The ethnic diversity of the pupil population in independent schools has risen significantly in recent years. In 2018, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) found that a third of pupils at schools with ISC membership were from a minority ethnic background. Much like their state or grammar counterparts, independent schools tend to represent the communities they serve.
While encouraging the exposure of pupils to a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds is undoubtedly an essential part of a child’s education, it appears that the books we are using to help children develop a passion for reading and writing do not reflect the reality of the world that they live in.
A recent study from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education shows that of the 11,011 children’s titles published in 2018 only 7% featured black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) characters. Only 4% of those books had any BAME lead characters at all, compared to 33.1% of school children of minority ethnic origins.
Books and stories undoubtedly shaped the person I am today, raising my expectations, broadening my horizons and firing my imagination. Growing up in Haringey, North London, books were a window into other worlds, but rarely a reflection of my own childhood.
The books that did feature characters that looked like me tended to be set in the past or were stories of struggle or adversity. As a child I longed to see contemporary characters that looked like me. Girls like me having fun, going to spy school, flying on broomsticks or vanquishing dragons. 30 years on, things are getting better but there is still a long way to go.
Of course all children deserve to be valued and celebrated, but improving inclusivity in children’s books is not just about doing the right thing. It is also about doing the right thing for storytelling, giving readers the richest possible tapestry of characters, experiences and places to encourage curiosity about the world and the people that live in it.
I firmly believe in the importance of children reading for pleasure and have no doubt that offering a curriculum that features more characters from diverse backgrounds can help to encourage more children to discover the wonder of reading.
A love of reading opens so many doors. Books laid a path that took me from social housing to Oxford. It facilitated my career as a publisher and author and allows me the freedom to visit schools across the country to teach creative writing.
A love of reading opens so many doors. Books laid a path that took me from social housing to Oxford
It is vital that books are used to create heroes for every child and that every child gets to be seen as a hero by those in a school and at home.
Understandably, teachers are not always able to prioritise time for reading for pleasure in the curriculum, but it is important that they develop a strong reading ethos throughout the school.
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As well as reading aloud and encouraging reading for pleasure, greater emphasis needs to be placed on creating frequent, sustained and regular opportunities for talking about the books children are reading. This is particularly important for children who find reading difficult. It helps to generate a supportive environment in which children can begin to understand the meaning behind the words they are reading and share ideas and experiences around the issues covered.
Without books and stories encouraging my curiosity about the world and people that live in it, I would not be in the position that I am today. We owe it to the next generation to provide books that reflect and celebrate all.