Sociologist and author Frank Furedi said his reaction to AQA’s decision to remove the theme of suicide from its A-level was “one of disbelief.”
“The disturbing thing is that this really captures the zeitgeist of the time. There’s a growing trend to almost render rigid students’ unease with certain themes, rather than thinking that your job as a teacher is to communicate the integrity of a discipline,” the University of Kent emeritus professor told TES.
“Like any voyage of discovery, education sometimes ends up in very risky areas. We have to take a reality check and find a way of dealing with what are uncomfortable truths.”
He offered the example of several teachers speaking to him about the difficulty of discussing the Holocaust with some Muslim pupils. “I say, that’s all the more reason to discuss it,” he said. “People are cultivated to feel that their unease about a problem is almost a medical condition. It then becomes self-fulfilling.”
The topic of suicide – and, specifically, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 text, Suicide – has formed an integral part of the AQA’s A-level sociology syllabus since its inception. Professor Furedi described it as one of its “foundation texts of sociology”.
He added: “It’s inconceivable that you would teach mathematics without times tables, or chemistry without looking at the periodic table. In sociology, there’s an integrity to the discipline, which you have to communicate.”
As well as forming part of the sociology syllabus, topics such as suicide, self-harm and eating disorders are often discussed in schools during personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons.
Pooky Knightsmith, from the PSHE Association said: “It’s OK to make people feel uncomfortable, within appropriate boundaries.” She added that any teenagers affected by the issues being discussed should always have the right to withdraw from the lesson, or from participation in any discussion.
AQA qualification manager Rupert Sheard said the board had removed suicide as a topic because it felt it had “a duty of care to all those students taking our courses to make sure the content isn’t going to cause them undue distress”. He said that teachers were free to continue to teach the subject if they wanted.
But Professor Furedi said education had a long history of causing distress. “Many of us have read novels or literature that made us feel very uncomfortable,” he said. “I remember having sleepless nights about certain things that I’d read.”
Dr Knightsmith said was a misconception that, having read about suicide, pupils would be encouraged to consider it themselves.
“Actually, what you do by not talking about it is to make young people think that they can’t talk about it,” she said. “You create an artificial barrier, and that’s very dangerous.”
“If you don’t teach these topics, you miss an opportunity to give young people the language, knowledge, skills and understanding to support themselves or to support a friend or family member who might need help.”