Michael Gove criticises ‘bizarre’ Jewish exam question
guardian.co.uk |by Peter Walker
- guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 May 2012 13.38 EDT
The education secretary, Michael Gove, has described as “bizarre” a GCSE exam question that asked students to explain the possible reasons behind prejudice against Jewish people.
The religious studies paper, which was sat by more than 1,000 students last week, including some at JFS, a leading Jewish secondary school in north London, read: “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”
Gove said he did not understand why the exam board concerned,the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), England’s biggest, had set such a question. He said: “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.”
It was, Gove added, “the duty of politicians to fight prejudice, and with antisemitism on the rise, we need to be especially vigilant”.
Jon Benjamin, who heads the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Jewish Chronicle, which carried the initial story about the exam question: “Clearly this is unacceptable and has nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Judaism. 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.”
A spokeswoman for AQA, which awards almost half of England’sGCSEs, said there was never any intention to justify prejudice. She said: “In many exam questions ‘explain’ is used to mean ‘give an account of’. For example, in the past we have asked students to explain why some people commit crimes, but we have not intended to suggest that we condone criminal activity.
“The question concerned acknowledges that some people are prejudiced, but we did not intend to imply in any way that prejudice is justified.” She added: “The board is obviously concerned that this question may have caused offence, as this was absolutely not our intention.”
According to AQA the question related to part of the religious studies syllabus covering “prejudice and discrimination with reference to race, religion and the Jewish experience of persecution”. Students would be expected to refer to the Holocaust “to illustrate prejudice based on irrational fear, ignorance and scapegoating,” the spokeswoman said.
The lead examiner for the religious studies exam paper had looked over the answers “and has found that students have understood the question in the sense that was intended”, she added.
The board was backed by Clive Lawton, formerly chief examiner for A-level religious studies papers set by another board. He told the Jewish Chronicle: “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.”