‘Contextualized Admissions’: in pursuit of diversity and the widening of participation at Scotland’s national conservatoire

Music has been at the core of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s artistic milieu since its founding in 1847 as The Glasgow Athenaeum. Over the generations, as Western society has liberalized and democratized, so too has the Conservatoire’s subject and student demographics continued to diversify, socially and artistically. For example, the Conservatoire was the first Higher Education Institution in the UK to offer a Bachelors degree in Scottish traditional music in 1996, which at a stroke widened participation in higher music education to include a large, and hitherto largely neglected, artistic and socio-economic constituency (Duesenberry & Miller, 2007). In more recent years, the Conservatoire has continued to widen participation by establishing pre-Higher Education programmes that reach out to Scotland’s under-represented, including to those showing artistic potential who come from the top 20% of the Scottish Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation – that is, the Government’s method of determining which areas of Scotland are deemed to be the most economically deprived.  

Today the Conservatoire seeks, through the range of its pre-Higher Education programmes and its recruitment and admissions processes, to maintain, and continue to develop, this richly diverse learning community. It is the Conservatoire’s strongly held belief that the professions it serves will be more effective and of greater benefit to society and culture at large if their members are representative of a diverse society. 

Where these principles are reflected in admissions as institutional policy, the Conservatoire recognises that the pursuit of greater diversity in the student body requires an admissions process that is flexible and pays specific attention to the background, needs and potential of each individual applicant. This process is known at the Conservatoire as ‘Contextualized Admissions’. 

For Scottish domiciled applicants only, the Conservatoire uses contextualized data to assist in identifying talent and potential that may not be fully demonstrated through prior academic achievement or through current quality of performance. The following types of data are considered:

  • Geo-demographic: As mentioned above, we lend particular consideration to applicants who live in postcode areas with the highest levels of disadvantage in Scotland. For this purpose we check the applicant’s postcode compared with postcodes within the lowest two quintiles of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.
  • Educational background: Applicants whose pre-HE experience and achievement was at a school with pre-dominantly low attainment. For this purpose, we check the applicant’s secondary school compared with the list of Scottish secondary schools with low rates of progression to HE as defined by the Schools for Higher Education Programme.
  • ‘Widening Access’ background: Applicants who have successfully participated in a ‘widening access’ programme, or a programme that reaches out to underprivileged or under-represented constituencies: some examples in Scotland include a Conservatoire Transitions Programme, the Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS), and the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP). 
  • Care-experienced: Applicants who have experienced being raised under foster or state care. For this purpose, we look for data provided by the applicant in their application.

Non-Standard Entry

The Conservatoire’s Contextualized Admissions process can culminate in the offer of a place to an applicant who does not, or cannot, meet the minimum academic requirements for entry to a particular Conservatoire programme, but whose musical talents and potential, on the basis of the range of assessments made during the application and audition process, are sufficient to cope with the demands of the programme. In these instances, an applicant may be recommended to a committee imbued with the appropriate authority under ‘Non-Standard Entry’. The Conservatoire may then waive the minimum academic entrance requirements either completely or conditionally upon further appropriate assessment being satisfied. The relevant Head of Department or Programme is required to vouch for the applicant’s prior learning and comparable achievement, which is submitted for approval. 

Contextualized Admissions and the process for ‘Non-Standard Entry’ provides an institutional framework within which the Conservatoire can consider the whole person upon application. This is useful in reference to those socio-economically under-represented in higher music education. In the experience of the Scottish Traditional Music department specifically, this framework is especially useful when considering those who have been homeschooled in remote Highland or Border regions, and whose formal academic achievements may not truly reflect their artistic training to date, their achievements or their potential in the largely non-formal sector in question.  

The deferring of theory testing 

In keeping with the principle that our admissions process(es) should consider the whole person, and thereby that auditions processes should be tailored to the unique characteristics and needs of each programme and the kind of applicants each hopes to attract, the Royal Conservatoire’s music performance programmes do not require the applicant to undertake a music theory test at the point of audition. For the traditional/folk music applicant, it is especially important that selection not be based on a pre-existing knowledge of western art music theory, which, whilst certainly applicable, is often not the language through which such otherwise highly-skilled young musicians tend to communicate with each other. 

For successful applicants in any music discipline, selection depends rather on the strength of the applicant’s Principal Study discipline at audition in combination with the range of contextual, personal, academic and non-academic factors outlined above. Incoming students then sit a music theory test during their first week at the Conservatoire – purely as a diagnostic tool to determine the most appropriate level of seminar group for the student in question. For traditional/folk students, this theory test is written entirely from a Scottish traditional/folk perspective that reflects the modern cosmology of Celtic forms and structures (melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and ornamental) and notational practices within which practitioners communicate and collaborate. 

These admissions processes, founded on the pursuit of diversity and the widening of participation to the fullest possible range of Scottish society, has made a real difference in the lives of aspiring musicians, whether from the point of view of Western art music, jazz, or the vibrant traditional/folk scene for which Scotland is rightly renowned. 


This article is a part of our ongoing series entitled How are ‘diverse cultures’ integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other posts in the series can be found here.

Works cited

Duesenberry, P & J Miller (2007) ‘Where are they now? The first graduates of the BA Scottish Music’, paper delivered at HEA Palatine True North: Teaching the Music of the Highlands and Islands in Higher Education conference, 2007  (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/where-are-they-now-first-graduates-ba-scottish-music-degree

Transitions: Widening Participation in Higher Education at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (https://www.rcs.ac.uk/about_us/transitions-2040) Widening Access to the Creative Industries, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (https://www.rcs.ac.uk/about_us/widening-access-creative-industries)

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