ABRSM in the classroom?!

In January, the DfE announced that it would offer a new model music curriculum, created by an independent panel of experts. This was met with lots of scepticism on Twitter, at least by many whose posts I read. There were plenty of users immediately stating that they hoped that the panel would include experts with real classroom experience, probably having not read the list of those included - Simon Toyne and Ed Watkins certainly have plenty of first hand experience in secondaries. There were also some users berating the list of names, I think because representatives of organisations outnumber those working at the ‘coalface’ that is the classroom.

Then, a few weeks ago, it was announced that the ABRSM had won a competitive process to gain a contract to work with the DfE in creating this new model curriculum. This, too, was met with much indignation. The ABRSM has a long and trusted track record of offering graded examinations in music theory and practical music making, but it is certainly not well known for curriculum design for the classroom. I understand the concerns raised by so many twitter users, and share some of them: Who else was allowed to compete for this role? How were the competitors selected? What experience does this organisation have in Key Stages 1-3? Is there a risk that ABRSM publications and supporting materials will somehow receive additional promotion as a result? …

My first instinct was to write a blog post about why it is that I think so many music teachers jump to take up arms on hearing such news. However, I made a decision a while back to wait a little before writing about things that are topical, current and heated, to let things cool first. In this case, I’m glad I did that.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that an exam board should have a great deal of experience and expertise in many of the aspects I would consider crucial to the creation of a strong curriculum. The practical and theoretical exams offered by them rely on properly sequenced theoretical material creating an expanding domain, tested through carefully constructed summative assessments which sample from that domain. This to me, is a strong curriculum. Plus, I think that most seem to have forgotten that the posts clearly state that that the ABRSM ‘will be working under the direction and oversight’ of those on the original list. This suggests to me that it’s not intended that the ABRSM become the lead organisation here, but that it has been engaged to open up its organisational resources and human expertise to those individuals and organisations on the first list.

Therefore, I’m less concerned about the ABRSM being involved in this than the commentators on Twitter I mentioned earlier. I’m much more interested in knowing whether the ABRSM still has staff who understand such things as curriculum sequencing and sampling from expanding domains. Although every graded theory exam does this, the format used for such exams is so easily replicated and/or edited year on year to create a new test, that I should think there’s a fairly high risk of attention being diverted towards perpetuation of the system, rather than in-depth curricular thinking. Small tweaks to repertoire lists or scale and arpeggio requirements hardly represent curricular reform - but commercially and educationally, the exams offered by the ABRSM have been successful enough without the need for large scale curricular reform for many years. Having said this, in 2018, the ABRSM published changes to the theory exams, which I think is the first time there has been such a change for a long time. Personally, I’m not yet convinced that removing the questions which require invention from the candidate is a good idea, and neither am I convinced by the rationale given for that change. It was cited that responses to these questions tended to be overly formulaic, as if that was a problem. I’ve always found that encouraging pupils to learn to complete such questions in a formulaic fashion provides a sure foundation on which their creativity can be scaffolded, and explored, later.

So, rather than question whether the ABRSM is the right choice for this task because it doesn’t have 'experience in the classroom’, I’d rather ask these questions:

• Does the ABRSM (still) understand curriculum design?

• Are those on the original list of advisors well placed to direct and oversee the ABRSM in researching and designing the new model curriculum?

I don’t have the answers to either of those questions, and am interested in hearing from those who do!

In the spirit of improvement