LACKING SKILLS…? (First published on Monday, 17 August 2009)

“Today’s students – even at University-do not have the basic skills of spelling and grammar – this is the result of the constant use of mobile phones, texting, and computer games” (Anon but could be any number of commentators)

Quotes of the day: We believe that to err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics Hubert Humphrey (US Vice-President)

“The superior man blames himself. The inferior man blames others”. Don Shula American Football Coach

Oh, dear, poor old students – they really cannot win. First they do well – so they are told the exams have been dumbed down. Then, as they get up off the floor – pow ! – they are told that universities are unhappy because students are “lacking necessary skills”. Has anyone pointed out that the students don’t set the exams – they just have to take them ?

When you press the hand-wringing lecturers what it is that they want, you usually find the following:

(a) “their spelling/grammar is appalling” (spare me ! as an ex-English teacher, I could spend all night answering that one – I’ll leave it to Stephen Fry in his current series on Radio 4 – Tuesday 9.30am)

(b) “They can’t write essays” (this from the people who will take foreign students with IELTS Band 6 on post-graduate courses!)

(c) “they have no study skills” (same comment, to which I add the fact that by now the universities should by now have grasped the fact that in many countries education is closely equated to being told, learning by heart and regurgitating what you have been told)

(d) “they have no analytical skills”
imagesexams gtr
Let it be clear. I am fully in agreement with the need for the above requirements in anyone who is to be taken seriously as a university graduate. But neither the students nor their school teachers are responsible for this situation. They just train to jump the fences.

Why have the universities, who have enormous influence both officially and behind the scenes not made clear that students are required to manifest these skills and that if the courses and exams they take do not prepare them suitably, they need to be changed ?

The equivalent to (a) (spelling/grammar) above is to be found in the Music Theory/Musical Literacy exams. in which it is made quite clear that accuracy is essential. The same is true in the City and Guilds exams which I know of. This can be seen as petty or trivial, but sorry, you either want the accuracy or you don’t. Musicians think it is important – otherwise the person reading the music doesn’t play the right notes.

With regard to (c) (study skills), it needs to be recognised that a good part of this is subject specific. To learn to study Physics, you need to study Physics, and so need to be taught by someone who has. In Music, it is hard to imagine what a teacher would be doing, if s/he did not routinely show the student how to approach a given problem. The test of the skills lies in the exam result – in Music the student who has not studied and does not apply rational methods is unlikely to meet the criteria of performance.

The equivalent of “performance” in an academic context is typically (b) “writing essays”. So if you want to see what students can do, get them to write essays. And if you fear that they may simply learn by heart a patter which in turn they have cribbed from the Internet, set them a task under controlled conditions. So in Music, you don’t ask for a recording (which can be fiddled – pun of Victorian banality!), you make them play. Or they do a compositional task in exam conditions.

When they do this, they will then demonstrate (or not) “analytical skills”. And how do you do this – by setting up a system which rewards such skills – the schools will then build it in. Give tasks and topics which need analysis.

In Music this is done in two ways. In performance tests, teachers will encourage the student to think of the music as not merely a sequence of notes, but as a structure, with dynamics and movement. Also musicians recognise that this is an advanced task normally sought at the higher grades, though from the outset, stress is laid on the fact that credit is given for a “musical performance”.

In the case of more intellectual analysis, students will be prepared by being taken through the process (set works), but if a more probing test is needed, they will be given an unprepared work to analyse. This used also to happen in English Literature at A level and beyond – I don’t know if it still does.

Today’s summary: I say to universities “Stop moaning, use your influence to get exams which deliver students with the types of skill you need, and refuse to take those students who don’t meet your entrance requirements”. But then, that would have some very interesting financial, political, and moral consequences…

OF MICE AND MEN – AND MOZART (First published on Sunday, 16 August 2009)

Today’s quotations:

“Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered – either by themselves or by others”. Mark Twain
“For even that vulgar and tavern music, which makes one man merry, another sad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the First Composer; there is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers”. Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici


After all that I have written so far, you may say that I seem to be avoiding issues such as quality, excellence and talent in music. Not at all.

If you are 7 years of age, and first start to learn an instrument, you can plod along for a few months, in between school projects, playing basketball, Computer Club on Thursdays and visits to Grandma (who always has some nice sweets hidden away) and your teacher enters you for the Preliminary Examination in Recorder Playing, in which you just get a pass.

Meanwhile young Wolfgang Amadeus down the road has a professional musician father who is incredibly pushy, and spots that his kid has unusual talent. So he skips basketball, computers and Grandma, plays in the top spot in all the school concerts, and wins all the Junior Music competitions. He even gets gigs playing music for weddings, and still finds time to knock of the odd concerto, which then lies undiscovered for a couple of hundred years. Oh, and in passing, he knocks off Grade 8, getting 99%.

OK, a bit over the top, but I have heard some pretty amazing 7 year olds. The important point is that the same system is used by both. They proceed at their own rate, and go to the level that suits them.

