From Shakespeare to Lord Alfred Tennyson, to Carol Ann Duffy. Our English literature curriculum is filled with revered authors who have produced seminal pieces that have shaped our way of thinking and blossomed new pioneering literature. Year after year students in the UK engage with poems such as La Belle Dams Sans Merci, grapple with the tragic hamartia of Macbeth and Othello and explore the post-modernist literature of Havisham, and War Photographer. Yet as the famous poet Benjamin Zephaniah stated, “a change is needed in the curriculum to truly represent an authentic Britain.”
Policy and Research Analyst, Dyslexia Commission
The diversity gap in our curriculum
The BBC have released new research that shows less than 1% of authors studied at GCSE English Literature level in England are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Further to this, as the BBC report highlighted, researchers investigating this trend found that 82% of students in England at GCSE level could not remember ever studying a book from an author from a minority background. In addition, only 0.7% of students answered an exam question on a book by a black, Asian, or ethnic minority author.
The Penguin and The Runnymede Trust, Lit in Colour found that 70% of young people surveyed want a more diverse curriculum. In light of this, it is clear that the calls for increased diversity are not only coming from notable speakers such as Zephaniah – there is a clear call from students to explore minority authors.
How diversifying the curriculum is done
The race equality charter at Keele University summarised this understanding under the campaign to decolonize the curriculum. They surmised that this requires the creation of spaces and resources for a dialogue among all members of the educational fora. This calls for a new format on how teachers, university lecturers and pupils across the educational system imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum to increase respect for what is being taught and how this frames the world.
Whilst questioning the number of minority authors in the GCSE texts is a positive step in the right direction, a fundamental question remains – does this truly change the power structures behind how literature is taught and retained beyond the secondary school classroom? To answer this question, we must look beyond the desire to diversify and look to increase the authority behind diverse texts.
Private schools and curriculum change
In this the social currency of retaining knowledge of Shakespeare’s works should in theory be equal to retaining knowledge of authors such as Chinua Achebe or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. How do we do this you may question. While this is no small feat, it begins outside of the classroom and unfortunately will need the private educational sector to get behind this. Schools such as Eton, St Paul’s School, Wycombe Abbey, and Westminster School will need to lead the power shift in the knowledge space by dramatically increasing the study of black and Asian scholars in the curriculum.
By doing this, the product of pupils in the private sector who typically inhabit the highest earning industries will begin to expand the knowledge base and power behind minority writers. The dangers in leading a sole state school approach mean that whilst state school-educated students emerge understanding minority writers – this educational bank won’t be translated into diversity or appreciation of minority writers in the employment market.
The citadel of English literature is an expression of understanding and appreciation of diverse world views. Authentic appreciation and (educational bank) of diverse thinkers cannot occur if this is constrained in a single class complex. For real change to all pupils’ understandings and diversifying pupils’ educational bank of literature thinkers, we must ensure that the private educational sector plays a significant role in diversifying and decolonizing the curriculum.