The need for greater breadth in the texts studied as part of the curriculum across all key stages is widely recognised.

For English Literature in particular, it is important that the curriculum embraces diversity and that students can see themselves and cultures they both do and don’t recognise reflected in the texts they read. Literature can inspire learners to engage with books which speak to their experience, and open eyes to the experiences of others.

How can policymakers ensure that all young people in England experience a diverse and inclusive English Literature curriculum?

Addressing this challenge is an issue for a range of stakeholders including DfE, awarding organisations and Initial Teacher Training providers as well as teachers themselves.

Curriculum

One part of the challenge is being clear about what we mean by diversity.

There is a need for a diversity of authors, but simply looking at who is writing the text is not sufficient. As well as diversity of authors, there clearly also needs to be diversity of content. There are issues of representation, place and storylines, for example, avoiding stereotypical tropes of victimised people struggling against the odds.

Whilst the selection of books by exam boards for their English Literature specifications at Key Stages 4 and 5 represents a key part of the answer, the exam curriculum is not the entire curriculum, and even as a starting point diversifying the set text list will not necessarily lead to a more diverse curriculum for all students.

Ultimately, if the aim is to ensure that authors of colour are more visible to students, they have to be texts that students will actually see. Simply because authors of colour are included among optional set texts does not ensure that teachers will opt to teach them. The reality in the classroom is that students are unlikely to see the texts they don’t study. True diversity in English Literature will be achieved by ensuring that whatever route teachers select students encounter diverse voices and narratives.

OFSTED has recent made clear the importance of a broad, rich curriculum.[1] This will likely influence the teaching of English in many schools because to achieve a broad, rich English curriculum, diversity in terms of writers, genres and the types of stories told is essential.

Teacher confidence

Ensuring the English Literature curriculum is diverse is only one part of the problem; the way English Literature is delivered in the classroom is a crucial factor to consider as well.

Teaching is a demanding profession at the best of times, and tackling themes of race and racism in the classroom can pose specific challenges for teachers. There often exists an expectation that the teacher should be an expert, an expectation held by both students and teachers; this means that teachers may opt for ‘safe’ texts with which they feel comfortable.

The recent report Lit in Colour, published by Penguin, found teachers felt they lacked training in discussing racism with pupils, with only 12 per cent of secondary respondents and 13 per cent of primary respondents saying they had had training on this as part of their ITT course. Just two out of 163 secondary respondents said they had had continual professional development (CPD) on the topic.[2]

There is also an issue about the teaching workforce discussing sensitive topics in the classroom, and this is something that teacher training and CPD need to explore. Many teachers need more practical assistance for handling diversity in the classroom in a sensitive and productive manner.

One consequence of these issues is that where diverse authors and texts are available, they may not be chosen for teaching in the classroom. The Lit in Colour report found that only 0.7% of GCSE students studied a book by a writer of colour, and only 0.1% studied a book by a woman of colour.[3]

Next steps

Ultimately, answers to the challenges set out above require a holistic approach to the curriculum that considers how texts are selected, and how they are positioned in relation to other texts.

The current policy framework for English demands that students read a ‘wide range of fiction and non-fiction’ and that curriculum choices must reflect ‘a wide range of genres, historical periods, forms and authors’.

With the exception of stating students must study Shakespeare, the government does not stipulate what texts or authors must be studied. Based on the regulatory framework for KS4 and KS5, awarding organisations offer a selection of texts, and then the individual school and teacher selects texts and designs the curriculum to deliver on these.

It remains to be seen whether, in time, the government will take a more active role in encouraging exam boards and teachers to drive curriculum diversity within this framework, or seek to pursue a more interventionist approach. If the rates of students studying texts by diverse authors does not improve, it is possible that the Department for Education could require students to study texts from diverse authors, similar to how the current subject content requires students to study Shakespeare.

Ultimately, achieving diversity in the English Literature curriculum is a complex challenge, and it is key for different parts of the system to engage with the conversations and address what they can do to realise a diverse and ultimately inclusive curriculum. Ensuring a diverse and inclusive programme of study is important for preparing well-rounded students.

[1] Ofsted’s new inspection arrangements to focus on curriculum, behaviour and development - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[2] Lit in Colour | Supporting inclusive reading in schools (penguin.co.uk)

[3] Lit in Colour | Supporting inclusive reading in schools (penguin.co.uk)