As I said earlier, organising such a system might be complex – but what better way should we spend our working time and public money – writing off the savings of ordinary people by making wild speculations in the City ?

Today’s message: In Music, at least, there is room in the system for both average (or less than average) talent, and outstanding gift. The system is there to facilitate and measure its expression. The real issue is the practical one how to enable all people to make these talents flower. You will be glad to hear that the authorities have in fact already addressed this problem. The answer is of course to stop instrumental lessons at school, and remove Music from an overcrowded curriculum. (“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” – popular saying)imageschild


FALLING STANDARDS ? –again ! (First published on Saturday, 15 August 2009)

“There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder”. Ronald Reagan

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential” Winston Churchill


Music exams show us an example of criterion-based assessment in action; tasks are set, precise criteria (including for the making of judgements) are laid down, and as many candidates as can achieve this will pass.

In fact as achievements and talents differ, marks vary and traditionally the results fall into four groups (Fail, Pass, Merit, and Distinction – formerly called Honours). Thames Valley University/London College of Music has (to my mind laudably) put in two grades of Fail – a narrow fail and one that is clearly way off the minimum standard. This is helpful as it can show student and teacher what amount of effort is likely to be needed to obtain a pass. It is an excellent example of “customer friendly” examining.

In practice I found that the three grades of success were also really to some extent on the subjective side of the spectrum – the numerical mark was really a refinement of this (a bit like the old Alpha / Alpha plus system). The reasoning was (I think rightly) on the following lines.

At the end of the day what we want from a musical performance is a convincing, moving experience, showing artistic sensitivity by the performer. Such a performance is worth a distinction.

However, a prerequisite of such a performance is an accurate rendering of the score, based on a suitable level of technical competence. Such skill is worthy of a Merit.

It is nevertheless recognised that not all candidates will achieve such a level. Yet their progress should be recognised. A performance containing a certain amount of falling short technically therefore should be awarded a Pass.

There are clearly subjective elements here; the arguments given above apply.

The important thing about all this is that there are no quotas. In practice the percentages fall in the higher grades, because humans tend to grade themselves by what they do. As in all fields, the further you go up the ladder, the more the percentage of people involved declines, as fewer and fewer people have the time, resources, inclination or ability to go on. What percentage of swimmers are willing to put in the hours needed to become an Olympic competitor ?

By contrast, we have been told to expect the imminent collapse of our intellectual life because the percentage of first class degrees has risen (at least in some places) from 7% to 13%. A doubling, yes, but averaging around 10%. Consider it this way. 100% of the population are born. Not 100% even get to school, because some have awful disabilities. They plod on and at 16 many throw in the towel. The same applies at 18, but 50% (roughly) go on to university. More plodding, lots of pressure, “spoon feeding” (see above), many have to work, some have rich parents (7% -? the number in the independent school sector). The end – 10% with firsts. But wait – it’s 10% of the original 50% i.e. 5% of the total age group. Does that seem a high number of unusual intellects in a population ?

This reminds me of a regular gripe I heard at Garnett College of Education – too many students were getting high marks in the Theory (normative again…). I observed always that (a) the majority of our students were graduates – many in Humanities – so had often studied these subjects to a higher level than teacher training required (b) they were highly selected (c) most were highly motivated. So what result would you expect ?

I always assumed during my working life that the First Class degree would typically account for 5 to 10% of the student body. In which case 5% is rather low !

So I decided to check on what those who use the notion of IQ think. (I must admit here to having always been highly suspicious of such measurements, but they are widely accepted and used) The source I found said that 50% of the population have an IQ of 100-110, There were a further 15% up to 120 (which was equated to potential college degree level) and 10% above that. The potential educational level of the latter IQ was Ph.D.

Having admitted to reservations about the IQ measurement process, I am willing to stand corrected on this. But the above does seem to suggest that it would not be strange if, say, 15% of students got a First. If this is so, we can expect further rises. Also it suggests that the system is still in the process of drawing out the potential of students to their theoretical maximum.

Today’s summary: The claim of the critics is that the line at which a First is gained is being moved steadily towards the lower end of the IQ spectrum. But it seems equally plausible that the potential for the current levels of student achievement was always there – but the opportunities were not. Surely a cause for rejoicing, not lamentation ?

WHAT MUSIC CAN TEACH US (2): the issue of objectivity (First published on Friday, 14 August 2009)

Quotations for today:

“Criticism, though dignified from the earliest ages by the labours of men eminent for knowledge and sagacity, has not yet attained the certainty and stability of science”
Samuel Johnson (creator of the first English dictionary)

“Almost all our knowledge is only probable; and in the small number of things that we are able to know with certainty, in the mathematical sciences themselves, the principal means of arriving at the truth—induction and analogy—are based on probabilities. I believe that we do not know anything for certain, but everything probably” Christiaan Huygens (17th Century astronomer)

“Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” William James (19th century psychologist and philosopher) The Will to Believe

”The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever”. Karl Popper (philosopher of science) The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Music exams also provide a sorely needed response to another set of issues.

