By now, you may have heard something about Lit in Colour: Penguin’s partnership with race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust which is aiming to help make the teaching of English Literature in UK schools more inclusive.
Last year the Guardian reported on how the campaign followed a report by Teach First which discovered pupils could leave school in England without studying a single novel or play by a black or minority ethic author.
More recently, a story in The Times covered the news that OCR, one of the three main exam boards, had joined us and pledged to add more representative books to their set texts at both GCSE and A Level, with chief executive Jilly Duffy telling the paper: “We’re honoured to play our part in helping to give young people greater access to works by authors of colour. We plan to work shoulder to shoulder with our Lit in Colour partners to support access to a more diverse English literature curriculum in a number of ways.”
One of the key elements of Lit in Colour has been commissioning independent research to better understand the barriers preventing more diverse texts from being taught in the classroom, and making practical recommendations for change. This research will be published in June; in many ways, this exciting conversation is only just getting started. And so, if you’re a parent or pupil curious about Lit in Colour's aims and objectives, we thought we’d try and answer them now.
What is Penguin hoping to achieve through this project?
We want to make the teaching of English literature in UK schools more inclusive, increase understanding around racial equality, and give students access to more books by and about people of colour. Now, more than ever, books should – and must – play a vital role in challenging racial inequalities and promoting a common sense of belonging.
As a first step, we have commissioned major research to review the current state of play in English literature education, building on The Runnymede Trust's previous work on race equality in schools and the History curriculum.
Using the findings from this research, which will be published next year, we aim to:
1) Help bring about change to the teaching and learning of English literature in the classroom, ensuring books by writers of colour are front and centre, and;
2) Provide direct support to schools and teachers with practical, inspirational and effective tools and resources.
Is this initiative targeted at all schools, across all ages?
The research we’re commissioning from The Runnymede Trust will explore Key Stages 2-5, which covers ages 7-16 – so both primary and secondary schools. The ongoing programme will be informed by the findings of the research.
When will the research findings be published?
We are aiming to release the completed research in summer 2021, along with some concrete recommendations to support inclusive teaching and learning in schools.
What books do you think should be on the curriculum?
We can think of many wonderful writers of colour who could be studied, but ultimately we’re not educational experts, and so don’t think it’s our place to suggest them. Moreover, it’s really important to us that at this stage of the initiative that we’re not trying to identify solutions or make recommendations before the findings of the research are published.
Why are you focusing on race when you could be focusing on gender and the lack of representation of women, or other under-represented areas like sexuality or disability?
We believe that books people read should be fully representative of all aspects of society, but this piece of research is specifically focusing on race. Of course, we hope that working towards a more inclusive approach to the teaching of English literature will both support and enable greater representation in all areas. We’d love to hear from people who are looking into other areas of under-representation to that we can connect and share findings.
Are you saying that classic books and writers like Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and John Steinbeck should no longer be studied?
No, Lit in Colour is aiming to support a broader and wider curriculum and to support schools to introduce students to a wider range of choice, including books by writers of colour who may have been previously overlooked.
Classics texts are an important part of the rich heritage of English literature – there’s a very good reason they have been studied in schools around the country for many years. And we publish many of them!
However, it’s clear that books, authors, characters and stories that are available on the English literature curriculum and taught in classrooms do not represent the rich diversity of our society, or the lives of its young people.
For example, only one GCSE English Literature specification features a novel or play written by a Black author. Yet we know that books and reading are so important for developing empathy and understanding of other people’s culture, ethnicity, class and political perspectives. That’s why we want to give students’ access to a more diverse range of books, including those by writers of colour and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
How can I learn more or get involved?
There’s lot more information on our Lit in Colour section of our website. We look forward to hearing from you.