17 November 2017

Assessing Music Teachers

How do we assess a music teacher?  This is an important question for parents, who with little or no musical knowledge themselves, are still eager for their children to learn music.  How do they know who the best and worst teachers are?

I happen to think that it is a marvellous thing that music education is given a very high priority in Singapore.  Julie Tan, a former chair of the Singapore Music Teachers’ Association, has said that being a music teacher is one of the most stable jobs currently on offer here.  She’s right.  History has shown that, even in the midst of major financial slumps, parents still value music education sufficiently highly to make sacrifices to ensure its continuity.  And given the absolute obsession with graded music exams here, once you start a child off at Grade 1, that child is effectively locked into lessons for the next eight years, if not longer.  With financial, legal and commercial organisations laying off staff in the path of encroaching IT advances, there is as yet no computerised alternative to the human interaction between music teacher and student.

You would have thought, then, given the centrality of music education within Singapore and the heavy involvement of government in it, a coherent and credible system of teacher assessment would have long been established.  But that is, sadly, very far from the case.  Those responsible for assessing teachers have a mind-set stuck firmly in the 1940s and 1950s when Singapore came under the colonial governance of the United Kingdom and when attitudes saw London as the ideal on which Singapore should be modelled.

It might have been right then.  It is not right now.  The UK changed its approach to training and assessing teachers decades ago; it seems as if Singapore harks back to the heady days of colonial rule and austere judgements taking no consideration of humanity of individuality.  And what is music teaching if it is not a very human interaction between individuals?

It is not just a political point; it is a qualitative issue.  Singapore actively (if accidentally) discriminates against good teachers and promotes bad ones because of its outdated and misguided approach to teacher assessment.

When I have applied for teaching jobs in other countries, I have been assessed by the knowledge, passion and communication skills I have shown in letters of application and interviews, by means of a practical demonstration, a visit by an assessor to a class I have been teaching, or, more recently (I am happy to say), by repute.  That’s not how it’s done here.

In Singapore it all boils down to an unshaking belief, held not just by parents (who would not generally be expected to know any better) and by some teachers, but most shockingly, by those in government service charged with maintaining Singapore’s educational standards, in the power, authority and musical legitimacy of a London-based organisation called the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (the ABRSM as it is largely known to Singaporeans).  Set up in colonial Britain in 1890 with the highly laudable intention of promoting “the cultivation and dissemination of the art of Music in the United Kingdom and throughout the Dominions”, the ABRSM has since grown to become a global monolith, assessing over 610,000 students worldwide every year, of which an astonishing 10% are in Singapore. 

The ABRSM did not invent the notion of the graded music exam – that idea had been mooted by another London-based organisation, Trinity College, in 1874 – but they have such a total stranglehold over graded music exams in Singapore that it has almost become a synonym; “my child’s doing her ABRSM this week”. 

In the days of the British Empire, the graded music exam served a very valuable purpose, and it still does today.  It provides a very useful framework – if not an out-and-out full curriculum – to teachers who are not good enough to devise one of their own, or imaginative enough to teach to a pupil’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.  And the sad fact is that, even today, there are hundreds and thousands of bad music teachers who exist solely on the basis of being able to follow the ABRSM syllabus and to treat it as a stand-alone teaching curriculum (which the ABRSM would be the first to say it was never designed to be). For them the ABRSM is a life-saver, giving them legitimacy which is only reinforced by a society which sees music education purely in terms of ABRSM goals.

There is also value in the exam system in helping parents identify a child’s progress in an activity with which they themselves are unacquainted but can recognise certification where they could not recognise ability.  And the pupils themselves often flourish with the incentive of an exam; dread it as they might, there is purpose when there is another step on the ladder in sight.

I spent 40 years as a music examiner, 20 of them with the ABRSM.  I had my issues with the system, of course, but I recognised the extreme good work we were doing and, for all its flaws, I am still utterly convinced that the graded music examination system has many benefits, particularly to those with limited teaching skills or unambitious musical intentions.  And it has undoubtedly opened the eyes and ears to generations who would otherwise not have been exposed to music.

The purpose of the ABRSM is to assess students.  My problem is when those in authority use the ABRSM graded examination system to assess teachers.  I have often heard stories, and met those with first hand experience of the situation, but when a student came to me the other day bearing a letter from a Singapore school I saw for the first time the appalling – I would venture to use the word catastrophic – damage being done to music education by Singapore’s single-minded obsession with the ABRSM.

This conservatory student has been one of our bright stars.  A brilliant brass player and profoundly intelligent musician, in the years to come he could realistically audition for a principal chair in any orchestra of his choosing.  Yet he has decided he does not want a career in performing, but in teaching.  I find that a wonderful thing.  Yet he has been rejected, not because he is no good but because  he never did his ABRSM Grade 5 theory.  I have the letter in front of me, signed by a civil servant in the country’s Ministry of Education and it is unequivocal:  “We would like to request for a document to certify that xxx has attained his ABRSM Grade 5 in Music Theory. We understand that based on the CV, xxx is currently pursuing a degree in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS. But due to the nature of our ITQ Specs, we will need documentation of the qualifications that he has attained with regard to the ABRSM grade.” (The irony that the Singapore government regards a qualification from a London organisation over which it has no jurisdiction regarding academic standards as more valid than one from one of its own tertiary education establishments was not lost on the student.)

Any of us who teach music theory or history in tertiary establishments know that much of our early time with new students is spent disabusing them of the ideas inculcated through ABRSM grade 5 theory.  The ABRSM grade 5 theory exam is not wrong, it is just so simplistic that it loses all relevance to the real world of professional music making.  And yet the government seems determined that teachers should not have the kind of level of advanced musical knowledge I would want and expect from any teacher educating my child, but that they revert to a simplistic set of sterile misconceptions which belong more to the 1890s than the 2010s.

In a recent class discussion, a Singapore student stated that “Singaporeans are defined by our qualifications”.  How right she was.  And until such time as those responsible for assessing teachers can find their own way of assessing Knowledge, Passion and Communication (the three key attributes to a good teacher), Singapore will remain a place where quality is seen as a bit of paper rather than as an ability, and where good teaching is turned away in preference to bad.


  1. Completely agree with your post and I might add - there are many fraud music teachers out there who charge very high rates / are able to conduct school choirs at 150SGD ++ a hour just because they have achieved an ABRSM grade 8. Apparently here in Singapore, for MANY out there, a Music Bachelors Degree, with all the years of training and performance and competitions that comes with conservatoire education, is valued less than an ABRSM Grade 8.

    1. and band conductors as well