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.


DUMBING DOWN – world predicted to end soon… (First published on Friday, 7 August 2009)

Quotation of the day: “Render unto them a recompense, O Lord, according to the work of their hands” Lamentations 3. 67


Quite soon now we shall have the annual round of breast beating, lamentations about “falling standards” and “dumbing down” which accompany the release of the GCSE and A Level results.

The poor old teenagers must feel like giving up in despair. They go through all that work – and boredom – learning apparently meaningless knowledge, only at the end of it all to be put down and told that their results are pretty feeble or worthless.

The trouble is that they don’t know how to answer back. But I do. For years I have felt that, having achieved considerable success in the academic system, I owed it to those who gave me those chances – which changed my life – to speak out when I felt that speaking out was needed. This is especially essential when we see the successful pulling up the ladder after them. (I can’t possibly name them, or I shall be bankrupted by lawsuits, but I suggest that, when you hear the voice of educational superiority intoning words of doom, you should just check what their education was, and, especially before about 1980, who paid for it. You will find an awful lot of people like me who had State grants -yes grants, not loans-which in my case paid for just about the best education money could buy.

Today, I’d just repeat a few things which we all know, and see if you agree with my conclusion.

(1) For years now the school system has been aligned to the League Tables. Some think this system is a way of ensuring standards – which was the original intention of Mrs Thatcher, whose government set them up. Others think that they skew the system, and hinder “real education”.

(2) To a greater or lesser degree therefore (usually greater), all schools dedicate a lot of time and effort to preparing for the exams which determine the tables.

(3) If you decided to become good at playing an instrument, spent all your available music time on practising, and spent most of your day doing this, being guided by a dedicated and well-educated teacher, what do you imagine the result would be …?

To put it in more general terms, if we focus on a goal, we are more likely to achieve it and achieve it well, than if we don’t. (Doesn’t take much working out, does it ?).

So why are so many people, who know these things as well as my readers (if any), so surprised that, in the light of the above, kids do well in the exams to which most of their school time has been dedicated ?

And why are they surprised that this yields more impressive results than were obtained 30 or more years ago, before the Thatcher revolution (for such it was), when schools were not subjected to such evaluation ?

So my “Thought for the Day” is:

The reason for an apparent dumbing down, is because the results actually are better. What you train for, you do better.


WHAT MUSIC EXAMS CAN TEACH US…INTRO (First published on Thursday, 6 August 2009)

Between tomorrow (August 7) and August 18, I shall be writing a daily blog on that perennial August media concern – the examination system. To do this I shall look at the system as it applies to Music, which I think can lead us to important insights.


At the outset potential readers should note various points:

(1) These are not academic articles, complete with qualifications of arguments and footnotes indicating extensive academic research. But they do set out reflections which I have made over decades of involvement with the education system, both in Music, and more widely. They are not mere un-thought out soundings off.

(2) The aim is not, and cannot be to present a detailed blueprint, which will solve all our educational woes. But I do aim to challenge a lot of received wisdom, clichés and ideas arising from motives which are less altruistic than they at first seem. I do this in the hope that my writing may help to clarify and focus on one of the most important questions – how the broad mass of young people are to be educated.

(3) The style is intentionally loose, colloquial and informal. This is because I am not interested in aping the right mannerisms to gain the approval of the respectable world. I hope that the ideas expressed are clear and direct enough to mean that ordinary folk can grasp them and pass them on to their friends and neighbours.

(4) As previously noted, for me the articles are not an invitation to debate with me. People must accept or reject what I say, as is their right. I meanwhile must get on with creating more music.

WHAT’S IN A NAME ? (First published on Tuesday, 7 July 2009)

Quotation of the week:

What’s in a name ? that which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Guitars  by Jeff Haynes

Guitars by Jeff Haynes

Well, certainly, I’m not sure that the young lady who says this would have seemed so romantic if her name had been Ethel Sidebottom instead of Juliet Capulet.

