What Exams mean to Clifford Studios

First of all I want to congratulate all pupils, teachers + parents for the results achieved in Ballet, Tap + Modern in July 2016. Of 34 exams, 23 were marked as Distinction and 11 as Merit.

But what do these labels really mean? 

For Tap + Modern (ISTD), pupils that achieve 80 + out of 100 are awarded a 'Distinction' and those that achieve 60-79 out of 100 are awarded a Merit.

For Ballet (RAD), pupils that achieve 75 + out of 100 are awarded a 'Distinction' and those that achieve 55 - 74 are awarded a 'Merit'.

Why is there a difference?

Grade 1 Ballet

Grade 1 Ballet

The mere fact that there is, and that a 'Distinction' or a 'Merit' can mean different things in different genres is why I was motivated to write this post. Measuring and quantifying achievement when it comes to creative endeavour is, in my opinion, a very tricky area. If too much store is set by marks and results I fear the point of exams is missed, hence why I both love and loathe the exams we offer at Clifford Studios.


I love them because they give pupils and teachers a goal and a structure for classes. From the moment they first see the new steps, to when they perform their dance solo in the exam, pupils learn a lot more than just the syllabus.

  • They learn that they find some things difficult that their peers find easy. They then learn how to get over that and recognise their own strengths and weaknesses. 
  • They learn patience as it takes months of practise to get something right - something I think is increasingly valuable in today's insta-world.
  • They learn the value of commitment - especially when they miss a class and feel behind.
  • They learn not to give up when this happens and to work extra hard in order to catch up.
  • They learn that they sometimes have to do things they don't like - i.e. stretch - in order to be able to do the things they do like i.e. splits.
  • They learn to watch and listen - not only to their teachers but to their fellow pupils. They are required to work together in a small group and respect their partners/friends when they are dancing solo.
  • They learn to overcome fear - especially when they have to dance solo for the first time. They learn that nothing will happen if they get a step wrong - that they can just try harder next time and learn from their mistakes.
  • They learn to LOVE to dance solo and show off the skills they have spent months practising.
  • They learn empathy and to encourage others who are feeling less confident than themselves.
  • They learn to love non verbal expression and music.

And we hope that, on the day, the examiner sees all this. But of course, there are times when they can't or don't.


Examiners have 30 - 60 minutes with the pupils to give them their marks. They don't know that the pupils have rushed to classes each week from netball matches or play rehearsals, or that they have missed parties to attend extra coaching sessions. They don't know how hard one pupil has worked to improve their turns, pick ups, shuffles or split leaps. They also don't know how little some have had to work! 

If, on the day, the pupil doesn't perform to the best of their ability for some reason, does this mean that the past 3 - 4 terms of work is meaningless? I certainly don't think so. We aim to build a strong foundation of technique and practise so that nerves don't have too much of an effect but there are many other factors that can affect performance on the day.


Exam results can be skewed - by age or length of time preparing - and are certainly not the only way to determine the progress of a pupil. Comparison is also a dangerous game, unlikely to be beneficial to anyone, because so many ingredients make up the end result. 

We take exam preparation seriously as you all know - with coaching and private sessions leading up to the exams. This is because we want the pupils to achieve the results they deserve and to ENJOY the experience of taking an exam. We always talk about the exams in class, explaining that they are an opportunity to show off the work they have been doing all year and get rewarded for it. Not a judgement process to indicate who is 'good' or 'bad' at dancing.

Grade 2 Modern

Grade 2 Modern

We know the pupils enjoy the exam day itself - getting their hair done and sharing an exciting experience with their class mates. They burst out of the hall to tell us what went wrong, when so-and-so fell over and whether the examiner was smiling during their dance. 99% of the time the general consensus is - can we do it again right now please? This kind of response is why Clifford Studios enters pupils for exams - the results themselves are great tools to build on - but whether it's a Pass, Merit or Distinction doesn't matter to us.

A good set of results to us is one that accurately reflects the pupils' abilities and on the whole this is what is given. However, there are times when examiners are appealed against and there is always the matter of personal style to contend with. 


Thankfully, I have not witnessed many occasions when pupils are upset at the end of an exam, or when the results are distributed. The few times they have been, it is usually because they know they weren't as prepared as they could have been and that the exam exposed this.

We would never enter a pupil who we thought was unprepared and sometimes have to make difficult decisions NOT to allow a pupil to take part. This is because a great deal of damage can be done with a negative exam experience or result. Though, having said this, EVERYTHING is a learning experience in my opinion! 


Once all results have been distributed, we sit down with the students and discuss what each section means. We don't compare marks or force students to reveal what they were awarded unless appropriate. We hope this gives them a little more understanding of their marks and what they can build on the next time.


The exam marking criteria has already changed 3 times since I started dancing and is sure to do so again several times. I was given a hand written comments sheet, not marks out of 10, for the first few exams I took. In my teens this changed to A - E grades rather than Pass, Merit or Distinction. Now we are back to the old grading system but with no written comments. 

These changes reflect what is going on in wider society and you most likely know better than I about the way children are tested in 2016! It's great that dance and drama exams are now recognised by the national qualifications framework, but I'm sure at some point this will change as well. Which is why putting too much pressure on the results themselves is, in my opinion, dangerous.

We will continue to do exams at Clifford Studios, alternating these with performances and shows and perhaps even competitions. I believe the benefits outweigh the negatives, especially as the parameters themselves change so frequently. 


My aim with Clifford Studios and my teaching is to instil a love of dance and music in our pupils. Through dance, I want to equip them with skills that will help them in their day to day lives, whether they choose to make performing their career or not.

Lastly, it may interest you to learn that my sister - who a lot of you now know - currently runs her own design + print agency; Pirrip Press. She has exhibited her work  and undertaken residencies all over Europe and been commissioned by clients such as Orange, The Guardian and Waitrose as an illustrator. She was awarded a 'D' for her A Level Art.