Exam board drops only black composer from music A-level syllabus

British jazz artist Courtney Pine axed amid Covid-related course changes, says Pearson Edexcel

The only black composer has been dropped from the syllabus of a popular A-level music exam, along with the study of jazz, because of course changes demanded by the coronavirus crisis, according to the examination board involved.

Pearson Edexcel defended its decision to axe the work of the British jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine along with five others, including the Oscar-winning British composer Rachel Portman, because of “feedback from teachers that the volume of work was too high and needed accelerated change in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Pine’s album Back in the Day had been included in the Pearson Edexcel A-level course’s “popular music and jazz” section, alongside Revolver by the Beatles and Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. But after next summer Pine’s work will be removed and jazz dropped from the renamed “popular music” category.

In response to the decision, Pine said: “I was deeply honoured to be included in the A-level syllabus, it is a place in the UK education system that I never imagined to be in.

“As a musician that tours the world representing who we are, to have a place in the awareness of our young during these times has been inspiring. I have met so many students who have told me that studying my music has contributed to their musical development, they are as aware as I am of the absence of British jazz composers to the syllabus until now.

“I hope that there will be more UK composers who will be asked to contribute to such an important, influential subject.”

Portman, the first woman to win an Academy award for best original musical score for her work on the 1996 film Emma, has also been removed after Pearson reduced the number of compositions to be studied from 18 to 12. The Cuban ensemble La Familia Valera Miranda was among those dropped.

Those retained include the US film and television composer Danny Elfman, best known for his theme tune for The Simpsons, along with JS Bach and Igor Stravinsky. Only four women remain on the new syllabus, including the sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar.

A spokesperson for Pearson said: “We completely agree it is vital pupils get to study music by composers from different cultures and backgrounds. We want to ensure A-level music remains as rich and diverse as possible and will be reviewing this specification again in time for students taking exams from 2022 onwards.”

The exam board said in its announcement that “although six set works have been removed from the specification and will no longer appear in questions on the exam paper, centres should add these to the wider listening list as they can prove to be valuable pieces” in answering exam questions.

The A-level music syllabus offered by another exam board, AQA, has also been trimmed after Ofqual’s requirement last August “to accommodate potential public health requirements” as a result of the pandemic.

In contrast to Pearson, AQA opted to shrink the amount of performance and composition required from students, without reducing its set works.

The works in AQA’s pop music category include Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé as well as the black British composer Labrinth. Its jazz option includes the work of the Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock, alongside Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.


Harriet Clifford and Richard Adams

The GuardianTramp

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