In 2010, a number of sweeping educational reforms were announced – particularly in English – where the likes of Byron, Keats and Dickens would firmly be re-rooted and restored to their original veneration within the English educational system. The changes were designed to bring rigour and improve students’ grasp of English Language and Literature. While I firmly welcomed the ambitions, I feared that the texts I loved would deny countless students access to texts that they could both learn from and relate to.
Since that time, my suspicions have been confirmed. The National Literacy Trust concluded that the majority of ethnic minority students do not ‘see themselves in what they read’ (Best et al., 2020). The findings of this report accorded with our own internal evidence that, as a multi-ethnic school, we needed to work on developing curriculum diversity. The words of Fletcher (2005) resonated with us, when he asserted that learners’ voice creates ‘empathetic learning environments that value diversity and multiple perspectives’. We made the choice, therefore, to put our students at the forefront of the discussion on curriculum diversity.
In this post, I share a case study of our approach to implementing and usualising a diverse curriculum in English from a middle management perspective in a secondary setting. For us, the case for context was key, drawing upon Pickering’s (2019) view that ‘context has the power to transform learning and experience’. Context allows us to invest our energies in the areas that truly matter and make a difference, and it encourages us to move away from the areas that are topical and focus on those that will have a stronger impact on our students. In my department, we recognised that our curriculum, while ambitious and much enjoyed by the majority of our students, needed tweaking in order to ensure our students were being offered a diet befitting our school’s vision statement: ‘Cultured, Engaged and Informed’. It was not about getting rid of texts because they were ‘old, pale and male’ but because we recognised that we needed to supplement the curriculum so students could relate to characters who are like them in literature. However, we also identified the need for students to be exposed to people who are not like them so that they can develop important skills of empathy and the ability to relate to others. In our context, this is something the students need to develop.
‘Context allows us to invest our energies in the areas that truly matter and make a difference, and it encourages us to move away from the areas that are topical and focus on those that will have a stronger impact on our students.’
We used the Education Endowment Foundation Implementation Wheel (Sharples et al., 2018) going through the stages of Explore, Prepare, Deliver, Sustain. While we are now in the Deliver phase, the most important lessons were learned through exploration. In the Explore phase, we undertook lesson visits, audited the curriculum making use of Kara’s handbook, Diversity in Schools (Kara, 2020) which helped us to recognise the need to improve representation, particularly that of protected characteristics. The most important part of our exploration was including pupil voice. This decision was taken not only because including pupil voice leads to feelings of a sense of agency in pupils, but also because our students’ backgrounds lead them to feel that their voices are silenced. It was important that voices were valued, listened to and acted on.
In English lessons, our students defined ‘diversity’. For them, this meant:
An acceptance, recognition and celebration of our unique identities. Each unique experience – regardless of race, religion, sexuality and the like – is to be celebrated. No voice will be silenced and all voices will be respected.
This definition came from the students with very limited input from teachers. I found this extremely rewarding. We also discussed what did and didn’t work. Our students were concerned that removing texts from the curriculum would not only disadvantage them academically but also deny them the opportunity to see things beyond their normal experience and, as such, narrow the diversity they needed. This was an incredibly important thing for us to consider.
The final thing we looked at was developing pragmatic solutions. With a limited budget, one action was to think of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) as a problematic text, to use it to explore what a problematic text is in literature and develop a rhetorical argument to explore its place in literature.
Our key learning has been that using student voice can be really effective in driving change within our institution. It is necessary to use wider research to underpin change in the organisation. Each institution needs to decide upon the pace of change that is right for its context.
Best, E., Clark, C., & Picton, I. (2020). Seeing yourself in what you read: Diversity and children and young people’s reading in 2020. National Literacy Trust.
Fletcher, A. (2005). Meaningful student involvement: Guide to students as partners in school change. Soundout. https://soundout.org/2022/04/28/meaningful-student-involvement-guide-to-students-as-partners-in-school-change/
Kara, B. (2020). Diversity in schools: A little guide for teachers. Corwin.
Sharples, J., Albers, B., & Fraser, S. (2018). Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation. Percipio. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/31088/1/EEF-Implementation-Guidance-Report.pdf
Steinbeck, J. (1937). Of mice and men. Bantam.