Penguin Random House has joined forces with race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust in a campaign to make English Literature teaching more inclusive.
The Lit in Colour project will explore how to increase student access to books by writers of colour and those from minority ethnic backgrounds, ensuring the subject better reflects culture and society.
It begins by commissioning a major piece of research reviewing the current state of play in English Literature education, building on Runnymede’s previous work on race equality in schools and the history curriculum.
Both PRH and the trust said they had a common concern that books, authors, characters and stories available on the curriculum do not represent the diversity of society or young people's lives. It follows a report by Teach First last month that called for an increase in the representation of ethnic minority authors in English Literature lessons.
Tom Weldon, c.e.o. of PRH UK, said: "At its best, English Literature offers young people a passport to see and understand the world through others' eyes, inspire a lifelong love of reading and a fundamental sense of belonging. Access to a diverse and representative range of books, authors and characters is key — in classrooms, school libraries and at home.
"But the reality is that our young people are still studying a mostly white, mostly male English Literature curriculum: one which neither reflects contemporary society nor inspires a generation to read outside of their classes. We are joining forces with The Runnymede Trust to support the many schools and teachers working hard to make change on the ground, and to better understand the depth and breadth of this issue.”
According to the campaign, across the three major exam boards in England, GCSE English Literature teachers and students can choose from 65 novels and plays. Of those, 56 are written by white authors. Of the nine books written by authors of colour, four were introduced just last year and are unlikely to have been widely adopted. Only one GCSE English Literature specification features a novel or play written by a black author.
Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2020, English Literature recorded the steepest decline in entries of all major A-Level subjects, falling by 25%. Research in 2019 by insight agency On Road for #Merky Books found the books young people study at school can actively put them off reading in later life.
Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “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.”
The research will examine what is currently being taught in English lessons in both primary and secondary schools, gather views from teachers, parents and young people, and make practical recommendations for change. The research, to be published in summer 2021, will be carried out by a team at Oxford University’s Department of Education.
Following those findings, PRH and Runnymede will develop a programme of practical support for teachers, likely to include a range of resources including teacher training, book donations, digital materials and author events. Penguin will look to make them available to teachers from the school year beginning September 2021.
Bernardine Evaristo, Booker Prize winning author of Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton), 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.”
In July, PRH launched its own inclusion strategy in a commitment to become a more inclusive publisher and employer. It included a commitment that new writers it acquires will, at a minimum, be representative of UK society as measured by the 2021 census by 2023, and at least 5% will be black writers.