Campaign launches to diversify English literature in schools

The campaign led by the Runnymede Trust and publishers Penguin Random House is backed by Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo

Penguin Random House and The Runnymede Trust have launched a project to diversify English literature and give young people access to books by authors from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

The UK’s largest book publisher is supporting the country’s leading race equality thinktank to challenge racial inequality in English literature education. The project will review the teaching of literature in schools and aims to give students access to more books written by a diverse range of authors.

The three major English exam boards offer teachers a choice of 65 novels and plays; 56 are by white authors. Of the nine works by black, Asian or minority ethnic authors, four were introduced only last year.

The partnership, Lit in Colour, has commissioned researchers to review the “current state” of English literature education. Experts from the University of Oxford department of education, including Professor Velda Elliott, Lesley Nelson-Addy and Kelsey Inouye, will publish a report in the summer of 2021.

The researchers will consider the contents of the curriculum and gather the views of teachers, parents and young people. The report will make “practical recommendations” on how to diversify English literature at all levels and will coincide with “an extensive programme of practical support” for teachers run by Penguin and Runnymede, said organisers.

Support available will include teacher training, book donations, digital materials and author events.

I am hopeful that the impact of the report will be seismic, and I feel positive that the measures put in place to offer schools literature that better reflects our society will expand and enrich young people’s ideas about our country and the world Bernardine Evaristo, Booker prize-winning author

Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “From Jane Austen to Benjamin Zephaniah, English literature has a crucial role in educating our children and shaping their notion of national identity. The books our youngsters study in class must offer a shared sense of belonging to ethnic minority and white British children alike, and it is imperative that our children can recognise themselves in the written word, as part of our nation’s story.

“It is a sad reality that the dearth of ethnic minority authors, dramatists and poets means that our national curriculum fails to offer a true reflection of UK society, our bond to the Commonwealth and our migration story, which underpin the rich tapestry of our country’s diversity.

“By partnering with Penguin on ‘Lit in Colour’ we hope that the teaching of English literature in our classrooms can fire our children’s collective imagination and embed into our national consciousness the lived experience of millions more of our children and their families, whose stories and voices enrich the canon of English literature and continue to shape our national identity.”

Penguin published an “accelerated inclusion strategy” in July 2020 and acknowledges “it needs to make greater and deeper progress in addressing inequalities in the publishing industry”. The Penguin strategy outlines a commitment that its new writers will be representative of UK society by 2023, with black writers accounting for at least 5% of newly published Penguin works.

Bernardine Evaristo, Booker prize-winning author of Girl, Woman, Other, said: “This is an incredibly important, exciting and essential initiative that aims to redress an education system overwhelmingly delivered through a white filter that marginalises and excludes people of colour.

“I am hopeful that the impact of the report will be seismic, and I feel positive that the measures put in place to offer schools literature that better reflects our society will expand and enrich young people’s ideas about our country and the world, as they engage with a rich array of experiences and perspectives, and through this deepen their understanding of our shared humanity.”


Read more: Why diversity and inclusion should be a key focus in schools

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