Response from Penny Milsom, Executive Director, ABRSM

Dear Members
Following the open letter sent to Penny Milsom at ABRSM about online theory exams, please see a detailed reply. ABRSM have written to everyone who entered the Grade 5 theory exam in July, offering apologies and refunds.
With best wishes
Murray McLachlan – Chair EPTA UK

Dear Murray 

Thank you for your open letter, written on behalf of EPTA members, expressing your concern about the experience of candidates who took our live pilot online Theory exam on 26 August. Thank you, too, for our conversation last week, greatly appreciated.
I want to repeat here the regret I expressed then for the upset caused to many children, their families and their teachers by the technical issues that affected the start of the exam and, for some, the close of the exam. We have spoken with and written to many people involved and have heard their experiences at first hand. As you rightly say, care and sensitivity are required in any exam, most particularly with children, and we are deeply concerned and sorry about the stress caused by the difficulties faced in starting their exam and signing out at the end.
3,500 candidates completed the exam and will receive their result in the next two weeks. We have worked with urgency to understand the causes of the specific difficulties that affected so many, their scale and their impact on candidates. We have written to all candidates offering our sincere apology. Those candidates who were unable to complete the exam will receive a full refund, and everyone else will receive a 50% refund. We wanted to make this refund in recognition of the difficulties encountered and the upset caused to many as well as to affirm our absolute commitment to put things right and to learn from all aspects of the pilot.
We recognise that in the background to nearly every exam was a teacher, who will have supported taking up this opportunity to enter for Grade 5 Theory after the disruptions to the Spring and Summer exams. We know that this will have been done in good faith and that we benefit from considerable loyalty from teachers, whose confidence in our exam arrangements is key. I understand that the confidence of some EPTA members will have been affected by the experience of the pilot, for which we also apologise.
We have outlined in our recent communication to applicants, which we asked them to share with candidates, the action we are taking in the three areas that did not function satisfactorily and I am enclosing a copy of this email. In each of these areas PSI has fully investigated the causes and put in place an action plan, or fixed the issue. We will be proceeding with the planned online exams in November, subject to some adjustments, and will continue to work in partnership with PSI. We believe this is the best possible way to support young people learning music at a time when the prospect of holding large-scale gatherings in the short term is uncertain at best.
Immediately after the exam we invited feedback from all those who took part, in order to learn as much as possible from the pilot. A central area we wished to evaluate was the performance of the exam questions and the online format. I wanted to let you know that candidates’ feedback shows high levels of satisfaction with the ease of use and intuitiveness of the on-screen questions, as well as the fairness of the exam in terms of its difficulty and the content covered. While this feedback does not reduce our concern about the distress caused to candidates, it is important in indicating the integrity of the exam in its musical and educational aspects.
When we spoke you mentioned to me concerns felt by some that the move to online exams represents a change in ABRSM’s approach to Music Theory. I understand that some members feel that the online questions signal that there is no longer a need to write music or to encourage creativity and composition. I want to assure you and EPTA members that we do not view any of our exam syllabuses as a curriculum, nor do we believe that teaching and learning only what is needed to pass an exam represents an approach that we advocate. I believe that our new workbooks, Discovering Music Theory, published on 8 October, demonstrate our unchanging belief in the value of understanding how music is written down and how this helps across all aspects of music making, from performing and listening to composing and improvising. We would be very happy to ask one of our examiner-presenters to run a webinar or similar for members exploring this topic of integrating theory and writing music into lessons generally if you felt this would be helpful.
In closing I want to signal that I am very conscious that the move of our theory exams to an online format has felt challenging to many teachers, as you highlighted to me. Mervyn Cousins and I valued highly your invitation to us to participate in the recent webinar and we very much want to continue to support and work constructively with EPTA and its members as we continue to introduce our remote assessments, including the new Performance Grades, and welcome your offer to do so. We will be continuing to add supporting material for the online Music Theory exams to our website in the coming weeks and have already added Grades 1 to 4 to our free sample exam papers and sample answers online.
Please know that our ongoing priority is to offer assessments and resources that have musical and educational integrity, bringing the expertise of our network of musicians and teachers to all that we do now and in the long term. As we pioneer new ways of delivering our exams we will continue to listen to the views of colleagues and to put the needs and interests of learners of music at the centre of our thinking.
With best wishes,
Penny Milsom
Executive Director