“Literature is a curator of our imaginations, and schools are the caretakers of our young people’s education.
They are currently being denied access to the glorious, outstanding and often ground-breaking narratives coming out of Britain's Black and Asian communities.”
Bernardine Evaristo, author
About Lit in Colour
Books create belonging. They help us see each other and understand one another. They shine a light on the world.
It’s vital that the books we read in our formative years reflect the rich diversity of the society we live in.
Lit in Colour was created in 2020 by Penguin Books UK and race equality think tank, The Runnymede Trust. At Penguin our mission is ‘we make books for everyone, because a book can change anyone’, yet we know that barely any young people are being given the opportunity to read and study books by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers.
Through Lit in Colour our aim is to support schools in the UK to make the teaching and learning of English literature more inclusive. This includes commissioning research to better understand barriers and possible solutions, as well as providing practical support including book donations, free teaching resources and more.
Our Lit in Colour research has found that there is systematic underrepresentation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers in the school curriculum, relative to both to their place in contemporary British literary excellence and compared to the demographics of the school population.
Some children will never study a text by a writer of colour, apart from a handful of poems as part of their GCSE English literature classes.
We also discovered that, at most, 7% of students in England were studying a text by a woman for their English literature GCSE, and just 0.1% a text by a woman of colour. While Lit in Colour focuses primarily on connecting students with more Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, we have been mindful of intersectionality throughout the research process. Intersectionality refers to how different social categorisations like gender and race interact and overlap with one another.
What did our research involve?
Penguin and The Runnymede Trust commissioned a team of academic experts to carry out research to better understand what the barriers might be preventing more diverse texts from being taught in school, and to make practical recommendations for change.
To inform the findings of this research we consulted hundreds of teachers and school librarians in primary and secondary schools across the country, from Teignmouth to Tynemouth.
We also asked hundreds of young people about their own thoughts and feelings on the English literature curriculum. And we collected data from exam boards too to find out which specific texts young people were selecting in their GCSE and A Level exams.
While the research focused on schools in England, many of the findings will be relevant to the whole of the UK.
Why does this matter?
"I think it helps people understand societies and themselves better. The questions of identity it raises are of extreme importance. Studying others is key to studying yourselves and literature is all about the representation of things."
While much of debate around what is taught in school has focused on History, it’s vital that we consider English literature too – especially as it is a mandatory subject until GCSE.
After all, books and reading have a unique role to play in increasing empathy and understanding.
"There is a strong moral imperative in English to explore opinions and empathy – it is the only subject where students are asked to step into someone else’s shoes and identify with their emotions."
70% of young people taking part in our nationwide survey agreed that diversity is part of British society and should be represented in the school curriculum, rising to 77% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic young people.
"I feel like it’s not a good representation of the population, most books taught in school are written by middle class White men."
We found that schools with less diverse student communities were also keen to make changes.
"The demographic of our students and local community is almost exclusively White British, resulting in a lack of knowledge and understanding of anybody from minority ethnic backgrounds. The limits of our students' world is the end of the village. I feel that the texts delivered have only served to further alienate our students from the study of English and strengthened their belief that it is of little relevance to them and their lives."
Who decides which books are taught in school?
The government: sets out what must be taught for each age group or ‘Key Stage’ in England. At GCSE this includes one text by Shakespeare, a selection of poetry since 1789, a 19th century novel and a British play or novel written after 1914.
Exam boards: offer a range of options for set texts within these government boundaries. For example, the biggest exam board for English literature AQA includes Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre as options in the 19thCentury novel category. All of the set texts chosen by exam boards are approved by Ofqual, the national agency that regulates exams and qualifications.
Schools: choose which exam board they want to use for English literature, and within that decide which set text they want to teach their students each year.
Lit in Colour encompasses how literature is experienced by students from the age of 7 in primary school, until the end of sixth form or college. Alongside the texts studied for exams, we also looked at how students encounter literature through their school library, or through topic-based learning in primary school.
Barrier: confidence in talking about race in the classroom
"The palpable tension in the class suggested to me that we were not used to talking about race in this personal and confrontational manner. But if we couldn’t address, unpick and learn about what made these issues so intensely uncomfortable to begin with, how could we learn at all?"
One of the main themes identified in our research was teachers’ perceptions of their own lack of knowledge, which prevents them from adding more diverse texts to the curriculum.
This fell into two categories: first, where to start finding the books and choosing ones which were appropriate for teaching; and, second, the secure knowledge of how to teach them.
"Subject knowledge is a huge barrier to instigating change: primary teachers are generalists – there is so much anxiety getting on top of the technicalities of curricular teaching that diversification efforts seem like the ‘cherry on top of the icing of the cake’."
