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Busy but contactable.

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Covid-19 Latest

What is going on at ABRSM?

The Pandemic
There is no doubt that the pandemic was the cause of massive disruption affecting almost every aspect of our lives. Many adaptations had to be made, such as one-way systems in supermarkets and hospitals, contactless payments, and for many, working from home. Contactless payments were, of course, already possible but Covid-19 accelerated its more widespread use into our society, to the point where cash transactions were rare. It is probable that many people will not go back to using cash and there is a recognised fall in demand for coins and banknotes, with the Royal Mint deciding in 2020 to stop making any new £2 coins. Technology stepped in. Similarly, services such as Skype and Zoom allowed those working from home to communicate and participate in virtual meetings.

Education was acutely affected by the measures introduced to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 with many weeks of schooling lost and preparations for examinations severely affected. Music exams, too, were cancelled and those preparing for them were left with no idea about when they would be able to take them. The Government's reaction to the pandemic was to close down many businesses for months on end, at huge cost to the economy, but it is entirely understandable given that the full impact of Covid-19 was unknown at that stage and all the evidence was that it could remain spreading with ease causing thousands of deaths.

Private music lessons were not allowed to take place, at least not in the traditional face to face environment, for a similar lengthy period of time. This gave rise to the explosion in the use of technology in providing lessons online, again using platforms such as Skype and Zoom. Fortunately, and unlike contactless payments, once restrictions were relaxed and finally removed altogether, lessons returned to a more traditional format.

Examinations
The exam boards, ABRSM being one of them, faced a huge challenge to enable examinations to take place at all. ABRSM introduced their new Performance exam, giving candidates the opportunity to take an exam by submitting a video recording of themselves performing four pieces of music. This allowed some of my own pupils to take a graded exam at a time when they would otherwise not have been able to do so. The timing was of significance in one case as the pupil was keen to use the grade exam to earn UCAS points.

As well as the Performance exams, ABRSM introduced an online theory exam system, again providing an opportunity to gain qualifications that would otherwise been prevented, at least for the time being, by the Covid-19 rules.

ABRSM stated that new-style examinations, both the Performance grades and the online theory exams, were already being developed and that the pandemic had merely caused them to accelerate their work to introduce them more quickly. There is no doubt that in doing so, they allowed many pupils to maintain at least a degree of continuity through the pandemic. With the pressure to make examinations available in the new formats as quickly as possible it is understandable that their introduction wasn't without problems. The first 'pilot' online theory examinations saw candidates struggling to log in, with some reportedly being unable to do so at all.

ABRSM's apology

ABRSM no longer offer the traditional paper theory exams at grades 1 to 5. Unlike contactless payments, there is no going back, There is no plan to return to written paper examinations. It's part of the board's move into technology. I have purposely not commented here on the musical or educational impact of either performance exams or online theory exams. Those comments will follow in a later article.

Technology
Other developments include the examiner's use of tablets to record their comments and marks during practical examinations. There are positives here. Mark sheets now arrive as a type-written pdf so there's no need for those sessions of working through a page of sometimes scrawly hand-writing to de-cypher the words. (Some used to be particularly challenging!) Along with the positives, I have read comments on the ABRSM forum and elsewhere that the technology allows the use of pre-formed phrases (e.g. 'There was some attempt to show dynamic interest' etc.), which is seen as giving a less personal, less individual assessment. Having read school reports that are created in a similar manner (presumably using similar software) I tend to agree. it is quite obvious when identical sentences appear from two or more different subject teachers. It does of course, mean less typing for the examiners.

The Booking system
On to the latest fiasco, for there can be no other word. The booking period for the next round of practical examinations opened on the 4th of May. The online system used to book these exams is not entirely new, just relatively so. Previous booking periods using the new system caused comments about the process and some fury as teachers struggled to find 'slots' at their chosen venues. It has to be said that the old system worked almost perfectly for years before it was replaced, and also was logical and pretty easy to use. So what happened on May 4th? Well, the answer, for many people was nothing. They saw a message that told them that 'Due to high demand for our online system, you are now in a queue.' with the estimated wait time showing 'more than an hour'. In fact, there are reports that some people waited thirty hours to get their exam entries made.

Article in Music Teacher

The real question about the new(ish) booking system is: why is a new system needed when the old one worked well? To answer that question, you need to understand how the old system worked. Under that system (both the online system and the paper one that preceded it), you made your entries for your chosen examination centre, mostly Derby in my case. You could give a 'preferred week' but there was no guarantee that your exams would be scheduled into that week. But you would get your exams in the Derby centre, at some point during the five weeks or so that the exam period spanned. The new system aims to give more choice about when your exams take place, down to choosing a specific date. You enter what exam(s) you want to enter for (e.g. Piano Grade 5) and then it shows a list of venues and dates where there are enough slots for your exams. You can apply filters, but these are somewhat cumbersome at best in my own experience.

