Words by Sophie McMahon, Comment Print Editor

A new Teacher Tapp survey has revealed that drastic reforms are still needed to diversify the English syllabus, as primary and secondary school teachers continue to call for changes. This comes over a year on from the publication of findings by Penguin that showed only 0.7% of students study texts by a Black or minority ethnic writer.

The survey of 2,270 teachers was conducted on behalf of publisher Pearson, and studied what changes could be made to the English syllabus to help students. Its findings showed, 80% of secondary school and 69% of primary school teachers said they wanted more representation in the exam board set texts. 

With 34.4% of children in classrooms being of Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, it is hoped the introduction of more texts will better reflect modern society and to help inspire a new generation of pupils. 

In Teach First’s ‘Missing Pages’ report from 2020, Suhayla Omar of Welling School said: ‘I thought it was unjust that the kids weren’t having any interaction with any forms of multicultural representation in my subject’. As a mandatory subject at GCSE, English Literature requires pupils to identify with other individuals’ emotions, so accessing this representation is evermore important. 

The implementation of changes to bring about this increase in diversity is not single layered. The Government’s set national curriculum for Key Stage 4 (GCSE) currently requires the study of at least one Shakespearean play, a post-1914 fiction or drama from the British Isles, a 19th Century novel and a selection of poetry published since 1789.

From here, exam boards offer a range of texts that comply with these Government guidelines. For example, the biggest exam board for English Literature, AQA, offers Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, and Pride and Prejudice as options in the 19th Century novel category. Each school then decides which exam board to use, and which of the set texts they wish to study. 

Most of the set texts that exam boards opt for could be diversified to allow for schools to have the flexibility to represent BAME people, both as writers and as characters. The curriculum does require the study of canonical texts, which are those that are deemed particularly important and influential, like Dickens and Bronte. Lit in Colour, a campaign by Penguin and The Runnymede Trust which aims to support schools with inclusive learning, has encouraged these texts to be taught in a way which engages with the socio-historical context. 

Some exam boards have already expanded their offerings since the findings from the 2020 reports. From September 2022, OCR will provide 28% of texts for both GCSE and A-Level by writers of colour, a rise from 13%. They have added Booker prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, as well as Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. These selections were based on the valued opinions of English teachers and a panel of teaching and academic experts.

Jill Duffy, OCR Chief Executive, said: “The quality of these diverse works will not only support students to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of English Literature, but provide an opportunity to engage with work that is more relevant to their lives and to the lives of fellow students.”

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