It’s the GCSE answers that matter

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 6, 2012

"Explain why some people are prejudiced against Jews."

This was not the exact wording of the now infamous question included in a GCSE paper on religious studies, set recently by the AQA exam board. I have omitted the word "briefly" but I'll come back to that in just a moment. What I want to concentrate on now is the question as I have reformulated it. Remember that it was part of a religious studies module, intended to be answered by 16-year-olds - young people who will soon become full British citizens with the right to vote.

That "some" people are prejudiced against Jews is - I take it - beyond the slightest contention. That this prejudice has religious origins is surely axiomatic. I would fully expect the religious origins of anti-Jewish prejudice to be taught at secondary schools; indeed I would have grave concerns if this was not part of the curriculum.

The inclusion of the question seems to me unproblematic. But this view is clearly not universally shared. Rabbi David Meyer, of the Hasmonean High School (whose pupils are not entered for this board) declared the question had "no place" in an exam paper because "the role of education is to remove prejudices … not to justify them". But this was not what the question asked, was it?

Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, opined that it was "unacceptable and has nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Judaism". In fact it has everything to do with Judaism and to do with Jews. Christianity and Islam are both grounded in a rejection of the central tenets of normative Judaism and in particularly pejorative views of Jews as people and as a people.

Michael Gove, when approached on this matter, declared that "to suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre". What I find not just bizarre but actually alarming is that a person occupying the office of Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Education should hold the view that antisemitism - irrational prejudice against Jews - cannot be explained. Of course it can. Not only that, but schools have a duty to explain it, and are failing in their duty - more especially in the context of a religious studies syllabus - if they do not.

I return now to the word "briefly". Pupils were actually asked to explain "briefly" why some people are prejudiced against Jews, and it seems that the inclusion of this word has itself caused a certain amount of upset, on the grounds that prejudice against Jews is far too grave a matter to be explained "briefly" and that the addition of this word somehow belittles anti-Jewish prejudice.

I understand this objection, but I cannot support it. Earlier in my career I served a four-year term as co-ordinating chief examiner of A-Level history for the old Associated Examining Board, which as it happens was (some 12 or so years ago) one of the founding partners of the AQA.

I was "chief of chiefs", setting all the history papers and supervising the marking of them. The formulation of the questions was - and has remained - an extremely complex operation, involving several layers of expert panels, including an ethics committee, that oversaw question-setting at both Advanced and GCSE levels. The word "briefly" was frequently inserted into a question as a friendly warning to students not to write at great length. We might, I suppose, protest that it is imprecise. But students who are well taught - and well drilled in exam technique - will have known what it meant.

I therefore congratulate the AQA on the inclusion of the now infamous question, and I urge and encourage them to apply to it a robust defence should Ofqual (the exams regulator) ask for one. What is more, I want to persuade them to do something that is not normally done with exam answers, which are invariably destroyed.

In this case, it seems to me that the individual answers are themselves worthy of study. They should therefore be preserved for the purposes of scholarly analysis. We know remarkably little about the contemporary encounter between English schoolchildren and anti-Jewish prejudice. These particular answer-books surely have a unique part to play in filling this void.

Last updated: 5:04pm, June 6 2012