ABRSM to update their professional diplomas

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

Leading exam board and awarding body ABRSM have just announced their intention to replace their entire range of diploma assessments in performance, teaching and direction with a new set of qualifications by 2024.

Among the headline points, they plan to scrap the DipABRSM altogether (seemingly elevating the existing ARSM as its replacement), and replace their LRSM and FRSM diplomas with new assessments which candidates will be able to take digitally, online. We are not told whether the opportunity to take a live, face-to-face diploma exam will remain at all.

These basic points may understandably perplex some readers. For my own part, I regularly teach and prepare candidates for both ARSM and DipABRSM qualifications, so (as with many of ABRSM’s recent changes) this news will directly impact my own students and ongoing professional practice.

ABRSM’s Announcement

Before sharing a few personal observations, let me first reproduce ABRSM’s statement in full (sourced from their website, 24th November 2022):

“We are excited to announce that we are redeveloping our higher-level diplomas in Performance, Teaching and Directing, creating a new set of qualifications to replace the current DipABRSM, LRSM and FRSM diplomas in these subjects.

Our innovative new diplomas will provide high-quality advance-level qualifications that are vocationally relevant, focus on the specialist skills prevalent in the performing arts sector and provide clear pathways for progression.

We continuously review all of our qualifications and assessments to ensure they remain contemporary and respond to the changing needs of musicians with content that inspires, motivates and encourages both teaching and learning.

We are planning to make the new diplomas available digitally. They will reflect current approaches to learning and assessment and provide teachers, performers and directors with opportunities to showcase their skills.

What’s changing?

• There will be new LRSM and FRSM diplomas in Performance, Teaching and Directing to replace the current qualifications.

• We are introducing new ARSM diplomas in Teaching and Directing to sit alongside our ARSM in Performance.

• We are withdrawing the DipABRSM in Performance, Teaching and Directing.

What’s staying the same?

• The ARSM in Performance is staying the same. You can download the specification qualification here.

• Although we are withdrawing the DipABRSM, it will remain a valid and fully recognised qualification for recipients, who can still use the letters DipABRSM.

Final dates for taking our current diplomas

Deadlines for taking our current DipABRSM, LRSM and FRSM diplomas are available here, along with information about retakes. Please read this information carefully if you are preparing for one of these diplomas or would like to retake a section. Check our withdrawal information.

When will the new diplomas be available?

We will be introducing the new diplomas gradually, with qualification specifications available from the second half of 2023 onwards and the first assessments from 2024 onwards. We plan to provide more information about the new diplomas and their availability in the early part of 2023.”

Challenging Changes?

While I think we should be slow to speculate, a couple of particularly eye-catching points appear in this announcement, and it is no wonder that those invested in these qualifications will feel a measure of disquiet.

Students currently working hard towards diplomas may welcome the advanced notice that ABRSM have commendably given, but will naturally want clarity. The roadmap for them is fundamentally changing. Moreover, the many professionals who hold these esteemed letters will hope for assurance that their respected professional qualifications are not going to be devalued.

The latter certainly need not be the case. In the digital domain, the new LRSM and FRSM could (for example) require the filming of a professional performance to a live audience. Detailed written submissions, films of lessons or rehearsals, and a remote viva-voce could all play a part. With creative thinking and effective implementation, these qualifications could be improved and given added contemporary resonance.

The bigger surprise and more genuine concern is (in my view) the decision to scrap the DipABRSM and attending impression that the ARSM will assume a place as the board’s Associate Level professional diploma.

When the board launched their ARSM performance diploma back in 2016, I interviewed Penny Milsom (now ABRSM’s Deputy Chief Executive); you can still read that interview in full here.

Milsom explained that the purpose of the ARSM was to “bridge the gap” between Grade 8 and the professional DipABRSM diplomas. And indeed, the differences between the ARSM and the DipABRSM are pretty clear:

Regularly working with students in their transition between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM diploma, I have repeatedly observed that the ARSM effectively bridges a very real gap. However, having supported and used the ARSM, the implication that it would actually replace the DipABRSM seems risible to me. As a practitioner I suspect such a change might create a new, significant hurdle to further progress.

Crucially, if we assume that the standard of the new digital LRSM will be equivalent to the existing qualification with the same name (and if it isn’t, that raises some very serious questions indeed), and with the announcement that the ARSM performance diploma is “staying the same”, the jump from ARSM straight to LRSM will be a very considerable one.

There will be a new, even larger gap to bridge.

The Diminished Diploma

What of those who currently hold, or who are in the process of taking the DipABRSM qualification? Some will understandably be concerned that they could see its value effectively diminished as the ARSM takes its place as the board’s standard Associate Level diploma. They may see this as a slap in the face having already climbed the higher mountain, an insult that leaves them with a lasting grievance against ABRSM.

To illustrate this point, I presently have a student who is working very hard towards her DipABRSM exam next month, having taken the ARSM a couple of years ago. The progression from the one to the other has been challenging, but she has certainly shown determination and the ability to succeed.

Having read the ABRSM news, she has contacted me to ask whether there is any point in going to her exam. As an accountant by day, she is well aware of how professional qualifications are supposed to work; it would be an understatement to say that she is disappointed.

In particular, she is peeved that just a few weeks ago ABRSM were happy to accept a whopping £318.00 exam fee for a qualification they were already planning to make obsolete in just a few months time, effectively replacing it with the qualification that she already has.

This student’s story is undoubtedly one which will resonate with others, and reminds us of the human consequences that can follow in the wake of the strategic initiatives and the decision making of remote executives.

ABRSM may well be right to reconsider their diploma strategy, but we must all hope that they find a considered way to address legitimate concerns and communicate their intentions in a way that leaves none of their stakeholders feeling confused, let down or invalidated.

In the coming months, ABRSM will undoubtedly supply more information and establish appropriate clarity, but in the meantime their announcement raises more questions than it answers, and we are left wondering how to advise those planning on taking a higher-level diploma.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.