When you sit GCSE English, you have to read an approved anthology of poems and then answer questions on it in the exam.
When the compulsory collection of poems was introduced, plenty of teachers and writers thought it was a lousy idea.
We said it was part of the deskilling of teachers and denying them the right to work out the best ways of working with the children and students that they were teaching.
It was handing the whole thing over to anonymous groups of “wise men and women” who decided, in a top-down way, what was the “best” literature for students to read.
I still hold to this view, but I’m prepared to admit that some of the great modern poets regularly chosen for the anthology (people like John Agard, Grace Nichols, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy) have given hundreds of thousands of 15 and 16 year olds fantastic poetry performances up and down the country.
Now there has been a development.
A woman who invigilates the GCSE exam at Lutterworth Grammar School, Leicestershire, thought that a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, Education for Leisure, in the compulsory anthology was “absolutely horrendous”.
The exam board that produced the anthology then asked all schools to destroy it.
Leaving the poem to one side, this episode illustrates perfectly what we complained about in the first place. It’s top-down education gone crazy. But it’s also education based on the whim of one-person protest.
So what kind of poem is it? It’s a monologue in the voice of someone who, just before the end, says that he is going to get “our” bread-knife and go out – having announced in the first line that he is “going to kill something”.
In between, the monologue lets us see something of him. On the one hand he thinks he’s “superman” and kills, or admires the killing of, small creatures. On the other, he’s unemployed and lives two miles into town from the dole office.
Pat Schofield, the woman who succeeded in getting the poem banned, thinks that the poem gives children the wrong “message”.
The exam board thinks that it has done the right thing because it has come out on the right side of the argument.
This is between one viewpoint which says that schools should be “encouraging and facilitating young people to think critically about difficult but important topics” and the other that says they should be doing this “in a way which is sensitive to social issues and public concern.”
What?! Who says that schools don’t discuss issues like knife crime in a way that is “sensitive to social issues and public concern?”
Stand up any teacher who has ever taught this poem in such a way as to suggest to a class that it’s OK to go out and stab someone. It’s an absurd possibility.
What is really going on, I suspect, is a classic piece of authority anxiety.
In our society, the main part of our lives is dominated by the system of production, distribution and finance.
This organises and shapes our lives, sets the limits of our capabilities and divides us up into categories dominated by the market value of what we do for a living.
But as part of this system there are many other top-down institutions full of unelected people telling us what we should think and do.
Not all of these simply reproduce the status quo – some, like charities – occasionally defy it.
Exam boards might appear to be “progressive” by moving on from the old Anglocentric idea of British poetry for the British nation, and creating a picture of a multicultural literature.
But then all it seems to take is for someone from “middle England” to conjure up the idea that a poem (and not the things the poem speaks of, such as unemployment or poverty) could be sending out teenagers to stab each other to death, and the top-down authority demands that the anthology be destroyed.
Carol Ann Duffy has replied to Pat Schofield with a poem.
She has taken lines from that bloodiest and most dangerous of writers, Shakespeare, and asked invigilator Pat to answer some of the questions that Shakespeare or she (Carol Ann) poses.
One of them uses that great political comment from Hamlet – “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you know what this means?”
It is a brilliant riposte because with this line Duffy not only reminds us that the exam board hasn’t understood that the original poem is political, but also implies that, with this kind of official action, there is something rotten in the state of Britain.
You can read Education for Leisure and Carol Ann Duffy’s response to the ban at » www.guardianunlimited.co.uk