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Exam board forced to include female composers on A-level music syllabus by teenager’s campaign

10th September 2015

A student has launched an online campaign to ensure that women are represented on Edexcel’s A-level music syllabus, which currently features 63 male composers and no female ones. Seventeen-year-old Jessy McCabe noticed the lack of female representation on the exam board’s music syllabus after participating in a programme on gender inequality.

She contacted Edexcel to make it aware of the situation, but despite the board’s insistence that the music course aims to let students “engage in and extend the appreciation of the diverse and dynamic heritage of music”, its head of music seemed reluctant to implement any changes. In response to an email from McCabe, the head of music wrote: “Given that female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition (or others for that matter), there would be very few female composers that could be included.” McCabe wrote on a petition page that such assertions were simply untrue. “Only three days earlier (8 March 2015), BBC Radio 3 managed to do a whole day of programming of female composers to honour International Women’s Day,” she wrote. “Surely, if BBC Radio 3 can play music composed by women for a whole day, Edexcel could select at least one to be part of the syllabus alongside the likes of Holborne, Haydn and Howlin’ Wolf?” She added: “This has got to change. How can we expect girls to aspire to be composers and musicians if they don’t have the opportunity to learn of any role models? How can we accept that the UK’s largest awarding body doesn’t adequately acknowledge the work of female musicians? Why are we limiting diversity in a subject which thrives on astounding breadth?” Women composers deserve much better. We apply a further sexism by giving predominant attention to those whose names are familiar from the male composers they were married or related to.

McCabe has written an open letter to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, the Ofqual executive director Ian Stockford and Pearson UK managing director Mark Anderson urging them to change next year’s syllabus “so that girls are freely able and inspired to become composers, to enrich the A-level syllabus and to ultimately ensure that women’s works are valued, as they should be”. The petition has been signed by more than 700 people to date. They include Adam Ferguson, a music professional, who wrote: “Exam boards who hide behind the excuse that there’s little historical precedent are lazy, unenlightened and should be ashamed to call themselves exam boards at all.” Lauren Redhead, a music lecturer in higher education, wrote: “I frequently observe that students know little of large bodies of music and make assumptions such as the one in the Edexcel response that women have not been involved in western art music as composers. More representative syllabi are needed to give students a rounded education.” The Guardian has contacted Edexcel for comment.

Read more on the Guardian website