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Board ditches knife poem

Last updated 05 September 2008, created 05 September 2008, viewed 2,985

An exam board's decision to drop a poem from the GCSE syllabus because of concerns over knife crime has infuriated English teachers.

The AQA board has written to schools asking them to destroy copies of its poetry anthology containing the offending piece, "Education for Leisure" by Caro More…l Ann Duffy.

Teachers began criticising the decision in letters to the board, and on the TES online staffroom forum last week.

The poem begins with the words "Today I am going to kill something" and ends with the protagonist holding a bread-knife. The verse is illustrated in the anthology with an image of a knife, but the only creatures it describes being attacked are a fly and a goldfish, which is flushed down a toilet.

The board said it had received a small number of complaints about the poem, and that the decision to drop it was made by its director-general Mike Cresswell because of "concerns about the topic of the poem in light of the current climate surrounding knife crime".

Ms Duffy's poem, first published in 1985, has been popular in secondary English lessons for more than a decade. The main complaint seems to have come from Pat Schofield, an exam invigilator from Leicestershire, who contacted Andrew Robathan, Conservative MP for Blaby in Leicestershire, who took up her concerns with AQA.

Mrs Schofield said she had found the poem, and particularly its illustration, "horrendous". "With the knife culture at the moment, it is the last thing young people need to see," she said.

Mr Robathan agreed. "Carrying knives is distressingly common in our schools, in our cities and elsewhere," he said. "I don't think the poem glorifies carrying a knife, but it does make it seem normal and acceptable. I'm certainly not in favour of censorship, but I thought it was a pretty poor poem, although that is a subjective judgement."

AQA said it had written to schools to inform them that the poem was being removed from its English syllabus from this term, although candidates halfway through the course could still write about it in their GCSE next year.

An AQA spokeswoman said the decision had not been taken lightly, and underlined the difficulty of teaching in a way that was "sensitive to social issues and public concern".

Peter Strauss, Ms Duffy's agent, said the exam board's decision was distressing and unforgivable.

"The poem was written during the Thatcher years, and the point of it is that it is pro-education and anti-violence," he said. "It shows what happens if we neglect our children. Carol has been tireless in promoting poetry in schools - it is her lifeblood."

English teachers who have defended the poem include Gisela Hoyle of Kingswood School in Northamptonshire. "What is so chilling about the removal is the thought of the other kinds of authorities which have felt it necessary to destroy books and to curtail what is taught," she said.

The piece is being replaced in the exam board's anthology by another of Ms Duffy's poems, "Elvis's Twin", in which the narrator is a nun.

Leading article, page 36

WHAT TEACHERS SAY

"I can see why people might feel uncomfortable teaching this poem, but I love it and it really helps to get kids talking ... knife crimes are on the news and in films. Maybe they'll get rid of Of Mice and Men because of gun crime."

emmkit

"It's actually one of the few poems that the students like - and I've yet to teach one that expresses admiration, or even sympathy, for the speaker. The general consensus is, 'What a nutter!' They enjoy the poem and it sparks lots of debate."

annapops

"If any of us were to produce a wonderful series of imaginative lessons based on Titus Andronicus, we would get nothing but praise. But a poem which only features implied violence is banned."

swallowtail

"Surely one of the things we should be doing as teachers ... is encouraging independent personal response, both to literature and to life? If we hide all of the unpalatable stuff, who are they going to talk about it with?"

sleepyhead

Visit the English staffroom forum at www.tes.co.uk.

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Andrew Robathan MP says, "I don't think the poem glorifies carrying a knife, but it does make it seem normal and acceptable." I've never had a Year 10 or 11 student describe this character as "normal." They use words like, "twisted", "nutter" and "damaged." It's nice to know that my mixed ability classes have such excellent skills in analysis and interpretation, but worrying that Mr. Robathan's are so limited. And is it unfair to suggest that an invigilator should not have been reading the anthology during an exam?

from Saxa, 05 September 2008
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