Products or Performers 

Is strict criteria in performing arts assessment at HE level creating products or performers?

‘An assessment is a consideration about someone or something and a judgement about them.’

The oxford dictionary provides the above definition of assessment, and whilst accurate, I can’t help but find the word ‘judgement’ to be particularly jarring. It is an accepted and respected fact that education should bestow far more than subject area expertise on learners. Teachers, tutors and lecturers all inevitably impose morals and values onto their students, hopefully creating compassionate, forward thinking individuals with an open mindset and a passion for accumulating new knowledge. Surely it is not unreasonable to say that in order to achieve these well-rounded outlooks, the best educators across the globe instil an understanding of the importance of not casting judgement on others. As we strive to create an inclusive learning environment, accepting of all faiths, genders, races and abilities, is there not then an irony in the strict criteria that we judge each of these individuals on in assessments?

We are assessed for almost the entirety of our lives from conception. Prenatal assessments monitor our development in the womb, postnatal assessments measure our progress by tracking our hearing, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, food intake, weight, speech…the list is endless. We are assessing newborns against well researched and unanimously agreed criteria for physical health, and predetermined criteria will continue to assess our success, or lack of, as we enter the education system. Standardised tests in mathematics and reading skills measure young learners achievements and rank them against a national average. And whilst we label these particular subjects as ‘core’ to educational development, perceived underachievement creates a sense of failure and a closed mindset in our learners from a very young age. Arguably these core subjects are accurately measurable as participants are expected to arrive at one correct answer. The same cannot be said for creative arts, and herein lies my first point of interest when addressing assessment in these areas:

The arts specialise in creating innovative and exceptionally personal products. Poetry, dance, music, fiction and numerous other art forms can incite social change, question current political structures and question engrained prejudice, and this infinite potential would suggest an immeasurable worth. When one piece of theatre boasts the possibility to both inspire and offend, how can we standardise its worth?

I teach in further education at BTEC extended diploma level, and like all educators a large majority of my learner contact time is specifically geared towards preparing them for assessment. We spend the first session of each of their eighteen units (soon to be thirteen under a new structure) addressing the very precise criteria laid out by exam body Pearson’s to achieve a pass, merit or distinction. Throughout the entirety of the unit we will consistently refer back to these criteria to ensure that every learner has a very clear understanding of the expectations they should be meeting. As the unit concludes the learners will be assessed, usually by submitting their written work, completing any practical performance elements of the unit which will be recorded and submitted along with sporadic recordings of weekly sessions to evidence participation and progress. If the unit is internally marked I will then sit with these recordings, written submissions and Pearson’s criteria and individually assess each learner. Earlier in this paragraph I mentioned the ‘very precise criteria’, and I wish to discuss these further now. Each unit will usually have four to six learning outcomes, and each learning outcome has criteria for achieving a pass, merit or distinction. The wording of these criteria is specific, yet also very much open to personal interpretation. For example, Pearson’s BTEC Level Three Unit 101: Singing Techniques for Performance, learning outcome five assessment criteria states:

‘Pass – ‘Perform a programme of songs’

Merit – ‘Perform a programme of songs competently’

Distinction – ‘Perform a programme of songs with confidence and flair’

(https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/BTEC-Nationals/Performing-Arts/2010/Specification/Unit_101_Singing_Techniques_and_Performance.pdf)

There are further paragraphs which expand on these phrases, but the wording is equally ambiguous. The elongated distinction criteria reads

‘In performance learners will demonstrate a high degree of technical ability, musicality, assurance and style.’

