By Amy Farmer
Image Credit: Unsplash
When research conducted by Teach First in 2020 revealed that “three quarters (75%) of English teachers have concerns about a lack of diversity” in the UK’s national curriculum, valid questions are raised as to why, two years on, teachers and students alike must still find new ways to campaign for increased inclusivity. Advocating for the study of “a range of high quality, intellectually challenging” texts, the Department for Education promises GCSE students the opportunity to “appreciate the depth and power of the English literary heritage”. Though when this sentiment manifests into those students predominantly studying texts written by deceased, white, and often middle class, men, this interpretation of “heritage” appears exceptionally limited.
Lit in Colour, a collaborative project between Penguin Books UK and The Runnymede Trust, expresses how this lack of diversity directly translates into some truly astonishing, and yet perhaps sadly not unexpected, figures. In 2019, a mere 7% of GCSE students in England studied a book by a female author, and an even fewer 0.7% studied a book by a writer of colour. The immediate implications of these statistics are evident – pupils are quite simply being robbed of a diverse and expansive literary education. Indeed, if they were to ask older siblings, or even parents, for help with their English homework, many would find an unnerving similarity between the material being taught now, and that which was taught to numerous generations prior.
The wider implications of this study, however, extend far beyond the relative safety of our school walls, as when faced with the truth of these educational blind spots, we, the public, must surely take a step back to consider the real-life ramifications of our formal education, or lack thereof. The constraints of the English specification’s criteria undoubtedly allow for the breeding of ignorance and insensitivity, but do we only begin to recognise such consequences years after our graduation? Do basic, real-world experiences prompt some kind of realisation?
Or does it take the birth of major political movements – like BLM or #MeToo – for us to question why our understanding of colonialist literature is exclusively limited to Shakespeare’s Othello, just as our knowledge of feminist work is restricted to anthologies written predominately by men?
Of course, diversifying the curriculum is only a small part of the solution. With leading exam boards like OCR and Pearson naming more minority authors on their specifications than ever before, we must now turn our attention towards ensuring this new material sees the inside of a classroom. It is undoubtedly a positive start, but for this progression to be successful, the change must be felt, not just seen. It may even be that to support this shift, we must undergo one of our own by challenging the way we truly view these adjustments. We would do well to remember that they are not a chore, nor simply new rules to be followed. The diversity and richness of literature is a gift, and its presence in schools a privilege which is long overdue.