Opinion

We must diversify the books taught in our classrooms

The authors, stories and characters currently available on the English Literature curriculum do not represent the rich diversity of society or the lives of young people today, writes Zaahida Nabagereka of Penguin Random House.

Someone sits behind a stack of books on a table

Image: Pixabay

Books shine a light on the world. They increase our awareness of different cultures, ethnicities and perspectives. Reading books that inspire us at a young age can also help to encourage reading for pleasure – which in turn boosts resilience, wellbeing and communication skills. So the books we study in school have a critical role to play.

Yet the authors, stories and characters currently available on the English Literature curriculum do not represent the rich diversity of society or the lives of young people today.

Our nationwide research underlines this. Fewer than 1 percent of GCSE English literature students study a book by a writer of colour. This is compared to the 34 percent of school-age people in England who identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic. 

There is systematic underrepresentation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers in the curriculum – relative to both to their place in contemporary literary excellence and the demographics of society.  

This lack of representation risks negatively impacting the next generation of readers. Reading for pleasure is declining among young people; and one reason behind this is that young people do not feel the books they study are relevant to their lives. One in three young people say they don’t see themselves in what they read.

There is a clear desire among both students and teachers for change. 70 percent of young people in our nationwide survey agreed that diversity should be represented in the school curriculum – rising to 77 percent of Black, Asian and minority ethnic young people. 

Recent research by Pearson and Teacher Tapp also shows that two thirds of teachers want more diverse and representative texts to be incorporated into the English syllabus. But we know that teachers face a lack of resources, budget and time, as well as low confidence in talking about race in the classroom. 

The matter of confidence is particularly pertinent following the launch of new Department for Education guidance for teachers which stresses the need for impartiality when teaching “contentious” issues such as imperialism. With many teachers already nervous about saying the ‘wrong thing’, we must be very careful to not deter teachers from speaking about race. 

What’s needed is practical support for teachers, to empower them to feel able to have open and constructive conversations about race and racism – and ultimately to make teaching a more diverse curriculum easily accessible. 

To help bring about change, Penguin has been working closely with The Runnymede Trust since 2020 to help support schools to diversify the teaching of English Literature. Through our Lit in Colour campaign, we are working with exam boards Pearson Edexcel and OCR to roll-out an extensive programme of practical support for schools who want to offer students greater access to books by writers of colour. 

As part of this, we have already provided tens of thousands of free books to schools across the UK from authors including Bernardine Evaristo, Sam Sevlon and Malorie Blackman. 

This isn’t about removing classic texts from the curriculum, which will always have a key place in the classroom. But we must broaden the stories and voices studied. It is imperative that children can recognise themselves in the written word.

From Jane Austen to Benjamin Zephaniah, literature has a crucial role in educating our children and shaping their notion of national identity and belonging. 

Of course, educational change is complex – it takes time and there is no magic solution. As publishers, we also know we must work harder to publish more writers from communities underrepresented in books; our commitment is for the new authors we publish to be representative of UK society by 2023.   

Society constantly evolves and so should our curriculum. Revitalising and enriching books for the next generation of readers is an essential part of this.

Zaahida Nabagereka is head of social impact at Penguin Random House UK

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