But so much of this is open to personal interpretation. To elaborate, a character song from a piece of contemporary musical theatre is quite likely to employ the voice quality twang, to add a certain Americanised humour to the performance. However, if a learners acting through song abilities are high, that humour can be conveyed effectively whilst singing safely using a different voice quality, but whilst one audience member may find the performance fresh and original, another may believe the absence of expected twang has removed the vocal style of the piece and therefore distinction criteria has not been met. It is also important to note at this point that a learner could achieve distinction across four of the unit’s learning outcomes, and a pass for the fifth, and the marking scheme would result in an overall pass for the entire unit. In BTEC the lowest grade is always accepted, which carries more serious concerns that will be addressed later. Is it fair then that one individuals perception of a performance directly affects a young performers final outcome in their qualification? In an ideal world it may be that my colleagues and I would mark our own units and then reflect upon each other’s given grades, watching assessment footage from an impartial viewpoint and offering an average input for discrepancies sake, but there are simply not enough hours in the week. Inevitably once I have marked all learners assessments, I will look at the grades as a whole, and begin to wonder whether the distinction I have awarded one student was really a ‘better’ performance than the merit I awarded one of their peers, and suddenly I am standardising my learners by averaging them out amongst themselves. Suddenly it seems that all personalised aspects of their performances are being levelled off as I desperately try to ensure my marking methods are ‘fair’ and ‘impartial’. During my undergraduate studies all written work was submitted anonymously through an online system, but of course I will never be able to my own students work mark completely impartially as the majority are practical assessments. Like all educators I am a human being and naturally and inevitably build relationships with my learners during their studies. As well as my lecturing role I act as ‘lead tutor’ for year one musical theatre students, which means I deal with their pastoral care and can get to know them and their family situations well. On reflection, it would be a far more preferable and impartial approach if lecturers were to mark the assessments of other staff in the department, however as a relatively small performing arts department the resources again are simply not available. For example I am the only singing specialist on the staff team, therefore it must be considered whether it is more beneficial for our learners to have staff members teaching and marking their units, rather than losing subject expertise for complete impartiality. However it does seem like this particular issue is currently being addressed as we move into the new BTEC structure this year within which a much larger number of the units are now externally assessed. This eliminates the problem of impartiality but does not deflect from the issue of personal preference in performance.

It is also important to address the ever changing face of the arts, and the diverse nature of current industry trends. By appeasing our concerns of unfair grading by comparing all learners with their peers, or past assessments, we are essentially levelling out the playing field – creating an average or a norm by which to measure each and every performer. And this is a very real concern when the arts prides itself on its multicultural, multi disciplinary and fully inclusive ethos. What is any art from if not a very personal form of self expression? And how can it then be said that we are effectively training practitioners if we are creating a standardised form that each individual must aspire to?

Of course, there are unarguably numerous benefits to assessment at FE and HE level. Learners entering further education straight from secondary at 16 years old would be understandably a little lost if their educators were to advise them there would be no formal assessment throughout their qualification. Having spent their entire educational lives working towards clearly outlined criteria the freedom of independent learning and assessment would be daunting and directionless. Even now, with both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications and having worked in structured, formal education for several years, I have struggled as a learner to adapt to the freedom of study that has accompanied my research based masters degree. There are learning criteria that I know I must demonstrate in my writing, however the lack of set essay questions threw me considerably. I would confidently begin to research and write in an area of interest and almost immediately deviate, discovering new threads of thought and tangents of ideas before rewording my given question and inevitably following the exact same cycle. Progress seemed painfully slow, and whilst I had done a wealth of reading and writing of initial and divergent musings, any movement forward was immeasurable, because I was constantly unsure of my end goal. I craved meticulously defined targets and felt disheartened by my perceived lack of progress. There is an undeniable sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment when measurable targets are met or surpassed, and this can release of endorphines can play a crucial role in a personals engagement with education. Any past time that creates a positive sense of achievement is obviously far more enjoyable than one that crates confusion and frustration. Of course, it could be argued here that learners may experience the latter negative emotions if they feel they are underachieving in assessments, or that the given criteria and targets set for them are unrealistic of their capabilities.

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Pursue a Career in the Arts

“Arts in school are a crucial ingredient in the making of UK’s creative life – one of the nation’s unique selling points. But artists, musicians, writers and actors are not born skilled,”

Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR (the exam board responsible for awarding GCSE’s, A levels etc) makes a valid point. Whilst artists may be born with a natural penchant for the creative, that given talent remains raw and unskilled without professional training. Placing value on the arts in secondary schools continues to be a grey area that I do elaborate on and research more through other articles and surveys, but this particular piece of writing will focus on the financial barriers to our wealth of top quality arts education at higher education level. Because we truly are blessed in that particular area of study in Britain. Of the worlds top ten performing arts institutions listed in 2016, five of them were in the U.K. This statistic provides an optimistic vision of a culturally rich nation boasting a vast sea of educational opportunities for the artists amongst us as they seek to better themselves, to fine tune their valuable skills with our nations elite as their mentors. And what an exceptional nation we could forge if such a premise was to materialise. Britain is exceptionally proud of it’s ethnic diversity, (just as an aside; if you found that last statement to be a little jarring, it may be well worth considering that this blog, and perhaps this entire country, is not the place for you) and the possibilities of infusing our nation’s culture with such diversity are endless. A vibrant tapestry of Western classical, international folk, traditional celtic, commercial pop, musical theatre and endless other genres of music and performance should be filling our prospectuses, allowing our conservatoires to throw open their doors to hoards of dynamic, passionate, creative learners. And it must be noted immediately that those learners will categorically not rush to their nearest job centre, freshly printed degree certificate in hand, and begin demanding your own personal, hard-earned taxes. No, no, Good Samaritan. Put your wallet away and remove your hands from your pockets. A 2015 study showed that the creative industries had moved into first place as the fastest growing economic sector in our nation, worth £76.9 billion to our economy, and responsible for almost 6% of our jobs. But the good news doesn’t end there! It is a well kept secret that arts education moulds employability across a huge range of sectors. Arts education reaches the mind, body and soul of it’s students. It encourages self assessment, creativity, organisation, dedication and a constant acceptance of constructive criticism. It creates a growth mindset and a constant need for self improvement. It is little wonder then that Steve Jobs was known to credit his international success to the actors and musicians that he entrusted as his employees. So do not fear for your taxes, dear reader, and instead take comfort from this 2015 Independent article that lists the top ten graduate employment rates from higher education, when you notice that six of them are arts institutions. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/exam-results-2015-top-10-uk-universities-where-youre-most-likely-to-get-a-graduate-job-from-10460240.html

