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Diversity and Inclusion Work at RSL

Norton York – RSL Awards Founder and Chairman – talks about how working with the MU helped focus RSL’s efforts on diversity and inclusion.

By Norton York Published: 30 November 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM

30 years ago as a young trombone player and MU member (I still am one) I approached the union to help me start some of the UK’s first pop music courses. This led me to found RSL Awards Ltd (Rockschool) a few years later as the world’s first pop and rock music examination board.

RSL Awards has always involved a diverse range of people as examiners, musicians, composers and arrangers in our work, but this was not something we did in as organised fashion as we do now.

During the last year or so we determined to become more focussed about our Diversity and Inclusion work, and we have benefitted from talking this through with the MU. It has been challenging to start this journey of being systematic about embedding diversity into our work, but I am sure it is the right thing to do and it is well worth the effort.

Reaching out and broadening the range of examiners

We have been working with the MU’s equality team and now have a plan to diversify our team of examiners.

When I first started there weren’t any pop music degrees or qualifications, and finding examiners or anyone who had the right mix of musical and academic experience was really hard. Now the degrees and courses on offer across the UK mean that someone with the right skills and educational background should be able to be an RSL Awards examiner.

By running a series of events next year with the MU we hope to reach out and broaden the range of people applying to work with us. This started as a conversation about ethnicity, but has broadened out to include all underrepresented communities.

Working online could open the door to a different group of examiners

For example, during Covid-19 we have invented our new video exams, both recorded and live. This was a huge accomplishment. It meant teachers could keep on motivating pupils to practice towards their exam, and our examiners were kept working and earning during this hard period for all performers

I am really proud of RSL that we managed this. It also means we have changed how we examine. We still need plenty of examiners who can and want to travel the UK and the world to examine in person, but we also need examiners working from home for our online exams.

This is potentially a different group of suitably qualified examiners we can work with and we really hope that will happen next year. It opens up an opportunity for examiners whose impairments may mean they find it challenging to travel, or for examiners whose family commitments rule out extended travel of several days or weeks, being able potentially to work for us flexibly at home on our video exams.

Diversifying the syllabi

As a business we have recently announced our commitment to have and exceed minimum diversity targets for the music we use in our exam syllabuses. Our work was focussed throughout 2020 researching music by composers of varied ethnicities for our first ever classical piano syllabus that we have just launched.

We talked to composers like Alexis Ffrench and to musicians like Chi-chi Nwanoku, did our research in the archives of music publishers and searched online at the British Library. We wanted to produce a syllabus that allows young players to see someone like themselves represented by the composers in our publications.

That means only half of our classical piano pieces are by white male composers, while 30% are by women, and nearly a quarter are by Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity heritage composers. This has never been done before by a UK exam board.

For some of these composers we have found brilliant pieces of music which have not been published in a book in the UK since the 18th century, and that is exciting. For some more modern pieces there were obstacles to overcome like working with composers who didn’t have publishers or whose publishers weren’t used to licensing their music to examination boards.

This meant we had to persevere to get a few pieces and we didn’t always get every piece we aimed for. I really hope that in time the reality of us having diversified our syllabus will help these composers and publishers come with us on this journey as we expand into other classical instruments in the next two years.

Committing to diversity in all future syllabi

RSL is also committed to matching, and hopefully bettering, this level of diversity in all our future syllabi, whether that is in pop and rock or in classical. That means we will carry on doing this when we do syllabuses for new instruments or when we renew established ones.

What this experience has shown us is that it is essential to be systematic with clear and deliverable targets so that diversity and change can really happen. No one benefits from empty promises. It is also imperative to be honest about where we are starting from, talking to expert people to point the way, and doing our own research to help us find the right music for us as an organisation.

Since I started out in my 20’s I have always really appreciated the help and support the MU have given me as I have developed ideas and projects. This is another occasion when our union has helped focus our minds so that the organisation I lead can improve and do the right thing. I hope that RSL’s story will give everyone in music the confidence to start this change in your own working life as well.

You can read more about RSL’s new syllabus – RSL Classical Piano – on their website.

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Norton York

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