I don’t believe that there is a group of men sitting in the offices of the exam boards saying to themselves ‘how can we exclude women?’. On the other hand, when you see that Edexcel’s Music A Level, as highlighted by Jessy McCabe, has 63 composers, all male, including Howling Wolf, but found room for not one woman, not even Bessie Smith or Billie Holliday, or Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music, let alone much older ones like Hildegard of Bingen, you start to feel that there is a ‘default to men’ wired in to so many of our organisations. Women are excluded, not deliberately, but thoughtlessly.
It really seems to be a case of ‘His-story vs Her-story’ when it comes to women and the secondary curriculum. It’s not just in music where we see a dearth of women. In science, history, art and literature, women continue to be notable by their absence, despite the fact there have been female pioneers in all these areas.
When you look at art, music and literature, you have to acknowledge that women came to the party late. Nevertheless, by the early nineteenth century, the novel – an art form which women like Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte could write in the privacy of their homes – was coming to the fore. The first art school for women opened in 1855, only 17 years before our GDST schools started. Now look at the astonishing flowering of women artists in the 20th century, from Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe to Gwen John and Bridget Riley.
So the historic context is no excuse for excluding women from the curriculum now. In fact, their success in worlds previously and almost exclusively dominated by men should be celebrated as a means of inspiring future generations.
But women’s voices still struggle to be heard.
For example, part 3 of OCR’s English Literature A Level syllabus lists 45 suggested texts written after 1900 – a period of fantastic flourishing for women writers – and only eight (or 17%) of these texts are by women. You only have to look at the Bailey’s/Orange Prize winners for the last ten years to see writers like Rose Tremain or Zadie Smith or A M Homes who are nowhere represented.
I want girls, as well as boys, to be inspired to be the writers, artists and composers of this century, as well as by the political leaders and shapers of thought. How can we do that when, at the highest levels in our schools, children find that women have been written out of the script by the exam boards who have defaulted to lists of men?
Within education, we have a real opportunity for schools and exam boards to level the playing field and give pioneering women in all fields the recognition they deserve.
As a network of 24 independent girl’s schools and two academies, we are fortunate that we can take the GCSE and A Level curricula as a starting point for an academically rigorous education that encourages girls to be curious and enquire beyond the boundaries of their own knowledge. This added value ensures that the girls who leave our schools are equipped with the skills and experience they need to carve their own paths. Initiatives like Ada Lovelace Day at Streatham & Clapham High School, or a cross-curricular project on outstanding women at Sutton High School, or the ‘biggest ever practical science lesson’ in which all our schools and academies participated, or our engineering conference last year, expose girls to the idea that they could become a Marie Curie or a Rosalind Franklin, a Barbara Hepworth or a Zadie Smith.
Girls need those role models – because without them they could become as trapped as their Victorian great-great-grandmothers, who were told that women’s place was in the home.