The mixture of a strong inclination to risk aversion, the desire to protect and justify one’s actions, and an absolute obsession with targets and measurability, has given educators (and many others) an increasing nightmare of forms to be filled, and boxes to be ticked. A friend recently took early retirement from teaching, having decided that an impoverished life was preferable to the depressing morass of paper work – assessments, monitoring, reports, statements of aims which had come to mean that she spent more time on such matters to meet the demands of professional administrators than she did on teaching. She seems to be one of a large number of teachers who would at least like to follow the same route.

The latest lunacy of which I have heard is the suggestion that computer marking of examinations will become universal within a decade or so. This is pure sci-fi. The only way in which a machine such as a computer can do this is by reading answers entered (as for example in certain IELTS papers) into boxes into computer readable form (e.g. Y or N, 1,2,3 etc). The IELTS authorities apply this to the Reading and Listening Tests, which are carefully devised to produce answers which can be rendered into such a form. But the same authorities continue to use examiners (human beings with ears, eyes and a brain) to mark the Speaking and Writing Tests. Why ? Because there is no sign that computers, even by using Artificial Intelligence, are anywhere near able to do (even with effort) what humans are supremely equipped to do, which is to assess what they experience according to (often complex) criteria.

Musicians have long recognised this, because it is in the nature of the subject. let’s consider the case of a Grade exam in Piano Playing (the same applies to other instruments).

Normally the student must demonstrate competence in the “nuts and bolts” of music – such as scales, chords, and in the Aural Test, the recognition of the interval (distance) between two notes. These requirements can defined precisely. In the exam a named scale can be requested, to be played at a named speed, volume, and articulation (e.g. staccato). These elements are susceptible to precise measurement, and it would be possible to devise a system which identified every departure from the stated criteria. In fact, this is not done. It would be very costly to create and administer, and I doubt that there would be sufficient improvement on the judgement of a trained examiner, to merit the expense.

The student is also required to perform various pieces (typically three with contrasting natures and problems). These will embody those aspects of technique, style and expression which the Examiner Panel (consisting of experienced examiners) has deemed to be a natural progression logically and musically, and which are also appropriate to a given level of study. Thus, for example, the performance of a Bach fugue would only be expected at a high grade (7 or 8), whereas a Two Part Invention would be a more suitable move into polyphonic music at, say, Grade 5.

It will be useful for some readers if I give an example from a very different type of exam – the Electric Guitar exams of the Registry of Guitar tutors. These also require demonstrations of technical ability. But since improvisation is an essential skill for any player in non-classical areas such as pop, rock or jazz, the ability to improvise is also tested from the earliest stages. This is not the place to go into technical detail, but I can attest from personal experience of the Examiner training sessions, that what counts as competence is very clearly demonstrated in detail (giving for instance the notes which are or are not to be expected, and the types of rhythmic flexibility which a candidate should show). The standards are very clearly articulated, not least because the Registry gives high importance to using examiners who are or have been working musicians, but the latter often expect standards which would be unreasonable demands on the typical learner.

The above examples show that again, the demands of the pieces can in some respects be stated in terms of precise criteria, and are measurable. The same point about the cost of mechanical assessment applies.

However, it is obvious that music is not only or even primarily a matter of definable techniques, and in this it again presents an illustration of what can, and I assert has to hold in a sensible examination system.

The good performer must exhibit an increasing grasp of expression, of the emotional dimension of music, of the nature of authenticity and appropriateness within a given style, and in the “popular” forms, a sense of the precision and movement of rhythm parts.

Again, these can be defined, but they cannot easily be measured. Nor do they need to be, because they can be perceived by a trained listener. At this point, the exam system needs to stop a compulsion to seek out some spurious and in fact unattainable objectivity, but to accept that we are and have to be in the realm of subjective human judgements. A judgement on the “conviction” manifested in a given performance is an opinion, not a measurement.

But this is not to say that any old emotional reaction by the judge will do, that anything goes, and that the candidate’s mark is a matter of chance – which examiner you get – and an arbitrary judgement – whether the examiner happens to like what you do.

This is because the examiner has to be selected by peers, who assess whether his/her understanding of what is to be assessed is indeed professional and in line with what is generally accepted. The latter phrase may horrify some people. They may argue that this allows the existence and power of self-selecting clubs, which may well be out of touch or even opposed to the values of another group.

If by this they mean that the examiners of the Associated Board are not typically interested in, responsive to or capable of judging Heavy Metal music, they are probably right. But the “AS Board” examiners don’t do this, they don’t seek to, and make it quite clear that their exams are not concerned with this sphere of music. By contrast, the Registry Electric Guitar panel does contain such experts (and they are experts).

My point is that in any given area (not just music) there is a body of agreed assumptions and values, which can be stated, monitored or passed on. Of course, once in a lifetime you may have in front of you the next Jimi Hendrix or Charles Ives, who presents you with a musical experience which puzzles, which you do to know how to assess. But exam systems are not there to detect originality and genius, but to assess that widely agreed body of knowledge which the overwhelming mass of the population needs to master. Geniuses have necessarily to make their own way.

