Last week, the education charity Teach First announced that AQA, the largest exam board in the country, does not feature a single black author in its list of GCSE English Literature set texts.
The report concluded that “there is no doubt that pupils should continue to learn from the kinds of literary classics that they already study today” but that the curriculum currently fails to represent “the multitude of perspectives and backgrounds that make up our country’s diverse population.”
Diversifying the curriculum should clearly be a priority, but Teach First’s key recommendation – that at least a quarter of authors in GCSE Literature exam specifications should be from an ethnic minority – is not necessarily a silver bullet either.
The only way to ensure that BAME authors are not only offered, but actually taught, is to take a three-pronged approach: focusing on exam boards, schools, and teachers.
Putting pressure on exam boards
Firstly, the very structure of the GCSE Literature papers limits the opportunities for diversity in the first place. Students sit two papers, the first of which assesses knowledge of a Shakespeare text and a 19th century novel by a British author, and so the choice of texts is automatically limited; the authors will be predominantly white and male by design.
The second paper allows students to study either a modern prose or drama text, and then a choice of poetry anthology. All of the 6 modern playwrights offered are white (with only one female playwright), whilst 2 out of the 5 modern authors are from an ethnic minority (Kazuo Ishiguro and Meera Syal – who is also the only woman.)
Both poetry anthologies contain 15 poems each; the ‘Love and Relationships’ cluster contains 5 poems written by women and only one by an ethnic minority; the ‘Power and Conflict’ one contains 5 poems written by women and 2 by ethnic minorities. Clearly, AQA, which is taken by around 80% of candidates, have got a lot of work to do.
Yet even when exam boards do try to offer a more diverse selection of writers, they don’t always choose the right texts. Last year Edexcel added Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman, Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah and Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin. These are all great texts, but they are not particularly challenging – they should be studied at Key Stage 3, not GCSE.
Jennifer Webb, an English teacher and author of How To Teach English Literature: Overcoming Cultural Poverty, criticised Edexcel for simply deferring to “authors who used to be on the spec before,” and suggested that if they had a better understanding of diaspora literature, they would not keep choosing texts that are “about victimhood” and “writers of colour… having a pity party.”
The importance of text choices
There is a risk that including texts by BAME writers can actually reinforce stereotypes or enforce notions of ‘Otherness,’ and this is why schools need to evaluate their text choices carefully. When I took my GCSEs a decade ago (in a very white, non-diverse independent school in Hertfordshire) I also studied AQA, which included a cluster of poetry titled ‘Poems From Other Cultures’ – a problematic title in and of itself.
This was probably my first introduction to more global literature; Years 7-9 were very focused on reading canonical ‘classics’ like Catcher In The Rye and Lord of the Flies. Whilst my sheltered upbringing definitely needed some more exposure, I’m not sure that studying this anthology was actually that helpful without more context.
Almost all of the poems in the anthology were about powerlessness – whether that be in slavery (Edward Kamau Brathwaite, ‘Limbo’); in apartheid (Tatamkhulu Afrika, ‘Nothing’s Changed’); or due to alienation in Britain (Grace Nichol’s ‘Island Man’). Many of the poems also reinforced stereotypes about poverty in other countries (Imtiaz Dharker ‘Blessing’ and Nissim Ezekial ‘Night of The Scorpion’) rather than questioning social, economic and institutional disadvantages in the UK.
Studying these poems alongside To Kill A Mockingbird (another wonderful book that taught me a lot about tolerance, but also perpetuated a white saviour narrative) was well-intentioned, but it does make me wonder: why aren’t more empowering texts chosen?
How might things have been different if I had studied Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, or Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi?
The role of schools and teachers
We can’t simply scapegoat exam boards; we have to put pressure on schools and teachers too, because the reality is that even if more diverse texts are offered, they are not always chosen. It is all too easy for schools to choose white, male writers across all papers, and many of them do, for a variety of reasons.
For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is by far the most popular choice for the 19th century novel, and the vast majority of schools choose it simply because it is short (around 110 pages) and therefore seen as the most accessible option for students who might struggle with dense Victorian prose. Both schools I have taught at teachers were reluctant to pick Jane Eyre for more able students because they thought its feminist streak would put off male students, and so instead went for Great Expectations.
All teachers, myself included, have unconscious biases when it comes to choosing texts – we choose them because we like them, because we have taught them before, because it’s what we have in the book cupboard and we simply don’t have the budget to buy new books. This is why departments need to come up with a strategy of long-term, collaborative planning, to ensure that diversifying the curriculum happens across all key stages.
Even if AQA are guilty of narrow-mindedness, there are ways in which schools can circumvent these boundaries and open up discussions. For example, for GCSE Language, teachers could use extracts from non-fiction texts such as Akala’s Natives or Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. For A-level English Literature coursework, where students have to write a comparison of two texts, students could compare Andrea Levy’s Small Island and White Teeth by Zadie Smith, or The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon and In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne.
Black History Month is just one month out of twelve, just as GCSEs are just two years within 13 of school education. Diversity needs to be celebrated continuously; we can’t expect short-term exposure to have a long-term impact, nor can we expect exam boards to ‘solve’ the problem entirely. It’s a start, but a holistic approach is needed to stop diversity becoming a ‘tick-box’, tokenistic exercise.
Creating a curriculum that is inclusive and intersectional will not be easy; it will take hard work, imagination, and open dialogues between policymakers, exam boards, teachers, parents, students, and a whole host of other stakeholders.
Michelle Obama said that “It’s up to all of us – black, white, everyone… to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting [racism] out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion and empathy, that manifests in our lives and on our streets.” Where better to hear about different lives, and learn about justice, compassion and empathy, that in the literature we read and love.
Words by Kristina Murkett
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