Can poetry really be worse than reality TV?

19th September 2008 at 01:00

I've just re-read William Golding's Lord of the Flies while preparing to teach it. Browsing the internet for support materials (such as a ready- made lesson-by-lesson scheme of work that someone else has ploughed hours into), I found reports about Channel 4's new reality show.

Twenty 8- to 11-year-olds are dumped in neighbouring Cornwall farmhouses to see how they get on without adult supervision. Presumably, we are hoping for some conflict (real violence if we're lucky), a lot of tears and, heaven forbid, perhaps some underage sexual activity.

The series is being screened in November. So, as it's bound to be quality TV, keep the diary free.

Then I heard that, under pressure from someone who thinks the word "knife" will disturb or influence students, AQA is withdrawing a Carol Ann Duffy poem from its GCSE anthology. The poem discusses a bored, unemployed young person who wanders the streets with a bread knife. (I'm currently writing one about a bored, under-employed person who has nothing better to do than fuss about irrelevancies.)

Duffy's poem has a political message about the effects of unemployment on the psyche. Students love it; it inspires them, not to random aggression, but to thoughtful discussion about the effects of boredom and to enthusiastic essay writing. I've taught it for five years without violence erupting. I did get worried when one boy once got scissors out of his pencil case, but he was only trimming his copy of the poem to stick it neatly into his book.

Are we going mad? On the one hand, an exam board justifies the wasteful reprinting of thousands of copies of a book, sans one poem in which the "knifing" is only suggested. This, despite the fact that a new specification arrives in 2010, probably without the anthology, and despite other poems in the collection mentioning severed heads, sleeping with corpses and mixing poisons. When are they going to withdraw Golding's book, in which children murder children with spears?

On the other hand, a production company sticks young children in a vulnerable situation and hopes to entertain the nation with the results, which won't be pretty. Put it this way: if it all went hunky-dory when they did the filming, there'll be no programme. Upset them, then shoot. (With a camera, obviously. Sorry if you misunderstood me there.)

There seem to be mixed messages here. And plenty of kids are getting upset. Any student I've told about AQA's decision has been firstly incredulous (don't worry, kids: we all thought it was a hoax too), and then angry at being patronised. They've questioned the waste, the administrative nightmare, the PC-obsessed reactions. And they've been just as scornful about Channel 4's marvellous idea.

At least someone has some sense around here.

Fran Hill, English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire.

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