Boscastle's flooding, Attacks on A-levels and others

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Look to the hills for the source of Boscastle's flooding

Look to the hills for the source of Boscastle's flooding

Sir: Before the learned academics and climate modelers swamp the arguments over why Boscastle was inundated this week, it would be wise to step back a little and see whether there might be a simpler explanation than the inevitable cry of "global warming".

The old buildings in Boscastle have been in place for centuries and have survived, and it is extremely unlikely that this week's rainfall is unprecedented over such a timespan. But more than 30 years ago I talked to an old Boscastle resident who knew the history of the village well. He said that what has changed is the land use on the hills around the coast. Now mainly grassland from which heavy rain runs off rapidly, in former centuries these hills were covered mainly by scrub and other vegetation that slowed down surface drainage.

This was, in fact, an event that became ever more likely for a perfectly ordinary reason - changes in farming practice have altered the hydrology of the valley. Restoring the land's capacity to impede the run-off of heavy rainfall in this and other similarly threatened valley communities should be a much higher priority than responding to theoretical attribution of such problems to the more popular scapegoat, global warming.

Given the low income from grazing such land and the high cost of this week's damage, subsidising farmers for introducing such measures would be a cost-effective step towards reducing the risks of similar incidents elsewhere, irrespective of fuzzy predictions about climate change.

Environmental Analyst, Dulverton, Somerset

Wave of unjustified attacks on A-levels

Sir: Before the seemingly inevitable annual tide of criticism seeks yet again to undermine the self-esteem of successful A- and AS-level candidates and their teachers, I would like to enter a few pleas in mitigation from the perspective of a recently retired secondary teacher whose experience included many years as an examiner.

In the 1970s and 1980s, assessment of A-levels was normally by means of two written papers taken at the end of the course, a system allowing little margin for error to a candidate feeling out-of-sorts on the vital day or who was not a particularly confident examinee. In many subjects those examination papers consisted of relatively brief sets of "essay questions" that required candidates to demonstrate powerful skills of factual recall and more than competent literary skills - and frequently addressed only limited sections of often dauntingly broad syllabuses, to the acute disadvantage of those whose favoured topics did not figure.

Currently examination papers set out to cover the syllabuses more comprehensively, to put less stress on factual recall and literary ability and more on fundamental skills such as comprehension, evaluation of evidence and problem-solving. The overall assessment is based now on six rather than two components, permitting poor performance in one or two components to be outweighed by excellence elsewhere or by re-takes. More recent approaches to examining also place much more emphasis on objective rather than subjective assessment, making the results more reliable and comprehensible in most cases.

As a parent and teacher, I find the outcome of these recent trends infinitely more equitable, rewarding candidates and teachers appropriately for their ability and effort. If it is necessary to introduce supplementary measures, in order to permit universities and employers to discriminate between candidates more accurately, then so be it - but this should in no way be seen to take away from the successes reflected in the grades published this week.

Croydon, Surrey

Sir: The annual A-level debate has been going for years and again everyone's missing the point. The minister is wrong to say that students are working harder than ever and universities and employers are wrong to say that the exams are becoming easier.

The crucial change is the introduction and gradual tightening of the national curriculum. When I was in school in the late 1970s the teachers taught us according to their personal interests and strengths (whilst generally following some textbook). There was no guarantee that this information would appear in an exam, but the brightest and more enthusiastic students would have picked up enough of the subject to answer most questions.

Despite successive governments' claims about giving schools more local control, pupils are no longer being given a broad education but are all on the same highly targeted, nationally imposed training courses aimed specifically at passing exams. If you design a course such that you give the pupils the answers to all of the exam questions, albeit scattered throughout the year, the pass rate is bound to rise.

This change is also responsible, in part at least, for the ongoing problem of low morale amongst teachers. If allowed to teach a subject as they understand it, good teachers enjoy their work, enthuse their students and can take personal pride in their achievements. Compare this with spending hours trying to understand, prepare, and regurgitate a prescribed lesson.


Sir: A-levels should be both an achievement test and a ranking system. In an achievement test anyone with the required knowledge and skill should get a grade A. This is an employer's guarantee that an applicant has the knowledge and skills required and it is irrelevant how many other people also have that knowledge and those skills.

University entrance is competitive. So A-level results also need to include a ranking which would show how each student performed compared with all the others who took the same paper. Placing each result in a 5-point percentile band would achieve this. So a B1 grade would mean that, despite the B grade, this candidate was in the top 5 per cent of those sitting this relatively difficult paper; whilst an A3 would mean that, despite the A grade, 10 per cent of candidates did better than this one.

Employers would get the knowledge and skills they require and select principally on work-related criteria such as interpersonal skills. Universities would select on percentile and be sure of getting the best academic performers.

To make a sporting analogy, your grade is your personal best, your percentile is your world ranking. A-levels can and should deliver both.

London N16

Sir: So schools minister David Miliband insists that this year's expected rise in A-level results is not due to "dumbing down" but is all because of better teaching and students' hard work, as the Government inches ever closer to its dream of sending 50 per cent of teenagers into higher education.

What a shower of idle good-for-nothing loafers we pupils must have been during the 1960s, and what a pathetic bunch of lacklustre teachers we must have had, that only 5 per cent of us could then scrape together enough A-levels to get to university.

