Judith Robinson

Issue: February 2016

Marking music: the assessment of A-Level composition

3:36, 24th February 2016

Sound and Music’s Judith Robinson responds to the latest research into the assessment of composing in A-Level Music

 In November, ISM published Music A-Level Assessment of Composing – Research into Teacher Attitudes by Kirsty Devaney and Martin Fautley. The paper raises a number of concerns over the assessment of composition at A-level, revealing that over 90% of surveyed music teachers have experienced inconsistent assessment of A-level compositions and that many highly talented young composers are not being given marks that reflect their abilities. Teachers also reported that pastiche compositions seemed to be favoured over pieces that show originality.

As the national charity for new music, Sound and Music has a focus on the support of composers at all stages of development, and we are concerned by these findings. Creativity in the music curriculum matters for many reasons including; the deeper understanding of music that results; the advanced thought processes it facilitates; the resilience and self-esteem fostered in pupils; the need for creative thinkers to support economic development in all fields; and because the creation of new, vibrant music is a sign of a creative and fulfilled society comprising creative, fulfilled individuals.

Alumni from Sound and Music’s Summer School for young composers, the UK’s only such course and a haven for spotting and nurturing potential, confirm some incredible A-level results. Hannah got an E for her A-level composition in the year she won the BBC Inspire competition; Nathaniel’s winning Inspire composition was awarded a C; Rosie, who graduated with a first in composition from a UK conservatoire, got two Us for her A-level compositions.

David was ‘completely distraught’ by an unexpectedly low grade. ‘When composing is your thing, it’s heart-breaking. Identifying as a composer is rare at our age, it’s already difficult to be taken seriously … my family questioned whether I should pursue composition.’ Georgia, who got a scholarship to a conservatoire to study composition despite a poor grade at AS-Level says, ‘I could be teaching A-Level composition and I wouldn’t want to take it on.’

Fortunately, these young people had the support, confidence and motivation to stick at composing. But how do these kinds of results affect those who have talent and potential but don’t get the necessary support? Or who conclude they don’t have talent and potential because that’s what the examination system tells them? Or whose teachers could help them fulfil their potential, were it not for a system that encourages pastiche, so teachers don’t encourage pupils to make the ‘creative leaps’ of which they are capable.

Devaney and Fautley’s recommendations include better access to exemplar materials, improved feedback and training, and a suggestion that teachers could be more involved in the assessment process, something which does happen in at A-level Art. Also in A-level Art, for a pupil to receive a high grade in his or her final piece of work, there has to be evidence of the student adding something extra that comes from their own creative self (Edexcel call it a ‘personal and meaningful response’). This concept seems to be well understood within the art teaching community, which also appears to have confidence in their assessment system.

Most importantly, however, there needs to be a better understanding of composing as a creative process by everyone involved; a process that involves taking risks and experimentation and where pupils improve the more they do it. ‘Listen Imagine Compose’ (a partnership project between Sound and Music, Martin Fautley at BCU, and BCMG) examines how composing is taught and learned in secondary schools through action projects and a series of symposia. Through harnessing the skills of both teachers and composers, this is making a significant contribution to teachers’ ability and confidence to work with their pupils to develop composing skills and understanding.

The development of creative processes in the classroom that reflect how ‘real’ composers work needs to be supported by an examination system that rewards pupils who make that ‘creative leap’. Key to this are assessors who understand composing as a creative process and are confident and/or specialist composers themselves, so that the criteria are interpreted and applied consistently, and so that the creative voice of especially talented pupils can be recognised and rewarded.

We hope that Sound and Music has contributed to the ongoing debate. We look forward to seeing progress towards the goal of assessing A-level compositions fairly and rewarding the most talented young composers.

The original research can be found the ISM website, www.ism.org

 Judith Robinson is the creative project leader (education) at Sound and Music.


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