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Quality control is down to the students, too

In her article, Lucy Hodges (Education +, 21 August), quotes Prof David Robertson of Liverpool John Moores University: "As a parent, am I going to work to pay pounds 1,000 for my child to do an HND at Balls Pond Tech when it costs the same for him or her to study for a degree at Oxford?"

Aside from the obvious detail of eligibility to Oxford, most A-level and GNVQ students should be asking these questions:

A: What is the college's level of equipment, and its ratio of staff to students?

B: How much tutorial support and class contact time will I get ?

C: Will I learn anything useful that will enable me to get a job?

Employers ask us to produce students who can handle responsibility, who are well acquainted with multimedia software and have good communication skills, who are able to run a team and work without supervision from day one.

In Grimsby College's case this requires an enormous investment in computers, software, cameras, photo labs and editing suites. Our students take their work seriously and progress to either get good degrees or to land excellent jobs.

Often at this time of year, as an admissions tutor I get calls from students from all over the UK who have been offered degree courses with as few as two points at A-level, and every year - around six weeks from now - those same students will be calling me back and saying the same thing: "They have put me on a theoretical course, there's no equipment, and no one cares. I can't find any tutors. Help!" Too late: once again the lure of "cheap" degrees offered by unscrupulous universities anxious to fill their courses by any means has sent bewildered students up a blind alley.

HNDs are practical. In following one of these courses, you get to study useful, career-structured modules, and employers come back asking for more of the same. If we are to pay for higher education, then students need to be the same as other consumers. Buyer beware.

Sam North

Media Department, Grimsby College

Culture of learning needed to fill a yawning gap

Your article "GCSE passes set for record rise", (20 August) raised two important issues on GCSE results: firstly, the perceived drift in standards, and secondly, the gulf between the best and worst results at the individual or school level. It is revealing to explore the background to this.

Last year this organisation ran a nationwide competition to identify the brightest 150 sixteen-year olds on the basis of their cumulative GCSE results (or equivalent).

Almost 1,000 secondary schools participated. We discovered that the top 150 had at least 11 GCSEs at grade A or A*, with the most successful school providing 13 of these students.

However, even the teachers of some of these excellent schools thought that obtaining an A or A* was not demanding enough for their students. It did not create the work ethic to tackle A-levels in the sixth form!

In contrast, many children leave school with not one GCSE at a recognisable pass grade. This highlights the greatest challenge facing education - that of spreading best practice, raising expectations and developing more widely a culture of learning. Nor should it be thought that the brightest 150 were all from the independent sector. State schools were well represented and can provide role models for thousands of other schools.

Richard A Pike

Director General,

Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Child prodigies know all about the magic of maths

Ann MacKintosh (Summertime Views, Education+, 21 August ) bemoans the prospect of a 10- and a 12-year-old commencing mathematics degrees at Oxford. I agree with her.

But her attitude to the subject itself reveals some ignorance and prejudice. She attributes the children's diligence to a desire to please rather than to a love of that which is studied. And nor can she contend that there is any spontaneity in their talents.

On the contrary, mathematics, more than any other skill, relies on innate ability. It is a world of magic and puzzles which responds to exploration, not to learning by rote. The joy it provides and the beauty it holds are limited only by one's ability; and these children are certainly very able.

Emily Bulman