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“Sometimes the apologising has to stop”

In a recent GCSE English examination set by the AQA exam board the “unseen” – a piece of writing new to the students upon which they must answer questions – was an extract from The Mill, a 1935 novella by H.E. Bates.

Some curious examinees looked up the story the extract was from after the exam. But when some of them found out that the story features the tragedy of a girl in service raped and made pregnant by her employer, instead of being grateful to have their horizons widened by the realization that authors tackling the theme of sexual exploitation of women in fiction did not start with their generation, they complained. About the existence of a rape scene elsewhere in the book than in the passage they were obliged to read. The scene, by the way, is not salacious. The main criticism of The Mill as a story is that it is unremittingly bleak and depressing. You know, like The Handmaid’s Tale.

“Sometimes the apologising has to stop,” writes Janice Turner Libby Purves in the Times. (Thanks to Rob Fisher for spotting that I got the author’s name wrong.)

This advice I offer to the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, AQA, which sets GCSE, AS and A levels. Of course it should apologise for real mistakes, but it is not an examiner’s job to endorse the more whiny hypersensitivities of the age. At 15 or 16 GCSE candidates are moving into the adult world and are usually impatient to do so. Yet last week AQA, instead of a scornful “Hah!”, caved in to some ridiculous complainers, saying it was “sorry to hear” they felt that a text “inappropriate” and would “never want to upset anyone”.

It was about a short “unseen” in the English Language GCSE, asking them how language evokes sights and feelings. It came from a little-known 1935 story by HE Bates, The Mill — such excerpts are chosen to be unfamiliar. Nothing untoward is in the set passage, though online there is some disgruntlement about the word “chrysanthemum” (“Is it a plant or what?”). But someone looked up the whole story later — quite praiseworthy really — and discovered that as it develops, a serving maid is raped by her employer and becomes pregnant. Cue outrage, much pearl-clutching and demands for trigger warnings.

Complaints snowballed on social media, and a student, Hadiatou Barry, wrote a long letter to AQA saying she was “horrified” and deploring the “blunder” which “may have very well acted as a trigger for underlying mental health issues”. Not in her, of course, but in some imagined person. Much Twitter followed: “why did AQA think it was alright to use a book about rape?? wtf,” and “what the f— AQA what the actual —? How is this a remotely OK thing?” Adults weighed in: one “memoir writing” tutor cried, “Relevant? Useful for 15/16 year olds to glean anything from? Who sets this stuff?” A mother moans, “My daughter sat an exam about rape!” Even an English teacher joined in.

Online outrage is just froth, and many of the students’ posts are breezily unbothered and funny, or just furious at having to write out the baffling word “chrysanthemum”. But the horror of the row is that AQA should offer even the mildest “sorry” and acknowledge potential “upset”. Encouraging complainers to think they have a point is, in this case, not only stupid but deeply wrong. It’s another brick in the wall of hypocritical hypersensitivity.

Added 12th June: And there’s another one today: Calorie question upsets GCSE pupils with eating disorders

An exam board has been forced to defend a GCSE maths question involving calorie counting after being criticised on social media for causing distress to pupils with eating disorders.

At least one was so upset that she left the exam after seeing the question, according to the complaints, with others saying it affected their concentration.

The question required pupils to work out the total number of calories consumed for breakfast, with weights and calorific value provided for yoghurt and a banana.

“My sister is a recovering anorexic who had to leave the exam due to this,” one young woman posted.

Another criticised the board for posing a question about calorie counting to pupils of that age. “Can I ask what on earth you were thinking by having a question around counting calories? Your exams are primarily taken by 15 to 20-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to suffer from eating disorders,” the post read.

Here is the question in all its evil:

There are 84 calories in 100g of banana. There are 87 calories in 100g of yoghurt.

Priti has 60g of banana and 150g of yoghurt for breakfast.

Work out the total number of calories in this breakfast.

Answer: 180.9

21 comments to “Sometimes the apologising has to stop”

  • Flubber

    PC and Twitter has driven the left completely frigging bonkers.

  • Roué le Jour

    Ignorance is strength.

  • Eric

    I think an apology is in order. Something like “We’re sorry we have failed in our efforts to prepare you for adulthood” would be appropriate.

  • the other rob

    Odour of Chrysanthemums was on my O Level English Lit, iirc.

  • Stonyground

    I’m slightly encouraged by the fact that there is an article in the mainstream media making this case. This oversensitive whining has been criticised within the blogsphere for years, Longrider has often posted about it. Are the newspapers finally catching up?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Fingers crossed. There’ve been a couple of out-of-character pieces in the left-leaning blogs and even the NYT here, too.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    I used to be a colleague of Janice Turner back in my early days in journalism. She’s been a bit of a leftie in the past, but seems to have become radicalised, in a good way, over the years. Nice lady, knows how to deliver a Dorothy Parker-style put-down.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    I almost blogged about this when I first read it. I don’t blame the kids, they’re just stirring up trouble; testing the boundaries. As they should. Piling on by adults is daft. The apology is reprehensible. I too am glad someone said so in the Times.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    btw is it Janice Turner or Libby Purves?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Rob Fisher,

    Oops! It is Libby Purves, not Janice Turner. Will correct. Thanks for pointing this out (and so tactfully, too!).

    It was a column that Janice Turner could plausibly have written, if you know what I mean.

