Before the Iron Curtain fell, schoolchildren in eastern Europe quickly learned to toe the correct party line, whatever they might actually have thought. If they expressed the wrong political views in schoolwork or exams, then however clever they might otherwise be they knew perfectly well that they would face penalties and would never get on in life.
This could never happen in England today, could it? Don’t be so sure. A story that hit most of the papers this week should give you pause.
There was a question in one of this year’s Religious Studies GCSE papers about Islam and halal slaughter in the UK. One 16-year-old girl, Abigail Ward, at an Eastbourne free school, as it happens a strict vegetarian and animal lover, let rip about what she thought of the halal process. What she wrote came from the heart and was not complimentary.
She soon received a pompous and self-important letter informing her that she had got zero marks for the whole paper. Why? Because by saying what she had she had demonstrated Islamophobia, thereby committing a “malpractice offence” meriting disqualification “due to obscene racial comments being made throughout an exam paper.”
Abigail Ward was told she had committed a “malpractice offence” for “obscene racial comments being made throughout an exam paper.”
In the event justice was done. Representations were made making it clear that her disapproval of halal was due to fellow-feeling for the victim rather than any anti-Islamic zeal; the examination body OCR (otherwise known as the Oxford and Cambridge board) climbed down and apologised.
Nevertheless this development is exceedingly worrying. For one thing, what if the girl had argued, not from the vegetarian viewpoint (which no doubt struck a chord with OCR and the predominantly leftist educational establishment) but from (say) a Christian one.
Imagine, for instance, that she had argued that Muslims, not having accepted the revelation of the New Testament and realised with St Paul that the letter kills but the spirit gives life, were still stuck like the Jews with their stupid dietary laws.
That may or may not be a correct point of view: but does expressing it in good faith – in a religious studies paper, no less – amount to punishable Islamophobia? I have a sneaking feeling that readers may be able to guess the answer.
For another, it’s not only Islamophobia that appears in the examiners’ cross-hairs. OCR’s own instructions to candidates say the following: “Some exams and assessments require you to discuss sensitive topics like race relations, equality or morality. It’s important to remember though that racist, sexist, lewd, homophobic or anti-religious group comments will be penalised.”
Just think for a moment. Does this mean that a candidate must now be punished for honestly suggesting in, say, a current affairs paper that it’s better for women to stay at home looking after the children?
Or that a Muslim cannot without fear of penalty defend on the basis of the Koran the prohibition on unmarried women venturing out without a male relative, or an orthodox Catholic the entirely plausible view that homosexual activity is automatically abominable because it involves fornication: namely, sexual activity outside a marriage between one man and one woman?
If so, many public examinations are likely to become tests not not so much of education but of adherence to liberal orthodoxy.
“You can have a car in any colour you like,
provided it is black.”
It might be argued that this is all very well: but what if a candidate does in bad faith produce a piece of outrageous head-banging stupidity, such as a statement that n*****s need to be chased back up their trees and fed bananas? Surely there is a need for a penalty here?
Even this, I suggest, is doubtful. There is a perfectly simple way of dealing with exam answers on these lines, which is to give them zero marks on the basis of idiocy and irrelevance. In the unlikely event that someone says this in one question but then answers the rest of the paper impeccably, they should have credit for it.
There is no need to regard them as guilty of some sin against the examination process as a whole, to be equated with talking, cheating or disrupting the session. Indeed to do this is precisely to say that people need to be penalised for no more than the opinions they express.
It is to say that the expression of an unacceptable political view by an otherwise intelligent student is worse, and needs to be penalised more severely, than an almost complete lack of knowledge of the subject by one who has done no work.
Moreover, one cannot even push the blame on to an over-zealous examinations board. These prohibitions are unfortunately forced onto examination boards by – you might have guessed it – government itself, in the shape of the Joint Council for Qualifications set up to oversee their activities.
This body specifically requires so-called malpractice to include not only cheating and disruption, but “the inclusion of inappropriate, offensive, obscene, homophobic, transphobic, racist or sexist material in scripts, controlled assessments, coursework, non-examination assessments or portfolios” in the definition.
It then indeed goes on to say that any instance of “homophobic, transphobic, racist or sexist remarks” must merit anything from disqualification from the exam (minimum) to so-called debarral (i.e. depriving the candidate of all marks for papers during that session and in addition barring him from re-sitting for a given period of time).
As the OCR said in the present case, its hands had indeed been tied. It had simply been forced to apply the rules imposed on it and throw the book at this hapless examinee. Even if, as appears to be the case here, the rules in that book amounted to a statement to candidates that “you can express any views in the exam, provided you don’t disagree with us.”
It reminds you of Henry Ford’s “You can have a car in any colour you like, provided it’s black,” except for one thing. Henry Ford was joking. These latter-day puritans are in deadly, serious earnest.
(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath)