Increasing diversity across the curriculum is about far more than making more texts available, writes Katy Lewis. It requires a long-term commitment to change

When students are exposed to literature from a variety of authors from different backgrounds, it benefits everyone. They should be able to read about issues they can engage with and relate to, and they should be exposed to writers, protagonists and narratives that challenge their experiences. After all, that’s literature’s power – to develop empathy and the ability to view the world from a broader range of perspectives.

That’s not just a statement of opinion. Research shows that diversity in the classroom builds better thinkers, improves academic outcomes, increases tolerance, builds stronger communities, develops successful employees and ultimately leads to a happier life. Diversity, inclusion and belonging matter. The impact of the choices we make about the literature we put in front of young people can last a lifetime.

Diversity goes beyond colour and ethnic backgrounds. It includes customs, cultural and religious experiences, political views, sexual orientation, and more. Literature has an important part to play in normalising and celebrating presence but the volume and quantity of what is out there can make getting the curriculum right a challenge.

More than that, achieving inclusion is a complicated endeavour because it’s not just about making the right texts of the right quality available; it’s also about how they are used.

Ensuring representation at key stage four is now part of our normal practice

As an exam board, we constantly review and analyse our qualifications to check they are and remain fit for purpose, so in 2017 we embarked on a period of research with teachers and stakeholders to look at diversity in English literature. The statistics showed clearly why a change was needed. For a start, we knew that white people read more books than other demographics. In 2018, we learned that more children’s books were published featuring an animal main character than Black, Latin, Native or Asian children. And LGBTQ+ books for kids and teens still account for only a very small portion of the overall industry.

For two years, we have sought out texts by a diverse range of British authors that adhere to the parameters of what a GCSE text must be and do. That’s how in 2019 we were able to add added two new novels, two plays and a poetry collection to our Edexcel GCSE English literature specification.

But beyond simply reviewing the texts that are available to centres, ensuring representation at key stage four is now part of our normal practice. Yes, we are extremely proud that 27 per cent of our GCSE texts are written by authors from ethnic minority backgrounds, but we are committed to maximising all areas of diversity in curriculum, so we have planned to continue to engage students and teachers through webinars, conferences and training to be part of building a more inclusive education system.

Society is recognising the need for change. Figures, trends and patterns of systematic exclusion have emerged that have begun to infiltrate our collective consciousness. Together, we can and must drive forward improvements.

We have hosted our first #DiversityinLit conference, at which students and teachers engaged in rich conversations about the need for greater diversity and how to achieve it. In January, educators, charities, publishers and leading influencers came together for our first roundtable to explore the power of stories and the need to affect change.

Covid may change their nature, but it will not stop more such events from going ahead. This month, we will be offering a free ‘Diversifying your curriculum’ webinar hosted by Bennie Kara, founder of DiverseEd. And in 2021 and beyond, we will offer also offer a programme of support and resources for teachers to push forward with diversifying their curriculum.

Because schools must do more to foster diversity, inclusion and belonging, but they can’t be expected to do it alone. And exam boards should make it easier for teachers to use diverse texts, but they can’t stop there.