  • I wouldn’t mind (but know far better that to expect) an apology for these pieces always being chosen from works that the PC of the older generation want better known. (But I suppose it’s a reliable way to get a shortlist of ones satisfying the condition of being currently ‘little-known’.) It will be informative and (grimly) amusing to see whether there is an apology for such older-PC-approved books no longer being acceptable to the brain-dead generation PC has created. 🙂

    It is funny to recall Scotland’s educationalists in the mid-70s, when the lefty PC ethos was as elitist and aggressive as now, but was also the one whose dangers the right warned of then and the MeToo complain of now. The “write from the summary” piece in one mid-70s Scottish-wide schools exam was to write a restaurant review from the notes made by the reviewer after visiting. A notes line that read

    Classy decor – constables and turners on the walls

    kept the working class kids in their place and caught some criticism from both left and right, but it was IIRC only stuffy old conservatives who felt that the last word in the notes’ one-liner

    Waitresses slow but obliging (pricey!)

    could have been omitted with advantage to the general tone of Scottish education, let alone to not distracting the students. (In the event it discriminated in favour of precisely the more cleanly-raised students who, in the haste of the exam, breezed past it without ‘getting’ it. I do not now recall how many students that year failed to realise that they were not in fact meant to include the final word’s clarification of the penultimate word’s meaning when writing their review. 🙂 )

    The comprehension training piece of the year before was less accidentally-opposed to its setter’s goals. It was a thoroughly early-70s review of a very avante-garde ballet-cum-play, that denied mockingly that there was anything improper about it while describing antics that could have raised doubts in the less enlightened mind – the kind of review I was accustomed to from the New Statesman’s arts section where, after praising the working class to the skies in its political section, they made it plain they were arty-farty types who despised and hated working class culture. Thanks to reading the New Statesman at home, I breezed it, but to those benighted kids who had nothing but the Daily Mail of those days to glance at when at home, the text and the tone might have used some of the very short timescale of the exam to switch into. It tested something all right, but I wasn’t quite sure it was purely English comprehension as such. 🙂

    I once had the misfortune to meet the 60s-walking-wounded poseur that controlled Scottish education in those days. He’d be a keen supporter of the hate speech laws now but in those days, though sternly censoring educationalists for reactionary views, he was very against what he called ‘censorship’. Even at my young age, I thought he was also very against what I called ‘education’.

  • Tim the Coder

    “There are 84 calories in 100g of banana. There are 87 calories in 100g of yoghurt”

    That’s a GCSE question now!!! WTF
    Simple arithemtic with two multiplications. This used to be primary school stuff.
    In an O-Level, a more likely question would have been to give the total calories of two such breakfasts (with differentt ratios) and require the solving of the simultaneous equation to generate the banana and yoghurt values.

    If this question is typical of GCSE, they are worthless, and I despair for the ability of these infants to cope with reality. When they start running government….oh.

  • Rob

    These people are genuinely pathetic, both sides.

  • pete

    I’m going to appeal my 1976 German O level result, which was not good.

    I now realise that the questions triggered memories of my deep dislike of the subject and of the teacher Mrs Higginson, and reminded me that I couldn’t make myself revise beforehand.

  • Tim the Coder (June 12, 2019 at 9:03 am), it goes all the way up to university level. A mathematician friend at one of the universities in Glasgow described how one undergraduate complained about being denied entrance to the maths course. One of the papers was multiple-choice, with each paper’s answer order for each question being randomised to ensure copying was pointless. My mathematician friend told me

    “It was less his cheating than his insisting that it was a mere random chance that the letters of his answers were wildly wrong for his own paper but perfectly matched those of the paper on the desk to his right (for which they were mostly correct). His responses to our explanations left us genuinely unsure whether he was actually able to grasp how ridiculously improbable that would have been.”

    Another student claimed his exam result should be upped to allow for a car accident – that had actually happened – but failed to work out that his maths tutor would be able to work out, from the information included with the claim, that the accident occurred after the exam, not before.

    There are many tales of students whose virtue-signalling and cry-bullying skills are undermined by their lack of STEM skills.

  • Mr Ecks

    The chosen book sounds like a “woke” POS as well. Why not a story about some woman raped by a socialist commissar as Beria was apt to do?

  • Rudolph Hucker

    How long before stories of snowflake students being traumatised by exposure to radical Al Gebra material, with hidden codes and subliminal messages?

    I’m looking forward to Titania McGrath tweeting on the topic.

  • Fraser Orr

    I wonder how these perpetually offended actually navigate the world? These calorie-counting-phobics must find it impossible to navigate such terrifying houses of horror like the grocery store, the mall or TV commercials.

    Perhaps it is time to ban food companies from advertising on leftie news sources? Who knows what the consequences might be should some sensitive soul see a juicy hamburger?

    I mean Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what about the children?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Tim the Coder, to be fair it might only have been part of a longer question. And/or it might have been a “Foundation Tier” GCSE, which is for the less able students. I actually think that an exam that allows pupils who are bad at maths to show that they can at least do something is a good thing. I’d like to see most academic exams work like piano or other musical instrument grades: you start at Grade 1 and work up to Grade 8, and there’s nothing unusual in seeing ten year olds and fifty year olds doing the same exam.

    What is more depressing to think about is that I strongly suspect that the snowflake students who lead these twitter storms are actually middling-to-good academically. The pupils who are truly good at schoolwork and the students who are truly bad at it both feel the pressure of exams. But the ones who set up the wailing and gnashing of teeth are clever enough to see an opportunity to find a great-sounding excuse for not doing as well as they hoped and not-clever enough to need one.

  • Paul Marks

    The left is indeed eating itself – as, of course, the idea of an employer raping an employee is a leftist thing (“exposing exploitation by a capitalist” or whatever) – but not the left will not allow students to read it, or even a passage from the same book.

    But to say the “left is eating itself” does not alter the fact that the left dominates the education system – the schools and universities.

    A society CAN NOT SURVIVE having education dominated by its enemies.

    If the leftist domination continues Western civilisation will be destroyed – the truth is that brutally simple.

  • Runcie Balspune

    And they wonder why Boris “this political correctness is b*ll*cks” Johnson would win a landside election?