Letter: 'Officers' and 'other ranks' in the education system

Sir: I normally agree with much of what John Rae writes, but his recent defence of examination reforms ('The wrong debate about the wrong exams', 4 September) seems to miss an important point.

It goes without saying that the success of our economy and the quality of our life as a nation depend on allowing and encouraging everyone passing through our education system to achieve their maximum potential. But this must surely include the tiny percentile of the most gifted, as well as the much larger (by definition) number of people of more average ability. To use John Rae's own analogy, we still need, possibly more than ever, 'officers' of proven and properly developed ability to carry out the task of deploying the 'other ranks' to optimum effect.

In the Cambridge University Engineering Department, there exists an educational system designed to stretch and test the most able young people this country produces. Provided they are subsequently encouraged to exercise their talents in an appropriate way, the graduates from this system represent an incalculable national resource, capable of enhancing the standard of living of the whole of our society. For the system to operate, however, there must exist some method of selecting that small fraction of school leavers best able to benefit from it. An examination system that places more than half of the candidates in the top two grades is, quite simply, inadequate for this purpose. I deplore the brand of elitism that results in an individual's reward from society being governed, or even influenced, by his or her social origins. But I believe strongly in the elitism (as surely we must term it) that recognises that our society benefits from identifying those able to perform the most demanding tasks in economically useful disciplines, and developing their ability to do so to the fullest possible extent.

Yours sincerely,


Director of Studies

in Engineering,

Clare College


4 September