June 30, 2021
82% of British school children surveyed report never studying Black, Asian, or minority ethnic authors
by Nikki Griffiths
Did you know that a young child from an ethnic minority background is more likely to read a book with an animal protagonist than a human one of their own ethnicity? So reported the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (that covers kids from the ages of 5 to 11), whose research found that only 5% of children’s books published in the UK in 2019 featured a main character who was black, Asian, or minority ethnic (an improvement from a dismal 1% in 2017).
Now new research shows the problem extends to later school life, and the books children study for their GCSE and A Level exams (up to the age of 18) in the UK are far from diverse.
Lit in Colour was created in 2020 by Penguin Books UK and race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust, with the goal to make the teaching and learning of English literature more inclusive. After analysing the texts studied by the 537,355 candidates who took GCSE English literature in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and surveying over 600 children, as well as 242 teachers, they issued the recent report Diversity in Literature in English Schools. Siena Parker, social impact director at Penguin Random House, told The Bookseller:
“We had been interested in this idea of what is taught in schools and how it affects reading for pleasure reads since end of 2019 and mulling it over. With the conversation on inclusivity last summer following the death of George Floyd and the discussion on history, that sped things up for us and made us think: could this be a meaningful long-term legacy that we leave around the wider conversation on race equality?”
“We were surprised by the findings. We had an inkling it would show an underrepresentation but we were pretty blown away about how bad it was.”
The grim results found that 82% of pupils surveyed did not recall ever studying a text by a Black, Asian, or minority ethnic author, only 0.7% of English Literature GCSE students in England studied a book by a writer of colour, and only 7% studied a book by a woman. When it comes to teaching, data collected across the UK in 2019 showed 85.7% of teachers were White British, 92.7% of headteachers were White British and 46% of schools in England had no Black, Asian or minority ethnic teachers.
In her introduction to the Lit in Colour’s report, Booker-winning author Bernardine Evaristo wrote:
It’s shocking that we are still having to advocate for the issue of widening the curriculum in 2021. I finished my school education over 40 years ago and encountered the same limitations. I cannot believe that progress has been so slow. Nor is this a side- issue to the more important issues around education, but it’s a major problem that needs to be addressed now, urgently—or we will continue to fail our children.
“The numbers are shocking … I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it. I’m trying to be heartened by the fact that boards are making much more of an effort to look at this than previously. But it’s absolutely horrendous.”
So what can be done to encourage greater diversity in schools? Recommendations from Lit in Colour’s report include the need for the diversification of the curriculum to be laid out by senior management, schools investing in staff training around anti-racism, teachers auditing what texts are in their curriculum and classrooms, and the government collecting and publishing data on the ethnicity of teachers training by subject. As the report concludes:
Race and racism is largely represented by American texts, or by ‘other cultures’ poetry which focuses on migration and language. For change to happen, there are barriers to overcome, but there are also solutions to those challenges. There has been a clear increase in the momentum towards a more diverse literary curriculum over the last year and there is an opportunity to be seized.
With such little progress seemingly made in the last decade within schools and the school curriculum, let’s hope the next ten see some actual changes happening within UK education.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.