But first, welcome to my blog. I added this to my site at the suggestion of my former student Nick Bowling, bass guitarist and writer. He said that if they like your music, people like to hear about the composer. I liked the idea, as I find writing words much easier than doing music, and sometimes think I went into the wrong art ! So I shall be writing something every week. Normally the topic will be something to do with music, but sometimes I may well stray into other thoughts.

One other thing. As it says at the top of the screen, though I will certainly read any comments send in, please don’t expect a reply. At my stage of life I have really got to put all the time I can into making music, not writing about it.

So, names. In particular, mine.

I was named Albert Edward Lee, at the request of my mother, who chose to give me the same names as my father. He in turn was so named in honour of the Prince Consort, Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and the reigning monarch, Edward – the seventh of that name.

This loyal and loving choice has since given me many irritating moments. The last time was only yesterday. A nice lady rang to remind me of a medical appointment; she asked for Mr Albert Lee. As she was nice and trying to be helpful, I answered politely to the name. But my normal response is normally very different, as I will now illustrate by the following mini-drama:

PHONE: Ring. Ring
ME: Hello. Camden 1234 5678.(I actually give my real number)
VOICE: Can I speak to Albert Lee please ?
ME: (Thinks: Anyone who calls me Albert does not know me and wants to sell me
something) I’m afraid he’s not here.
VOICE: Oh. When will he be back ?
ME: He won’t – he’s dead (if I want to be really naughty I say “died”)
VOICE: (embarrassed) Oh, sorry to trouble you. (rings off)

Another cold calling salesman bites the dust !

At an earlier stage I used to answer yes, and on one occasion the person speaking immediately began to ask me where they could send me a (quite large) royalty cheque. For a moment the idea of a great holiday in Greece passed through my mind, but honesty prevailed, as I realised that they really wanted that excellent guitarist, Albert Lee.

In fact, if someone calls me Albert, there is one other possible explanation. They knew me at school. That definitely rules out my wanting to speak to them – I never really fitted in and have never been back since I came out of the gates for the last time in 19- (literary readers will recognise a device to be found in 19th Century novels).

Really, the problem seems to be that authorities have a real problem in understanding that some people are known by their second name. My mother never had a problem – my Dad was always Albert and I was Edward. (also I was smaller !) And I mean “Edward” – she would always correct anyone who called me anything else –including my friends, to my great embarrassment – saying “His name is Edward”).

Yet is it that strange? Maybe it is. Certainly, I have always assumed that my wife’s family were a bit weird, since my wife (first name Jean) is always “Frances”, and her sister (Ida) is universally “Louise”. Just to be awkward, her other sister Lizzie has the first name “Elizabeth”, but insisted on being called this when she went to Art School – in the family she was “Ann”, her second name !

However, “Edward” doesn’t end the story. My wife Jean (called Frances) thought that “Edward” was more dignified for a writer of books (see Books page!), but only after I had been sent into the world of print as “Ed” ! I do call myself “Edward” if I want to seem dignified, or a bit distant, but in certain cases I have announced myself as “Edward” to a person, because I felt that this gave a special element to the relationship. This is because most people, including all my family, children (not “all” – there are only three !), close friends, neighbours and work associates have always called me “Ed”. I even have an Italian form “Nonno Ed” (Grandad Ed) !

There is yet more (last bit !). There have always been some people who call me “Eddie” (one is our family friend Maria). And there are some who know me as “Ted” (old college mates). Over the years, I have tried to devise a theory to explain this, but without success.

If asked, I always say that I don’t mind and will answer to most forms of Edward.

So “what’s in a name?”. In my case, not a lot. But to some people, it is very important. Perhaps the most significant is for Jews, for whom it is a sacrilege to say God’s name, though it is known. Instead, other ways of speaking about or to the Supreme Being are used.

So perhaps I should insist on “Talented Composer” or “Your Brilliance” – I should be so lucky !