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Prestige - does it matter?

The pandemic has accelerated change in almost all walks of life, and music education is no exception. The release of the new ABRSM Piano syllabus has coincided with massive changes in the delivery of their practical and theory exams, which has been met with mixed responses from piano teachers, parents and pupils. In a recent discussion on an online forum, the “prestige” of ABRSM was cited as a significant reason for continuing with their examinations. This issue really struck a chord with me and left me feeling uncomfortable, and for the last few days I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

The Oxford Dictionary defines prestige as “widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.”

Is prestige a good thing? Does it confer any benefits in real terms to users? Does it benefit the majority, or a privileged few? These questions made me reflect on my own educational experiences, and the impact of prestige in my own development. Growing up in a working-class family (not poor, but certainly not “well-off”), prestige was something my parents valued enormously as they felt it would give their children better opportunities. However, the last few days I realise it has been something I have come to resent.

Looking back, opportunities that I would have loved to participate in were closed off to me either due to finances or resources, or by attitudes I found alienating. My own teacher was both understanding and generous, understanding that my parents could not afford the longer lessons that were required as I moved up the grades, but giving me that time anyway. I was lucky.

This was all three decades ago. But in 2020, should prestige even be a consideration in the education of our young people? The definition above clearly states that prestige is a “feeling” based on “perceptions”. Are these feelings and perceptions useful, and if so, to whom? I will hold my hands up and confess that I have always entered pupils for the ABRSM exams because they are considered to be the most respected exam board, and I’ve never experienced any dissatisfaction with them. But like many teachers, the pandemic has blown the situation wide open and we’ve been forced to consider alternatives. I am viewing this as an opportunity to look at how I use exams, which exams I will use (if any) and what benefits the experience of preparing for and taking an exam will provide my pupils.

I’ve been considering these issues for weeks. I had ABRSM exams cancelled as we went into lockdown, and pupils fully prepared with “nothing to show for it”. (I actually hate to say that, as they had beautiful music at their fingertips which is far more important than any piece of paper). I waited. I considered using MTB exams. I doubted MTB (if I’m honest, I didn’t consider them “prestigious”). I reconsidered MTB and used my own children as guinea-pigs and found preparing the extra requirements challenging (in a good way) and worthwhile. The whole thing was positive and I’m glad I did it. Do I miss the prestige?........

I honestly have no answers. Other teachers I have spoken to have been disrespectful about boards such as MTB and LCM. It annoys me, but it gets under my skin in a way that makes me KNOW that perhaps, as much as I hate it, I am sensitive to the “prestige factor” in spite of myself. My next step is to purchase the Trinity Syllabus and get to grips with it. Pre-pandemic, I had looked at LCM and loved the books but there was no exam centre nearby. I’m guessing the future of online exams means this will no longer be a problem, so I will probably look at them too.

The other issue is the big changes that ABRSM have made, which bring them closer to the other exam boards. If they aren’t so different anymore should their “prestige”, assuming we value that, not be a thing of the past?

So there it is. I dislike the thought of making a choice driven by prestige, but in all honesty, it does still seem to have a hold over me. I can’t decide if it is like the memory of an old school bully sending shivers down my spine, or like a comfort blanket that is safe and familiar. Either way, the challenges and changes wrought by the pandemic have made me determined to make informed decisions based on what is best for my pupils, and most importantly, continue to be open to change.

The organisation/communication from exam boards has been “done to death” lately so let’s not give it another go here. I’m really hoping this post will prompt a discussion about how we as music teachers view the issue of prestige, and if/how it impacts on our decisions and on our pupils’ musical education.


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