Press release from EPTA UK about online theory exams: Open letter to Penny Milsom, Executive Director ABRSM

EPTA UK has been concerned to receive numerous messages from distressed teachers about problems that occurred during the grade 5 ABRSM online theory exam on 26 August. We have a duty of care to our members and want to support and help them all.  Online theory has been a source of worry to many of them over much of the summer.  We arranged an emergency webinar on this subject last month as a response to the large number of messages received. It is still available on YouTube:
We now wish to give feedback to ABRSM about the many concerns that our members currently feel. ABRSM did issue a question and answer response after complaints were raised last week, but sadly many of our members feel that this did not go nearly far enough to reflect the level of remorse needed after so much distress. Here is the letter sent to Penny on behalf of EPTA UK today, 31 August 2020

Dear Penny

I am writing to you as chair of EPTA UK to express deep concern about the recent ABRSM grade 5 online theory exam.  It was a pleasure to invite Mervyn and yourself to our emergency webinar last month which was scheduled because of the concern felt by our members. During the webinar teachers and parents raised further concerns. Despite reassurances you gave these concerns have now sadly proved justified.
Whilst there were candidates who had a positive experience with the exam last week and whilst we do appreciate that it must have been extremely challenging for ABRSM to organise online theory for the first time, we cannot ignore the fact that many children, parents, families  and teachers were very upset by problems that occurred on Wednesday and had very unpleasant experiences during the exam. 

We heard so many tales of woe from our members.  As teachers they entered their pupils for this exam in all good faith.  Space forbids a detailed outline of even a fraction of the issues, but it is worth mentioning than many were unaware that there could be substantial delays in getting on to the online system.  We heard about children in tears, parents angrily ringing teachers asking why they entered their children for ‘incompetent’ exams, and even stories of children as young as ten years of age hyperventilating. One candidate was wandering around the family home desperately trying to get a strong Wi-Fi signal, ending up next to the cooker in the kitchen- and forcing the family to have no evening meal as a result until after the exam had finished! 

When dealing with children and with parents who are naturally concerned for their offspring, special sensitivity and extra care always must be taken.   I think we would all agree that if even one child is distressed and deeply unhappy, then that is unacceptable.    When dealing with children, it is not good enough to talk about 'averages', as many organisations do, especially when reacting to the results of surveys. 

EPTA UK acknowledges that ABRSM issued a question and answer response after numerous complaints were raised last week, but a number of our members have already contacted us as they feel this response did not go nearly far enough to reflect the level of remorse needed after so much distress was caused to so many.  As chair of EPTA UK I have to say that the tone adopted in this response did not display the empathy and care to teachers, their students and parents that would surely be expected from a board associated with the Royal Schools of Music.  Budding musicians and young people are precious, their teachers invaluable and parental support is essential for the health of music education in the future. When the arts are in such a delicate state, far greater sensitivity and care must surely be taken. 

From the outsider’s point of view, it would appear obvious that there are just too many variables involved in an online theory exam of this scale for universal smooth delivery to be guaranteed  It is not like doing your online driving test (i.e. going to a centre where there is guaranteed strong broadband).  

It would be wonderful if you could consider how to bring greater positivity to this situation as a matter of urgency.  EPTA UK is more than happy to be a part of a consultation process to enable ABRSM to deliver these exams online more effectively.  A handwritten exam could be offered as an (ongoing) alternative for those who prefer it. Centres such as the Pearson Vue ones could conceivably be used as venues for the exams - there are 5,600 locations worldwide, situated in nearly 200 countries, hosting exams of many different types throughout the year. This might go some way towards levelling out the playing field. 

As mentioned, EPTA UK is very willing to help moves towards an improvement in this situation. We want to offer wholehearted support and look forward to hearing from you.

With best wishes


Murray McLachlan, Chair EPTA UK