Gender and the contemporary educational canon in the UK

Keywords: set texts, examinations, gender, canonical literature


This paper presents an analysis of the gender of the authors and the main characters of the set texts for English examinations taken at age 16 in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It presents an argument for why representation within the canon is important and places this within the context of recent educational reform in England and Scotland. The analysis demonstrates that texts by female authors are in a minority, sometimes in the extreme, and when the gender of the main character is taken into account, there is an even greater imbalance. The reasons behind this, even after a time of major educational reform, are explored and the constraints of the market are suggested as reasons why greater risks were not taken.

Author Biography

Victoria Elliott, Department of Education, University of Oxford
Associate Professor of English and Literacy Education


Arnold, M. (2006). Culture and Anarchy. (J. Garnett, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ashbrook. (2012). Final Report Engagement for Scottish Texts in English courses. November 2012. Prepared for: The Scottish Qualifications Authority. Retrieved April 11, 2016 from

Bates, L. (2015). Everyday Sexism. London: Simon & Schuster.

Bloom, H. (1990). The Western Canon. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Cabrera, N. L., Milem, J. F., Jaquette, O. & Marx, R. W. (2014). Missing the (Student Achievement) Forest for All the (Political) Trees Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies Controversy in Tucson. American Educational Research Journal, 51(6), 1084–1118.

CCEA. (2014). CCEA GCSE Specification in English Literature. Belfast: CCEA. Retrieved March 21, 2016 from

College Fix (2016, May 29). Yale student petition: ‘Decolonize’ the English department curriculum. The College Fix. Retrieved July 27, 2017 from

Daly, C. (2000). Gender difference in achievement in English: a sign of the times? In J. Davison & J. Moss (Eds.), Issues in English Teaching (pp. 224–242). London: Routledge.

Deem, R. (1978). Women and Schooling. London: Routledge.

Deem, R. (Ed.). (2012). Schooling for women’s work. Routledge Library Editions: Education (Vol. 69). London: Routledge.

Denholm, A. (2012, January 25). Pupils told they must study Scots literature. The Herald. Retrieved April 11, 2016 from

Edexcel. (2017). Contemporary Black British Writing Resources. London: Pearson.

Elliott, V. (2014). The treasure house of a nation? Literary heritage, curriculum and devolution in Scotland and England in the twenty-first century. The Curriculum Journal, 25(2), 282–300. doi:

Fiedler, L. A. (Ed.). (1981). English Literature: Opening Up the Canon. Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1979 (vol. 4). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selection from the prison notebooks. (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds. and Trans.). London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Griffith, N. (2015, May 26). Books about women don’t win big awards: some data [Blog post]. Nicola Griffith Blog. Retrieved April 11, 2016 from

Guillory, J. (1993). Cultural capital: the problem of literary canon formation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Higginbotham, E. (1990). Designing an inclusive curriculum: Bringing all women into the core. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 18(1/2), 7–23.

Hopkins, C. (2009). Thinking About Texts. London: Palgrave.

Leavis, F. R. (1948). The Great Tradition. London: Chatto and Windus.

Lobban, G. (1975). Sex-roles in reading schemes. Educational Review, 27, 202–210.

Mackay, F. (2015). Political not generational: Getting real about contemporary UK radical feminism. Social Movement Studies, 14(4), 427–442.

McGowan, T. (2014). Feminine “No!”, The: Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Miernik, M. (2015). A vicious circle: how canon continues to reinforce sex segregation in literature in the 21st century. Acta Philologica, 47, 85–96.

Moran, C. (2012). How to be a Woman. London: Ebury Press.

Oates, T. (2016). Gender and Assessment. Cambridge Assessment. Retrieved December 1, 2016 from

Ofsted. (2012). Moving English Forward. London: HMSO.

Philips, J. (2017). Everywoman: One woman’s truth about speaking the truth. London: Hutchinson.

Riddell, S. L. (1992). Gender and the politics of the curriculum. London: Routledge.

Robinson, L. S. (1983). Treason our text: Feminist challenges to the literary canon. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 2(1), 83–98.

Rogers, A. (2015). Crossing ‘other cultures’? Reading Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Nothing’s Changed’ in the NEAB Anthology. English in Education, 49(1), 80–93.

Royal Society of Literature. (2017). Literature in Britain Today: an Ipsos MORI poll of public opinion commissioned by the Royal Society of Literature. London: The Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved July 27, 2017 from

Showalter, E. (1971). Women and the literary curriculum. College English, 32(8), 855–862.

Spender, D. (1982). Women of ideas and what men have done to them: from Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich. London: Routledge.

SQA. (2013). SQA announces Scottish set texts. Retrieved December 21, 2015 from

Thomas, K. (2006). ‘Please can we have a man?’: male trainee English teachers entering predominantly female English departments. Changing English, 13(1), 137–150.

UNESCO. (2016). Global Education Monitoring Report. Retrieved July 17, 2017 from

Vallance, E. (1974). Hiding the hidden curriculum: An interpretation of the language of justification in nineteenth-century educational reform. Curriculum Theory Network, 4(1), 5–22.

WJEC. (2014). WJEC GCSE in English Literature. Cardiff: WJEC. Retrieved March 22, 2016 from

How to Cite
Elliott, V. (2017). Gender and the contemporary educational canon in the UK. International Journal of English Studies, 17(2), 45-62.