Future terms: Increasing racial diversity in the literature we teach
Did you know, a pupil can finish school having never encountered a single book written by an ethnic minority author? Watch experts discuss how we can solve this.
This panel aired on 3 November 2020:
Lord Jim Knight - Chief Education Advisor at Tes
- Joanne Benjamin-Lewis - School Partnerships Lead at Teach First
- Kwame Boateng - Educator at The Black Curriculum
- Djamila Boothman - English Teacher and Assistant Headteacher at Woodside High School
- Katy Lewis - Head of English, Drama and Languages at Pearson Edexcel
Words from the research team
This year has been a tumultuous one, and one that has encouraged much reflection across society. This is the case especially in education, where the consequences of COVID-19 sparked new conversations about existing inequalities, and the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement raised questions about what is taught and valued in schools and the education system overall.
Teach First joined these conversations, and we are particularly aware of our responsibilities as a provider of teacher and leadership training. We must make sure our programmes make a positive difference and help unlock the potential in all children, not just some. You can read more about the efforts made so far, particularly to enhance our focus on racial equality here.
But beyond our own programmes we also want to contribute to broader conversations on how to build a fair education for all. Many of our ambassadors and partner schools want to engage with these discussions and share their wealth of expertise. This is why we published Missing Pages: Increasing racial diversity in the literature we teach. It outlines how few options there are for schools who want to introduce their pupils to a more diverse range of authors, and what could be done to change this. Most importantly, it provides a platform for four English teachers to share why this topic matters to them, and how they have introduced their students to more ethnic-minority authors despite existing constraints.
Last Tuesday, we brought together a group of fantastic experts to discuss not just this issue, but how it can be solved. Whether representing an exam board, civil society or a school, every panellist agreed that it matters enormously who and what we introduce pupils to from a young age. As Djamila Boothman, an ambassador and Assistant Headteacher, emphasised: “We need to reinforce the idea that young people can be whatever they want to be” – to her, this includes showing students that people of colour are successful authors.
A big theme was the symbolism of adding works by ethnic minority authors to set text lists. According to Katy Lewis from Pearson this is a way of challenging what we mean when we use words like ‘canonical’ and describe works as part of the British literary heritage. Kwame Boateng from the Black Curriculum added the importance of diversifying how we define poetry, where students’ perspectives could be broadened significantly by considering calypso, spoken word and rap alongside more traditional material.
One consistent feature of the discussion was the optimism shared by all participants. Joanne Benjamin-Lewis, a former English teacher and now at Teach First, said she had seen significant changes in literature for younger children, indicating a real willingness on the side of schools to diversify literature. Secondary schools may face greater challenges, but the entire panel believed that things are already changing, and that this year’s attention and pressure will make a positive long-term difference.
- Emilie Sundorph, Policy Officer at Teach First
More panels are coming soon:
We also recommend you look at our Missing Pages library, filled with book recommendations from our community for more diverse English literature lessons, and read our latest insight into the lack of BAME school leaders.