By now, many readers may be anxious that such a system is nevertheless open to error or even abuse. I understand this fear. I have been at many standardisation meetings in several spheres, and sometimes the range of marks awarded in the training sessions is worryingly wide. Added to this there is clearly the danger of human error, or (much more rarely) prejudice.

As the matter is ultimately subjective, there must always be some risk. There is and can be no objective truth, no 100% certainty in such matters.

But the danger can be and is minimised in various ways. Standardisation tests (of the examiners), moderation, second marking and other checks are routine. Statistical checks can reveal if there are departures from the norm, which can then be investigated. There is an appeal procedure, to give a further option to candidates who feel that they have suffered some injustice.

The most obvious way to counter the dangers of subjectivity is to increase the numbers of examiners – at a certain point the consensus becomes clear. In practice it is a choice between having one or two. Thus the Cambridge First Certificate in EFL uses two in the Speaking Test; IELTS uses one, backed by recordings which are used for monitoring standards and dealing with appeals. Grade examinations in Music use one, Diploma exams two.

What those who want certainty must realise is that (a) machines won’t do the job (b) it depends how much you are prepared to spend (c) there isn’t any absolute certainty in such areas of knowledge. I believe that point (b) is the one which needs constant repetition, but that politicians don’t say it, for fear of unpopularity. It’s really very simple: you get what you pay for and you pay for what you get. Since there is always a limit on resources, it is the taxpayer who has to decide what the priorities are. Mine are quite simple: health, education, pensions and support during sickness or unemployment. If that means that other goodies are much scarcer, then so be it.

In the present context of music exams I think the level of guarantee of quality is about right, but that there are probably some areas which could be improved. To have four examiners instead of one would offer more guarantee (though it would be daunting for the candidates !) but not such as would merit increasing the administrative costs fourfold.

Today’s message: Music exams show us that in making decisions about assessment we must consider the nature of the knowledge we are dealing with. In the case of Music, (and many other subjects) some aspects are suited to accurate measurement, whereas others need judgement. This inevitably gives a grey area of assessment.

WHAT MUSIC CAN TEACH US – (1): Flexibility of assessment (First published on Thursday, 13 August 2009)

Today’s quotations:

“The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers”. Brian Greene, physicist

“Let no one think that flexibility and a predisposition to compromise is a sign of weakness or a sell-out”. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

“I am positive that flexibility is a feminine characteristic”. Emma Bonino, Italian politician

I now want to look at what happens in the Music exam system, and to show how it can point to the answers of many of the criticisms which I have been analysing.

First some facts.

There are two routes for students to follow.

One is based on schools, and leads to GCSE (as an optional subject) and then on to AS and A Levels.

I am sure that it is possible to find large numbers of people who will bemoan the fall in standards in these examinations. Certainly, when I last taught A Level, one could say that the demands of the harmonisation component were considerably less than they were some decades ago. But this is to ignore the wider context of the exam. I would argue that as a musical education, it would be hard to sustain those criticisms. In this the exam reflects the goals I have been calling for, that the school system should primarily be concerned with the education of the whole population. By no means every student who takes an A level (of whatever sort) then chooses to make that subject his/her subject in University, or a career.

I think for the case for the value of GCSE Music is much more overwhelming. I remember interviewing a guitar student who had followed the old system, and saying that I assumed that she already understood chord movements. She denied this vigorously, saying that she had been able to get a good mark simply by the fact that she saw harmony tests as a sort of puzzle, and had no idea at all what the result might mean or sound like. This chimed with my own experience of entering an exam in Music Theory, and being astounded that there was total silence.

When Graham Vulliamy and I wrote “Pop Music in School” we pointed out that Music was one of the least popular school subjects, despite being one of the most important interests of the large majority of students outside school. This in good measure due to the fact that Music lessons were concerned to a large extent with sight singing (a difficult skill) and the lives of the composers. Also “Music” was defined exclusively in “classical” terms,

This is certainly not the case now. The range of the exam both in the aspects of music it covers and its openness to style gives opportunities for students to study and succeed, even when they are not very interested in the wider range of academic work. I remember several contemporaries of my son who were not very able as musicians but got a passable grade which thus recognised their achievement. This came out of a mixture of encouragement by the Music teacher and the possibility of doing a lot of work by focussing on styles (e.g rap) and instruments (e.g. the electric guitar) which appealed to them. The relevance of this to my earlier arguments should be clear.

The second route in musical education is the Grades system. Normally there are eight levels as the basis. To this have been added examinations with a variety of names (Preliminary, Steps etc) which have the aim of grading the progress from total beginner to Grade 1 into smaller steps. In particular this has arisen from recognition of the needs and capabilities of young children, for most of whom the distance to Grade 1(which requires scales, pieces, music reading etc) was intensely depressing and daunting. I have met far too many adults who were put off for life from learning an instrument, which they imagined to be a grinding and soul-deadening process. The division of the learning process into smaller steps fits entirely with my call for a system which makes it possible for the mass of people to gain recognition for their efforts and talents. To my mind it presents a model for education.

