New English GCSE texts ‘reinforce stereotypes’

English teachers say additional 'diverse' texts for English literature GCSE risk 'othering' BAME communities

New 'diverse' English literature GCSE texts fuel stereotypes, teachers warn

English teachers are warning that texts by black, Asian and minority-ethnic authors added to a GCSE will only reinforce racial stereotypes.

Last week, Tes reported that Pearson Edexcel had introduced more "diverse" texts to its English literature GCSE specification from September.


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Derek Richardson, responsible officer at Edexcel, said the board wanted to make sure the curriculum was “really diverse for a wide group of people”.

Diversity in English GCSE

The new texts included a version of the novel Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah, adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay; Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman; and Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin.

The GCSE poetry anthology will also include works by Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols and Imtiaz Dharker, who was born in Pakistan.

However, some English teachers have said the new texts are unimaginative and reinforce notions of “otherness” regarding BAME communities.

Jennifer Webb, an English teacher and author of How to Teach English Literature: Overcoming cultural poverty, said the new texts could be seen as patronising.

“I think that in trying to go out and find more diverse authors they’ve gone to authors that used to be on the spec before,” she said.

“My main issue with the ethnic-minority writers included is they are always speaking about being ‘other'.”

“You have a plethora of white writers writing about a range of things – about sunsets or flowers or death.”

She said the works included by BAME writers reinforced stereotypes. “They are about victimhood. It suggests writers of colour are having a pity party.”

Ms Webb, who is of mixed-race heritage, said the exam board had not been thoughtful in its approach to including diverse authors.

“Diversity should be an opportunity for children to hear from people whose perspective is slightly different from their own," she said.

"These texts put this horribly negative spin on anyone who’s not white in this country. It encourages people to patronise us.”

She said the legacy specifications for GCSE English literature included rigorous novels, such as Purple Hibiscus by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But the new additions had previously been taught at key stage 3.

Refugee Boy is not challenging in terms of its language or structure,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with people where they feel the exam board has chosen these texts for their simplicity.

“There’s an assumption that [when it comes to diverse literature] pupils can’t access challenging texts. We’re not asking for diverse texts because our kids can’t access Shakespeare.”

“Where are the big, difficult African novels on the syllabus?” she said.

Bennie Kara, a deputy headteacher, former English subject leader and founder of Colouring in the Curriculum, a workshop which promotes diverse literature in the classroom, said she was “disappointed” by the inclusion of works by Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah.

“I kind of rolled my eyes a bit when they were announced. I would question the integrity of the literature they’ve added," she said. "Refugee Boy is lacking in imagination and scope as a text. As much as it’s a great story, I don’t think it’s a GCSE text…where’s the challenge?”

She said the story, based around the life of 14-year-old Alom, a refugee from Eritrea and Ethiopia, as he copes with a new start in Britain, creates “a sense of pity, not a sense of respect”.

Regarding Boys Don’t Cry, which features a teenager coping with young fatherhood, she said: “As much as [Malorie Blackman] is quite subtle about it, it’s still about a young black boy who becomes a teenage father.”

Ms Kara said teachers needed to be more creative in making global links between texts – for example, linking Wordsworth’s romanticism to the natural imagery of Indian epic, or relating the struggle between good and evil presented in Jekyll and Hyde to the golem of Jewish folklore.

Diane Leedham, an English and literacy teacher from South London, said: “As with all the exam boards in 2014, it’s clear that the people choosing set texts that they frame as ‘diverse’ don’t have much knowledge of diaspora literature.

"The exam boards are staffed by primarily white people educated in a white canon.”

A Pearson spokesperson said: "We think it's important that our specifications reflect the diverse nature of society.

"These diverse texts were chosen after we asked hundreds of teachers for suggestions, which our senior examiners took into account to come up with the final list.”

 

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

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