Banning ‘dangerous’ poems in British schools

An examination board’s ban on Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’ is a stab in the back for liberal education.

Michele Ledda

Topics Politics

My Hands Off Poetry! petition against a UK examination board’s censoring of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Education for Leisure’ has been signed by hundreds of students, teachers, writers and poets, including the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, poet George Szirtes, novelist Lisa Appignanesi, critic Ronan McDonald, and many more.

Duffy’s poem had been studied without much controversy by hundreds of thousands of pupils in British schools every year for a decade. But it has been removed from this year’s syllabus by the examination board, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA). The decision was made public in September 2008 after the sum total of three people had complained about the poem’s allusion to imaginary knife-crime (I get our bread-knife and go out. / The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm) and imaginary animal cruelty (I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain. / I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking). The exam board has issued new copies of a schools poetry anthology with a blank page where Duffy’s poem used to be, perhaps a sign of mourning and thoughtful reflection. It has advised schools to destroy the old copies.

AQA’s panicked and almost comical reaction may be partly motivated by guilt, since it had illustrated the poem with a picture of a huge, glittering knife. Last year AQA decided to leave the poem in the syllabus, as they felt removing it with immediate effect would have been unfair to the students who had already started the two-year GCSE course in English. But AQA also issued new anthologies without the picture of the knife.

The knife illustration had been chosen in an obvious attempt to make the poem more appealing to teenagers, who apparently require lurid illustrations to get them interested in literature. This reveals a lot about what AQA thinks of poetry, the ability of teachers to show its greatness, and the mental capacity of teenagers – but it is not the main problem in this craven episode.

The fact that AQA is banning the poem precisely because some students might find it too cool exposes its complete lack of educational vision. The examination body does not seem to believe in its duty to promote the study of literature. If it did, it should have found it rather easy to defend its choice of poems in the face of not-so-overwhelming pressure. Instead, the dubious goal of child protection won out over the ambition to educate and broaden children’s minds through access to literature.

The contradiction at the heart of AQA’s ‘dangerous’ use of poems to talk about social issues, rather than to study them because they have literary value, is well expressed in the organisation’s bureaucratic justification for the ban. AQA felt the need to strike a ‘difficult balance between encouraging young people to think critically about difficult but important topics and the need to do this in a way which is sensitive to social issues and public concern’.

Perhaps in response to the angry reaction of many teachers, to the few commentators who condemned the examination board, and to Carol Ann Duffy’s own sarcastic response in verse, AQA ‘acknowledges that when taught sensitively [the poem] enables schools to explore the contemporary social context and the psychological context surrounding the narrator of the poem alongside its literary merits’.

‘However’, it continues, ‘we cannot be certain that all teachers are comfortable with the poem and, as with any literary text, we can never be sure that subject matter will not affect some readers adversely. It is only after a good deal of thought that the decision to remove the poem has been taken.’

How sensitive and how sensible of AQA to protect the teachers who might feel ‘uncomfortable’ with the poem and the readers who might be ‘adversely affected’ by the poisonous verse! This is the typical excuse for restricting our freedom to think and judge for ourselves in the name of safety. It is the precautionary principle: we can never be sure, therefore we ban. ‘Of course, most of you are sensible people’, the authorities seem to be saying, ‘but since a small minority might misuse or be harmed by this freedom, we have to restrict everyone’s freedom’. And so they implement blanket measures, treating the whole population as idiots by default.

It is important to note that teachers already had the option not to teach ‘Education for Leisure’. There are two pairs of poets to choose from for examination: Seamus Heaney and Gillian Clarke, or Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. It is also true that English departments usually choose the first pair for higher-ability pupils and the second for the lower sets, as Heaney and Clarke are considered more complex than Duffy and Armitage. This is perhaps unfair to the latter poets, whose verse is deceptively simple. But since the way the examination is framed encourages a superficial reading of the poems, discussion of the issues they deal with and personal responses, rather than close textual analysis aimed at understanding the meaning of the poems, it is certainly the case that Duffy and Armitage appear to use more transparent language and familiar vocabulary and to address ‘relevant’ issues.

However, AQA’s decision would have been wrong even if teachers did have to teach ‘Education for Leisure’. How can teachers be ‘uncomfortable’ about literature? It is as if surgeons would be uncomfortable with seeing blood. Reading literature entails confronting complex moral problems. That’s one reason why it is valuable. When we read good poems or novels, we learn to exercise both aesthetic and moral judgment. Books that present us with black-and-white morality tales and encourage us to follow particular rules of conduct are usually politically correct propaganda not worth wasting our time on. They circumvent the formation of moral judgment.

If AQA were consistent and started to ban literature that makes people uncomfortable, it would have to ban all the best work. How can anyone feel comfortable after an encounter with Macbeth’s paranoid mind or Milton’s Satan? It has always been the task of great literature to question our assumptions and social norms. That’s why writers are often in conflict with their societies. Some of the greatest literature, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to James Joyce’s Ulysses, has been written in exile, whether voluntary or enforced. Some of the best works have been banned, like Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Great literature challenges our assumptions and forces us to rethink the world around us and to see it in a new light, to sharpen our moral and aesthetic judgment. These are the works most worth studying in our schools and universities, the ones that can most help the young generation to grow into responsible adults.

So when AQA presents its decision as responsible, the opposite is true. It is motivated by abdication of responsibility, by indifference to the literary merits of the poems it chooses and by a readiness to abandon what should be its duty to promote: the study of literature.

Although there is no conscious authoritarian project behind AQA’s ban, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a grave infringement on freedom and openness and isn’t the result of a very authoritarian process. AQA claims to be ‘sensitive to public concern’, yet three complaints were enough to impose a blanket ban affecting hundreds of thousands of pupils and teachers. If we accept this unprecedented, absurd decision, we agree that the curriculum should be devised and managed according to health and safety rather than educational principles.

Michele Ledda is the co-organiser of Leeds Salon which is organising an event in March in Leeds where poets, teachers, critics and others will speak against the ban. If you want to attend, or help organise events in your area, contact Leeds Salon or the Manifesto Club. You can sign the petition here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that adults were no longer giving children the store of human knowledge. He also felt that education has been hijacked by single-issue campaign groups with little concern for pedagogy. Jennie Bristow interviewed Frank Furedi about this latest book, Wasted. Neil Davenport said education was suffering from a low level of ambition. Elsewhere, he argued that the establishment are making learning uncool. Michele Ledda felt that children ought be challenged by subjects. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today