Iraq, A-Levels and others

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No other Labour leader would have sent Fusilier Gentle to war

No other Labour leader would have sent Fusilier Gentle to war

Sir: Are we supposed to feel sorry for Tony Blair because of his "heavy responsibility to send young soldiers into war" as he assured the Gentle family over the death of their fusilier son Gordon ("A war of words", 20 August)? The gulf between Mr Blair's take on Iraq and the nation's distress at what is actually happening as a result of obedience to the dictates of the US neo-cons is unbridgeable.

Those of my generation who as teenagers fought in the Second World War secured for all freedoms that would have been denied had fascism triumphed. That was a just war. Iraq is not.

I was lucky to survive, wounded, aged 19. Gordon Gentle, aged 19, died in a conflict earlier Labour prime ministers would not have countenanced. Clement Attlee, who won an MC in the First World War, knew the horrors at first hand. Harold Wilson resisted US blandishments to send British troops to Vietnam. Mr Blair fell over himself to join George Bush's tainted adventure which to date has cost 65 of our servicemen their lives.

Small wonder that morale in the Labour Party is at an all-time low, and that Britain's standing in the world is heading for the precipice.

Brecon, Powys

Sir: Whilst I have the greatest sympathy for the families of Fusilier Gordon Gentle ("A war of words", 20 August) and others who have been killed during the Iraqi conflict and I can understand their grief, I can't understand why people are blaming Tony Blair for the fact that their children chose to go into a profession where they would be putting themselves ultimately at risk of death.

Gordon Gentle was an adult who chose to go into active service in the army. The primary function of a soldier is to go to war.

Whyteleafe, Surrey

Sir: Why did it have to wait for a 14-year-old girl to express what so many of us feel about Iraq, and get that point of view onto the headlines of the tabloid press? Maxine Gentle exposed the lie that the illegal invasion of Iraq was necessary to protect the security of the UK: it wasn't and she knew it, as do many other young people, and people of all ages as well.

Oadby, Leicestershire

Pass rates boosted by vested interests

Sir: Is it not highly significant that in the debate over A-level pass rates it is those bodies which have a vested interest in higher pass rates who claim that standards have not been lowered, while those bodies who have to cope directly with the consequences of declining standards are claiming that they have?

The Government, the teaching profession and the examining boards all have obvious reasons for wanting to claim the credit for higher pass rates. After 18 years as a head of sixth form, during which time I was regularly teaching three A-levels - English, history and general studies - I had become convinced, by the time I retired, that these three interested parties had formed an unholy alliance of convenience to maintain a fiction of raising academic standards to serve their own separate ends - political popularity, improved pay and conditions and increased fee income respectively.

Those interest groups having to confront the consequences of this gross deception on a daily basis - such as the Institute of Directors, the Confederation of British Industry, chambers of commerce and the universities - could see the grisly reality behind the preposterous claims: successive cohorts of school-leavers ill-prepared both academically and psychologically for either higher education or training for management. Small wonder that we are having to import so many senior managers, doctors, academics and professionals from abroad!

It is truly sickening and shameful that a whole generation of school-leavers and their parents has been so glibly betrayed by this "treason of the intellectuals".

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Sir: David Miliband, the schools minister, suggests it is a myth that yearly rises in the pass rate at A-level are evidence of falling standards. He may be correct. But he is guilty of perpetuating the potentially more dangerous myth that grades ought to reflect timeless standards of performance.

In the past if a male athlete could run the mile in four minutes flat he would have achieved Olympic medal standard; nowadays he would not. According to David Miliband's logic all the athletes in Athens should win a medal. That they do not is no slur on their performance, but an indication of their performance relative to their peers. If performance is rising in the way the minister suggests (and there is little evidence to suggest that it is not), grading thresholds should rise with it. Relative ability is important, even when it is only relative ability to perform in examinations. It is the measure by which employers and universities choose between applicants.

Nowadays A-levels are insufficiently discriminate to provide an objective basis for choosing between applicants, especially at the top grade, and so employers and universities struggle to find other objective measures of ability. Some universities have even resorted to their own entrance examinations. The danger, of course, is that the vacuum in objective bases of choice may be filled by undesirable subjective bases of discrimination.

Director of Undergraduate Studies
School of Law, University of Warwick

Sir: We are replacing education for life with training for a job. Thousands of dedicated teachers quite capable of the former are being demoralised by unremitting pressure to do the latter. This Philistine process was started by Mrs Thatcher and, to their shame, progressed enthusiastically by this government.

Anyone who aspires to high standards and falls short hasn't failed; they've just learnt a lesson in life. Exam grades in this environment are at best targets, so beloved of this administration and just as limited in usefulness here as elsewhere.

The introduction of the AS exam in year 12 reinforced this destructive process. It denied 17-year-olds a year in which, with the guidance of a good teacher, they might find their own voice and develop the independence of thought that used to be essential for university. In an element of an AS design study my son's work was marked "too original".

