Books by authors of colour ‘will help students understand cultural diversity’

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).
(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

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.