An Education in Diversity: Why We Need Change
By Jia Wen Ho, Shaniah Shields, Christina Moore and Leanne Francis
Black British history is not only an important part of our past, but something that is also happening right now, and despite this, for many years, the few mentions many of us heard of Black authors were during Black History Month.
The GCSE and A-Level curriculum is still filled with the same novels and authors that multiple generations have been reading, with the vast majority of those written by white male authors. This list of authors includes John Steinbeck, J.B. Priestley and George Orwell, amazingly some of these authors’ books are listed as modern texts, despite An Inspector Calls being written in 1945. The fact that the only novel featured by an author of colour is Meera Syal’s Anita and Me is shocking, with this being a twenty-five-year-old novel. The lack of representation is so much of an issue that in Beverly Daniel Tatum’s early teaching career, she taught a boy who remarked that “Blacks don’t write books.”
From 2022, pupils studying for their GCSEs and A-Levels will have a more diverse range of books to study. Leading examination board, OCR, have announced they will add new works including Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Passing by Nella Larsen and Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, in a new move to diversify the curriculum.
The Need for Diversity in the Curriculum
The current English Literature GCSE and A-Level curricula feature traditional, canonical texts from authors including Shakespeare and Dickens, but feature little diversity. There is an inherent lack of contribution from writers of colour, with major exam boards and syllabuses lacking in diversity and thus, relevance to our modern society.
The UK is diverse and multicultural, and it is imperative that the books students read in school are reflective of this. Students are encountering a small percentage of diverse literature, including Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (A-Level syllabus) and Meera Syal’s Anita and Me (GCSE syllabus); however, there are a lot of missing stories. Literary contributions from ethnic minorities are important as they help students to develop a greater multicultural awareness. They will positively benefit from a curriculum that is representative of the range of backgrounds and perspectives that make our country so unique.
There is a big under-representation for students from BIPOC backgrounds in the current English curriculum, and this needs to change. Crucially, diversifying the English curriculum will empower young people from minority backgrounds by helping them to understand the value held in stories that so closely mirror their own. Teach First’s Missing Pages 2020 Report explains that people from all backgrounds deserve to tell and star in the stories our society values and celebrates. It is important that all students find a sense of belonging in the books they read at school.
1 in 3 teaching staff think that the diversity of pupils and the world around them is not reflected in education provided by UK schools today. All literature that is consumed in a school environment should be representative and inclusive. The Black Curriculum is a social enterprise founded by Lavinya Stennett in 2019 and addresses the lack of Black British History in the UK curriculum. The programmes that they offer are insightful, aim to equip young people with a sense of identity and are a great organisation that schools should work with.
In a world where young people are arguably more exposed to world news via the internet and social media, it is crucial that they encounter diverse texts in school, where they can form their own opinions outside of prejudice and stereotypes. It is diminishing to only learn about Black literature during Black History Month. Students will gain a more comprehensive understanding of different cultures and backgrounds by learning about diverse texts on a regular basis.
Lit in Colour
Lit in Colour was started by Runnymede and Penguin Random House, and they published a report in September 2020 highlighting the underrepresentation of Black literature in the school’s curriculum. The findings of the report formed the ethos of OCR’s additions of diverse literature into their syllabus. The report shows findings after consulting hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers and librarians throughout the UK. The thoughts and feelings of hundreds of students have been recorded. Additionally, it also presents findings from interviews with stakeholders and data of the chosen texts by students for exams.
The report shows harrowing figures, where 82% of youths don’t ever recall studying a text by a person of colour, and only 0.7% of students answered an exam question on a text by a writer of colour. This has caused conversations of race in the classroom to be difficult. The usage of the “N” word in Of Mice and Men and some other literary texts, have been a source of discomfort and intimidation for teachers and their students. It has also alienated Black and minority ethnic students, as their experiences are unrepresented and are only given narratives of slavery and colonisation.
Literature is imperative for allowing students to step into the shoes of another and empathise. However, the literary canon that makes it onto the list has remained stagnant because texts get taught based on the fact that they have already been taught, and so on. Some of the barriers are found in over-representation of white teachers (85.7%), and the lack of knowledge or resources in teaching texts by authors of colour. Many texts by white authors have amassed lots of teaching resources, which texts by writers of colour don’t have, and this produces a vicious cycle where texts by writers of colour don’t get studied. Yet the importance of educating on race resonates with many teachers. More than 80% of secondary teachers are comfortable talking about race, colour and issues of empire in class, and it is more than 50% for primary teachers. Furthermore, 70% of young people from the nationwide survey wanted the diversity of the UK to be represented in the school curriculum. Edward, an 18-year-old, voiced their opinions on diversity in literature, “I think it helps people understand societies and themselves better. The questions of identity it raises are of extreme importance. Studying others is key to studying yourselves and literature is all about the representation of things." The call for more diverse literature in the curriculum is loud and clear.
Books Added to the Syllabus
Alongside Bernardine Evaristo’s award-winning Girl, Woman, Other, which follows the lives of twelve Black and British characters, A-Level students will also have the option to study Passing by Nella Larsen, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. Playwright Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking and an updated selection of poems will be available for GCSE students.
The Lonely Londoners tells the story of poor, working-class Black communities in post-World War II Britain. Nella Larsen’s Passing, set in Harlem, is a novella on racism in the 1920s. Science fiction novel The Parable of the Sower is a commentary on climate change and inequality, sparking conversations on social justice.
These texts will increase the overall number of work by writers of colour by 19. This means that 28%, up from 13%, of the texts available across the A-Level and GCSE syllabus will be by writers of colour. Though this is a great improvement on the current curriculum, the percentage of work by writers of colour will still not fully reflect the “34% of school students in England” that are Black, Asian or minority ethnic.
Books that Should be on the Curriculum
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
Described as an “essential and revelatory coming-of-age narrative”, Rainbow Milk spans across generations and cultures. This stunning debut tells the story of nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy, who struggles to grapple with aspects of his identity against his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, and ex-boxer Norman Alonso, who immigrated to Britain in the 1950s. With themes of love, race, class and religion, this novel gives voice to the experiences of the Windrush generation and the Black British gay community, whilst tenderly touching on topics suitable for the A-Level curriculum.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2020, The Black Flamingo is a powerful story about identity. We follow Michael, a mixed-race gay teen with Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican heritage, as he begins to navigate the world. This captivating story is told in verse and covers a plethora of coming-of-age themes and ideas. It would make a great addition to the A-Level English Literature curriculum due to its compelling nature and raw exploration of race, identity and sexuality.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Spanning across seven generations in three-hundred years, Homegoing begins with a pair of half-sisters who will never meet. The older sister, Effa, stays in Ghana and is the wife of a British official, whilst the younger sister, Esi, is captured by slave traders and brought to America. The stories change with time through the eyes of each sister’s descendant, telling the turmoil faced by the characters in both Ghana and America. Exploring the effect of history on Black individuals, and the impact it has on identity, Homegoing would be a great addition to the A-Level curriculum.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
This book, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, follows the story of Emira who is a teenage Black girl apprehended at the supermarket for “kidnapping” the white child she is babysitting, setting off life-changing events. It also closely examines the relationship between Emira and her white employer.
This novel would be a great addition to either the GCSE or A-Level curriculum as it takes a look at something that many of us secretly think when out with young children “does anyone think I kidnapped you?” and even if someone has the best intentions can they ever truly understand their own privilege?