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Sir: Graham Perkins (letter, 20 August) cites Bertie Wooster's achievements in religious studies as evidence for the view that the subject is a soft option. However, in the non-fictional world the work of philosophers and theologians such as Kant, Wittgenstein and Aquinas, which is studied to some degree in the A-level course, may act as a counter-argument.

Ascot, Berkshire

Middle Englander

Sir: In his article "The shock of finding that I belong to Middle England"(18 August) Terence Blacker bemoaned the development of the country without planning consent, and aligned himself with the hostility he feels "Middle England" holds towards travellers.

Insufficient reference was made to how the abolition in 1994 of the duty of councils to provide sites had created a shortage. The Government at the time replaced the duty with a circular that asked councils to help travellers identify land for development; but none did, which is why some travellers buy land in the way they do. The shortage of traveller sites has had a negative impact on the social inclusion of gypsies and travellers and caused inconvenience for the settled community and a deterioration in community relations. Everyone is losing.

Terence Blacker is out of touch with Middle England. Cottenham Residents Association recently joined together with the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition in issuing a joint statement, part of which calls on the Government to introduce a duty to provide or facilitate sites. "Middle England" espouses many things but I would say it stands for "fair play". I believe it is that principle that has led to people in the settled community now working with travellers to find a fair and equitable way forward.

Policy Development Worker
The Gypsy & Traveller Law Reform Coalition
London N22

Sir: So Terence Blacker is dismayed by the discovery that he belongs to Middle England. Look friend: you name-drop Stephen Fry on Prince Charles in your first sentence; your syntax is riddled with redundant parentheses; you own a field, and you make money by writing about it in a quality newspaper. Where did you think you belonged?


Darfur appeal

Sir: Your leading article of 19 August thanked the readers of The Independent for their magnificent generosity to the appeal for Darfur. On behalf of Concern, your partner charity in this appeal, I want to add my thanks.

Last month, I saw how this crisis has devastated the lives of thousands of people. The combination of the work of the Concern team in Darfur and over £150,000 from your readers is going to save many lives and provide some hope for the future.

Any future for Darfur and its people also depends on stopping the violence, getting people back to their villages and working towards political stability. As you have been pointing out, the Sudanese government, the rebel groups and the wider international community each have grave responsibilities if such stability is to be achieved.

But the people living today in Darfur, with minimal shelter, insufficient food and no sanitation in the camps, cannot wait for political breakthroughs. Their priority is survival. And Independent readers, through their generosity, have contributed to that.

Chief Executive, Concern
London SW11

Water resistance

Sir: There are technical solutions to the problem of urban run-off highlighted by Professor Alan Werrity ("A flash flood in the pan or a rainstorm caused by global warming?", 18 August). Sustainable urban drainage systems (Suds) can make an important contribution - they aim to soak up the problem before it hits homes and an overburdened sewage and drainage system.

Suds typically include ideas like using permeable materials for outdoor surfaces so that huge amounts of water do not drain off during flash floods (as with concrete), and the creation of ponds or wetlands to provide natural water sponges.

While Suds are beginning to feature in planning guidelines, as yet there is no legal force behind them and there is reluctance by some local councils, developers and the water and sewerage companies to adopt them. Research is underway into standards for Suds, with the government reported to be unveiling guidance on the issue in a draft code of practice in the near future. In the meantime, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management is supporting training so that those with the power to change practice at design and build level understand the importance and benefits of managing water in the urban environment.

However, while we wait for inertia to catch up with the impact of climate change, we can look forward to flash floods continuing to cause incalculable human misery and a financial burden that runs into millions of pounds.

Executive Director
Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management,
London WC1

Imaginary viruses  

Sir: Mike Veveris (letter, 19 August) asks for an equivalent word to "hypochondriac" to describe one with an unfounded suspicion that their computer has a virus. What about "cyberchondriac"? "Cyber" can be usefully used as a prefix with all sorts of words. Examples include -active, -babble, -mania, -moron and -phobia. There is also "cyberrhoea".


Latest US target

Sir: Hugo Chavez has survived another US-sponsored attempt to unseat him. What will America try next to get rid of his democratically elected government? Will we be told they have weapons of mass destruction or that they were responsible for 9/11? Or perhaps Osama bin Laden has a training camp there. Whatever happens, America will do all it can to destroy Chavez and his government. Just another victim in the serial rape of South America.

Harwich, Essex

Porto's thrilling success

Sir: Ken Jones (19 August) would have it that Porto's European Cup success is "not one to thrill neutral hearts". I would demur. Short of my own team, Aston Villa, winning the competition, the next best thing is for a team of similar "big but not amongst the very biggest" standing such as Porto to take the honour. It's nice to know that such achievement is not, after all, outside the abilities of those not amongst the wealthy super-elite.

Hirwaun, Rhondda Cynon Taff

Seat of knowledge

Sir: There is hope yet! My son, Jack, aged six, completed your geographical quiz (19 August) and got 12 out of 25. He has now been promoted to the front seat for all long-distance journeys in the car.


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