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Every Secretary of State since I can remember has promised to do something about poor teachers. The difficulty is always how to define "poor", and how to measure how far they fall short.

The issue is not about the few outrageously bad teachers or the even fewer corrupt ones. They can be and are dismissed, although often with far too much palaver.

The problem is with the rump of mediocre teachers. Everybody knows them, and is fully aware that they are not up to the mark. In-service training and advice over a lengthy period have produced little improvement. Generally these teachers are idle or tired out, or have never been suitable for the job. However, no matter how unfortunate their personal predicament, they should not be allowed to hold on to their posts. The country's children need and deserve better.

There is, I believe, one sure-fire way to solve the problem of mediocre teachers, and that is to put all staff, including heads, on fixed-term, renewable contracts, with a maximum of, say, five years per contract. Six to 12 months before expiry, renewal of such a contract, or not, would be discussed. The good teacher would have nothing to fear since his governors would be keen to renew (added to which, the central payment of increments on basic salary would solve the problem of experienced teachers costing more) and the best staff would be in a position to negotiate a better contract. But the mediocre would have to pull up their socks, or would be out of a job.

It's not a perfect system - why should we have to wait for a contract to expire? - and to find the extra, better, teachers, salary improvements might be needed. But it would be a marked improvement on the present arrangement, whereby a significant minority of our children are having their time wasted.

Of course, the other way to check on teachers is simple and free: just ask the pupils to fill in a questionnaire. They know who's got it and who has not. They respect demanding staff who mark work quickly and do not allow poor behaviour.

My son is teaching English in the Czech Republic and has just undergone such an examination by his pupils, as did all the staff. He got a pay rise; one of his colleagues got a final warning.

Richard Welch

Denbighshire, North Wales

In the current debate about A-level standards and comparability, one crucial development is being largely overlooked. This is the advent of modular assessment schemes, which often run in parallel with end-of-course assessments by the same board on virtually the same syllabus. These schemes do not, and cannot, present comparable demands on candidates and they impose severe constraints on the design of syllabuses and the structure of examination papers.

With the introduction of the new-style AS-level, based on the first year of the A-level course, the Secretary of State should have taken the opportunity to abolish such modular assessments. Even with the restrictions she had imposed, they still present the greatest threat to comparability of examinations and the greatest source of complexity in the system.

Dr RW Whitworth

The University of Birmingham

Your profile of Buckingham University states that it receives no funding from government. This is incorrect - it receives no funding from the Higher Education Funding Council. However, the fees paid by home students are subsidised by Local Education Authorities and at a level (pounds 2,115) that is higher than the standard tuition fee elsewhere (pounds 750 for classroom- based subjects and pounds 1,600 for laboratory-based subjects). In fact, the level of state provision is roughly equal to the cost per student in an arts subject elsewhere.

This special arrangement was introduced by the government of the day when the university received its charter in 1983, with the object of assisting its development.

The fact that Buckingham does not participate in either the Teaching Quality Assessment or the Research Assessment schemes is a matter of their choice. It would be perfectly possible for them to do one or both.

Professor RN Franklin

City University, London

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