Now this may seem at odds with a system where there is rightly increasing criticism that students are over-examined. But I think it is not, because there is an important difference. The Music student takes things in small steps. The relevance of the exams is obvious. Above all, they prepare for them at their own pace.

I appreciate that this could cause massive headaches for the current education system which likes to think of “cohorts”. Students are grouped together and must run at the same pace. This very convenient – but are we talking about convenience or the best interests of our young people ? The system does not exist, because no one has really tried to formulate a different structure, that is tailored more closely to the diversity of talent and motivation between students.

Apart from a more subtle grading at the novice level, a similar process exists post-Grade 8. Instead of the earlier leap to the standard basic professional qualification (Licentiate e.g. LRAM) there are now typically two intermediate stages. Again this gives flexibility. It gives recognition to those who decide that they do not wish or are unable to go so far. It is possible to get a meaningful qualification without the commitment to full professional training.

This means that there might be as many as 14 steps from first interest to full professional status, as compared to the 3-4 tiers in academic subjects. Each step is therefore less awesomely significant.

Today’s moral: Within the spectrum of Music examinations there is a wide range of competences which are tested – you can for example study the Sikh Musical Tradition (LCMM/Thames Valley Board) – and two major streams – one for “broader education” and one for “applied skills”. In the latter progress can be made in small increments, but the more talented can rapidly move to the most advanced levels. The system therefore exhibits how it is possible to cater for a wide range of interests, in a very flexible manner.


I’M THE KING OF THE CASTLE – you’re a dirty rascal (children’s chant) (First published on Wednesday, 12 August 2009)

“My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all… Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going. ” Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance.

images gesualdo

On the basis of what I have said so far, you might reasonably think that I am an extreme anti-elitist. So it’s time to make clear that it seems to me glaringly obvious that we need elites – and we want elites.

Let’s list a few examples:

· Does the country need to compete in the world…?
· Do we want someone to make the discoveries which will beat cancer…?
· Do you (or will you) want the best for your children…?
· Do you want England (substitute your own country!) to win the World Cup…?
· Do you want to do something in your life which is the very best you can do…?
· If you have to have an operation do you want a surgeon who is at the top of the profession,
or will you settle for someone straight out of medical school…?
· Do you prefer the music of the Beatles (substitute your own favourite) or the karaoke night
down at the pub…?

Put like this, then, answers are obvious. (The last one is a trick question- the two listenings serve different purposes and are not mutually incompatible).

So I maintain that we not only need, but want elites.

This is certainly true in music. You can certainly get huge pleasure from supporting a set of young people you know who have formed a band. But sometimes you want – you crave – some music which you feel is brilliant, is moving, is of outstanding quality, is made by someone whose sheer talent knocks you out. Note that I don’t mention any names. What you choose is an intensely personal matter. You may have to conform publicly to what They say is good, but you know inside yourself that, though everyone likes the music of Augustus Kettledrum, and you can see that it has a lot going for it, it’s not what really gets you. My argument doesn’t require you to find that Beethoven, The Beatles, Billie Holiday or Bono is the best – just that you find that sometimes you need what you define as Quality.

There was a book some years ago called Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance (no, I’m not kidding you). The author deals with just this point – it’s worth a read, if you can find it. It’s not an easy book, but it is very relevant to the modern world, gives a lot of food for thought..

In the latest round of “dumbing down” talk, they’ve finally discovered that maybe the universities claim standards that they don’t deliver. My previous points still hold. Of course a university education is based on some sort of selection, and may never be right for everyone (extreme example: do we expect someone with severe learning difficulties to get a degree ? Haven’t they got enough problems ?). But when the intake is 50% of the population, university courses are a form of mass education. So my impression is that, again, according to interpretation, the students are “spoon-fed” or the education given is devised to meet the reality of their needs (especially when the poor devils have to work in MacDonalds or whatever in order to survive).

To take things forward, let’s give the critics the sacrifice they are asking for. Let’s say “Yes, yes, State schools and Post-1992 universities are not giving the type of education which independent schools, Oxbridge, grammar schools (extend the list as desired) are giving”.

Now we are entitled to point out (again) that State systems are trying to cope with an immensely enlarged demand for education, which tries to give education and opportunity to those who did not have it before. It tries to devise systems of testing which are relevant to the candidates, are accurate, efficient and just. It requires those who judge and those who teach to define and defend what they do, and not just to rely on their status to back up their assertion and assumption that they know.

But of course, this does not deal with the question of elites.

There are already certain elite groups – independent schools, grammar schools, Oxbridge, the Russell Group of Universities. It’s fairly clear that, in general, these institutions are scooping the pool of prizes. Is that surprising ? For instance, at a meeting for prospective parents, I heard the Head Teacher of a very well known London independent school answer a question about provision for some sort of Special Need ( I think it was dyslexia) as follows: “The school does not provide for that sort of need. We are not equipped to do so. Your son would probably be better off in a different institution” (And who does, by law, provide such services…?)

