Secondary school curriculums remain sorely lacking in diversity

The world is diverse, so the classroom should be too. 

Mie Astrup Jensen
28 June 2018
Athinangamso Nkopo from the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford group.

Athinangamso Nkopo from the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford group. Image: John Stillwell/PA Images

Over the last five years, there has been a remarkable surge in student activism and campaigning aimed at decolonising higher education across the globe. In South Africa, the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests have grown into a movement that is fighting to transform historically Afrikaans universities. While in Chile, the 2011-2013 student demonstrations pressured the government to adopt a tuition-free policy in 2016, with the aim of opening up access to education to students from marginalised communities. In the US, the campaign #BlackOnCampus, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement, has challenged institutional racism in higher education. Here in the UK, students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS) have pushed for the inclusion of more non-European thinkers in their courses as part of the ‘Decolonise the University’ campaign. In November 2017, SOAS’s academic board committed to reviewing both their curriculum and HR practices.

But while university students have made strides in decolonising higher education, progress has been slower in secondary education. Although the 2010 Equality Act offers some protection to students from discrimination, there is no obligation to ensure that curriculums are representative of the student body. Many secondary school English literature courses remain intrinsically androcentric, heteronormative, cis, able-bodied, European, and white. Change has been incremental and not helped by interventions from conservative figures like former education secretary Michael Gove who in 2014 insisted that “British values” should be taught at all schools. While these values are vague and unspecified, they belie an objective to preserve a power hierarchy based on integration rather than equality and diversity.

The diversity of literature and history that we study at school should not be dismissed, it plays a vital role in shaping society at large. Dr Malachi McIntosh, a former lecturer of Postcolonial and Related Literatures at Cambridge University, writes that “arguably, the narrowness of our curricula – at all levels of education – has fuelled the current political status quo, where a crude understanding of ‘us’ and ‘them’, built on a sepia-tinged nostalgia for a past that never was, is inspiring grand acts of national self-harm”.

Gender and race disparities

To get a better understanding of the bias in our secondary school curriculum, I analysed the reading lists of two widely-used English literature qualifications: the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and the International Baccalaureate (IB). I started with gender. According to the World Bank, women make up 49.56% of the world’s population. Nonetheless, there are obvious gender imbalances in English literature courses. In the IGCSE English literature syllabus, 39.6% of authors are female, which is fairly representative. However, of the 271 books on the IB syllabus, only 24% have been written by women. Studying female authors is crucial to encouraging female students to pursue academia and educating students on different worldviews and experiences. Thus, the current androcentric nature of the curricular shows a great need to diversify.

A comparison of male and female authors on the IB syllabus.

A comparison of male and female authors on the IB syllabus.

Of equal importance to any literature course is the range of ethnicities and races represented by it. In the 2011 census in the UK, 87% described themselves as ‘White’ and 13% as 'BAME'. Since then, the proportion of BAME is likely to have increased. However, the IGCSE syllabus remains limited to Commonwealth and Western authors. Specifically, there is one Maori author, two African authors, five Asian authors and one African-American author.

The list of translated texts on the IB syllabus is equally revealing. Despite Bengali, Hindi, Persian, and Urdu, being among the most spoken languages in the world there are almost no set texts translated from any of these languages. International school systems portray themselves as global institutions, and yet their curriculum is demonstrably Eurocentric.

 the nationalities of authors on the IGCSE syllabus.

Overwhelmingly Western: the nationalities of authors on the IGCSE syllabus.

Sexuality in literature

Given the difficulties of establishing the sexuality of authors, I have taken a different approach to my analysis of sexaulity. The Office for National Statistics and Stonewall estimate approximately 5-7% of the population are gay. According to the charity organisation METRO, 80% of LGBQ and 66.6% of trans people, self-define by the age of 16. Yet, in 2017, a study by Cambridge University and Stonewall, found that 40 per cent of LGBTQ young people are not taught anything about LGBTQ issues at school. Moreover, 45% of LGBTQ young people have been bullied at school for their sexuality.

Young LGBTQ People

Young Heterosexual Non-trans People


Medical help for depression or anxiety








Considered suicide




I am in no way equating these statistics with education systems, but I am claiming that we owe our youth better. These differences are linked to under-representation, stigma, and stereotypes. By providing a greater focus on same-sex attraction and relationships in classrooms, sexuality can be normalised. In reading about this, we can create a dialogue rather than allowing demeaning views such as ‘I accept LGBTQ+ people, but they should keep it to themselves’, ‘reading about gays can turn others gay’, or ‘LGBTQ+ issues are only for LGBTQ+ people’ to be reproduced.

A lack of attention towards disablities

Finally, I turn to disabilities. Globally, approximately 10% of the population live with a disability – more than 650 million people. According to the learning disablity charity Mencap, 56% of disabled people have experienced aggression, hostility, or violence from strangers due to their condition, and 90% of people with learning difficulties have been a victim of hate crime or bullying. Disabilities should never be considered the elephant in the room. By openly discussing disability in schools we can destigmatise them, we can understand each other more, and we can make classrooms more inclusive. We ought to be responsible for, and respectful of, our fellow classmates’ and students’ wellbeing.

In failing to diversify our school systems, we not only fail our students –we fail our society

In pointing out imbalances and under-representation, I have been told that "it is easier to teach students what they are familiar with". On the contrary, I would argue it is by far more rewarding to learn something new. Students want to understand the world, why we think the way we do, and have eye-opening experiences. Furthermore, teaching material should reflect the social changes that have occured over the past century. By being met with a reluctant attitude to discuss anything ‘other’, students are prone to indifference and ignorance, which can lead to tension based on outdated stereotypes and biased media coverage. Why choose familiarity when education systems should operate as safe spaces that channel a dialogue for people to understand the world? We cannot hide the fact that the real world is diverse, challenging, multi-layered, controversial, and it contains so much potential – if we allow it.

We should not justify an education system that puts more languages on timetables without also putting sign language on it. We should question an education system in which we read Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech but not Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”. We should not discuss Mark Twain’s work without also talking about his trial for sodomy. We should not talk about racism by only using Western sources. We should not have history books that tell us women were given the right to vote when they won it, or teach students about segregation without looking at contemporary structural violence. We must correct these flaws in order to do both history and people justice. And, in failing to diversify our school systems, we not only fail our students – we fail our society.

Education systems must become more inclusive and representative. There are numerous benefits of educating students on equality and diversity. First, students feel acknowledged. Second, we can deconstruct stereotypes. Third, we demonstrate the world is not just cis, able-bodied, white, and straight. Fourth, unity in diversity means more understanding, respect, and improved tools for conflict resolution. Finally, we take a step to combat intolerance and prejudices, meaning we show that we are humans with a collective responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. The world is diverse, so the classroom should be too. We owe this to students. We owe this to society.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData