Lit in Colour, part of Penguin Books UK, has conducted a revealing study into the diversity of writers on GCSE English Literature curriculums. The study shockingly finds that with 34.4% of students being from ethnic minorities, only 0.7% of students study literature written by authors of that same demographic. The study also concludes that “at most, 7% of students in England study a book by a woman at GCSE”.
This certainly echoes the rarity of diversity in my own GCSE curriculum, which included canonical figures such as Shakespeare and Dickens, with writers who were women or of an ethnic minority only featuring in the poetry anthology. My GCSE English Literature curriculum only featured four sections with set texts, with various mediums, time periods and themes, with set options provided by the exam board for my school to choose from. Is this a rounded, enriching set up for what is for many students the last time they study literature in a formal setting?
Literature can allow the reader, and by extension society, to understand culture, history, identity, and even themselves
On the one hand, canonical texts do allow students from across the country, and across backgrounds, to be able to relate to each other through literature. However, this, and the various other arguments for streamlined, canonical and exam-based literature curriculums fall flat against questions of representation, diversity, exposure and enjoyment.
‘The canon’, in the context of standardised education, provides an excuse, a barrier, to diversity and change, to maintain the status quo and the domination of the arts by typically wealthy white men. Although some may disagree, it is therefore evident that some diversity is definitely needed in the GCSE curriculum. This is not only because it is important to recognise and celebrate good literature written in English, no matter who it is written by, but also because, as this study also outlines, literature can allow the reader, and by extension society, to understand culture, history, identity, and even themselves. It is undeniable that students who do not mirror the demographic of many canonical writers also deserve to feel included, represented, and connected through literature, both in and out of their curriculum.
The question that emerges here is how? Lit in Colour has outlined what is an unsavoury reality for young people, that in an increasingly diverse world, their standardised curriculum is lagging behind. In a way, the disruption to education and everything else that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused is a gifted opportunity for exam boards and schools alike.
Predictive grading systems and teacher-determined grades have proved, (if these qualifications are as the exam boards say equal to any other year) just as good, if not better, than grades achieved through examinations.
Much of the rigidity of the curriculums at GCSE in humanities subjects is due to the exam format, and the need for standardising material to make examinations fair. However, when this requirement is removed, we are left with an education system in which teachers are trusted in the classroom with the students. This begs the question why can’t teachers, in a teacher-determined grading system, evaluate students studying any text, not just the canonical ones deemed worthy by exam boards?
‘The canon’, in the context of standardised education, provides an excuse, a barrier, to diversity and change, to maintain the status quo
A system like this one would allow teachers, and even students, to tailor the curriculum to the demographics, interests, and needs of that particular school. This may also allow teachers to share literature they have a particular interest or knowledge in – much like at university level education – so that students can get the best teaching possible.
A drawback of this system is that, in situations of student choice, teachers may have to read many different books and teach or mark work about them at once. This issue can be solved by teachers providing choices for students to choose from, although this does leave this system at risk of the same elitism or dictation plaguing the status quo.
This simple idea, with little deviation from processes and systems that already exist in the current situation, can go a long way to help rectify the shocking problems in diversity of curriculum highlighted by Lit in Colour. However, this is just my suggestion, in what will probably be a gruelling process of education reform and demands. In the meantime, if Lit in Colour leaves us with anything, it’s that this lack of diversity is not going unnoticed by businesses or the media – and so hopefully change will come.