If you only take the most able pupils, who have gone (survived ?) through a long period of preparation and a testing and highly competitive set of norm-based exams, you are likely to get pretty good results. Whereas if you also have to put in substantial amounts of resources in supporting the weak, needy and vulnerable, you are starting with an immense handicap in a competitive system. It’s as if the England football team had always to include me – they wouldn’t even beat the Faeroe Islands !

The success of the institutions mentioned above comes above all from having a very clear set of objectives. The school mentioned was willing to offer scholarships to poor boys who showed exceptional ability in Sciences or Mathematics. They are doing this with the aim (set out in print) of “producing some of the next generation of Noble Prize winners”. Yes, you did read that – I too nearly fell off my seat when I saw it.

But isn’t that what our national leaders should be saying ? That we as a people need to find the undoubted body of exceptional talent, which may come from a back street in Burnley, a croft in the Highlands, from above a Bangladeshi restaurant in Brick Lane – or even a stockbroker belt home in Surrey. We need to find the talent, and then not be ashamed to encourage it, instead of avoiding this in the name of equality. The unfortunate person with a wasting disease or Alzheimer’s doesn’t need “equality” – they need a medical genius to provide the solution for them.

The problem is not that there are elites (and always will be, because talents vary) but that becoming part of the elite depends too much on money and background. In my day, there was some remedy – as there was for people as diverse as Melvyn Bragg and Ken Clarke – through scholarships. The problem (ignored at the time) was what happened (or rather did not happen) to my other friends who didn’t manage to get over the hurdles.

Thought for the Day: We need to make the process of identification of talent applicable to the whole population, and we need to create a system set up to handle those whom we find in this talent spotting exercise. Football clubs do it – why can’t the Government ?


LET’S TALK JARGON (do we really need to …?) (First published on Tuesday, 11 August 2009)


Music is “a marked-based, problem-solving method such as mathematics” Levi R. Bryant (quoted in A Ashby, The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology)

“Music is the actualization of the possibility of any sound whatever to present to some human being a meaning which he experiences with his body—that is to say, with his mind, his feelings, his senses, his will, and his metabolism” Thomas Clifton, Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology


Well, now you’ve got the definition clear, we will return to the more mundane task of examinations. But first, on jargon. I take this to be unnecessary or unhelpful technical language. But technical language itself is just the opposite – it enables us to talk about a subject in a precise, accurate and efficient manner. Let’s have an example: “dominant seventh”. Two words sum up the fact that this is a chord (which is….), a particular chord containing a major triad (which is…) with an added minor seventh (which is…) and which has various musical functions and characteristics (which are…)

So my bits of jargon, which will recur in the remaining blogs, are “criterion-based” and “norm-based” exams. I’m now going to use them in a statement and the “unpack” what they mean. (Note to students: If you have write essays on Educational Theory, you should be cautious about using these. There is a definite trend among theorists of Education to announce ancient wisdom in new fashionable language, and to dismiss scornfully similar formulations in an earlier jargon).

My claim is: “In assertions about ‘dumbing down’ there is typically a failure to recognise that an assessment system which is to serve the aims of mass education needs to be criterion-based rather than norm-based. Recognition of this difference would immediately re-focus the debate”

I don’t need to repeat the points already made about mass education. But we do now need to go on to the point that, in a system with such aims – equal opportunities, maximising the potential of all citizens, etc), in principle everyone could get 100%. and, far from being a criticism, this would be the highest praise for the system. It would also mean that teachers had done the job perfectly.

Of course, this does not happen in reality, and never will. People vary in aptitude, application, and personal circumstances. But the point is that the failure by candidates to get 100% is not built into the essential nature and structure of the exam. So for us, “criterion-based” is a useful shorthand to indicate a type of test in which anyone who can produce the right answer or performance will pass. It does not matter if no one passes or everyone does, only that everyone can. Good examples are the Driving Test and Music Grade exams. There is no quota of passes. Do the work, do the right things in the test, and you get your pass.

Now one of the great educational advances of the last 50 years has been that those who set themselves up in judgement as examiners now have to produce detailed criteria defining the aims and content of the exam they are creating. Teachers may feel (not without good reason) that all too often this approach proliferates wasteful and pointless bureaucracy and form-filling. But I would counter that the modern system is only just, in my opinion. If you are going to have the temerity to judge people, it is reasonable to tell them what they have to do to be judged favourably. By contrast, in the old system there was a good deal of judgement based on the assumption that a given group of people knew what the game was and that the student had to be smart enough to find out. The cynical would suggest that this was a form of “guess my mind” system, which had the result – and the purpose – of weeding out applicants who were not in “the club”.

Earlier I suggested that one reason for the rising success rates has been a focus on passing exams. I now refine this claim by saying that the process of preparation
has been made much more efficient, because there are much clearer definitions of what is required. The student (and teacher) who knows clearly what s/he is supposed to do is clearly more likely to do it.