Ampthill, Bedfordshire

Sir: I simply cannot understand why David Miliband refuses to state the obvious when questioned about the rising A-level pass rate: students are allowed to resit modules without due penalty. There is a vast difference between the truly bright student who obtains three or four A-grade passes at first sitting and the one who "lifts" B and C grades to As after two or even three resits. Resits should be penalised with 10 per cent taken off the resit mark for every resit taken. Only then would the real A-graders stand out.

Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Aims of Opus Dei

Sir: Johann Hari's piece on Opus Dei ("Islam is not alone in producing fanatical sects", 13 August) is right in saying that The Da Vinci Code is fiction, but is wrong on virtually everything else. Opus Dei's aim is to help people - whether rich or poor - to strive for holiness in the middle of the world. It has no political agenda, since its aims are purely spiritual.

While it is correct that some of its members, in the exercise of their freedom, served in Franco's government, it is equally true that there were other members whose political views led to their being exiled by that same government. In itself, that is not a matter of concern to Opus Dei; each one takes responsibility for his or her own actions.

Opus Dei in not a "sect", nor is it "secret". It has been approved by five different Popes, and in every diocese in which it operates it does so with the approval of the local bishop.

As for the suggestion that Opus Dei might somehow be responsible for appointing the next Pope, papal elections are carried out by a College of Cardinals consisting of approximately 120 members. At present there are just two cardinals who belong to Opus Dei.

Director, Opus Dei Information Office, London W2

Coulter countered

Sir: Ann Coulter ("Blonde Assassin", 16 August) is representative of a United States that has no conception of what the world outside the US is like.

What is the basis of her judgements or conjectures about Muslims, terrorism, and race in general? It is a construction of hatred, ignorance and hubris. She is insecure about her beloved American Empire and its place in the world. Nothing can convince her that a Muslim can be a decent, law-abiding human being. In a way, she is no different from Osama Bin Laden. She does not want to have a dialogue but to impose her way of life on everyone.

London SE1

Sir: Occasionally, I suspect, Ann Coulter enjoys what the Soviets used to call a little provokatsya. Of course we've never seen that on the left - where the 3,000 American dead on 9/11 were called, among other things, a great work of art, a well-deserved punishment for American sins and a minor affair compared with the millions of people murdered by globalisation.

Compared with the drumbeat of leftist mendacities Ann is a sweet little pussycat. Long may she miao.

Walnut Creek, California, USA

Sir: After interviewing right-wing pundette Ann Coulter, Sholto Byrnes wondered whether she was a "nutcase". Having seen and read Ms Coulter over the years, I have come to the conclusion that she is the Courtney Love of political commentators: a talented entertainer who knows her outlandish behaviour will get her attention; but her need to outrage people for effect will lead to her implosion.

Canton, Michigan, USA

Sir: Regarding the singular Ann Coulter's typically nonsensical remarks in her interview with Sholto Byrnes, may I point out three things which are wholly the product of liberal attitudes in society: women's suffrage; women's acceptance into higher education; women's presence in the workplace. Without liberals, Ann Coulter quite simply would not exist.

Damn, I guess we do suck.

Bray, Co Wicklow, Ireland

Ageism and the BBC

Sir: Your BBC factfile ("The BBC by numbers", 13 August) tells us that 2.7 per cent of staff have disabilities, 37 per cent of senior management are women and 10.13 per cent are from an ethnic minority background (above the national level). But the missing number is the percentage of employees who are over 50 (including and excluding senior management).

Twenty per cent of the population is over 50 and the BBC has recently acknowledged that it doesn't know how to reach its growing older audience. Of course, the BBC makes use of talented individuals over 50, but as freelance writers and actors, not members of staff, and certainly not as new recruits. When that changes, more people will not mind paying the licence fee.

London NW3

Massed ranks

Sir: The caption under your picture of the Pope's visit to Lourdes (report, 16 August) mentions priests and altar boys. In fact, many of the "altar boys" in the picture appear to be girls. In England lots of girls serve at Mass, and we like to be called altar servers not altar boys.

London N1

Timely warning

Sir: Pandora reported (13 August) that, according to a digital watch set to Greenwich Mean Time, Big Ben was chiming seconds early. Big Ben may be fast - but there is an alternative explanation. Curiously, the BBC transmits its programmes on its new digital channels a second or two later than the older analogue transmissions. Hence if the observer's watch had been set to a time signal transmitted by the BBC on a digital channel, it seems quite possible that the watch would be set slow.

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Puff daddy

Sir: David Hindmarsh (letter, 16 August) asks about countries that celebrate the humble chip. The city of Buenos Aires has long boasted a monument to this culinary masterpiece, an emporium billed as the "Palacio de la Papa Frita". Their speciality is a puffed-up chip, the "papa soufflé", to the best of my knowledge unknown on these shores.


Computer sickness

Sir: As someone who has recently completely reinstalled all of the software on my home computer to remove any viruses, I was wondering if there is an equivalent word to "hypochondriac" to describe someone with a generally unfounded suspicion that their computer is virused, when in fact it isn't.


Take no notice

Sir: Apropos Miles Kington's column (17 August) and previous correspondence, there was once a homemade poster on the wall at Clacton Hospital which stated: "Don't Feel Alone ... Join Our Stroke Club".

Walton on the Naze, Essex