Hurrah! I hear you cry. Join me, as we await the influx of diverse and dynamic graduates, ready to change the world as we know it with an overdue injection of culture, creativity and a bloody impressive passion for their work. 

They will not come. 

They cannot afford to. 

The Office for Fair Access states that the absolute maximum amount an educational establishment can charge in tuition fees for a full time course is £9000 per year. They’re also quick to reassure potential undergraduates that only 26% of universities in the United Kingdom actually charge the maximum amount for all of their courses. A quick Google search however, would confirm that there is a very high possibility that the majority of that percentage is our conservatoires and arts institutions. Bird College London, the Birmingham Conservatoire, Leeds College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; all esteemed providers of arts education, and all preempting yet another rise in the cost of those studies by listing all of their BA and BMus performance degrees as £9250 per year, for the duration of a three or four year course. That’s £37,000 of debt, in course fees only. The U.K. Visa and Immigration (UKVI) services require international students applying to study in London to prove that they have a monthly living allowance budget of £1265, or in other words an annual income of £15,180. Using these figures as guidance, a degree from any of London’s top arts education providers is going to cost you £97,720.

£97,720.

These jaw dropping figures are simply evidence of the continuing class divide within our performing arts education. How is it conceivable that in 2017, some of our most creative minds and potential talents are excluded from their personal possibilities because of the obscene financial barriers errected around higher education? How can it possibly be acceptable that young learners from low income households must still shape their future aspirations around their parents salaries? The arts remain an elitist enterprise, and it’s time for change.

Arts and Academia

A work in progress…

Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level

Part 1: Arts and Academia

‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’ – William Morris

From the first public address to the Trades Guild of Learning on December 4th, 1877.
The lecture was titled ‘The Decorative Arts, Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress’, and was later published under the title ‘The Lesser Arts’. As a teacher in the performing arts, the revised name of the piece rings a particularly tired and poignant bell as we relentlessly promote the numerous benefits of an education in the arts. Educators are constantly being challenged to explore imaginative and engaging pedagogy to lure the interests of their students, yet it seems the very basis of this fundamental approach to engagement, the very core of the process, creative arts itself, is still viewed as a hobby by most. Is it not possible that young adults can excel both practically and academically as they progress through performing arts education? Can it not be considered that the intrinsically valuable skills moulded in higher education can be formed with equal, if not greater, success in a naturally creative and stimulating environment? All too often I cross certain boundaries whilst gently pushing a student’s understanding of music theory, and they freeze. It becomes too mathematical, and like clockwork they laugh nervously and tell me they can’t do maths; ‘That’s why I’m a singer’, they say, and I reply that they are so much more than that. I remind them that every day they study texts in the form of song lyrics or scripts, and that they analyse the characters within them. They practise literature skills, critical thinking, empathy and compassion with every verse they read. I remind them that every day they show exceptional bravery as they convincingly mask their vulnerabilities in front of an audience. I remind them that not only must they be emotionally aware, brave and talented, but they must also possess the very same academic skills of their peers deemed more intelligent because their preference lay with predetermined core subjects. My learners write essays on Shakespearean texts, yet they tell me they’re ‘only singers’. My learners can create poetry through rap, art through movement and music that tells a thousand stories, yet a lifetime of desperate contortion to a mould they do not fit has stripped value from these gifts.