Some people would call this “spoon feeding”. But what is the virtue in spending vast amounts of time, energy and money broadcasting information to classes in the vague hope that they will see what the purpose is ? If someone asks you to shop for them, and they wish to create a salad, your journey will be more effective if you are not looking for “a salad” but, say “500g tomatoes, 1 cucumber, 1 lettuce etc”.

Now those of you who have taken Grade exams in Music will recognise that this is precisely what happens. You play three pieces chosen from a list, you play them at given speeds (typically now stated as a metronome mark), you play certain scales at given speed, with named dynamics and articulation etc. If you do the work, you will pass, not least because you know what you are trying to do.

We now have the answer to the claim that “too many people are getting As”. Ideally they all would. A more interesting and useful question would be “Why don’t they ? Many people exhibit the contradictory behaviour that they first require teachers and students to work towards exams, which are set up as the key to social mobility, wealth, personal development (and probably automatic promotion to Heaven in the next life), and then bemoan the fact that they succeed. It is as if we censured a doctor because none of his or her patients died ! “These results are far too good. Whatever are they doing ? We need some more deaths from lung cancer to make the figures real and credible”.

So what about “norm-based” exams? It’s really very simple. The aim is the opposite of that just described – the main purpose is to test candidates in such a way that there is a ranking order. To do this the test needs to discriminate between candidates. (In this context we’re not talking about their gender, race etc, but in the number of marks they get in the test). A test will exhibit “good discrimination” if it allows us to perceive clear differences between the candidates. The IELTS exam in English (for foreign students) is overtly constructed on these principles and some questions are devised which only someone with a near-native command of English will be able to answer. (Note that I am not condemning the IELTS system – there are very good reasons for this practice).

Today’s message: In a criterion-based exam everyone can pass, and get a high mark (in principle) – which is, I claim, what the aim of the State exam system is and should be. By contrast the aim of the norm-based exam is to select out or grade, and to find the most able performances. This is obviously what critics of the system are looking for – typically they even say so.


WHY WE NEED EXAMS (and while I’m about it – get your hair cut !) First published on Monday, 10 August 2009)

Quotation of the day: “….our society doesn’t only produce artifact things, but artifact people… by getting them through this ritual which makes them believe that learning happens as a result of being taught; that learning can be divided into separate tasks; that learning can be measured and pieces can be added one to the other; that learning provides value for the objects which then sell in the market” Ivan Illich We the People interview 1996
I give the above quotation as an example of the thinking of the most radical educational philosopher of the 60s and 70s, to show that for some people there has been (still is?) a resistance to testing of any type. The view was based on a strongly social, typically socialist view, of how society should be run. Some arguments put forward were that people fail exams and so their self-esteem falls, that exams give a passport to a minority of desirable employments (e.g. medicine), and that lower socio- economic groups fare worst and so are discriminated against and excluded. The importance of such matters to society is not being denied here. But I do contest the argument against testing.

The reason is quite simple. In a small traditional society, people know each other. Word soon gets around that X is a good craftsman, while Y the fishmonger is not always scrupulous about the quality of what he sells (a real case in the Medieval City of London, when the offending tradesman was put in the pillory and his stinking fish burned under his nose).

But when villages of a few hundred become towns of 10, 20, 50 thousand people, they become more anonymous. So we need a way of assessing quickly the professional standard of the person before us. Though imperfect, examinations fill this role. They give some sort of guarantee of quality. We know, therefore, that a student who gets a Grade 8 in Piano Playing will have demonstrated a certain level of skill. There is much of importance that the exam does not tell us; for instance, is the skill of the student well beyond this level, or what exactly does the Examiner’s comment “ a sensitive interpretation” mean to a listener ? Typically we will need an audition to find out such things. But when there are limited places (for example in a Degree level Music course), the result allows us to reduce the list of candidates to manageable proportions, and to ensure that the students accepted will be likely to be able to cope with and profit from their course.

There are further factors which are relevant to a testing system. One is that, as society developed, there was an increasing need for professionalisation. Even in the Middle Ages the Guilds (and the Livery Companies in the City of London) took on the role of providers of specialist training, and monitors of standards (in so doing they also managed to arrange to have a monopoly. Testing was the route to becoming a “member of the club”).

Closely linked to this is the widespread strong desire of professions, and especially new ones, to acquire status by creating a system of tests which makes their claim to equality of respect much stronger. I can give two recent examples known to me. One the Blue Badge award of the Institute of Tourist Guiding, which guarantees a high standard of knowledge and competence. The other example is the range of examinations (for instance of the Registry of Guitar Tutors) which have gained official recognition and world wide respect for the skills required on, for example, the electric guitar, an instrument which in my first years as a musician was derided by the then arbiters of taste in the Classical world.