One issue is the expectation that the teacher should be an expert, an expectation held by both students and teachers.
A number of teachers we spoke to said they weren’t confident talking about racism in classes where their pupils might have had personal experience, for fear of over-stepping or offending.
Anti-racist education puts a strong emphasis on giving authority to the lived experience of those who have experienced racism, and it is important to offer pupils the opportunity to speak and to believe them when they do. On the other hand, it is also important not to treat individual pupils as ambassadors for the racial group to which they belong, and not to demand that they educate you and your students, as several teachers responding to our survey also identified. The balance is evidently a difficult one to maintain.
Opportunity: teaching ‘the literary canon’
Particularly important and influential books can often be referred to as 'the canon' or 'canonical texts'. Many classic canonical texts such as Dickens, Austen and Brontë have a strong place in the curriculum, and rightly so.
Our recommendations do not make the case for the removal of classic texts, but rather encourage these texts to be taught in a way that fully acknowledges and engages with their socio-historical contexts.
It’s also important to remember that canonical texts can and do engage with issues of race, including those penned by White authors.
Part of the context in which many canonical novels were written is the heyday of the British Empire, and a truly in-depth knowledge of those novels incorporates that context and the way that it affects the text and its interpretation. For example, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is racialised as ‘Other’, which is an important part of his characterisation and the way that others react to him. As an orphan from Liverpool, he might be Black, Mixed Race or Irish, all of which were racialised as ‘Other’ in the 19th century. This context is important to explore for a thorough knowledge of the text.
From Jane Eyre’s mixed race Bertha Mason, to Great Expectations’ dependence on transportation and the opportunities for wealth provided by settler colonialism, to the depictions of Indians in The Sign of Four, understandings of race, racism, and the British Empire are key to better knowledge and teaching of the 19th century British novel.
What’s causing the lack of representation?
Barrier: lack of time, budget and teaching resources
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest barriers to introducing new texts into the curriculum is teachers’ lack of time and resources. Schools have been under pressure like never before after years of curriculum change, and more recently with the extraordinary impact of COVID-19.
Even when exam boards have introduced more options for diverse texts, like Pearson Edexcel who added a number of new texts in 2019, this doesn’t necessarily translate to change in the classroom.
One teacher we spoke to, a Vice Principal and former Head of English, noted that although her school were impressed by the new Pearson Edexcel text choices, they would be unlikely to teach them in the short term because of the lack of resources and support for those texts. She argued that schools choose texts that other schools choose, so that they can guarantee plentiful resources shared online: ‘you can get a robust quiz on An Inspector Calls in 2 minutes.’
For primary schools, the curriculum allows more flexibility and so we found that there was in general more diversity in texts taught (only 8 out of 78 primary teachers told us they taught no books by authors of colour to their students). That said, we also discovered that some of the ready-made primary school resources available from teaching sites were rarely focused on diverse texts, and that this was a challenge when staff sometimes relied on these sites for the basis of their planning.
For many schools, budgets are tight and so money can also be a barrier preventing schools from buying a range of new books for their library or purchasing new texts for a year group to study.
Barrier: English teachers are overwhelmingly White
The most recent data on the racial profile of the teaching profession shows that 85.7% of teachers in England were White British in 2019, with a further 3.8% White Other, and that 92.7% of head teachers were White British.
Our Lit in Colour research suggests that there is a particular lack of representation among English teachers in comparison to teachers of other subjects, but government data doesn’t currently include subject-specific information.
*Source: Tereschenko et al
Barrier: finding representative books
"We only did diversity during Black History Month and haven't done much since with diverse novels."
A number of teachers said they struggled to find a representative range of titles for all age groups.
Primary school teachers in particular reported struggling to find ‘everyday’ narratives featuring characters of colour; books tended to be either about exceptional people or have experiences of racism or ‘struggle’ as their core narrative.
Poetry is often the place most students encounter writing by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers as part of the curriculum. The combination of social reproduction of canon and a greater range of representation in poetry means that without concerted effort, poetry will remain the ‘home’ of diverse writers on the curriculum, and as a result Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers will see poetry as their viable outlet, creating a vicious circle.
Our research also underlined the vital role of school libraries in stocking a wide range of extracurricular books for students to discover on their own terms.
Publishers also have a key role to play in publishing more books written by people from all backgrounds, and the historic lack of representation of children’s books by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers has also contributed to the status quo.
What needs to change, and who needs to change it?
