More than 20 years ago, a government-commissioned report urged “That consideration be given to amendment of the National Curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism, in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society.” That was one recommendation in Sir William Macpherson’s enquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Two decades later, another report repeats the prescription. This year, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities calls for high-quality teaching resources, embedded within the statutory curriculum, to tell the stories of the contributions made by different groups that have made our country the one it is today.
Many teachers will understand why the Commission echoes Macpherson. Concerted and urgent action on that recommendation, in the interests of racial equality and social cohesion, is long overdue. Today we publish new evidence highlighting the need for change.
Over the past six months, working with race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust and education researchers at Oxford University, we’ve taken a detailed look at what young people study in schools in England. We have focussed on English Literature, our favourite subject at Penguin, but the lessons go much wider. We were prepared for the school report to say that English could do better on inclusion and representation. We were stunned when we opened the exam results.
At GCSE, fewer than 1% of young people study a book by an author of colour, and at most 7% study a book by a woman. More than 80% don’t recall ever studying a book by a Black, Asian or minority ethnic author. This means that all students are missing out on some wonderful and important writers. Just imagine what it says to the one-third of school-age students in England who identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic.
This matters profoundly. That’s partly a question of raw numbers: nearly every young person in the country studies English Literature until they are 16. But it goes way beyond the maths: as the author Mark Haddon said last week, English ‘is about what makes us human.’ The books that young people read play a vital role in shaping their notion of identity and their sense of belonging. They help them stand in someone else’s shoes, see the world through a different pair of eyes, feel empathy for someone who lives a life very different to their own. They reflect our values as a society. And they send powerful, enduring signals about our common humanity to each new generation of young people.
So we imagine a future for English Literature that reflects and celebrates Britain’s diversity, past and present, and the young people who populate our classrooms. A future that, consistent with global Britain, looks inwards and outwards for the stories and ideas that the world’s best authors have imagined. (Our English curriculum is especially insular: we do not confine study of biology, chemistry and physics to discoveries made only by British scientists, nor music to the work of British composers.) It should build on the brilliance of Austen, Bronte, Dickens and Shakespeare and be further enriched by the likes of Chinua Achebe, Bernardine Evaristo, Hanif Kureishi, Andrea Levy, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith. We have begun a programme, called Lit in Colour, to offer practical support to schools and teachers who share a similar vision.
We know that many do, and that makes us hopeful about the prospects for change. We have heard from many students who are asking for it. We admire pioneering schools and teachers who are bringing diverse voices and perspectives into their classrooms and libraries. We are working with exam boards who are adding new choices to their set texts. And we know publishers are investing in and promoting more writing by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers.
But our research identifies some stubborn obstacles standing in the way of progress on diversity and representation in English Literature. They include the scarcity of specific resources, training for teachers, access to and knowledge of age-appropriate books and diversity in the teaching workforce. In short, this is a systemic problem that requires commitment and action from all participants in the system.
At Penguin, we recognize the part we play in that system. There is much more for us to do to become a more inclusive and representative publisher and employer. As one part of that change, we are working with partners including exam boards Pearson and OCR as well as fellow publishers like Oxford University Press to implement the changes recommended in our research. We invite others to join us
The Booker prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo writes today: “It’s shocking that we are still having to advocate for the issue of widening the curriculum in 2021. I finished my school education over forty years ago and encountered the same limitations. I cannot believe that progress has been so slow . . . it’s a major problem that needs to be addressed now, urgently – or we will continue to fail our children.”
She is right. The generation studying English today is learning to be the readers and writers and citizens of 21st Century Britain. A few decades from now, we cannot allow them to look back in anger and ask why we failed once more to offer a school experience that represents and values every child.
Tom Weldon is chief executive of Penguin Random House UK