The need for testing becomes more acute as knowledge advances. It is clear that in medicine, for example, the most advanced specialists have knowledge which is only understood in general terms by many GPs, who are nevertheless excellent in their chosen work. In such a case, some sort of test, administered by specialists, is needed in order to guarantee competence and integrity to those who have no tools to judge by. Again, Music can provide us with an example. A person who has become highly specialised in Twelve Tone music does not have, just by virtue of that knowledge, the right to judge the quality and skill of electric guitarists using distortion effects. Their musical training may give them a better than average ability to perceive the nuances involved, but it certainly does not give the competence to judge , which requires both technical knowledge of what FX units they are and what they will do, and a broad experience of the results achieved by the many outstanding guitarists who have used the effects.

To sum up for today, then:

Testing (exams etc) is needed to give shape to training and to give a measure of skill to the wider world. It can also have the benefit of raising the public esteem of those trained.

BUT IN MY DAY the exams were much tougher(or “Get out the cane, Nanny”) (First published on Sunday, 9 August 2009)

Quotation of the day: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth”. Lamentations 3. 67
The large majority of young people are demonstrably achieving much more than ever before. Even if the examinations are of a lower standard, I argue that this claim still holds good.

The danger of the “dumbing down” arguments is that we compare the situation of a large mass of young people today to that of a minority in the past who were highly selected – I was one of them – and who were the high achievers of their day. Instead we should compare the achievements of the mass of modern youngsters with what similar pupils achieved in the past. Anyone who is old enough to remember the Secondary Modern schools will remember that little was given to their pupils and less was expected of them. They had very few achievements, because they were not given the chance. It was the province of the selected elite to get academic qualifications.

I was one of the teachers in the first wave of the educational changes which started to pick up the pieces. The Secondary Modern “11 plus failures” had the chance to repair the damage by going into Further Education. Many then demonstrated that they too could get GCEs (as they were then called) and could also go on from there.

I will give a musical example. Terry Mortimer, whose name and work appear elsewhere on this site, is a good example. He left with one GCE (Technical Drawing) and shared with all his fellow students low self-evaluation of his talents and low expectations. Given the chance to remedy this by the then Cambridge Tech (more accurately, the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology), he achieved two good A Levels, a degree at Goldsmiths’ College and went on to a successful career which included being a Musical Director for the National Theatre.

So my argument is that the examination system (though capable of and needing modification) is in fact achieving what its real purpose is, should be and needs to be. That is to give targets and structure to school work, and at the end of the process some public assessment of what has been achieved. And this purpose is directed, as is the school system itself, at the whole range of the population. I maintain that the primary purpose of the system is to shape and validate the educational experience of the whole population, not to find and prepare elites.

Today’s point: The system is doing this reasonably well, when we compare the situation for comparable students half a century ago. I would add that this purpose is not sufficiently stated, firmly, and with the pride which such a noble aim merits.

Many readers will find the above arguments troubling, because I seem to be rejecting elites, like some 21st Century version of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. My response to this will be given in another article.


TOO MANY STUDENTS GET UPPER GRADES (or “We don’t want that sort of person in this restaurant” ?) (First published on Saturday, 8 August 2009)

Quotation of the day: “For many are called, but few are chosen” St Matthew 22.14
Let’s now turn to the recurrent criticism that the percentage of “A” marks is rising, and that this is worrying.

If you look at the league tables for independent schools you will see percentage passes that resemble the votes cast for the Communist Party in a Soviet election. No one seems to raise this as an issue, or think it strange. Nor should they, for what else would you expect of institutions with very clear academic aims, a highly selected intake, and enviable financial resources ?

But in fact 93% of young people are educated in the State system. Now, presumably, no one is suggesting that all the most academically able students are to be found in the private sector. There must therefore be a large number of pupils in Britain who have the ability to do outstandingly well. Let us for now assume (without conceding the point) that the demands of the modern exams are less than they were in the past (I think you would have a job convincing the many hard working youngsters who have to take them that this is so). We would then expect this “bright” upper stratum to be obtaining very high marks. Does this mean that the exams are faulty – or does it mean that this upper level group are not being taken as far as they can go – that they are “not being stretched” ?

I believe that the issue arises from a conflict between two views of the nature and purpose of the examination system.

The first duty of the State system is to provide mass education, which should offer an equal education for all. It is evident that this does not always happen. But is anyone suggesting that all State schools are inferior and substandard to their private sector counterparts? As but one example, which I am sure can be multiplied a thousand times over, go to the records and look for our nearest local school, the Camden School for Girls. Parents are queuing round the block to get their daughters in. I therefore say that, though there is room for improvement, State education is surely on the right road, and progressing.

I offer a further point of comparison with the private sector. Whereas no one in their right mind can deny the achievements of, say, the two (highly selective) St Paul’s schools, examination of the results across the whole private sector yields a rather different picture. Again I quote in our area a private school, which as far as I can see offers a good education. But its results are no better than another Camden secondary school, which has to take pupils from across the whole social spectrum.

So today’s point is:

When you are educating the whole mass of the population you are going to find large numbers of talented students. And as stated before, when you train them well, you will get not only higher numbers, but a higher proportion of successes.