GCSE students who are allowed to drop subject areas for their English literature exams next summer risk becoming “culturally illiterate”, teachers have warned.
Exam regulator Ofqual said on Tuesday that exam papers will make fewer topics compulsory, so schools can have the option to focus on particular texts.
The changes were announced following concerns over the “ongoing disruption” from the coronavirus pandemic – but some teachers have warned it could lead to schools teaching a “100% whitewashed” curriculum that “silences the voices of Black people” and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
English literature students will have to write about a Shakespeare play, but they will be able to choose between two out of the three remaining options: poetry, the 19th-century novel and post-1914 British fiction and drama.
Many schools will likely drop poetry, as pupils must study at least 15 poems in order to answer the exam question. It’s also a “notoriously difficult” exam question, according to English teacher Jessica Tacon.
My first thought was: where are students going to find any diverse voices if schools don’t take the poetry option?
Although the changes were based on teacher surveys and questionnaires, she tells HuffPost UK she has “mixed feelings” about making poetry optional.
“I worry that this is going to negatively affect particularly BAME students because the poetry section is arguably the most diverse part of the specification,” she says.
In her north London secondary school classroom, Tacon’s students are particularly enthusiastic reading Checking Out Me History, by the Afro-Guyanese poet John Agard. “They love that one. They love the fact that he writes how he would speak.”
Removing poetry would risk alienating Black and brown pupils even further from “a GCSE that already excludes their voices and experiences”, she says.
“A lot of them don’t relate to English because they don’t see themselves in it. They don’t see it as something that is for them.
“If [poetry] is removed then we’re decentring marginalised voices – and therefore students. It’s that little bit of representation they’ve got taken away from them.”
Tacon has launched a petition calling on the exam board AQA to include more BAME representation into the English literature GCSE curriculum. It has so far received over 20,000 signatures.
If poetry is removed then we’re decentring marginalised voices – and therefore students. It’s that little bit of representation they’ve got taken away from them.
Jude Gittins, who will be taking his English literature and history exams in 2021, agrees the recently announced changes will “halt progress” on BAME representation and have an impact on Black and brown students.
“If a Black boy decides he likes to write and wants to be a writer, who in the world does he look up to as an inspiration and role model that he can relate to?” he asks HuffPost UK.
Studying BAME literature is important because it “symbolises that times are changed”, he says. It also “crushes stereotypes in the path” by showing “people of ethnic minorities are intelligent.”
He added: “If I am being honest, I have never had a lesson in English literature where a Black poet or author has been analysed, featured or even talked about.
“So far, no lesson I have ever been in has had a Black figure”.
Although the changes make sense “from a practical standpoint”, making poetry optional “sets a bad precedent”, say Kemi and Zeek from Young Black Teachers Network, as it risks signalling that it is “less valuable”.
Not only could they “inhibit” pupils’ appreciation for history and literature from around the world, what they will learn “will pretty much be 100% whitewashed”, they add.
“This is also detrimental as white students may continue to live in the ignorance that Black voices in the curriculum don’t matter, and Black students will also feel like their voices will continue not to matter.”
Kemi and Zeek not only fear these changes could “make students culturally illiterate”, but it could also create “greater apathy for Black and other ethnic minorities within the curriculum”.
“Will BAME students want to study subjects where their history and people who look like them have been removed?
“If the government are removing topics in English literature and history, they are silencing the voices of Black people in history and English literature who have made a difference in the world we live in.
“It also reinforces that ‘white is right’, which will make students who are not white feel less than,” they add.
If poetry is not a compulsory exam question, then schools will realistically be unable to find space for it, admits Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society.
“My first thought was: where are students going to find any diverse voices if schools don’t take the poetry option?” she tells HuffPost UK.
She says she is “sympathetic” to the challenges that schools and students face. “Many months have been lost and it’s going to be so hard catching up. Unfortunately, they just didn’t think it through.”
By dropping poetry, students are not only missing out on contemporary younger writers such as Raymond Antrobus, Zaffar Kunial and Kayo Chingonyi, but they have also been deprived a space to discuss socially and politically important issues.
“This is a space in the curriculum where they can talk about race, identity, prejudice and a whole range of other important themes, like loss, anger or isolation,” Palmer said. “Where else in the curriculum do they get that chance?
“There’s so much that’s happened over the past few months that we’re all having to process, much of it very painful, and we need the space literature provides to think about other lives – more than ever.”