A levels, global warming, special needs and others

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A-level exams are no easier - but the grades have slipped

A-level exams are no easier - but the grades have slipped

Sir: So some heads want to scrap A-levels for not being rigorous enough. While it may not be true of all subjects, I must opine that modern languages A-level papers are as tough and skill-demanding as they have ever been. I know, having taught and examined them for 30 years.

It's not that the papers are easier (they're certainly not that), but that the marking and grade boundaries have become progressively and obviously less rigorous over the past decade. And of course, once that slippery slope is entered upon, there's little chance of changing direction. To do so would risk provoking complaints of unfairness from students and their parents if they feel they are being marked more severely than their predecessors .

The most able are indeed being stretched, but laxer marking schemes and lowering grade boundaries reward those who are less than the very best with grade A, and it has become impossible to distinguish the good from the very good. The same applies to modern languages GCSEs. A* grades are now as common as A grades once were. The currency is debased.

Ruth Kelly would be advised to examine the marking scheme and grade boundary policies of the three examination boards, and should insist that they hold the key to clearer indication of the really outstanding candidates. Nothing much wrong with the "Gold Standard", just the way it's assessed.

Clitheroe, Lancashire

Wind, gas and global warming

Sir: Please can one of your columnists explain in simple terms how the coldest winter on record in Afghanistan provides "the final proof: global warming is a man-made disaster" (headline, 19 February). If I am convinced then I and thousands of others might be able to believe Sir David King's statement that man-made global warming is a greater threat to humankind than international terrorism and we might also be able to believe that it can be cured by the industrialisation of Britain's countryside with monstrous wind "farms".

Please also note in passing that although most carbon dioxide comes from industry and cars, the average UK household creates an astonishing six tonnes a year - enough to fill six hot-air balloons. Perhaps these balloons could be deployed to find Bin Laden's footsteps in the snow?

The Conservation Foundation
London SW7

Sir: So we now have ultimate "proof" that man-made global warming is real and that carbon dioxide is the culprit. However I question whether our own Government has the slightest belief in this.

Three years ago the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution warned that, "by 2050 air transport, unless curbed, will be one of the principal contributors to climate change caused by human activities". On 18 January, Mr Blair celebrated the unveiling of the A380 Airbus, the world's largest airliner, which will emit over 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide per 24-hour operational cycle.

Road transport policy has been responsible for an enormous increase in fossil fuel use in unnecessary 4x4s and overpowered large family cars, together with more and more freightage by road. In the South we have proposals for massive widening of the M25, despite the repeatedly proven case that increased capacity simply promotes more road traffic. Elsewhere there are proposals for a new tolled motorway and countless local "improvement" schemes driven by the internal combustion engine.

The list is endless but the one action government is taking is to promote renewable energy, on which the customer-derived subsidy is gigantic, and forms a new tranche of taxable income. I draw my own conclusion.

Llanhowell, Pembrokeshire

Sir: I agree entirely the principle behind Andrew Crompton's proposal to boycott goods from those countries that have refused to sign up to Kyoto (Letters, 18 February). However, I would adopt a slightly different tactic and impose a "carbon tax" on goods from those countries.

The money raised could be given directly to support the implementation of clean technology in the countries that do care about the rest of the world. The mere proposal would cause a great fuss and draw attention to the seriousness with which the people in 141 countries treat the issue.

Emeritus Professor of Engineering Design, Coventry University School of Engineering

Special needs

Sir: What surprises me most about Tony Blair's confrontation with the mother of an autistic boy ("Mother upstages Blair on live TV show", 17 February) is that Mr Blair does not have more parents of children with special educational needs banging at his door.

In recent years the Government has embarked upon a programme of inclusion which appears to run contrary to the wishes of many parents, and does not, in our opinion, sufficiently allow for the diverse educational needs of all children who experience barriers to learning and participation. It is imperative to recognise that "one size does not fit all" when one is looking at education.

The problem is compounded by the attitude of sections of the inclusion lobby in the UK calling for an amendment to be made to Article 17 of the draft United Nations Disability Convention which would remove the right to choice in education from the convention.

As advocates for children and young adults who experience the most complex and compounded barriers to learning and participation, we fully uphold draft Article 17 (Education), which allows for diversity and choice in order to ensure that every member of society is able to participate in a broad, balanced and relevant system of education.

At St Margaret's School, the pupils function cognitively at the same level as a six- to twelve-month-old baby and have associated complex medical needs. They require adult enablers to facilitate access to a specially tailored curriculum. Full integration within a "mainstream" curriculum in a class of mixed ability would not enhance the learning experience of our pupils and would, surely, fail to allow them to develop their potential.

Head Teacher
St Margaret's School
Tadworth, Surrey

Sir: Nowadays we rarely see references to a large group of children with special needs. We read about their truancy and their criminal activities but not their needs. Generally these children are not physically disabled and do not have innate learning difficulties. In the past they were called "maladjusted" but are now children "with emotional and behavioural difficulties".

I taught at an infant/junior school for this special need for over 21 years and continued to help in a voluntary capacity until, despite a great deal of protest, the school was closed. That was three years ago.