Problems
The problems this time around were twofold. Firstly, there is a mad scramble by everyone who wants to book an exam to get online as soon as the booking period opens. This is so that they get the best chance of securing their chosen exam dates. It also means that the online system is overwhelmed. To its credit, it didn't actually crash. It was just very, very, slow. Thirty hours slow in some cases.

The second problem was with identifying and selecting exam centres. A map function shows where these venues are to help you choose, and this map function was not working properly on May 4th (nor on 5th actually). They, that is ABRSM and its developers, had made some changes to make it easier to use or better, but it hadn't worked.

This second problem raised a question in my head. Why do we even need a map function? I have been entering pupils for exams over the last twenty years or so and, strangely enough, I don't need a map to help me find Derby, Nottingham, Stapleford, or Matlock. The point is that the new system is entirely back to front! You have to enter the exams and then try to find a venue. I am sure that I am not alone in choosing the venue first and then adding myy candidates to the booking, which was exactly how the old system worked.

Once again, ABRSM issued an apology (on Twitter) and there are numerous comments on the ABRSM forum and Twitter from people who were frustrated by the system.

Direction
Have those in charge at ABRSM lost their way? My opinion only, but I think so. They (and to be fair, many other businesses and organisations) are racing ahead with technology in so many different directions, from the provision of apps, podcasts, and blogs to online exams, and booking systems. At the same time, there is much evidence, again in line with other organisations, of cost-cutting. Examples are the cheap, flimsy envelopes that barely protect certificates sent through the post, to the suspected out-sourcing of the printing of the certificates, and the introduction of online theory exams that can be marked automatically.

Technology isn't a bad thing necessarily. But technology that doesn't work certainly is. Furthermore, technology that worsens the customer's experience for no noticeable benefit certainly is too. ABRSM has introduced many changes as they move into the brave new digital world, but has made many serious blunders along the way, alienating those who are its life-blood, the teachers and candidates who take their exams. I have heard from several other teachers that I know personally who have, over the past year, indicated that 'enough is enough' and that they will be entering their pupils for Trinity exams going forwards.

ABRSM now appears as an organisation that simply doesn't care. Gone are the days when applicants (their term for teachers or anyone else responsible for making exam entries) were issued with a little card containing phone numbers to get in touch regarding any aspect of music exams. You could, and I sometimes did, phone up with an enquiry and you would speak with a real person who knew how to deal with your question. I can conjure up an image of an (old-fashioned) office where a phone on a desk rings and someone picks it up to answer it in an old-fashioned way. Somehow I don't imaging that calling up the Customer Service Team will be anything like the personal approach. It even sounds like a call centre. More like phoning British Gas or Barclays Bank I suspect. At least ABRSM has re-instated a phone number to their website. It was conspicuously absent for a while.

Website


Talking of their website, it's a mess. Poorly structured, confusing and far from easy to navigate, but worst of all, it often contains pages that just don't work.

Even within the last week I went to look up forthcoming exam period dates and was presented with this!

How can that happen?
How hard can it be to check that it works before releasing it?



To find anything on the ABRSM website, the easiest way of often to come out of it, and search on Google for ABRSM plus what ever it is that you're looking for. Otherwise you are likely to stumble through pages of (often quite good and useful) articles, pages selling books or audio tracks, news items and apologies, when all you really want is to find out about ABRSM core function, it's exams. Over the past year or two, I have received numerous emails, each containing several links, many of which result in the well-known '404 not found' page.



ABRSM used to be one of the most respected organisations of its kind, and also the 'Gold standard' for music examinations. Maybe it still retains that reputation for its examinations, but in its quest to modernise, it has become just another faceless organisation hiding behind (broken) technology.

The above expresses my own views, but I am not alone. Many teachers are furious with the new systems, the lack of support, and the waste of their time. There is also a Letter of no confidence in ABRSM's IT infrastructure, signed by over 200 examiners. To quote a line from their letter: "Many examiners literally dread the possibility of software and hardware failures when out on the road in live face-to-face examining situations." This is clearly aimed at them having to use an iPad/Tablet instead of a pen and paper to record their comments and marks.

Last Updated: 21st May 2022

Back

Covid-19 Latest

What is going on at ABRSM?

