We’ve said it (more than) once, and we will say it many times more - making the English curriculum real, relevant and relatable is crucial.
We are proud to be the awarding body offering the broadest and most representative texts by an author of colour. Our recent My Twist on a Tale: Represent! writing competition proved that the work we are doing to support schools is truly making difference as one young author wrote a personal piece about her elation when her teacher introduced a Lit in Colour text that she could relate to.
When 16-year-old Iona Mandal wrote her story, Belonging, she had no idea she could be striking a major chord for readers around the country. Her story described her love of English, and yet despite it being her favourite subject, she still at times felt unrepresented and forgotten in the classroom. When her teacher introduced the book Brick Lane by Monica Ali however, a story set among the community where she first learnt to read and write in her mother tongue, she felt more recognised than ever before. Her tale makes an impactful point to everyone who reads it: that texts in English have the power that extends across communities, affecting how students make sense of their place and identity.
Looking at the story behind the story, we explore how more schools can harness the power of English through positive, proactive choices of real-world, relatable texts
'It was the way she was – unrepresented’
Iona’s voice speaks of her own experience in secondary school. As an English-loving student with a British Bangladeshi heritage, she describes the bulk of her school’s previous textual choices as leaving rich and diverse cultures like hers ‘forgotten and uncelebrated.’
‘All her life, she had been reading extracts from books she had never identified with,’ Iona writes of her autobiographical character. Until, that is, her teacher brings in the 2003 UK bestseller Brick Lane:
‘And now suddenly, she had discovered an entire book which was set in the very borough she once lived! It all seemed too good to be true, almost as if a lie in front of her face. Here was a Bangladeshi-British woman who had a story to tell… Never in her life had she felt so recognised – eyes glinting as she read the contextual terminology, gazed at the curlicues of her mother tongue plastered on the whiteboard.’
‘As the lesson ended, a new vault within her had been unsealed’
Iona’s real-life English teacher, Clare Staples, whose decision to teach Brick Lane sparked the events described in the story, said: “In our school, we’ve made a concerted effort to diversify the curriculum, considering our school’s context in such a fabulously multi-cultural city. Our lesson on ‘Brick Lane’ formed part of our introduction to unseen fiction analysis which also includes texts such as ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy and ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ by Christy Lefteri. We’ve had such a positive response to these texts from students who, like Iona, feel represented. In addition, we now teach the Belonging collection of the Pearson Poetry anthology which has such a beautiful selection of poems so relevant to 21st century society.”
Iona’s school, Birmingham’s King VI Camp Hill School for Girls, is a Pioneer in our successful Lit in Colour Pioneers programme. Since 2021 the programme has enabled over 180 schools to diversify their curriculum effectively, giving over 24,000 students access to a wide range of authors, characters and books that fully represent the richness of the UK population.
‘I have spent all my life feeling ashamed. Today, I feel celebrated.’
As Iona’s story Belonging so eloquently makes clear, the effect of inspiring engagement through diverse texts can be revelatory for children and young people, influencing in-class interactions and behaviour, raising the confidence of students who feel left out by non-diverse literature and helping celebrate difference.
It is a change that Iona herself would love to spread far and wide. Commenting on her writing process, she said: ‘I took inspiration from what I see as a lack of diversity and celebration of multiculturalism within the curriculum studied across British schools. I decided to reflect upon my personal experience and how I resonated with Monica Ali's book, Brick Lane.’ Referring to experiences of ‘feeling ashamed’, ‘utterly mismatched’ and considering ‘regions… starving from underrepresentation’, Iona’s descriptions profoundly capture the negative impact on students of limiting the English curriculum.
‘Each person deserves a place in this world, a place to belong’
‘There is more work to be done,’ Iona continues, thinking of the bigger picture. ‘I hope that in the future more students of colour like me will feel heard and represented and that the English curriculum will be more inclusive and accepting. After all, there is no denying that difference makes this world beautiful.’
Iona Mandal was the KS5 winner of My Twist On A Tale: Represent! which launched to UK schools in November 2022. The winning stories collection, including Belonging, is available online now as a free download Read it here.
Learn more about the Lit in Colour Pioneers programme and register your interest here.
For information about our English Language 2.0 qualification, designed to engage and motivate students through a choice of contemporary texts, relatable modern themes and real world writing tasks, click here.