By Neelam Rajput
GROWING up, I would have loved to have read more books at school that represented my culture and ethnicity.
Apart from those by Leicester-based Punjabi author Bali Rai, which feature multicultural characters and are based around faith and race, I don’t remember reading anything that didn’t include mostly white characters, or by white authors.
Based on my own experience, I wasn’t hugely surprised to read Teach First’s latest report, which found that the biggest exam board does not include a single book by a black author in their English literature GCSE specifications, and only two ethnic minority authors. This means pupils can finish school without reading a single book by a person of colour.
As a British-Asian English teacher, I know that reading books by ethnic minority authors can help give those from a multitude of different cultures a voice and sense of identity, while helping us understand different ways of life, ancestry and key societal issues.
Inspired by the recent Black Lives Matter movement, I began efforts to diversify the English literature we teach in our Leicester school by providing our incoming year 7s with books written by ethnic minority authors.
But books are expensive and with limited school budgets, I needed to set up a crowdfunder to get them – putting a lot of energy into plugging our plan on social media. Thanks to a lot of local support, including Bali Rai himself (who donated a dozen of his books) we soon achieved our £1,500 target.
The reactions from the pupils has been fantastic. They’ve all really engaged with the books and enjoyed learning more about the authors’ wealth of backgrounds, thanks to the packs we provided. We know that this introduction to different cultures, ethnicities and experiences is helping broaden their understanding and establish a positive attitude towards not only their own cultures but also those they didn’t know a lot about.
While our fundraiser was a success, it took a lot of time and energy. I know that there are so many teachers and schools who would like to expand their set texts in English literature to include more works by incredible ethnic minority writers, but may be held back by a lack of knowledge on what texts to introduce, or more likely, don’t have the funding.
Our book drive helped us to overcome those obstacles with the support of our community. It opened up conversations across our teaching staff on how to teach books that present themes of race, but I don’t think schools should solely be relied upon to introduce that.
Teach First is also calling for teachers to have access to professional development which helps them appropriately explore historical and current inequalities with their pupils, alongside more funding for schools to buy books specifically by ethnic minority authors. This is something I would love for schools across the country to have access to, as I know the incredible difference it could make.
Britain is filled with different histories, cultures and perspectives, so it’s vital that our teaching reflects that. In order to help our young people to become empathetic, well-rounded members of society, we need support to make those lessons a normal part of school life. It could make the greatest difference to our next generation of children.
Neelam Rajput is a Teach First ambassador and English teacher based at Wreake Valley Academy in Leicester.