A gentle tug on the fragile thread of my learners experience quickly unravels a worrying pattern of conformation or concern throughout their secondary studies. The individual experience is almost identical, with a polyphonic chorus of frustrated voices chanting the words ‘safer options’ as they recall the advice given by school careers advisers. It is difficult to perceive any particular strand of study or employment as a foolhardy or safe pathway in our current economic environment, but the frustrations felt as a performing arts educator at the devaluing of our cultural input are surely echoed by my peers nationwide.

Sir Kenneth Robinson, an international adviser on education in the arts, stated ‘The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.’ He continues to say that the entire idea of subjects must be reassessed, focusing on a range of disciplines that prepare individuals for lifelong learning rather than memorising facts polarised by labels such as ‘core subjects’. Dr Pamela Burnard of the University of Cambridge was quick to respond, pointing out that the United Kingdom has invested millions of pounds into creative partnerships that implement initiatives in both primary and secondary schools to encourage creativity. Burnard believes that the volume of artistic input in our school system sets us far in front of our American counterparts. However, the problem does not necessarily come from a lack of opportunities to explore the arts, but rather the disconnect between the core subjects like maths or science, and the creative arts, which seem to sit at opposite ends of an unspoken spectrum of specialities. That is to say, that whilst it is a positive step to fund a day of acting or poetry workshops, the learners who have connected with the experience are again cast adrift when the methodology does not filter into the classroom on their return to their desk. This fragmented approach to the arts only conditions the belief that creativity should be enjoyed periodically, as an enjoyable pastime or a reward at the end of more serious study. Several of my learners recall being strongly advised to refrain from their extra-curricular stage schools or evening practise until their standardised exams were over. When one particularly determined performer pointed out that these sessions were helping to build an impressive personal statement for future UCAS applications, a teacher recommended the summer holidays as an ideal time to pursue such interests. One can only feel utter exasperation at the message to ambitious young learners that their preferred career progression is fitting only of their free time, whilst they must make time for a predetermined specialist subject.

A 2015 article in the Independent detailed the top ten higher education establishments graduate employment rates, and six of those named were arts institutions or conservatoires. How can it then be argued that our education system is not doing a disservice to our young adult learners when ambitions to pursue such pathways are not being nurtured?

What must be accepted in order to progress positively, is that both soft and hard skills can be developed and maintained effectively through the arts. Individuals can be both creative and academic, and seeking a career in the creative or performing arts industries is not an unsafe progression, but an impressive, challenging and valuable endeavour.

It seems that we must first consider how our current situation has evolved. Horace Mann is generally considered the driving force behind schools as we know them today. Mann implemented the creation of an organised curriculum in Massachusetts in 1837, and surrounding states quickly followed suit. By 1918 attending school was compulsory in every American state and fees to do so were abolished in Great Britain. However, this can hardly be considered the creation of education. Human beings have been educated since the dawn of their very existence. Even the most basic communications between early species were intended to pass on vital skills and information gathered as essentials to survive. This learning did not take place in group settings or fixed locations, but was tailored to individuals and delivered by their relatives and peers. The information that was passed on was instinctively decided as most relevant to the individual needs, then expanded upon throughout every generation. Surely it is fair to say that these lessons delivered within individual family units stand as some of the most valuable examples of teaching in our history. Our evolution in a harsh and dangerous climate relied solely on these teachings of brain over brawn. Our continual evolution was founded in these early stages of development and has placed us at the top the hierarchical structure of mammals not because of the brute strength often valued in the animal kingdom, but by augmenting our skills and capabilities with tools. How sad then that it was soon realised it would be far more time effective to gather a large number of adults in a room and invite one adult with specific specialties coach them in subjects that a separate group of adults have deemed vital. And as the human race continues to grow and expand, the numbers in those classes continue to multiply, inevitably producing more diverse student groups with a wide range of skill sets, being shoehorned into subjects that have been taught since 1695 in Boston Latin School: reading, writing and mathematics. And how unjust that modern curriculum fails to see the irony that individually tailored education is the reason we have evolved for millions of years prior to set curriculum.

And what a travesty that young learners entering school with a natural penchant for core subjects are never forced through the horror of complete disconnect by being pushed through an arts based subject, yet those who excel in creative outlets are tied to completing their maths and English in standardised form. This completely nonsensical pattern creates a fixed mindset in our creative learners. These children are conditioned to believe that intelligence is innate from the second they enter education, and that theirs cannot be improved because they continue to fail in the subjects on which our system places value. Psychologist Carol Dweck found in her studies that students perceptions of their own abilities drastically altered their achievement levels. In other words, our education system is setting our creative learners up to fail…for life.