English exam board doubles choice of books by writers of colour

Pupils taking GCSE and A-level English literature will be able to study more books by writers of colour, after one of the UK’s leading examination boards announced a raft of new texts aimed at increasing diversity in the curriculum.

The new works, which will include the 2019 Booker prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, will mean that 28% of texts available for study for OCR’s GCSE and A-level courses from next September are by writers of colour – the majority of them women – up from 13% beforehand.

The move follows criticism that the curriculum in schools in England is not sufficiently inclusive and needs to adapt to better reflect modern society. OCR is adding five novels at A-level to improve diversity, as well as a new play and new poems for its anthology at GCSE.

A report by the Lit in Colour campaign, launched by the Runnymede Trustand Penguin Random House UK, found that fewer than 1% of English literature students study a book by a writer of colour at GCSE, even though 34% of school students in England are black, Asian or minority ethnic.

Welcoming the development, Evaristo said: “I feel very privileged to know that my work will be taught in schools alongside other books that broaden our understanding of the role of literature in contemporary society, and which explore what it means to be human from multiple, instead of limited, perspectives.”

In addition to Girl, Woman, Other, the new OCR A-level list of novels will include Nella Larsen’s seminal 1929 novella Passing, Octavia Butler’s visionary science fiction novel Parable of the Sower, The Lonely Londoners by Trinidadian author Sam Selvon, and Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic masterpiece Rebecca.

GCSE students meanwhile will be given the opportunity to study Leave Taking by leading black British playwright Winsome Pinnock, as well as an updated selection of poems by a range of writers of colour which will be added to the existing list of set texts.

Pinnock commented: “The play is inspired by my mother who was a Windrush-generation NHS cleaner. I am thrilled that young people will have the opportunity to consider the heroism of that generation of pioneers and the impact on Britain of their quiet sacrifice”.

OCR made its final selection after teachers took part in a vote on which books should be added to the curriculum, from lists drawn up by a panel of experts to showcase more women and black and minority-ethnic writers.

Salman Rushdie’s Shame lost out to du Maurier’s Rebecca in the gothic section, while Larsen’s Passing – an exploration of race set in 1920s Harlem – was chosen in preference to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter, a seminal novel of US race and religion, for inclusion in OCR’s American literature 1880-1940 texts for A-level.

Jill Duffy, OCR chief executive, said: “We’re committed to increasing the breadth of writing that young people can engage with. Thanks to input from the English teachers we consulted with, a panel of teaching and academic experts, our experienced examiners, as well as feedback from partners such as Lit in Colour, we’ve carefully selected some exciting works to strengthen our English literature A-level and GCSE.

“The quality of these diverse works will not only support students to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of English literature, but provide an opportunity to engage with work that is more relevant to their lives and to the lives of fellow students.”

The OCR exam board is also trying to improve diversity in other subject areas. In history, new topics such as migration and African Kingdoms were added when GCSEs and A-levels were reformed, and efforts are under way to diversify religious studies and media studies courses.

Study these: five new texts

Girl, Woman, Other (2019) is Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth novel and brought her to international attention after she became the first black woman to win the Booker prize. It follows 12 characters, most of them black British women, and was described as “groundbreaking” by the judges.

Nella Larsen’s classic novel Passing was published in 1929 and investigates race and class in 1920s Harlem through the story of two childhood friends who meet as adults in a chance reunion. The title refers to “racial passing”, a term which was used to describe light-skinned African Americans who decided to live as white people.

The Lonely Londoners (1956) by Trinidadian author Sam Selvon documents post-war Caribbean migration to Britain through the experiences of a cast of characters as they try to build new lives for themselves in the capital. The novel’s gritty social realism and humour contributed to Selvon’s reputation as “the father of black writing” in Britain.

Octavia Butler’s multiple award-winning 1993 novel Parable of the Sower offers a dystopian vision of a near future riven by climate change and social inequalities. The story is told via the journal of an African American teenager called Lauren Oya Olamina who founds a new belief system called Earthseed.

Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 play Leave Taking depicts a generational clash between mother Enid, who left Jamaica for England so her children could have opportunities she never had, and her UK-born teenage daughters, in a pioneering work which exposes the harsh realities of life for black Britons.


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