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Lit in Colour is brightening up the school curriculum

Lit in Colour is a Penguin Publishing Group campaign run in partnership with The Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading race equality think tank, and various educational institutions. It’s been created to explore how schools can be helped to make English Literature classes more inclusive for authors of colour. It has commissioned a research report to shine a light on barriers preventing more books by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers from being taught in the classroom. What were the conclusions of this research and what are the recommendations for increasing students’ access to books by writers of colour?

1. What’s causing a lack of representation?

In the first phase of the Lit in Colour campaign, a team of academic experts carried out research to gain a better understanding of the barriers that are preventing more diverse texts from being taught in schools. Hundreds of teachers and school librarians in primary and secondary schools across the country were consulted as well as hundreds of young people. Data from exam boards was collected to determine which specific texts young people were selecting in their GCSE and A-Level exams.

Here we summarize the findings of the research.

Confidence in talking about race in the classroom

Both students and teachers reported that they expect the teacher to be an expert on racism and diversity, and to have had training. However, only 12% of secondary and 13% of primary school teachers reported having had any training on how to talk about race in the classroom as part of their teacher training course. A number of teachers said they weren’t confident talking about racism in classes where their pupils might have had personal experiences, for fear of overstepping boundaries or causing offence. Many said they didn’t know where to find books that are appropriate for lessons and lacked knowledge about how to use them in the classroom.

Lack of time, budget and teaching resources

Even after exam boards have introduced more options in order to include diverse texts, this doesn’t necessarily translate into change in the classroom. Schools choose texts that other schools choose, so that they can be sure of plentiful shared resources. Ready-made school resources, which staff often rely on, rarely focus on diverse texts. Furthermore, tight budgets can prevent many schools from buying a range of diverse books for their library or new texts for a year group to study.

English teachers are overwhelmingly white

85.7% of teachers in England were white British in 2019, with a further 3.8% white other, while 92.7% of head teachers were white British. 46% of schools have no Black, Asian or minority ethnic teachers. This is in stark contrast to the 34.4% of students in England that are Black, Asian or minority ethnic.

Finding representative books

Primary school teachers in particular reported struggling to find ‘everyday’ narratives featuring characters of colour. Books tended either to be about exceptional people or to have experiences of racism or ‘struggle’ as their core narrative.

2. What needs to change, and who needs to change it?

The second phase of the Lit in Colour campaign involves finding practical solutions and recommendations in relation to these complex issues. Below you can find suggestions for students, teachers, parents and supporters.

For students

Students are urged to read a book by a writer of colour, or to start a book club with their friends that focuses on books by Black, Asian or minority ethnic writers. To help them, Lit in Colour provides a practical guide:

Starting a conversation with teachers and librarians is also a great way to help. Pointers are provided on the online platform:

Lit in Colour also tries to connect with young students via social media. It has a TikTok account run by three women of colour who share book recommendations and other resources in a playful and engaging way.

For parents and supporters

Parents are advised to take a look at their own child’s bookshelves to see how many books they have by Black, Asian or minority ethnic writers. For younger children it’s important to look at how many of their books feature a main character who is non-white.

Parents can find an inclusive reading list in the Penguin webshop.

For teachers

Lit in Colour has developed two (as yet incomplete) booklists for teachers who don’t know where to find the right books: a reading list for key stage 2 (8-11 years) and one for key stage 3-5 (12-18 years). The reading lists include multimedia for the books that are listed. Videos, PowerPoints and accompanying activity sheets, as well as excerpts from the book read by the author, are intended to help students read and learn in a more engaging way.

Lit in Colour’s involvement doesn’t end with recommendations and online tools. A core part of the campaign is a commitment to a long-term programme of practical support for teachers and school librarians. This includes:

- Donating books to schools across the country.

- Working in partnership with the Pearson exam board, the campaign is using the ‘Lit in Colour Pioneers’ programme to encourage schools to opt to use a book by a writer of colour in their lessons.

- Joining forces with publisher Bloomsbury to introduce new plays and teacher support that will create more representative and inclusive drama experiences within the English curriculum.

While much of the debate has focused on changes to the history curriculum, it is important to consider English literature as well. Lit in Colour is committed to maintaining its support for schools as they make these changes.

Want to learn more about the report? You can read the summary here, or download the full report at the end of the page.

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