The Pandemic
There is no doubt that the pandemic was the cause of massive disruption affecting almost every aspect of our lives. Many adaptations had to be made, such as one-way systems in supermarkets and hospitals, contactless payments, and for many, working from home. Contactless payments were, of course, already possible but Covid-19 accelerated its more widespread use into our society, to the point where cash transactions were rare. It is probable that many people will not go back to using cash and there is a recognised fall in demand for coins and banknotes, with the Royal Mint deciding in 2020 to stop making any new £2 coins. Technology stepped in. Similarly, services such as Skype and Zoom allowed those working from home to communicate and participate in virtual meetings.

Education was acutely affected by the measures introduced to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 with many weeks of schooling lost and preparations for examinations severely affected. Music exams, too, were cancelled and those preparing for them were left with no idea about when they would be able to take them. The Government's reaction to the pandemic was to close down many businesses for months on end, at huge cost to the economy, but it is entirely understandable given that the full impact of Covid-19 was unknown at that stage and all the evidence was that it could remain spreading with ease causing thousands of deaths.

Private music lessons were not allowed to take place, at least not in the traditional face to face environment, for a similar lengthy period of time. This gave rise to the explosion in the use of technology in providing lessons online, again using platforms such as Skype and Zoom. Fortunately, and unlike contactless payments, once restrictions were relaxed and finally removed altogether, lessons returned to a more traditional format.

Examinations
The exam boards, ABRSM being one of them, faced a huge challenge to enable examinations to take place at all. ABRSM introduced their new Performance exam, giving candidates the opportunity to take an exam by submitting a video recording of themselves performing four pieces of music. This allowed some of my own pupils to take a graded exam at a time when they would otherwise not have been able to do so. The timing was of significance in one case as the pupil was keen to use the grade exam to earn UCAS points.

As well as the Performance exams, ABRSM introduced an online theory exam system, again providing an opportunity to gain qualifications that would otherwise been prevented, at least for the time being, by the Covid-19 rules.

ABRSM stated that new-style examinations, both the Performance grades and the online theory exams, were already being developed and that the pandemic had merely caused them to accelerate their work to introduce them more quickly. There is no doubt that in doing so, they allowed many pupils to maintain at least a degree of continuity through the pandemic. With the pressure to make examinations available in the new formats as quickly as possible it is understandable that their introduction wasn't without problems. The first 'pilot' online theory examinations saw candidates struggling to log in, with some reportedly being unable to do so at all.

ABRSM's apology

ABRSM no longer offer the traditional paper theory exams at grades 1 to 5. Unlike contactless payments, there is no going back, There is no plan to return to written paper examinations. It's part of the board's move into technology. I have purposely not commented here on the musical or educational impact of either performance exams or online theory exams. Those comments will follow in a later article.

Technology
Other developments include the examiner's use of tablets to record their comments and marks during practical examinations. There are positives here. Mark sheets now arrive as a type-written pdf so there's no need for those sessions of working through a page of sometimes scrawly hand-writing to de-cypher the words. (Some used to be particularly challenging!) Along with the positives, I have read comments on the ABRSM forum and elsewhere that the technology allows the use of pre-formed phrases (e.g. 'There was some attempt to show dynamic interest' etc.), which is seen as giving a less personal, less individual assessment. Having read school reports that are created in a similar manner (presumably using similar software) I tend to agree. it is quite obvious when identical sentences appear from two or more different subject teachers. It does of course, mean less typing for the examiners.

The Booking system
On to the latest fiasco, for there can be no other word. The booking period for the next round of practical examinations opened on the 4th of May. The online system used to book these exams is not entirely new, just relatively so. Previous booking periods using the new system caused comments about the process and some fury as teachers struggled to find 'slots' at their chosen venues. It has to be said that the old system worked almost perfectly for years before it was replaced, and also was logical and pretty easy to use. So what happened on May 4th? Well, the answer, for many people was nothing. They saw a message that told them that 'Due to high demand for our online system, you are now in a queue.' with the estimated wait time showing 'more than an hour'. In fact, there are reports that some people waited thirty hours to get their exam entries made.

Article in Music Teacher

The real question about the new(ish) booking system is: why is a new system needed when the old one worked well? To answer that question, you need to understand how the old system worked. Under that system (both the online system and the paper one that preceded it), you made your entries for your chosen examination centre, mostly Derby in my case. You could give a 'preferred week' but there was no guarantee that your exams would be scheduled into that week. But you would get your exams in the Derby centre, at some point during the five weeks or so that the exam period spanned. The new system aims to give more choice about when your exams take place, down to choosing a specific date. You enter what exam(s) you want to enter for (e.g. Piano Grade 5) and then it shows a list of venues and dates where there are enough slots for your exams. You can apply filters, but these are somewhat cumbersome at best in my own experience.

