Poem ban as bad as book burning

5th September 2008 at 01:00
I am puzzled and disturbed by the AQA exam board's paradoxical decision to remove the poem "Education for Leisure" by Carol Ann Duffy from the GCSE syllabus, and yet to do so gradually, so as not to create extra work for teachers, but on the other hand not to expect anyone to step even for a moment out of their comfort zone.

Since when was comfort - or fear of work - a criterion for quality education? Does this strike anyone else as ludicrous? If the poem is putting young people at risk, why wait a whole year before removing it (in fact, why don't we burn all the anthologies? But more of that later)?

We are told that while AQA "acknowledges that when taught sensitively (this poem) enables schools to explore the contemporary social context and the psychological context surrounding the narrator of the poem alongside its literary merits . (AQA) cannot be certain that all teachers are comfortable with the poem and, as with any literary text, (AQA) can never be sure that the subject matter will not affect some readers adversely".

Surely, then, we should also remove "Hitcher" by Simon Armitage and "Salome" also by Duffy, both poems about chilling violence. Are we to assume that, while we are anxious about knife crime, all teachers are comfortable with violent and terminal sex? Are we comfortable with gratuitous violence against strangers who choose a different lifestyle to our own - so long as it does not involve a knife? Not likely.

What exactly has this decision been based on? Real concern for rising violence and criminality among today's youth? Clearly not, as we are more or less comfortably "putting at risk" the cohort of 2009. What are the chances that this decision stems merely from a fear of litigation, from the concern that at some unstipulated future date a parent, distraught at the loss of a child to knife crime, might claim that the school syllabus is to blame for that child's death?

What a hideous way to look at this issue. Child dead; school cannot be blamed. Tick.

What is so chilling about this removal - we are advised to destroy the old anthologies by 2010 - is the thought of the other kinds of authorities that have felt it necessary to destroy books, to curtail what is taught and so to control what people think. The agendas of such governments were (I hope) very different, but the result (I fear) will be the same: fear. And what hope is there for the flourishing of our youth's humanity if those who should guide it fail in their courage with such alarming regularity?

Gisela Hoyle, English Teacher, Kingswood School, Corby, Northamptonshire.

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