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Back to School: Titles for the School Curriculum

By Lauren Gantt, Rosie Pinder and Emma Rogers

Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, An Inspector Calls – the chances are at least one of these texts was part of your English Literature curriculum at school. The 2015 Government guidelines for GCSE state that students must study one Shakespearean text, a selection of poetry since 1789, a 19th century novel and a British play or novel written after 1914. It is then up to the exam boards to choose texts based on these guidelines.

This results in a very narrow pool of texts making it to the classrooms, especially because the new guidelines place greater emphasis on British texts, reducing the possibility of students learning about world literature. Schools themselves are also often reluctant to change their set texts due to issues with funding and the fact that there are a lot more resources available for the common canonical titles. As a result, there is a distinct lack of both diversity and variety within the curriculum.

In fact, last year, Penguin Random House reported that while 34.4% of students in the UK are people of colour, only 0.7% of students study a book by an author of colour at GCSE. Research from the “End Sexism in Schools” campaign team also found that 77% of schools teach only one or no texts by female authors and 99% of the plays taught are by male writers. These statistics clearly illustrate that something needs to change.

There is some progress being made with projects like Penguin’s Lit in Colour Scheme which partners with charities to help provide schools with the funding and resources to diversify their curricula. However, much more need to be done to ensure that the curriculum is both decolonised and modernised so that the texts studied are not only more representative of all students but also more interesting to read and learn about.

Along those lines, here are some of our top picks for the titles we would love to see taught in schools this academic year:

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

The remarkable true story of the life of Malala Yousafzai. Raised in Pakistan, Malala was a fierce advocate for girls’ right to education which placed her as an enemy of the terrorists. In 2012, she was shot on her way home from school and miraculously survived. Now a graduate of the University of Oxford and the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is an inspiration to all and an international symbol of peaceful activism.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A chilling dystopian in an alternate United States under religious totalitarian rule. The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred, a woman who has only one function to breed. If she refuses to submit, she will be executed. A valuable read and a critique on society, power and all that civilisation could be.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is a graphic novel following the young Marjane Satrapi, a girl growing up in Tehran, Iraq, during an unstable time in history. The overthrow of the Shah regime, the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq are shown through the lens of childhood, adding a new perspective of the time.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

First published in 1952, Invisible Man is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of African-American Literature. Ellison’s protagonist lives in a surreal America where he is literally invisible but this invisibility speaks directly to the real experiences of the Black Americans who were shunned and ignored by a racist society. It is a text that explores racism and identity through a brilliantly defiant and thought-provoking lens.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Set in Afghanistan and spanning from the early 1960s to the early 2000s, this is a moving book which follows two women of separate generations Mariam and, later, Laila. They fight to find love and safety against all odds, including in the midst of a war.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

A multiple award-winning book putting Britain in a new light. Following twelve characters, each on a personal journey, Girl, Woman, Other is about race, identity, womanhood and humanity in stories not yet explored. Each chapter follows the life and struggles of a different character before all their stories intersect in the final pages.

Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

Having premiered in 2018, Emilia is a play inspired by the life and works of Emilia Bassano, a 17th century feminist poet who many speculate was the “Dark Lady” in William Shakespeare’s sonnets. This is a witty, passionate play about history and female erasure that also has its roots firmly in the present.

These are just some of our picks we would love to see incorporated into the curriculum. But the most important thing is that it keeps evolving so that all students feel connected to the books, plays and poetry that they are taught at school.


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