"Urgent and essential efforts to decolonise curriculums might have a better chance of succeeding if they changed their language, if campaigners talked about widening curriculums rather than decolonizing them: for that is what decolonizing involves.
It is entirely possible to teach the canon and also give students a sense of what sits outside it, to teach the extraordinary and prizewinning works of Naipaul, Ishiguro and Zadie Smith, for example, alongside those of Dickens and Joyce."
- Start a conversation about what needs to change
- Share this research on social media using #LitinColour
- Take a look at your own child’s bookshelves to see how many books you have by Black, Asian or minority ethnic writers. If you have a younger child, look at how many of their books feature a main character who is not White? Have this front of mind when you next buy books or borrow from your local library
- Show support for your school teaching diverse texts
- Talk to your children about race and what is, and is not, appropriate
- Read a book by a writer of colour this summer, or start a book club with your friends which centres books by Black, Asian or minority ethnic writers
- Start a conversation with your teachers and librarians (we have some helpful pointers in our hub below)
- Enter our upcoming Lit in Colour competition, which will open this July to anyone age 14 to 18
Teachers and teacher training providers
- We’d recommend you read the report in full, which includes a detailed list of actions teachers and senior leadership can take
- This includes auditing what texts are in your curriculum and classroom, and investing in whole-school anti-racism training
Further research and data
- The government should collect and publish data on the ethnicity of teachers by subject
- There is an urgent need to better understand through further research what impact a more representative English curriculum has on students, both in terms of academic attainment, attitudinal shifts and other outcomes such as enjoyment of reading
- The proportion of students choosing each text at GCSE should be reported as standard for each examination
Exam boards, resource producers and publishers
- Increase the support for the teaching of diverse texts at all ages
- Provide exemplar material including for the highest grades which draw on diverse texts
- Signpost existing resources clearly
- Ensure diverse voices are integrated throughout all resources and publications
For teacher educators and CPD providers
- Strengthen the pipeline of Black English teachers. Target recruitment events at Black students, including those whose degrees are in related subjects to English
- Ensure that there is specific training provided on how to talk about race and racism with pupils as part of initial teacher education
- Ensure that texts by Black, Asian or minority ethnic authors are well represented within teacher training courses, to counter point the likely prior experiences of the cohort
- Training must take account of and provide for the varying experiences and needs of Black, Asian or minority ethnic teachers and students and White teachers and students
One of the recommendations in our Lit in Colour research report is that schools and teachers engage with training around how to talk about race and deal with racism in their school’s culture. Have a look at the links below to get some ideas about how to incorporate anti-racist approaches in your school.
What is Penguin doing to address these issues?
- Donating 60,000 books to schools across the UK this autumn (to register your school, sign up here)
- Publishing free teaching resources
- Teaming up with exam board Pearson Edexcel to incentivise schools across the UK to change the texts they teach at GCSE or A level, reaching 10,000 students
- Supporting our partner exam board OCR to add new, more representative set texts to their curriculum from 2022
- Working with our partners at Oxford University Press to provide more support for primary school teachers
- Committing to become a more inclusive publisher and employer including publishing more books by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers for all ages. Click here to read more about our work in this space.
- Working with our partners at the National Literacy Trust to offer diverse collections of books for primary school libraries and teacher training through our Puffin World of Stories programme
Lit in Colour is powered by an extraordinary team of people, for whose time and input we are so grateful. You can click here to read more about the wider campaign.
Research: Victoria Elliott, Lesley Nelson-Addy, Roseanne Chantiluke, Matthew Courtney
Design: by Taaryn Brench, art direction by Alicia Fernandes and Mica Murphy
Lit in Colour project team: Lucy Anderson, Louisa Burden-Garabedian, Hannah Chukwu, Jess Colman, Rowan Ellis, Sharifah Grant, Zainab Juma, Rohini Kahrs, Alba Kapoor, Zaahida Nabagereka, Kezia Newson, Sam Parker, Siena Parker, Becca Sinclair, Luke Swanson
Partners: Heather Atkinson (OUP), Ruth Carter (OCR), Maeve Dunne (Publishers' Association), Fiona Evans (National Literacy Trust), Katy Lewis (Pearson Edexcel)
Advisory board: Halima Begum (Runnymede), Peter Canning (OCR), Darren Chetty (writer and teacher), Emma Dabiri (Black Writers' Guild), Nandini Das (University of Oxford), Jonathan Douglas (National Literacy Trust), Daniel Fenwick (Primary school teacher), Sharon Hague (Pearson), Caren Onanda (Secondary school teacher), Rachel Roberts (NATE), Lindsay Ruth Davies (NAHT), Tom Weldon (Penguin Random House)