Female Composers Included In UK High School Exam For The 1st Time Thanks To This Student


Is feminism needed in high school? Thanks to the diligent research and determination of UK high school student Jessy McCabe (pictured in the light green sweater in the image above), absolutely!

We’ll get to her incredible achievement in a minute, but first let’s acknowledge that when we look at the way is talked about and taught around the world, there is a notable absence of female names. That’s why films like 2015’s ‘Suffragette’ are important.

In Sweden, every high school student will be given a copy of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ based off her popular TED Talk which was sampled by Beyonce in her ‘Flawless’ track. The hope is that it will spur discussions about gender equality, something that is of great importance from a young age.

In the UK, toward the end of 2015, the news that feminism would be taken out of the A-level syllabus caused massive outrage by women all over the country, as it the fight for women’s rights is an integral part of British history, they claimed. Thanks to a petition started by high school students and women in tech organization the Stemettes, the Department of Education did a 180 and decided to not only keep feminism in the syllabus, but expand on the women featured in various topics. The move was praised by Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker, as well as Labour’s Rupa Huq.


The power of a raised voice is undeniable, and can also be seen in the case of Jessy McCabe, a student from London, who had a problem with the fact that there were no female musicians being discussed in the A-level music syllabus. A total of 63 musical works are included in the program from a variety of genres and eras, yet not one of them included a woman composer.

During her senior year, Jessy was studying gender equality with an organization called Fearless Futures, an organization working with women and girls encouraging them to take up positions of leadership in their lives. It was during her time with FF that she started to question the (lack of) representation of women in various aspects of society. Applying this thought-process to her studies, she suddenly realized there were no women composers or musicians being studied in the A-levels, so Jessy came up with a plan to contact Edexcel, the company which is responsible for creating the British A-level syllabus, by starting an online petition.

In her correspondence with the company, Jessy says she was met with resistance to the idea that there existed enough women throughout musical history that need to be studied in order to fulfill criteria requirements for the exam.


“While it is true that female composers aren’t as well known as their male counterparts (unsurprising as women composers are rarely studied in schools), the assertion by Edexcel’s Head of Music that “there would be very few female composers that could be included [in the A-Level syllabus]” simply isn’t true. On 8th March 2015, BBC Radio 3 managed to do a whole day of programming of female composers to honour International Women’s Day. Surely, if BBC Radio 3 can play music composed by women for a whole day, Edexcel could select at least one to be a part of the syllabus alongside the likes of Holborne, Haydn and Howlin’ Wolf?” she wrote, in an expertly-written shut down.

“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 its astounding breadth?” Jessy asked, before urging readers to sign her petition which was sent to the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan (ironically also the Minister for Women and Equalities who initially backed the conservative-led government’s plan to scrap feminism from the high school syllabus), as well as the directors of the examination organizations.

With just less than 4000 signatures, it seems her determination to make change has worked, with Edexcel announcing mid-December it would include 12 female composers in the 2016 A-level music syllabus. It’s certainly no where near equal, but it’s a darn good start, thanks to Jessy seeing the need for more female role models to be included in what high school students learn.

Among the women now included, British students can expect to learn about Clara Schumann, Rachel Portman, Kate Bush, Anoushka Shankar and Kaija Saariah to name a few.


Of course, Jessy is thrilled in how she has managed to bring about change to the A-level exams.

“The syllabus is now more diverse, inclusive and representative, allowing young people across the country to engage with a greater variety of composers and works,” she told the Guardian.

Mark Anderson, Managing Director of Pearson UK who Jessy’s petition was sent to, also shared his thoughts on her efforts and acknowledged why it was important.

“We are fully committed to ensuring diversity is better reflected through our revised music A-level, which will begin to be taught in Autumn 2016. We have met with Jessy, listened to her views and are taking her feedback on board, as well as the views of other musical experts in the UK,” he said.

“We have updated our music AS and A-level specification to achieve a better balance of female and male composers. We took on board feedback from Jessy and a range of experts to ensure we found the right balance…we hope schools and students are pleased with this outcome. Jessy deserves recognition and congratulations for her successful campaign,” he continued.

In a time when there is much opposition to feminism in our global society, with plenty of pushback against the need for any type of movement for equality, it is stories like Jessy’s and her actions which prove feminism may have changed its focus throughout the years in terms of specific issues, but it is still very relevant.

We hope this will be an encouragement to all students reading this to know their voice is a powerful tool for change.




One Comment

  1. Pingback: New York's Metropolitan Opera To Produce It's 1st Female-Written Production Since 1903 - GirlTalkHQ

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