We’re very focussed these days on results. I am conscious that when I send my own pupils for flute, piano or singing exams here in Lichfield, it is the result rather than the experience which is at the forefront of their minds. Children are driven to succeed at school, and adults the same at work; there are targets to be met every step of the way. Whilst when I was having lessons as a child, I and most of my friends would have been happy to pass an exam, more and more people are now hunting for that elusive merit or distinction mark. There is a lot of talk from parents, particularly online, about exam results; there’s an inevitable competitive edge. It can be disheartening for pupils who’ve worked very hard for their exam to be made to feel that they have somehow fallen short of the standard by not achieving either a merit or distinction. But let’s stand back and look at the wider perspective.
If we think about most HE level exams and assessments, the pass mark is often 40%. For graded music exams, the pass mark is normally around 65%. This means that any candidate achieving even just the pass mark has ensured that well over half the material presented was commendable.
In 2009, ABRSM reported that just under 29,000 candidates had achieved a Grade 1 pass (higher than both the proportion getting merits or distinctions). This means that with your Grade 1 pass, you are in the majority rather than the minority.
But why should a pass at Grade 1 be such an achievement? For many people, it’s their first experience of music exams. For children, it’ll often be their first experience of exams at all (bar the odd SAT!). Even for teenagers who are so often assessed by a variety for means for their GCSE and A-Level exams, sitting an exam which is entirely dependent on the performance on the day, is often a new experience. When sitting their first exam, whilst teachers will have prepared candidates, they are unlikely to have any real idea what it’s going to be like until they get there on the day. For many, particularly adults, the very act of going to an unfamiliar place and performing in front of an unfamiliar person is an achievement in itself, whatever the outcome of the exam.
Finally, it’s worth saying that a pass at Grade 1 doesn’t necessarily mean a pass at all the other grades. The reverse is often true. Many candidates who achieve passes in the early grades go on to achieve merits and distinctions in the higher grades (this was certainly my own experience as a learner). There’s certainly everything to play for. This is particularly the case when candidates have got used to the whole exam situation.
So let us celebrate everyone’s achievements – not just those who achieve merits and distinctions, but all those (the vast majority) who do enough to pass. Working as a flute, piano and singing teacher here in Lichfield, my concern has always been that pupils should be allowed to reach their full potential. For some, that will be a scraped pass at Grade 1, and for others that will be a distinction at Grade 8. Everybody’s result is valued, and every one of them is an achievement.