27/01/2016 09:26 GMT | Updated 25/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Why 17 Year Olds Campaigning for Women in the Syllabus Must End

Jessy McCabe

June Eric-Urdorie

Zishi Zhang

What unites these people?

They are all 17 years old and have all campaigned for equal representation of women in UK A-level syllabi in the last five months.

In August 2015, Jessy McCabe launched her petition to get female composers on exam board Edexcel's A-level syllabus. Jessy is an alumna of Fearless Futures, a unique gender and leadership development programme that works with girls and women in schools, universities and the workplace to explore entrenched, often unseen, gender inequality. It was during the programme that Jessy was provoked to re-examine her Music syllabus one night while revising. To her shock, given her "new eyes", she saw that there wasn't a single female composer among the 63 pieces identified.

To cut a sort-of long story short, Jessy launched her campaign and Edexcel humbly and quickly realised the error of their ways. They have now included not one, but five, female composers out of 18 set pieces of music in their new specification that kicks in from September 2016. They've committed to reviewing all their other qualifications too.

A victory for a democratic and representative education I hear you cry! Absolutely.

My hope in watching Jessy's campaign take off was that it would send a sharp signal to Ofqual, the qualifications regulator. One of Ofqual's responsibilities, after all, is to ensure that 'people have confidence in the qualifications that we regulate'. I hoped that Ofqual would read Jessy's campaign and mandate all examination bodies to conduct a review of their qualifications, put in place a "comply or explain" policy with respect to fair representation in their syllabi, and include criteria going forward for all qualifications to be truly representative. I thought it would highlight to them the powerful role they could play.

I also naively hoped that other examination bodies, even without Ofqual involvement, would furiously assess all their subjects. I thought that where they found their content unrepresentative across gender, race, class and other identities - as they almost certainly would - they would state publicly their actions for reform and get to work on fixing the situation pronto.

Not so.

In fact, not even the government got the memo that side-lining, or indeed deleting, women's contributions wouldn't be tolerated.

Cue June Eric-Udorie's campaign in response to the government's consultation on its proposed new Politics A-level curriculum. This saw feminism removed and only one out of 16 identified political thinkers a woman. June has also noted that there are no people of colour represented in this list, which should be rectified; a matter of equal importance. 50,000 signatures later, a House of Commons debate tabled by Rupa Huq MP the other week and the government Minster Nick Gibb MP intimated that feminism would be reinstated and additional female political thinkers added.


And now Zishi Zhang - a 17 year old young man - is campaigning OCR, another exam board, to include female philosophers in its Religious Studies A-level.

To see a young man stepping up to challenge, in solidarity, the many ways that women's valid contributions are silenced is a powerful demonstration that gender equality will take each and every one of us to play our part.

Let me be clear, I founded Fearless Futures because I believe that gender injustice is so ordinary, everyday and entrenched that we mostly do not see it. My belief is that social change starts with understanding how the problem manifests itself, in our own lives and beyond, so that we can dare to challenge it, resist it and reimagine a better world.

So you may think that all these 17 year olds campaigning for a democratic education brings a smile to my face. I smile because for June and Jessy's successful campaigns it represents systemic change driven by young women. Women's vital - though as we know, often marginalised - voices being heard. I smile to see Zishi speaking up, seeing his role in this struggle and not tolerating injustice.

But to be clear, the remainder of the time I grimace: I want a world where all 17 year olds have the opportunity to receive and enjoy an education where they see themselves in its content. A white, male lens should not be the only way through which we look out at the world. Our world will be a more human and just one, when we all demand a kaleidoscope of perspectives. 17 year olds shouldn't have to lobby for this right.

To June, Jessy, Zishi: thank you for critically thinking about the world around you. Thank you for seeing injustice and using your courage to take action. The world needs you.

To Government, Ofqual, OCR and other exam boards yet to review your qualifications fully: what we teach our young people is the difference between a socially just and equal society, and one rife with prejudice and discrimination. You have a choice to make: be on the right side of history or leave the status quo intact. Make the right decision. Take the right course of action.

Otherwise, I've no doubt, that there is a cohort of 17 year olds who will.

Follow @fearlessfutures for critical thinking, social justice and a touch of courage. And please sign Zishi's petition.