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In an era when music students can study a whole range of genres and disciplines it’s easy to forget that in the not too distant past, the only grades system available in the UK was in classical music. Similarly, the only colleges offering music courses were those dedicated to classical music.

Much has changed. Music students in the UK now have access to a wealth of courses and qualifications across a diverse range of genres and disciplines. This shift owes much to the endeavours of Rockschool, the first exam board to offer graded exams for pop and rock musicians that have parity with the classical grading system. 

Rockschool, or RSL as it has since been rebranded, was launched in 1991 by Norton York, a musician, music education innovator and long-term MU member, who saw a need for a grading system that encompassed musicians in the pop and rock fields. Three decades on from its creation, this exam board occupies a prominent space in the music education marketplace.

Meeting a need: the first pop music courses 

York was a 23-yr-old trombonist and PhD music student at the University of Sussex when the idea of music qualifications for pop music first occurred to him. 

“I was playing with loads of musicians who wanted to go to university and study pop music and weren’t allowed to because of the style of music or the instrument they played,” he says.

It was 1988 and York decided to hold a pop music summer school  on the University of Sussex campus. 

He contacted his local MU branch for help and was put in touch with promoter, writer, activist and MU Official Brian Blaine, who managed a fund for investment in live music and education. Blaine helped York make an application and also referred him on to future MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge, who was running A&R demo panels and music business seminars for MU members.

Norton York
Norton York saw a need for music qualifications that catered to pop and rock musicians. 

The event was called Brighton Rock and was sponsored by the MU and the University of Sussex. It ran for a week in the summer of 1988. “We did instrument sessions in the morning, specialist music technology and arranging for horns sessions in the afternoon, playing in bands in the late afternoon, music business seminars in the evening, then we did a gig. And that was pretty much the first of its kind.” 

Teachers at the event included guitarists Dierdre Cartwright and John Etheridge, bassist Henry Thomas, as well as Alan Limbrick, Rob Burns and Francis Seriau who respectively founded the Guitar Institute, Bass Tech and Drum Tech.  These colleges would later be encompassed as the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP)

“All those people were part of a little movement and really changed the landscape of music education. What’s really important to say is that the Musicians’ Union were instrumental in fostering the talent and giving an opportunity to people like me and people like Alan and Rob Burns and all those people who started these music colleges.” 

Creating exams for contemporary pop musicians

In 1989, York set up a pop foundation course at the West London Institute and in 1991 founded a commercial music department at the University of Westminster. That same year, he founded Rockschool, an exam board offering the first grade exams in guitar, bass and drums.

The reason I started Rockschool was that the parents of the students were phoning me up and saying ‘We can’t get a grant because you have to do an audition for your local music advisor. The criteria for getting the audition is grade 8 and grade 8 doesn’t exist.

Rockschool created a unique set of products for a brand-new marketplace: recognised, graded qualifications for contemporary musicians. The traditional instruments for performing in a rock band – electric guitar, bass guitar and drums – were included in the original graded examinations. After the initial success with these instruments, the company developed syllabi in acoustic guitar, vocals, piano and keyboards, ukulele, contemporary music theory and the world’s first music production syllabus.

Many students in the early 90s were eligible for a grant from their local authority. But students studying pop or rock instruments such as electric guitar, bass and drums were unable to meet the criteria required for a grant.

“The reason I started Rockschool was that the parents of the students were phoning me up and saying ‘We can’t get a grant because you have to do an audition for your local music advisor. The criteria for getting the audition is grade 8. And grade 8 doesn’t exist’. None of the Victorian-era exam boards recognised that style of music.” 

Recruiting the music teachers

When it came to recruiting teachers for the new Rockschool exam board, York turned to those same musicians who had worked on the Brighton Rock summer school, such as Deirdre Cartwright, Henry Thomas, Alan Limbrick, Rob Burns, Francis Seriau and John Etheridge. “John wrote a brilliant funk tune for the Grade 8,” he notes. “We got some really good musicians.”

He credits these teachers for co-writing the syllabus with him and for recognising its intrinsic value from the start.

