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23rd October 2020

GCSE syllabuses overlook BAME authors

Aileen Loftus questions whether students can leave school without having studied a novel by a black author
GCSE syllabuses overlook BAME authors
A range of books by BAME authors. Photo: Aileen Loftus

Pupils at English secondary schools could leave Year 11 without reading a novel by a non-white author at GCSE. This is according to a report by the education charity Teach First.

AQA, the largest exam board in the country, does not feature a single book by a black author among the set texts for its GCSE English Literature syllabus. AQA include two novels by non-white authors: Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

80% of English GCSE students sit an AQA exam. Therefore, over half a million students will not study a novel by a black author in Year 10 or 11.

When the report was first published, AQA were quick to refute articles that claimed children would not study any BAME authors. In response to the criticism, AQA stated that they have included BAME authors in the poetry anthologies and short story anthology. The exam board highlighted a short story by Claudette Williams in Telling Tales (the AQA Anthology of Modern Short Stories).

This inclusion does not change the fact that there are no novels or plays with black authors on the syllabus.

Students must study one Shakespeare play, one poetry anthology, one 19th-century novel and one modern text from an AQA list. Lists that still include Lord of the Flies and Great Expectations, which, alongside Of Mice and Men, are texts that are still remembered by many adults from their own GCSEs or O’ Levels.

It remains beneficial to read literature that is rooted in the English canon. However, the emphasis on classic literature and Shakespeare fails to represent the experiences of students in the world today.

What about A-Levels?

At AS-Level, with the current AQA syllabus, all of the prose texts have white authors. There are some BAME authors featured at A-Level, if teachers choose one strand of the syllabus. In the section named ‘Modern Times’ students may study The Color Purple by Alice Walker, or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The scant selection of BAME authors by AQA does not seem to be truly reflective of modern times.

In four years of English Literature there is a chance that students might study one novel by a black author. This is assuming that schools’ Year 7-9 syllabus cover a diverse range of texts. If not, children can complete 7 years of English Literature education without reading a novel with a black author. 

As Lola Olufemi wrote in her open letter about decolonising their literature syllabus to the Cambridge University English Faculty in 2017: ‘The act of studying literature is not apolitical […] Postcolonial writing is not an afterthought; it is British literature’.

Aileen Loftus

Aileen Loftus

Books Editor

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