A local employee of the London-based Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) confirmed Wednesday that the music testing organization has no timetable for resuming exam services in any of the four cities where it suspended operations early last week. However, he stated that the board’s Shanghai office — which was responsible for overseeing the canceled tests — would continue to operate normally.
“Our exams in Shanghai will be held as scheduled,” he told Sixth Tone in a phone interview Wednesday. “Our headquarters in the U.K. are coordinating with (China’s) cultural authorities regarding the issue.”
The employee, who requested anonymity, said that ABRSM’s Shanghai office had fielded “hundreds” of calls from affected families in the days since the suspension went into effect. When asked, he refused to comment on the reason for the officially ordered suspensions or whether they had anything to do with violations of China’s education testing regulations.
Last Monday, the ABRSM, which offers certifications in a variety of musical instruments as well as music theory to students based around the world, published a short announcement on its website stating that, “In order to comply with the law enforcement demands of local government bodies, ABRSM exams will be suspended in some Chinese cities.” On Thursday, it specified that the four impacted cities are Kunming, Chengdu, and Chongqing in southwestern China and Wuhan in central China.
ABRSM is currently permited to offer testing services at its three officially sanctioned “representative offices” in China: one each in Shanghai, Beijing, and the southern province of Guangdong. But in recent years, the board’s offices have expanded their reach to other parts of the country by partnering with music education organizations in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hubei, and other provinces to offer exams to local students.
Music proficiency exams like ABRSM’s are big business in China. According to a 2018 report, a total of 1.4 million people signed up to take a music exam in 2018, and the value of the country’s music exam preparation market was estimated at 72.8 billion yuan ($10.7 billion).
As of publication time, the hashtag “ABRSM Exams Suspended” had been viewed more than 378,000 times on microblogging platform Weibo.
In a Tuesday phone interview, Kunming-based piano teacher Wu Yin told Sixth Tone that, compared with the major domestic music exams, such as those offered by the Central Conservatory of Music or the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, ABRSM’s tests tend to be more challenging and place a greater emphasis on music theory and sight playing. And unlike those offered by the largest Chinese testing companies, ABRSM’s certificates are widely recognized outside China, especially in the U.K.
“ABRSM certificates between grades 6 and 8 can give students an advantage when they apply to universities abroad, as the scores are recognized in over 90 countries and regions,” Wu told Sixth Tone, adding that this is one reason why parents are so keen on obtaining the certificates for their children.
“It’s somewhat like the so-called art specialty students policy domestically — applicants (with the certificate) enjoy bonus points in school admissions,” she said.
Although ABRSM’s Shanghai office has been allowed to offer exam services in that city since 2009, its status remains provisional. It was not included on the Ministry of Tourism and Culture’s 2019 list of 95 organizations officially licensed to host art exams. Instead, its tests are classified as “pilot programs.”
In a Monday report published in the state-run China Newsweek magazine, an anonymous ABRSM source questioned why the organization was still being treated as a pilot in Shanghai. “The exams have remained a pilot program for so many years,” the employee was quoted as saying. “It can’t go on like this forever, can it?”
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A man teaches a child to play piano in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Feb. 27, 2014. Zhang Youqiong/VCG)