How exam boards are changing to make English Literature more inclusive

More writers of colour are being added to the GCSE and A-level syllabus in England following pressure from students and campaigners. But how are these texts chosen, and what barriers remain to them being studied? This is how OCR and Pearson rose to the challenge.

An illustration of people sitting on a stack of oversized books
Image: iStock

It was a student who started the ball rolling. Weeks after Pearson Edexcel launched their new GCSE syllabus in England in 2015, a pupil from an East London school wrote to them. “Why are there no writers of colour in the English curriculum?” they asked. “I don’t feel included, or represented, or seen by the literature that’s been put in front of me.”

“I thought, ‘Blimey, that’s a really good point’” says Katy Lewis, Head of English, Drama and Languages at what is one the UK’s largest exam boards. “I went back to the specification and it was an entirely legitimate query. There were some writers we could point to, but it was fair to say there was definitely an under-representation of writers of colour across the GCSE literature content.” 

That was six years ago. Since then, the drive to get a wider range of perspectives, particularly from writers of colour, into English classrooms has picked up speed. This summer Lit in Colour, a campaign from Penguin and race equality thinktank The Runnymede Trust, discovered that only 1% of GCSE students in England study a book by an author of colour and only 7% study a book by a woman – with just 0.1% studying a woman of colour. 

'We gave books and the Lit in Colour mini library from Penguin offered wider reading

Although Pearson Edexcel did add four new set texts and a new poetry collection by authors of colour to GCSEs in 2019, as Lewis points out, expanding the syllabus is only the start. “What we hadn't understood at that point is that the provision of the books on the content of the curriculum is really step one. That should be the default expectation of what a modern and diverse and contemporary English literature curriculum looks like. It should be a given and it has not been a given.”

In short, it’s not enough to set more texts by authors of colour: there are all sorts of barriers for schools in teachers in teaching them, even if they wanted to. “There’s the cost barrier of replacing 350 set texts with new ones; there’s knowing how to teach these books instead of the older ones to help students achieve the grades they deserve. Teachers know what works in terms of exam responses to older texts, they have a cupboard full of resources,” Lewis says. “So there were all those issues around resourcing and confidence and the capacity to deliver.”

One of the ways in which these issues were uncovered was through the Pioneers programme, launched in February 2021 between Penguin, Pearson and The Runnymede Trust to help an initial group of 100 schools access books by writers of colour. “We created some teaching resources with a view to making more with time, we gave books and the Lit in Colour mini library from Penguin offered wider reading,” Lewis explains. “If you’re worried about your ability to handle conversations sensitively and confidently in the classroom, or work with The Black Curriculum, we’ll give you training on racial literacy. We wanted to close all of the potential objections off, to not leave anyone with a reason why they couldn’t make that change.”

Meanwhile, OCR, another exam board, was also taking steps to make its GCSE and A Level curriculum more inclusive. Keeley Nolan, Lead Subject Advisor, and Isobel Woodger, Subject Advisor for A Level English, noted in 2019 that A-Level English Literature “was a place where we could begin to encourage greater diversity”. Woodger spent the winter of 2019 and the start of 2020 speaking to teachers. “My discussions highlighted lots of the same things the 2021 Lit in Colour report did: lack of time, budget and teaching resources to introduce new texts, as well as sometimes a lack of teacher confidence in delivering material or knowing which books to start with,” she says.

Work got underway, starting with a new twice-yearly recommendation lists for teachers highlighting further reading they may wish to recommend to students for their coursework or bring into classroom discussions. These lists aim to “highlight contemporary and forgotten classics with a particular eye on authorial diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexuality”, and was launched in July 2020 when the murder of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests encouraged more teachers and students to ask OCR if there was space to make changes.

“We had a really thoughtful and comprehensive letter from a Year 12 student that really emphasised the need for a long-term commitment to making changes now, as well as at the next point of reform,” says Woodger.

The process of choosing new texts for an exam board can be complex, and Woodger and Nolan set up an external panel of experts to review their exam specifications and text choices. “We wanted the panel to represent teachers currently working within schools, those working to diversify school curricula, those specialising in Black British and World Literature, as well as those who worked in Initial Teacher Training,” Woodger explains.

Texts were selected on a number of considerations, primarily literary value as well as how well they worked for an exam setting. They also had to fit the requirements stated by Ofqual and the Department of Education, such as GCSE students studying fiction or drama from 1914 onwards. “Any new text needs to be accessible but also able to stretch and challenge,” Woodger says. “Our chosen play, Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking, does this really well. The action switches between two living room settings and follows a linear structure, while the exploration of generational and cultural clashes, and the search for identity and belonging are relevant and engaging. 

“For us it really wasn’t a matter of steering away from anything and rather looking toward ensuring that authors of colour, particularly women, were better reflected in these new selections than they have been in the past.”

'We had a really thoughtful and comprehensive letter from a Year 12 student that really emphasised the need for a long-term commitment to making changes now'

Some of the new A Level texts added by OCR include Passing by Nella Larsen, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower , The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon and Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other.

Work, of course, is still ongoing. Lewis says that while hundreds of schools registered interest in the Pioneer programme, “when it came down to actually making that commitment, to change the set texts, quite a significant portion of people were unable to, for a number of reasons.” Working on closing that gap, she says, is the next step.

But already the changes are being felt, not least where it really matters – in the classroom. Lewis says: “The feedback we got was one of the students saying, ‘Oh my god, miss, I can’t believe I get to read this book for my GCSE!’ I thought, well, there you go. You can’t ask more than that, can you?”

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more