Literature: the bedrock of empathy
As a subject, English provides perhaps the greatest opportunity to develop empathy skills: by inviting students to step into the shoes of other characters, connecting with other cultures and communities. Only when students are fully exposed to that difference, and are encouraged to celebrate the unique qualities of different groups, can they start to fully understand and relate to their peers and others around them.
This was a key consideration for Pearson in 2019, when we became the awarding body with the broadest and most representative choice by adding four diverse texts and a new poetry collection to our GCSE English Literature without removing any existing text choices.
Sharing stories and developing tolerance
We know, through our Future of Qualifications and Assessment research, and our first annual School Report, that there is a desire to develop the way that the curriculum influences young people. At present, 58 per cent of all UK teachers want “tolerance of diverse opinions” to be a focus for their pupils so that they can thrive in 2022 and beyond. Yet, at the same time, six in ten teachers say the education system is not developing tolerant, sustainably-minded citizens of the future.
English is arguably the subject to develop tolerance in education. How better to achieve it than through sharing diverse, multiple narratives; stories that shine a light on the words, feelings and experiences of others? It’s not enough to just revisit existing texts with a new lens, we need to open up opportunities to explore new and alternative curriculum content. Diverse stories are powerful drivers for change – and English is one of the principal vehicles that can carry these straight to young minds.
A want to be included
Emma Day, a psychologist and teacher educator, spoke of the importance of inclusion in Pearson’s Diversity and Inclusion in Schools Report: “If we don’t see ourselves represented in what we learn, we feel excluded or that it does not refer to us. If we feel excluded, we feel marginalised, and I’ve seen first-hand… how this negatively affects pupils’ mental health."
As much as 40 per cent of students want more books containing characters who are similar to them.That is something the sector can help achieve by expanding English resources to feature a diverse range of voices – including pupils from areas of disadvantage, pupils with SEND, and global majority groups, who are at present less likely to see the subject as accessible and appealing.
Through programmes like Lit in Colour, a partnership between Pearson, Penguin and the Runnymede Trust, 24,000 children in over 200 schools have started studying a text by a writer of colour since 2019. With an approach that offers free access to set texts and a library donation of 300 books, and also equips schools to teach diversity through responsive and informed training, teachers have commented that students “finally feel seen”, and that, through using the critical approaches to these texts, learners are enabled “to better process and counter issues that they are seeing constantly in the news and on social media.”
For young people who aren’t yet engaged by the subject, embedding true diversity could well be the key to unlocking their interest – offering students a real-world range of relatable texts that speak to them. Showing why this matters is crucial: and it clearly matters now.
It is for this reason that we developed a new GCSE English Language specification that has seen significant success in its first cohort of learners. Designed to engage and motivate students through contemporary texts and writing tasks, it is our latest step to ensure that all schools and students have qualification choices to suit a full range of preferences and learning styles.
In today’s interconnected world, English must continue to evolve and bring a wider range of accessible texts to enhance every student’s learning journey. By responding to what schools and students are calling for, we can shape a curriculum that suits every learner, making English a subject that’s truly for everyone.