Almost every single one of this country’s half a million 16-year-olds are currently studying GCSE English literature. Those preparing for next summer’s exams are the first in recent memory who have the opportunity to study a novel or play written by a Black author.
That the opportunity is now available is a welcome first step. That it remains unavailable to well over 90 per cent of students is simply wrong. And the wider story it tells needs an urgent and radical rewrite.
Across the three major exam boards in England, fewer than one in seven novels and plays studied for GCSE English literature are by an author of colour. As Teach First recently pointed out, that means you can leave school without reading a single book by an author of colour or featuring characters that represent your life. And these exam reading lists are part of a much wider issue: students of all ages deserve access to a diverse and representative range of books and authors in the classroom, in school libraries and at home.
This is about giving students a chance, as the national curriculum puts it, “to develop culturally and to acquire knowledge of the best that has been thought and written”. But it goes much deeper than that: it is about helping students to develop a sense of belonging, identity and social cohesion. Bernardine Evaristo, the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize, asks: “Where are we in the pages of the novel? Where are our narrative possibilities? Does this mean that we are not worthy, and that our experiences have no value?”
The case for a more inclusive and representative history curriculum has been powerfully advanced by many voices including The Runnymede Trust and The Black Curriculum. We think English literature must now be part of that conversation, because books have a special role to play. Asked for a brilliant idea to remake the world, the writer Elif Shafak picked an ancient technology to fight hate crime and dehumanisation: words and stories. She said: “East or west, when we relate to others we do so through stories. Literature can be incredibly powerful, universally relevant and, most importantly, a healing force.”
We know that many schools and teachers want to provide a more diverse literature curriculum, and are working hard on the ground to make the change. That’s why book publisher Penguin and race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust have joined forces to support UK schools to develop and provide a culturally diverse English literature curriculum. We are offering free books, creating teaching resources, and inviting authors to inspire teachers and students by taking their stories into assemblies and classrooms.
We will also research the experiences of young people studying English literature in the UK. The study will analyse the gaps or absences in the teaching of works by and about people of colour and those from an ethnic minority. Organisations and individuals will also be invited share their views.
For Penguin this work is vital but not sufficient. We need also to make long-lasting change in the wider publishing industry, and we are accelerating with urgency our efforts to ensure representation and inclusion inside our own organisation, and to publish more writers of colour for all ages.
Bernardine Evaristo imagines “a future literary landscape with a wide range of totally inclusive novels on our bookshelves, on our reading lists, in our homes, in the imagination of each new generation… a wider range of voices, cultures, perspectives can only enrich what already exists and will contribute to a more inclusive education system and a more egalitarian society.”
That future requires schools, teachers and students to have access to more diverse English literature. It will be a long haul, but it is a future worth fighting for.
Tom Weldon is chief executive of Penguin Random House UK. Halima Begum is director of The Runnymede Trust