An orthodox jewish girls' school has plummeted from the top of the league tables after some of its pupils refused to take a Shakespeare test on the grounds that the Bard is anti-Semitic.
Nine teenagers from Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School, a thriving comprehensive in Hackney, east London, would not sit the key stage 3 Shakespeare test last May. As a result, they were counted in the tables as scoring zero for English, and the school's results fell sharply.
Last year, it was the top performer in England on the leading measure of school performance - the progress made by pupils during KS3. But in the tables published yesterday it finished only 274th.
Rabbi Abraham Pinter, the principal, said that the girls and their parents had reached their view based on the portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
He said: "Some of our parents, and their children, are conscientious objectors in relation to Shakespeare, on the grounds that he was anti-Semitic."
In fact, the girls were not presented with The Merchant of Venice in the test, but with The Tempest. But they felt so strongly about The Merchant of Venice that they refused to take even this paper.
All sat separate reading and writing tests, which are part of the KS3 English exam.
But National Assessment Agency rules say that any pupil failing to write his or her name for any one of the tests will score nothing overall, so the school's English results suffered.
The proportion of their pupils gaining at least level 5 in English fell from 81 to 72 per cent, also leading the school to fall 349 places in the rankings for unadjusted or "raw scores" KS3 performance.
The Merchant of Venice is intensely controversial. Some argue that it can be seen as a plea for tolerance, rather than as racist, but many have viewed it as anti-Semitic.
The character of Shylock, the moneylender who demands a pound of flesh from a defaulting debtor, is said to have helped fuel anti-Jewish feeling for centuries.
However, the character has often been played sympathetically, with Shylock's plea for common humanity, as epitomised in his "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech, given prominence.
Rabbi Pinter said that he did not have a view about Shakespeare and anti-Semitism. But he said he was not disappointed that the school appeared to have paid a price in the league tables for its pupils' consciences.
"We teach our pupils to have pride in what they believe in. If you do believe in something strongly, there can be consequences. But sometimes it's worth paying the consequences."
He added: "We never aim to do well in the league tables. We aim to develop good traits in our girls, and I hope we have done that. Good results are just a by-product of what we do: we do not aim at the results themselves."
In previous years, the pupils have taken tests based on Shakespeare's texts, but this year a group of parents objected.
Simon Gibbons, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "I do not believe The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. But it is noble of the school to take the view that the individual pupils' views are more important than its league table position.
"In the culture we are living in, in which results are seen to be all, that is an admirable position to take."
Longer week brings KS3 success, page 8.