May 7, 2021 - 11:56am

OCR, one of the three main exam boards in the UK, is currently asking teachers to vote on a proposed series of changes to help diversify its GCSE and A-level courses. One of the suggestions is whether to change its A-level module ‘Women in Literature’ to ‘Gender in Literature,’ as this would apparently ‘help pupils better understand the topic.’

What this would really do is erase women’s voices and their contribution to literature.

In an ideal world, female writers would have enough representation on the curriculum to not need our own “special” category —  sadly this is not the case. In the four other optional modules for the Context and Comparison paper, only two out of eight set texts are written by women. In the other paper — Shakespeare, drama and poetry before 1900 — only one out of eleven optional writers are female.

The situation is the same across exam boards. In the Edexcel Drama module, only one in eight writers are female, and in the AQA Love Through The Ages poetry anthology, only one poem out of fourteen is by a woman. The poem is Remember by Christina Rossetti, who also happens to be the only named female poet in both the Edexcel and AQA Poetry papers, and therefore apparently the only female poet pre-1900 worth studying.

OCR’s ‘Gender in Literature’ proposal leaves me with questions. Firstly, why can’t they just create an additional category? Women’s art, literature, and contribution to history have been ignored, lost and disregarded for centuries. How would removing women therefore enhance diversity? And anyway: why is it always women who are the first group to be subsumed in the name of inclusivity? Why are there no calls for fewer men — or should I say, people who don’t menstruate — on the curriculum?

Also, why reduce the topic to something as vague, subjective and contentious as gender? In theory all literature is gendered as it is written by human beings, and so it may as well be called ‘People in Literature.’ This is hardly going to help pupils understand the topic better, and so it will in all likelihood be an unpopular choice for teachers.

OCR’s attempt to modernise its curriculum to ensure a fair balance of “gender, races, disabled/non-disabled people and cultures” is symptomatic of this much wider cultural shift in prioritising identity over quality. Political agendas and arbitrary equality quotas have taken centre-stage, and the literature itself has become peripheral to the discussion.

It’s also a distraction from real issues at play. The number of students taking English A-level is declining every year; overall there has been about a 30% decrease between 2012 and 2019. The reasons behind this are complex (for example, greater value put on STEM subjects, the rather dry GCSE curriculum, anxieties about employment prospects) but they are not insurmountable.

If OCR really wants to make positive changes, then it should be using this opportunity to consult with teachers about how to increase uptake. In the meantime, leave Austen and Woolf — who already are the last women standing — alone.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.