News‎ > ‎

Changes to ABRSM theory exams

posted 25 Jul 2020, 00:31 by Catherine Jennaway   [ updated 25 Jul 2020, 00:31 ]

Dear everyone

 Sorry, this is LONG.  But it's important.

 I'm writing to tell you about the change to the ABRSM's theory examinations at grades 1 -5, which has been introduced in the last couple of weeks.  You can find out more information for yourself at  but here is my view on the situation.

Also, please feel free to share this information with any other instrumental teachers you may work with, as I am sure they will have their own views on the subject.



ABRSM has offered grades 1-8 theory exams for many years, complementing the practical exams.  A pass at grade 5 theory is a prerequisite to access ABRSM's higher grades (6-8) of practical exams.

Until now, the theory exams have been a traditional written exam paper, taken either in a school or a public exam centre, with invigilators in the room observing the candidates as they write their scripts.  Grades 1-3 are a 90 minute exam, grades 4 and 5 a 2 hour exam and grades 6 to 8 a 3 hour exam.   The exam is held once a term, and there is no flexibility over when that will occur, it is a given for every candidate in the UK.

ABRSM have for some time been considering a move to online examinations for grades 1-5. 

With the Covid-19 crisis making it impossible to hold written exams at present, they decided to announce the change, going public with the information on 15th July.  There will be an online exam session for Grade 5 only at the end of August, after which the November session, and all subsequent sessions, for all theory grades 1-5 will be online, on the date originally planned.

Entries for the August grade 5 exam session open on Monday 27th July and close on Friday 31st July.  The exam itself will be at 5pm on Wednesday 26th August.


ABRSM will NOT be holding any more written theory exams at grade 1 to 5.


The online exams

ABRSM will be using something called a remotely-proctored exam system.  They have contracted with an American firm called PSI who will be running the exams for them.

Exams can be taken on any suitable equipment, in any suitable location.  At present the exam still has to be on the specified exam day and time, but the ABRSM hope they should be able to offer more exam slots than the current 3 a year.

The equipment

The exam is taken by downloading the exam company's software onto either a desktop or laptop computer, which the candidate, parent or school must provide.  The software can't be used on tablets or smartphones.  The computer used must be either a Windows or an Apple machine, and must have a webcam. 

The webcam is used by PSI before the exam starts to take a slow survey of the room in which the exam is taking place, to ensure there are no books, or pre-printed or written materials in the area, nor should there be smartphones or tablets. The webcam is then used to observe and video record the candidate throughout the exam.  If there is no webcam, then the candidate is disqualified from the exam.

The downloaded software can detect, among other things, whether there is more than one screen attached to the computer - in which case the additional screen must be removed - and whether the candidate attempts to print screen, copy and paste, open any other programme on the computer.  If the software fails to download, the candidate is disqualified from the exam.

The exam then proceeds online, requiring a steady and unbroken internet connection.  Any break in the connection must be re-established within the exam time, or the candidate will only be marked on the work already submitted.

Exam questions will cover the same syllabus as the old written exams, with one small difference, but will be of a different format, as the answers will have to be entered by either keyboard or mouse.  Many of the questions will be multiple choice rather than long constructed answers.  There is no indication yet as to whether it will be possible to answer questions in any order or whether one will have to proceed through the exam in one sweep.

The mark scheme will change, with the maximum mark possible being 75, and a pass mark of 50.

The online nature of the exams means they will be marked automatically, but results will not be made available until the videos of all candidates' exams have been reviewed.


The exam location

Exams can be taken alone at home or in a group in school, provided students are seated so that they cannot see each other or anyone else's computer. 

Whichever venue is used, the exam area is required to be be quiet, uncluttered and undisturbed for the entirety of the exam time.  And, as has been mentioned in passing above, there must be nothing in the area that shows any musical information or depictions of any keyboard or other instrument. 

Obviously every candidate must have their own computer, so if, for example, siblings want to take the exam at home on the same day, sufficient technology must be available for everyone, and the candidates must be separated.


I have a number of concerns with this new exam regime.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of candidates being remotely observed during the exam.  I cannot see how this appropriate for safeguarding reasons.  I have further discomfort about the recording of candidates in exams.

I am also deeply uncomfortable with the requirement that every family should obtain a suitable laptop for each family member taking the exam, and the need for a sufficiently fast and stable broadband connection.  These will exclude less affluent families from the exam opportunity, and therefore also from the higher grades of practical exams.

I also dislike the idea of being required to download unknown software onto a computer.  There has been no opportunity for candidates, teachers or parents to view the software before the change was introduced, or to see how effectively it can be uninstalled.  That dislike is intensified by the awareness that the software in question has the capability to detect hardware and running software, and to detect keystrokes.  This strikes me as a major breach of the General Data Protection Rules.

I also am very concerned at the rushed way the ABRSM have announced the change.  There was a little over two weeks between the announcement of the exam format and the closing date for entries, and there has so far only been one brief document of sample questions (in PDF format, not as they will appear on the exam itself) on the ABRSM website.

I have expressed these concerns, and other lesser ones, to ABRSM.  I have done this both by e-mailing them directly, and by participating in discussions on social media.  Their answers have not allayed my concerns yet.


I have been invited by the European Piano Teachers Association to participate in a webinar on the topic of online theory exams, which will happen on Wednesday 29th July.  I will post a link to the youtube video of the webinar afterwards.


Options we have

There are options we can explore regarding the need for grade 5 theory to do higher exams.

First, the other major exam boards (Trinity and LCM) in the UK are still offering paper exams, and these are recognised by ABRSM as being equivalent to their own exams.  They therefore carry the same access to the higher grades.  The reason I haven't used these in the past is simply logistical - they have fewer exam centres across the UK so it's a bigger time commitment to sit the paper.

Second, the other Ofqual-acredited exam boards (including Trinity, LCM, MTB and Rockschool) do not require the theory qualification to enter their higher grade exams. They still confer the same UCAS points for those who need them. I have used Trinity, Rockschool and LCM before, and am happy to consider their exams again in future.  ABRSM is the system I know best, and that is why I have used that as my first choice of exams, but I am open to changes as necessary.

Finally, you may still wish to do the ABRSM theory exams in this new format.  I will, of course, always support such decisions and will help anyone who wants to take the exams to do so.  But at the moment I will do this with some considerable concern.