Thursday, 25 September 2008

AQA's Unkindest Cut

My elder son, as loyal readers will know, sat his GCSEs a few months ago (and yes, in spite of all the angst, he did well, especially in the subjects which he is now pursuing with great enjoyment at AS level). One of the subjects he dropped, alas, was English. I felt like Cnut trying to stop the tide. If you want your children to read, they say, surround them with books. I certainly did that. From babyhood I read to him. He saw me writing. He lives in a house wall-to-wall with books. He laughed at the jokes in the children's book I wrote. He loves a good story and he can memorise favourite lines with the greatest of ease. He just doesn't actually want to read - although having said that, he has just avidly read his way through the filmscript of The Shawshank Redemption, currently his favourite film. It's the only reading matter I've ever actually seen him 'lost' in, in the way that we traditionalists (reactionaries?) lose ourselves in novels. So that's a comfort.

All of this is by way of a preamble to the actual topic of this post. For his GCSE, he had to study a selection of poems from an anthology provided by the AQA exam board. It was a good selection, on the whole, veering very much towards the multi-cultural politically correct, as you'd expect. He enjoyed discussing some of the issues raised by the poems and was particularly struck by - and wrote about in the exam - a poem by Carol Ann Duffy called 'Education for Leisure' in which a directionless trainee psychopath, whose life is utterly empty, baldly states with an utter lack of potential empathy that 'Today I am going to kill something.' The chilling resume of the victims of idle violence - squashing a fly, wanting to torment a cat - are familiar motifs from the careers of serial killers who start with creatures lower on the great chain of being and work their way up to murdering fellow human beings. The style is stark and casual, every line a threat - although we are not shown an actual killing. Instead there is the ghastly imminence of the final line: 'The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.'

Given that a couple of days ago a young Finnish killer posted a video on YouTube showing him getting his hand in, and finishing with a close up on him saying something like 'You next', there is something so prophetic about Duffy's killer saying things like 'I could be anything at all' and 'today I am going to change the world'. It sums up all those hollow-hearted, empty-lived, morally-adrift adolescents who grab at fame by any means, fame for its own sake, fame however brief and shallow.

So, it's a poem with relevance, a poem that stimulates valuable discussion amongst a generation familiar with gun-crime, knife-crime, brutality of language, coarsening of attitudes, where strutting kids posture threats and vent aggression at the slightest - I almost said trigger. Technically, it's a good poem, morally a sound poem.

Ironic then, isn't it, that the AQA has issued a directive to teachers ordering them not to teach this poem anymore? Apparently they'd received a couple of complaints about its subject matter and took a yellow-bellied lily-livered abject course of action about it. This makes me so angry. They've completely missed the point, interpreting it as a glamorisation of violence when that's the very thing it's not! How absurd, also, to think that sixteen year olds can't handle the poem - the very sixteen year olds who have access to extreme violence and sexual content on the social networking sites, who watch films like 'Hostel' and 'Saw' in the delightfully named 'torture porn' genre, and who even on terrestrial TV are inured to scenes in dramas where violence of action and language is the norm. Aren't these the very kids who NEED to read Duffy's poem?

A double irony, too, that this year's Guardian Children's Fiction prize has gone to Patrick Ness's 'The Knife of Letting Go', and the list also included Anthony McGowan's 'The Knife That Killed Me'. These are books which apparently explore the pressures on kids and the effects and consequences of wielding a knife.

God knows, I'd love it if children's fiction - and children's lives - could float on a warm bath of Swallows and Amazons and Five Go to Kirrin Island adventures - but that's not how it is these days for so many of those pesky kids, so stories and poems that help them to make sense of challenging issues, non gratuitiously, are to be welcomed.

Shame on you, AQA, shame on you.


michele said...

Shame on AQA

Hands Off Poetry! is a petition against AQA’s censoring of Education for Leisure

For more information, see my post on the Manifesto Club website.

Michele Ledda
Teacher of English

Lorna F said...

Thanks for this, Michele; I'll take a look at the website.