Our school had up to 70 pupils arranged in small groups. Each child had their individual needs considered. Most of them had started their school life in mainstream and had been removed because the curriculum had not been suitable for them and their presence had not been conducive to the progress of others. Most of them progressed so well with us that they were able to return to mainstream at secondary stage.

But the policy became integration and apparently integration at all costs. Nothing to do with money, we were told, and the school would continue as long as there was a need. Gradually the referrals declined despite the demand by parents. There is now a unit for six children - this is closing in July.

It is not just the children who will suffer. This beautiful borough will see the results of non-education as more and more pupils are "out of school".

Richmond upon Thames, Surrey

Cleaner hospitals

Sir: I don't know whether the French hospital where I have been visiting an elderly friend has a matron, but it certainly has an impressive cleaning routine ("Hospitals, hygiene and the return of the Matron", leading article, 17 February). When my friend's room-mate in the surgical wing moved out, a team of care assistants (not external contractors) moved in with cloths, mops and disinfectant and attacked walls, floor, toilet areas, beds, mattresses, chairs - I had a feeling I'd have been given a going-over too had I not beaten a hasty retreat.

This was in addition to the daily cleaning and changes of bed linen. Notices over the washbasins not only demand hand washing for hygienic reasons but specify water temperature and use of soap. I don't think I was believed when I told the staff that apparently this routine is not uniformly carried out in English hospitals.

Montmorillon, France

Livingstone's bullies

Sir: Ken Livingstone believes that the mantra "I am only doing my job" is no excuse for antisocial behaviour and echoes the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Does he extend that opinion to those bully boys who use the phrase when enforcing the punitive parking restrictions and iniquitous congestion charge operated in the city over which he presides? If so, would he express his disapproval?

London N1

Sir: Many years ago, in my childhood, I was taught that it was no good saying that you were sorry unless you really meant it. I fail to see the point in seeking an apology, however public, from Ken Livingstone.


Tory tax cuts

Sir: In your leader (22 February) about Conservative tax-cutting announcements, you say promises of specific tax cuts are only credible when accompanied by a pledge to cut or freeze government spending.

In my spending plans announced last month, I set out how the Conservative Party would spend £12bn less than Labour in 2007-8. We will spend less on the DTI, Defra, Treasury and DCMS, and seven other non-priority areas.

If spending and wasting less than Labour is the test of credibility for avoiding Labour's tax rises and cutting taxes, then presumably we have passed with flying colours.

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, House of Commons

Unholy rows

Sir: Unseemly disputes in the Holy Places go back much further than 1902 (Letters, 19 February).

A fracas in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 1847, when Greek and Latin monks fought with candlesticks and other weapons, led to the Crimean War. The silver cross, which marked the spot where Jesus is said to have been born, disappeared during the melee. Napoleon III, wishing to gain favour with the clerical party in France, provided a replacement with considerable fanfare. This alarmed the Green Orthodox monks, who appealed to their traditional protector, the Tsar of Russia. In the West it was feared that Russia was seeking undue influence and perhaps even planning to dismember the Ottoman Empire.

For decades, the Ottomans had adjudicated between the claims of different Christian denominations to repair various parts of the church of the Holy Sepulchre - and had sometimes done it themselves to avoid bother. In the Church of the Nativity, disputes came to centre on the right to hold various keys and, in one instance, on whether holding a key allowed Latin monks to actually pass through the door.

Most of the stories are preserved in the Blue Books (British Parliamentary Papers), notably Correspondence respecting the rights and privileges of the Latin and Greek Churches in Turkey, published in 1854.

University of Wales, Swansea

Food safety scare

Sir: If it's true that the quantities of Sudan I in the food items being withdrawn are so minuscule as to pose no realistic threat to anyone's health, then why bother to recall them? According to the Food Standard Agency's website, "There is no risk of immediate illness and the health risk generally is likely to be very small." Given life's likelier hazards, this suggests to me a preposterous and very expensive case of over-reaction. If I find any of these things in my fridge or larder, I'll eat them.

Milton Keynes

Gonzo tributes

Sir: What a brave but wonderfully successful front page today (22 February) on Hunter S Thompson; and what a coup to have Ralph Steadman write the story. I cannot think of another newspaper which would do this.

Bawdsey, Suffolk

Sir: Following your front page about a writer of whom few of us have read a word, may we please now have another of your summaries of "news you may have missed"? Thank you.

Newark, Nottinghamshire

Politics for apes

Sir: Nick Griffin says we should stop pretending we're not all inherently racist ("Tories are taking our turf, says BNP chief", 21February). "Scientists", he says, have found that chimpanzee gangs have tribal wars against their neighbours, so "Why should the naked ape be any different?" Umm ... evolution, Nick?

Langley, Kent

Just an oversight

Sir: I always thought that the word "oversight" meant a failure to notice something. So I deplore the current fashion for using it to mean supervision, as for example in the case of the UN watchdog being called the "Office of Internal Oversight Services". Come to think of it, though, in the light of recent allegations perhaps it's not such a bad name for that body after all.

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Migratory birds

Sir: Considering that Antarctica is warming up, is there any hope that I shall see penguins swimming like mad from there to the freezing north Norfolk coast?

Cringleford, Norfolk