Jessy McCabe - Music: a niche subject?

Jessy McCabe - Music: a niche subject?

Jessy McCabe writes about an important and under-discussed topic: curriculum diversity in Music A level syllabi in the UK. As an A-level student herself, she noticed that Edexcel's music syllabus featured over 60 male composers and no female composers at all, and decided to launch a petition to change this. This petition received almost 4,000 signature and in response, Edexcel modified their syllabus to include works by female composers. Now a Music student at the University of Oxford, Jessy explores the lack of diversity in music education on several different levels...

There is a dichotomy in musical practice. On the one hand, music is a popular cultural form that most, if not all, people encounter in some form every day. Yet, as an academic subject, music is highly exclusive, accounting for less than 1% of A Level entries nationally. Music also stands out from other performing arts in terms of gender. Boys make up a mere 10.23% of all candidates in expressive arts A Level subjects, and yet in music, boys consistently outnumber girls, accounting for 55% of entrants in 2015-16.

It is easy to claim exact numbers vary from year to year and ‘5% here or there’ really isn’t something to be concerned about. Or is it? This ‘5% here or there’ is only the starting point for a funneling effect that only continues to narrow as one progresses through education. In the 2016 UCAS application cycle, women made up 36.8% of all acceptances to study music at university, and between 2013-15 female candidates applying to Oxford University had a 13% lower acceptance rate than their male counterparts. At PhD Level, a mere 15.8% of all students studying music in America in 2011 were women, the lowest representation of women in all subjects according to a study made in 2015.

This ‘5% here or there’ is now starting to seem significant. Academic music cannot be, like anything, just exclusive on grounds of gender. In the 2015 UCAS cycle, only 11.8% of students applying to study Music identified as BME. This is only 1% less than the percentage of BME citizens nationally – surely this isn’t something to be concerned about? While this is true, this percentage is a significant under-representation of the 23.8% of school-aged students who identify as BME. Again, the funneling effect occurs here as not a single PhD in a field of music was undertaken by an African American in 2011. It would be easy to list further facts regarding other forms of discrimination that are reflective of the statistics already uncovered. Of course, this is significant as a person is not a single identity and thus can be affected by multiple forms of discrimination.

Financial reasons are evidently contributing. However, the lack of profound progress in increasing diversity in academic music by the likes of Music Education Hubs, for example, suggests that other factors are at play. The lack of diversity in the A Level Music curriculum is reflective of the lack of diversity in the student body currently taking the subject. Looking at the 2008 specifications from the five UK exam boards, due to expire this year, it is evident that it is entirely possible to study A Level Music without encountering a single work by a female composer. The most popular exam board, Edexcel, features no female composers on their list of 63 set works. Depending on a school’s selection of units, it is possible for students studying with AQA to only learn about white male composers. This is also true for WJEC and CCEA. OCR are the only exam board to include a woman of colour in their specification: Norah Jones. We know there is a problem when one named women of colour out of 26 composers is cause for celebration.

Due to cultural norms, it is necessary for the Department for Education and Ofqual to encourage exam boards to select a diverse range of set works and suggested composers: a comply or explain policy. Yet, they show hesitancy and reluctance. One respondent to the DfE’s consultation on GCSE and A Level subject content critically noted: 'the implicit bias towards works by European male composers and performers is a misrepresentation of musical history and an unnecessary political intervention that will have a negative impact upon the perception of "classical' music".' The DfE responded by claiming to acknowledge the significance of this criticism by referring to a guideline already in place before the consultation, and merely extending their date range of the compulsory western classical area of study to 1650-1910. The inadequacy of these so-called ‘actions’ is reflected by the new A Level specifications, for which teaching first began in September 2016. With AQA, women, three of whom are women of colour, now feature on the syllabus, but they are still optional to study, as with WJEC and WJEC Eduqas. OCR once again are sticking to their representation of one woman, Ella Fitzgerald; however, her set work is only compulsory in 2018. CCEA altered this sentence from their 2008 specification - '[students should have the opportunity to] respond to both familiar and unfamiliar music' - to now include 'by a range of composers, both male and female' tagged on at the end. This is rather ironic considering they are the only exam board of the four discussed so far to not include even an optional female composer. Progress has been made with Edexcel, who now feature women in 5/6 of their areas of study. However, this progress was down to the support of almost 4,000 signatories to a petition started by my 17-year-old self, not Ofqual or DfE intervention. This lack of intervention has resulted in the continuation of white, male emphasis in 80% of exam boards.

A key concept linking the exclusivity of the current canon and curriculum with the lack of A Level Music uptake is the view of music students and composers as ‘intrinsically musical’. This is clearly problematic. As evidenced in several studies, there is a distinct link between subjects where it is a commonly held belief that students are required to be innately ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ and the under-representation of women and African Americans - groups whose intellect is negatively stereotyped - in those subjects.  It is important to note that ‘genius’ or inherent abilities are not required for the study of music. Only 4% of the population are thought to be congenital amusics and even so this does not prevent them from detecting pitch differences, for example; it merely affects their process of production. Considering proficiency in ‘singing in tune’ is not a requirement of academic music study, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Therefore, it is necessary to emphatically eliminate these ideals. Diversifying the curriculum is not the only action that needs to be taken – this is a massive issue! But it is one, rather simple, step that needs to be taken to begin moving away from music as a niche, specialised subject, both in terms of content and student body.

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