Education Secretary Michael Gove has strongly criticised an exam board over a GCSE religious studies question in which pupils were asked: “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”
Last Thursday more than 1,000 students — including pupils at JFS — sat the paper, which was set by one of the three major English exam boards, AQA.
Mr Gove declared: “To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.”
He said that it was “the duty of politicians to fight prejudice, and with antisemitism on the rise we need to be especially vigilant”.
A spokesperson for AQA said: “The board is obviously concerned that this question may have caused offence, as this was absolutely not our intention”.
But, she added, the question “acknowledges that some people hold prejudices; it does not imply in any way that prejudice is justified”.
The JC understands that Mr Gove’s department had been contacted by a senior educational figure in the Jewish community.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, also took issue with the question. “Clearly this is unacceptable and has nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Judaism,” he said.
“We will be taking it up with the examination board and it seems to me that it is also something to raise with the Department of Education, with which we are meeting anyway to discuss antisemitism in schools.”
Ofqual, which regulates exams, said that it was in discussion with AQA: “We will take appropriate follow-up action if necessary.”
Rabbi David Meyer, the executive head of Hasmonean High School, whose pupils do not sit the AQA exam, said that the question had “no place” in an exam paper.
“The role of education is to remove prejudices and not to justify them,” he said. The question “plants suggestions and implies ideas that shouldn’t be instilled into students”.
AQA’s spokesperson said that the question was part of a paper focusing on Judaism and the “relevant part of the syllabus covers prejudice and discrimination with reference to race, religion and the Jewish experience of persecution.
“We would expect [students to refer]to the Holocaust to illustrate prejudice based on irrational fear, ignorance and scapegoating.”
Educator Clive Lawton, formerly an A-level chief examiner for religious studies for another board, said: “I do understand why people might react negatively to the question, but it is a legitimate one.
“Part of the syllabus is that children must study the causes and origins of prejudice against Jews.”