We examine based on what we believe is valuable in the art. We really believe the art has to come first. If the way that the performer performs that track is convincing and appealing in its style and interpretation, that trumps any other element to the judgement.

The traditional 1 to 8 classical grade system can be traced back to 1877 when Trinity College London first started issuing certificates to external students using this gauge. Adapting this system into a contemporary pop context was no mean feat. But York and his colleagues were driven by a whole new set of parameters.

“We examine based on what we believe is valuable in the art,” he says. “We really believe the art has to come first…Our examiners have a set of criteria that they operate with. And the first one is that they listen to the musical performance and they listen to it in terms of the style of the performer. And if the way that the performer performs that track is convincing and appealing in its style and interpretation, that trumps any other element to the judgement.”

York stresses that RSL examiners do not prescribe how a piece should be played. They judge the sound that people make, not the way that they make it. We judge how they convey their artistry and if that means they don’t play all the notes in the tune exactly as it’s written, if it’s artistically convincing, then that trumps the written. When I said to you before that the art comes first. That’s really the essence and heart.” 

How vocational qualifications have soared

In the last decade, Rockschool has rebranded as RSL Awards and developed a whole range of vocational qualifications (VQs) across music, performing arts and digital media, which are delivered in over 600 schools and colleges in the UK. Colleges that use RSL Awards qualifications include the BRIT School and BIMM Institute. RSL has also moved into providing school-based curriculum subjects at Key stage 4 – GCSE equivalent – and Key Stage 5 – A-Level equivalent. 

Since the 90s, there has been a steady rise in the numbers of students taking the more practical VQ courses, and a decline in students taking GCSE and A-level music – fuelled by the government’s sustained commitment to its English Baccalaureat (Ebacc) agenda. 

The first VQ music courses were offered in 1994 and the uptake that year was 83 students. Since then, the numbers have soared. There are now four main providers of VQs in the UK and figures for 2021 show that 32,330 VQs were taken. There are four main providers: BTECs by Pearson (17,170); RSL (8,530); UAL (4,725); and NCFE (1,905).

In an interview with TES in 26 May 2023, York said this growth had been something of a “quiet revolution” in education, with providers recognising that practical, pop music-orientated courses based on instrumentation, songwriting, production, performance and more are meeting a demand not previously met.

In his 2021 book entitled Pop Music Education In The UK 1960-2020, York highlights that VQs now represent 44.4% of all music qualifications in the UK. These are equivalent to BTEC and UAL qualifications, he says.

Going global: how RSL has grown

Over three decades since its launch, RSL has grown to 150 examiners across 60 countries. South-east Asia and mainland China are particularly strong markets, says York, and the company is seeing growth in countries such as Spain and Greece. 

The company is now launching its first ever horn syllabus for trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor sax. It has also broadened out the syllabi to encompass classical piano and violin. “We did it because we wanted to show the world that you can have diverse syllabi.” 

In 2018, RSL won the Queen’s Award for export. “Which is quite a hard thing [to do] as we’re not a huge business,” says York. “So our country should be proud of our creative sector and especially our music and our top music is world beating when we get it right… But are we getting as much help as our government could give us? I don’t think so.”

Work opportunities for MU members

York is proud of the fact that RSL managed to keep all of its examiners in work during the COVID pandemic. “We already had the technology as we needed the technology for VQ to upload work. We just adapted it for grade exams. It meant our teachers could teach and our students could learn.” 

RSL is now proactively recruiting music teachers and York is keen to attract MU members who teach into the workforce. 

“What I’d like to say to MU members is that we are an organisation always looking for new examiners. So if you are interested in working in rock and pop examining then we are someone to think about. We have a teachers registry, which advertises who the teachers are. We regard teachers as partners and we want to help them. We are also the only exam board still run by musicians.“

Interested in working for RSL?

If you are a music teacher and interested in working for RSL visit rslawards.com/careers

Photo ofNeil Crossley
Thanks to

Neil Crossley

A journalist and editor who has written for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Financial Times. Neil also fronts the band Furlined.

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