Problems
The problems this time around were twofold. Firstly, there is a mad scramble by everyone who wants to book an exam to get online as soon as the booking period opens. This is so that they get the best chance of securing their chosen exam dates. It also means that the online system is overwhelmed. To its credit, it didn't actually crash. It was just very, very, slow. Thirty hours slow in some cases.

The second problem was with identifying and selecting exam centres. A map function shows where these venues are to help you choose, and this map function was not working properly on May 4th (nor on 5th actually). They, that is ABRSM and its developers, had made some changes to make it easier to use or better, but it hadn't worked.

This second problem raised a question in my head. Why do we even need a map function? I have been entering pupils for exams over the last twenty years or so and, strangely enough, I don't need a map to help me find Derby, Nottingham, Stapleford, or Matlock. The point is that the new system is entirely back to front! You have to enter the exams and then try to find a venue. I am sure that I am not alone in choosing the venue first and then adding myy candidates to the booking, which was exactly how the old system worked.

Once again, ABRSM issued an apology (on Twitter) and there are numerous comments on the ABRSM forum and Twitter from people who were frustrated by the system.

Direction
Have those in charge at ABRSM lost their way? My opinion only, but I think so. They (and to be fair, many other businesses and organisations) are racing ahead with technology in so many different directions, from the provision of apps, podcasts, and blogs to online exams, and booking systems. At the same time, there is much evidence, again in line with other organisations, of cost-cutting. Examples are the cheap, flimsy envelopes that barely protect certificates sent through the post, to the suspected out-sourcing of the printing of the certificates, and the introduction of online theory exams that can be marked automatically.

Technology isn't a bad thing necessarily. But technology that doesn't work certainly is. Furthermore, technology that worsens the customer's experience for no noticeable benefit certainly is too. ABRSM has introduced many changes as they move into the brave new digital world, but has made many serious blunders along the way, alienating those who are its life-blood, the teachers and candidates who take their exams. I have heard from several other teachers that I know personally who have, over the past year, indicated that 'enough is enough' and that they will be entering their pupils for Trinity exams going forwards.

ABRSM now appears as an organisation that simply doesn't care. Gone are the days when applicants (their term for teachers or anyone else responsible for making exam entries) were issued with a little card containing phone numbers to get in touch regarding any aspect of music exams. You could, and I sometimes did, phone up with an enquiry and you would speak with a real person who knew how to deal with your question. I can conjure up an image of an (old-fashioned) office where a phone on a desk rings and someone picks it up to answer it in an old-fashioned way. Somehow I don't imaging that calling up the Customer Service Team will be anything like the personal approach. It even sounds like a call centre. More like phoning British Gas or Barclays Bank I suspect. At least ABRSM has re-instated a phone number to their website. It was conspicuously absent for a while.

Website


Talking of their website, it's a mess. Poorly structured, confusing and far from easy to navigate, but worst of all, it often contains pages that just don't work.

Even within the last week I went to look up forthcoming exam period dates and was presented with this!

How can that happen?
How hard can it be to check that it works before releasing it?



To find anything on the ABRSM website, the easiest way of often to come out of it, and search on Google for ABRSM plus what ever it is that you're looking for. Otherwise you are likely to stumble through pages of (often quite good and useful) articles, pages selling books or audio tracks, news items and apologies, when all you really want is to find out about ABRSM core function, it's exams. Over the past year or two, I have received numerous emails, each containing several links, many of which result in the well-known '404 not found' page.



ABRSM used to be one of the most respected organisations of its kind, and also the 'Gold standard' for music examinations. Maybe it still retains that reputation for its examinations, but in its quest to modernise, it has become just another faceless organisation hiding behind (broken) technology.

The above expresses my own views, but I am not alone. Many teachers are furious with the new systems, the lack of support, and the waste of their time. There is also a Letter of no confidence in ABRSM's IT infrastructure, signed by over 200 examiners. To quote a line from their letter: "Many examiners literally dread the possibility of software and hardware failures when out on the road in live face-to-face examining situations." This is clearly aimed at them having to use an iPad/Tablet instead of a pen and paper to record their comments and marks.

Last Updated: 21st May 2022

Back

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Copyright © 2020-2022 Robin Padgham.

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Copyright © 2020-2022 Robin Padgham.
Terms of use