Many GCSE pupils never study a book by a black author

Report highlights rarity of BAME writers in GCSE English literature syllabus of exam board AQA

Pupils could complete their GCSEs and leave secondary school in England without studying a novel or play by a non-white author, research has found.

The largest exam board in the country, AQA, does not feature a single book by a black author among set texts for its GCSE English literature syllabus, according to a report by the education charity Teach First.

More than half a million pupils sit AQA GCSE English literature every year – 80% of candidates. The AQA syllabus features just two novels by non-white authors – Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Students are currently required to study one Shakespeare play, one 19th-century novel from a selection including Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, one modern text from a selection including Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, and one poetry selection.

“There is no doubt that pupils should continue to learn from – and enjoy – the kinds of literary classics they already study today,” the report says, but the curriculum fails to represent “the multitude of perspectives and backgrounds that make up our country’s diverse population”.

AQA said it was reviewing the content of its English GCSE but pointed out that in addition to Syal and Ishiguro, there were four other writers included in anthologies on the curriculum [see footnote].

“We completely agree that students should learn about a diverse range of writers,” a spokesperson said. “We’re actually already reviewing equality, diversity and inclusion in our English literature GCSE and other qualifications to make sure they’re as representative as possible of modern Britain.

“However, it’s wrong to suggest that our set texts don’t feature any black authors – or that, in a normal year, students might not study any BAME writers.”

He noted Claudette Williams’ presence in the curriculum’s short-story anthology, and added that the poetry anthologies contain BAME authors, “so regardless of other selections made by teachers of what their students will study, they will study work by a BAME, non-white author”.

Teach First is calling for exam boards to guarantee at least a quarter of authors in their GCSE English literature specifications are from BAME backgrounds. It says additional funding must be available to train and support teachers so they are equipped to explore racism appropriately with their pupils, and a fund should be set up to help schools to buy books by ethnic minority authors.

Jason Arthur, a Teach First trustee, said: “I left school without studying a single book by a black author. Many years on, and in the wake of worldwide attention on the Black Lives Matters movement, it’s a tragedy that this is still the case for many young people today.”

Djamila Boothman, an English teacher and assistant headteacher at Woodside high school in Haringey, north London, who contributed to the report, said: My catchphrase at school is ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’, and that wholeheartedly applies throughout all of education – from what you’re learning, to who is teaching you.

“Changing the English curriculum to include more positive representations of all heritages would ensure that our young people are proud of where they come from and strengthen their relationships with other cultures.”

The Department for Education was contacted for comment.

Recommended reads by BAME authors

Andrea Levy
Andrea Levy. Her book Small island ‘provides context for the lived experiences of so many’. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty

Boothman recommends pupils read:

Akala – Natives Akala’s personal appraisal of Britain’s relationship to race and class engages with students on their level and should become an essential part of rebalanced English courses, she says. “I think it’s important that there is a text out there that promises light at the end of the tunnel.”

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Boothman believes this work acts as a primer for students trying to articulate what racism is. “Having a text that says the things that they may be feeling or thinking in print, I think there’s a lot of power in that,” she says.

Andrea Levy – Small Island Fiction can be even more powerful than fact, says Boothman. She includes the Windrush-era story because it “provides context for the lived experiences of so many”.

George the Poet – My City Boothman includes work from George the Poet and John Agard, pairing George the Poet’s My City with William Blake’s London. She says that makes Blake come alive to her London students, who see his ode to the capital differently after engaging with My City.

John Agard – Checking out me history The poem offers an accessible way into an often untold black history with its references to Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Zulu leader Shaka, Boothman says. The use of patois is also important for her: “A lot of the time when you do things like John Agard, the student who gets to be the expert in that lesson – whose granny talks like that – is often the student who’s usually in trouble.”

• This article was amended on 30 September 2020. Headings and a sentence in text were corrected to reflect the study’s finding on the absence of books by black authors (as distinct from work in other literary forms by the wider group of BAME writers. Contrary to earlier headings and the text sentence, some of these do appear in the AQA syllabus). Further detail from AQA was inserted to note the syllabus presence of a Claudette Williams short story in Telling Tales, the AQA Anthology of Modern Short Stories. Two exam-board poetry anthologies include BAME writers Daljit Nagra, John Agard and Imtiaz Dharker.


Sally Weale and Lanre Bakare

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