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Opinion – More diverse literature is needed in schools

Gen Z are asking to read more literature that accurately represents them. An estimated 34.4% of school age children in England identify as black, Asian, or minority ethnic, it is time the curriculum represented their voices.

Research suggests that only 1% of GCSE English students study a book by an author of colour.

The study was commissioned by Penguin Random House and race equality institute the Runnymede Trust. It reported a very low amount of English Literature students study a book by an author of colour and only 7% study a book by a woman.

English Literature remains a compulsory subject at GCSE throughout the UK. It’s of vital importance that the curriculum begins to represent those reading it.

Multiple authors and teachers have joined in the call for a more representative curriculum. Benjamin Zephaniah, a British writer and dub poet, has spoken publicly about the need for more diversity in GCSE texts. You can watch his interview here.

Zephaniah is known for his involvement in multiple literary movements, from the Rastafari movement to Postmodernism, and as an author of poetry and teen fiction he would be an excellent candidate to be added to the curriculum.

While there are teachers supporting this call to action, they claim it is a lack of time, budget, and resources that has left them reluctant to stray from the usual books offered by the curriculum.

There is little to no training offered to educators on how to discuss race in the classroom despite the increase in diversity amongst their students.

Burhana Islam, author of Mayhem Mission and a secondary school teacher, told i that there are changes being made in primary schools and Key Stage 3.

She said that educators in that sector are ‘enriching their curriculums with texts that explore racial identity in its various forms’, though also noted that ‘KS4 (the GCSE cohort) is falling far behind.’

Islam relates to the struggle teachers face with a lack of resources that offer diverse characters. ‘Teachers not only need access to diverse books, but they need the time and training to deliver them with justice. The funding isn’t there and it’s just not happening.’

‘I find myself teaching An Inspector Calls, Macbeth, and the likes because I have years’ worth of accumulated resources that will ensure my students not only perform well, but by extension have better access to life opportunities by doing so.’

The study performed by Penguin Random House and the Runnymede Trust reported that 0.1% of students answered a GCSE exam question on Anita and Me, the only novel written by a woman of colour to be offered.

Penguin and Runnymede have made efforts to address the diversity issue within0 education and have donated 60,000 books to schools across the country.

The question remains, however – will teachers be provided enough training on texts such as Anita and Me to offer students the same level of resources available for classic texts like Macbeth?

Dr Zaahida Nabagereka, one of the co-authors of the study, stated that ‘our research showed more white students wanted to see more representation, especially in schools in majority-white areas.’

As a vastly diverse country it should be a priority for the education system to reflect the society its students are a part of.

Sareeta Domingo, author of Who’s Loving You, supported the need for representation from the students point of view.

‘When children in their formative years are not able to see themselves reflected in the literature they are studying, or aren’t reading books by authors that understand their own experiences, I believe it’s genuinely dangerous.’

‘It tells students of colour that they are not worthy of being centralised, that their stories don’t matter— and it says the same to their white counterparts. This can lead to the kinds of systemic inequalities we’ve seen proliferated in society for decades.’

Gen Z want to see themselves represented in the classroom. Literature should speak to them on a personal level.

The Arts have recently suffered government budget cuts to shift focus on less creative areas, mainly within STEM. Yet, English Literature remains compulsory at GCSE, and should be receiving adequate funding and resources in order to provide a multicultural and modern experience.

Perhaps Robin Williams said it best in Dead Poets Society. ‘Medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.’

Here is hoping Gen Z students write the verse of change, diversity, and representation. Now is the time for students to see themselves in the literature that is moulding them.