Who decides which books you study in school?

The books we’re taught in the classroom can shape the kind of readers we grow into; creating bookworms or, in some cases, putting us off books for life. But how does the English Literature curriculum get decided, and what – if anything – can be done to shape its future?

A photograph of bookshelves, next to a photograph of students sitting exams, against a yellow background
How can we change the books students read at school?

Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men – there’s a good chance that you encountered one of these books at school. . What children read in the classroom can be formative, shaping their relationship with books for the rest of their life. An engaging, passionate teacher, or a text that truly speaks to you, can be the difference between an adulthood devoid of books, and one filled with them. They can also be a kind of mirror for young readers; they can also offer a sense of belonging and understanding. When we see ourselves in books, they can help us understand who we are.

But how is our English literature curriculum actually decided? Who makes the call, what informs the book that are chosen for study and – crucially – what steps need to be taken if we want to make a change? As Penguin’s Lit in Colour campaign to support inclusive reading in schools gets underway, we take a look at how it all works with a particular focus on GCSEs sat in England.

What the government decides

Government regulations issued in 2015 set the boundaries for the GCSE curriculum. They stated that students must study: one text by Shakespeare, ‘a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry’, a 19th-century novel and a British play or novel written after 1914. These are the guidelines that exam boards use to set their syllabuses.

What exam boards decide

The exam boards then decide what texts they will be testing students on within these categories. There are five main exam boards across England, Wales and Northern Ireland: Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA); Council for Curriculum and Examinations Assessment (CCEA); Pearson Edexcel; Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Exams (OCR) and the Welsh Joint Examinations Committee (WJEC).

The exam boards are made up of people who feel passionately about their subjects, including many former teachers. Any decisions they make on changing texts are informed by forming longlists and then shortlists in consultation with current teachers and experts from higher education. Ofqual, the national agency that regulates exams, tests and qualifications, has to approve any changes.

Each exam board will give a few options for texts within the guidelines set by the government. For instance, AQA includes Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre among the seven texts in their 19th Century Novel category, while OCR offers four plays under the Shakespeare section.

'Teachers are limited by both time and resources, which can make the switch to new texts difficult.'

What schools get to decide

From there, it’s up to each school to decide which exam board they want to use and within that, which specific text they want to teach.

Different kinds of schools have different ways of choosing which texts students will study. Multi-academy trusts, which work as groups of schools funded by the state, may all decide to study the same text – for example, Macbeth – within the choice given by the exam board.

But when schools are operating individually – whether as state-funded or privately-funded – the choices of texts are made by each school department. In this case, the Head of English or the English teachers at a school will decide on what texts they are teaching. They may decide that each set or class of pupils will all study, for instance, Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein and An Inspector Calls, which gives teachers greater ease of moving students around classes. Or, they may decide that different classes should learn different texts.

Why have the texts we studied stayed the same?

Some of texts – such as Jane Eyre, War of the Worlds, Journey’s End or An Inspector Calls – may be familiar to when you were at school, and that’s because certain examined texts for GCSES haven’t changed in decades. Even though new texts have been added, often teachers are teaching the same texts to their GCSE pupils that they studied at the same age. Why isn’t there more variety? There are a number of reasons.

For one, buying books is expensive for schools. While there is money allocated to refreshing texts, it’s still a major outlay of cost for often-stretched school budgets; most books are used until they fall apart. A case in point: when the government decided to remove Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird from the GCSE curriculum in 2014 – citing a desire to “broaden the books young people study” – rather than waste those books, many schools decided to teach those texts to younger pupils instead.

Secondly, new texts require teachers to feel confident that they can teach them as well as the more familiar books. While exam boards do offer supplementary teaching suggestions, sample assessments, teachers and exemplar essays - necessary to see what is needed at each grade to be able to help their students reach their potential – there is simply not as much teaching history with new texts, making them a riskier option to teach.

Finally, there’s a lot of pressure on students to gain good English GCSE results – it’s one of the key qualifications they need to progress into work or higher education. As a result, teachers and schools are less likely to change a system if it might risk the chance of good results. Teachers are limited by both time and resources when it comes to creating new teaching plans, which can also make the switch to new texts difficult.

'There are no stipulations from the government to study authors of colour at GCSE.'

What kind of restrictions stop the English curriculum from being more inclusive?

An older form of English Literature GCSE examined pupils on Poems from Other Cultures, which encouraged the teaching of non-British, more inclusive literature. However, the 2015 government regulations placed a greater emphasis on modern British writing, and a greater emphasis on older writing, with then-Education secretary Michael Gove explained as a “broadening” of the curriculum. While there is more than a century of British texts that can be chosen in the post-1914 category, there are no stipulations from the government to study authors of colour at GCSE. However, exam boards do already have some authors of colour on their specifications, such as Malorie Blackman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Benjamin Zephaniah and Meera Syal.

What do we know is happening next?

As part of Penguin’s Lit in Colour programme, we’ve teamed up with one of the biggest exam boards, Pearson, to help incentivise 100 secondary schools to change the text they teach at either GCSE or A Level to a book by a writer of colour. We know that many schools and teachers want to make this change but can lack the time and budget, and so the pilot Lit in Colour Pioneers Programme will offer free resources, training and books from September 2021.  

To learn more about Lit in Colour, click here.

To read about Penguin’s commitment to becoming a more inclusive publisher, click here.

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

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