It’s the last day of school at Turing House comprehensive in Teddington, South London and a class of GCSE students are reflecting on a year together discussing topics ranging from racism and sexuality; gender politics to mental health. 

“In society it’s frowned upon for men to be able to show their emotions,” says Missy, “but then in the book it talks about how it is OK, and men should be able to talk about their feelings.” 

The book in question – a 2010 novel by Malorie Blackman called Boys Don’t Cry – was introduced to the class by their English tutor Hayley, who wanted to find new ways to engage her students and enliven their group discussions.

“Lots of students aren’t that excited about literature,” she says of young people, who are all required to study English until at least the age of 16. “[But] the way they’ve responded so positively to Boys Don’t Cry goes to show that clearly they love reading a text that feels familiar to them, where they can see themselves.”

Blackman’s novel follows Dante, a teenage boy waiting for his A-level results in the post who instead finds an ex-girlfriend at his door holding a baby she says is his, potentially scuppering his dreams of going to university. You can see why, for young people today, it feels relevant and gripping in a way the more established classics can’t match.

“We were taught Frankenstein, we were taught half a dozen Shakespeare plays, we were taught A Christmas Carol,” says Sam. “They’re great books and plays, but they’re all 80 years old at least.”

“I’ve found it easier to contribute during class because I find it a lot more relatable, and I can give my thoughts and opinions,” adds Sean.

The Turing House class of ‘21 are the exception. Research published this week by Penguin and The Runnymede Trust has revealed that less than 1% of GCSE students in England study a book by a writer of colour – and only 7% by a female author. This despite the fact that 34.4% of children in England are Black, Asian and minority ethic.

From the perspectives of the students, this makes no sense at all:

Sean: “I just quite simply say: why?!”

Emily: “I’m grateful to my school for teaching me texts by different ethnicities. It helps me understand other people’s views.”

They’re not alone. The research, part of the Lit in Colour campaign, revealed that 82% of young people in a nationwide survey could not recall ever studying a book by a Black, Asian or minority ethnic author, yet 70% felt the diversity of British society should be reflected in what they’re being taught. 

Watch the video above to see firsthand the impact that can be made by taking a more inclusive approach to the study of English Literature, and visit the Lit in Colour campaign page to find out more about how you can be involved.

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