thought these exams were substandard, whereas the ABRSM
    exam board that she used was the best .

    What I am getting at here is the fact that us more mature teachers probably had this ‘prestige ‘ ABRSM thing drummed into us from the beginning. I personally think at that time my piano teacher and probably other piano teachers didn’t look outside the box. Mainly because there wasn’t a box to look outside. But now we have the opportunity to look outside the prestigious box and we are finding that there are other options. I agree with what others have said here about certain exam boards suit certain pupils . (Horses for courses would be my slant on this ).

    To get back to my opening sentence about our misconception of parents ideas about exam boards . When I decided to use MTB exams I was rather worried about how I was going to put this over to parents and pupils . I decided to have a Zoom meeting about this for everyone. And do you know not one person had a problem with the change from ABRSM they all thanked me for looking into other options and were looking forward to their children being able to continue with their exams .

    To end .i think that the title prestige and ABRSM is a dated misconception.One that we as teachers and ABRSM believed in. I feel It is up to us as teachers to promote other avenues that are maybe as good or perhaps even better.ABRSM will always be around but it is time for choice and we teachers must lead our pupils to these choices .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There has also always been a similar problem with the “prestige” of music conservatoires. Growing up in the 60s and 70s the RCM, RAM and possibly the Guildhall were the only establishments considered worthy enough to apply to in London. The RNCM only became worthy once the Northern and Manchester joined forces. Trinity was looked down on and as for LCM……..
    Things aren’t quite so bad now but last year I overheard a comment that shows there is still room for improvement. A student said she was studying music at Leeds. The other person assumed she meant the University and the look of disapproval when she said it was Leeds College of Music said it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such attitudes are sad, especially if they have no real basis. At present, I would certainly recommend Trinity as one of the UK Conservatoires with an outstanding piano department.


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