Diversifying literature is a collective responsibility – and it works

4 Jul 2021, 5:00

The lack of diversity in the English literature curriculum is less pervasive than it was, but a new report shows how far we still have to go, writes Caren Onanda

I have always loved discovering the world through reading. It’s one of the reasons why I became a teacher. However, there was always something missing from my literary experience, and it wasn’t until I grew older that I started to understand and address it.

Now, 14 years into my career, and as an English teacher and pastoral leader at a very multicultural school, I dedicate a lot of my time to working with my colleagues and external organisations to extend the range of opportunities available to our students.

Be it through the curriculum, enrichment or interventions, we need to reflect the rich diversity of society in the educational experience our students have. In our English department, we have brought in books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas for year 9s. Poet, Inua Ellams, broadcaster, Afua Hirsch and writer, Nels Abbey are among a wide range of writers we’ve invited to work with our students.

And they really value the space to have important discussions about society, politics and identity among other topics. When the content reflects the students, the impact is that they engage more – in the study of literature as well as society at large. We’ve found they’re more likely to pick English at A-level too.

So we’re making progress, but when it comes to examined elements we still find ourselves more constrained. Stories about people of colour often revolve around tales of pain, anguish and death. Where are the books by and about people of colour just having normal lives? We have to be bolder in our pursuit of change. Diversifying the texts and authors that all children study can only enrich and empower their lives.

Luckily, I had access to diverse literature – but only at home

Introducing a new book can often mean creating a new scheme of work, new lesson plans and resources. That’s one of the biggest hurdles, but the pay-off for students is huge. At least we can mostly count on parental support, which perhaps some can’t. These are the schools and communities where the work of creating these opportunities needs to happen most.

I was born in Kenya and moved to the UK at the age of five, going to school in Newcastle (where my father completed his PhD) and in Edinburgh, from the age of 14. My formal UK schooling lacked any diversity in the texts we studied. Luckily, I had access to diverse literature and learning opportunities – but only at home.

It was only when I went to university, and then when I trained as a teacher, that I fully realised how entrenched that lack of diversity was. I started to make a more concerted effort to read books from diverse authors in my 20s. But when I studied for a Masters in contemporary literature, I realised I still had not read enough – or even heard of Critical Race Theory.

How could I have got through so much of my education without anybody bringing these diverse concepts and texts to my attention? The absence of diversity in literature is simply that pervasive.

I’m glad that the work of activists and educators over time is bringing about change. We’re finally talking about decolonising the curriculum. We’re looking at the diversity of our workforce. We’re analysing the results of different ethnic and socioeconomic groups and asking tough questions. Schools are beginning to do the work.

And they are being supported in the effort. Penguin Random House and The Runnymede Trust, for example, have teamed up with individuals and groups who have been campaigning for educational reform for years to create the Lit in Colour initiative. Its first report is out this week and it makes for sobering reading.

So, diversifying literature (and the rest of the curriculum) is finally being seen as a collective responsibility. But there’s still a lot of work to be done before the young people we teach, who love to discover the world through reading, do so without a gap they’ll be left to fill in for themselves later.


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