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