Letters: A-level results

Crazy A-levels need reform
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The Independent Online

As one who spent a 40-year teaching career wrestling with the A-level conundrum, I thought Richard Garner's piece "Adding stars just isn't enough" (Education, 19 August) was spot on.

The A-level cries out for reform and this year's fiasco could provide the final shove. Leaving aside the debate as to whether A-levels have been "dumbed down", it is surely irrefutable that grade inflation over the last 20 years has landed all concerned in a morass. As W S Gilbert said, "When everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody". A system that disables universities from selecting students whose abilities are suited to its courses is plumb crazy, and only a nation that is heading nowhere fast would continue to tolerate it.

Three easily achievable changes would suffice.

Criterion referencing should be replaced by norm referencing, A-grades being restricted to the top, say, 10 per cent of candidates.

AS-levels (and modules) should be abolished (as Michael Gove apparently wishes), thus freeing the summer term in the lower sixth for teaching.

The A-level (and GCSE if we must continue with it) should be examined in March, with results published by the end of June. This change would allow five and a half terms in teaching time for the A-level, ample time for the "deep thought" now deemed desirable. Students would leave school after Easter and spend their summer doing voluntary work, work experience, internships or the proposed national service, while being available for university interviews after 1 July.

In addition to their pedagogical desirability, these reforms would achieve considerable savings in examining and clearing costs.

David Smith

Clyro, Powys

Your editorial attitude to the A-level results (leading article, 19 August) evokes an academic elitism reminiscent of the denigration of the 11-plus. If students don't get a university place, you imply they are lesser mortals. Not so.

Three years' "book-learning" and a debt of £25,000 cannot be the only way forward after success at A-level (of whatever grade, or whatever standard). Teachers, the academic mafia, parents and the media need to support and encourage the funding of other ways to a fulfilling and productive life. The skills gained through apprenticeships and practical job-based learning are desperately needed now and for the foreseeable future. The universities do not have all the expertise and certainly have no right to all the funds in developing young people after A-level.

David Fleming

Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire

I was surprised that Mary Dejevsky made no mention of selection when discussing independent schools and the A* grades ("A grades that money can buy", 20 August).

Of course they will have a higher percentage of A* students, as they have brighter students. They selected them on much stricter academic criteria than the state schools. They even have the option of "suggesting" that they "might like to attend a local state school" if the pupil turns out to be not quite as bright as the independent school had anticipated. The state school then takes them on, to the detriment of its statistics and a boost to the independent school's.

Maureen Maksymiw

Loughborough, Leicestershire

I am very disappointed by the photograph illustrating your Education page on 19 August: the cliché of pretty white girls celebrating their A-level results. We are given this year after year, ignoring the fact that many candidates are not photogenic, are not white, are not female and may have nothing to celebrate.

Gyles Cooper

London N10

Daily diet of xenophobia

John Rees (Letters, 16 August) asks why Britain treats foreign visitors with an "island mentality" and why we haven't joined the Schengen Area. I think he is being disingenuous. One need only pick up the average British tabloid newspaper, to realise the overwhelming xenophobia inbuilt into our populist politics.

In fact, I'm surprised that the drip-drip of hate, dressed up as "genuine debate about immigration", that is peddled daily hasn't led to stricter, more draconian attitudes prevailing at the UK Border Agency. Perhaps it is a testament to the British people, the majority of whom seem unswayed by the daily diet of xenophobia, that it hasn't happened, yet.

Michael O'Hare

Northwood, Middlesex

The letter by John Rees beggars belief. He was obviously very pleased that he could travel from distant eastern Europe to France without showing his passport and then disappointed that he then had to show it to enter the UK.

Well, just for once, good on the UK immigration people. If Mr Rees can travel so easily across Europe, then so can criminals and potential illegal immigrants. Everybody wishing to enter the UK should have to show a passport, as should anyone entering any other country in the world, for that matter.

Terence Eastman

Plymouth, South Devon

Are others also concerned at David Cameron's warm support to admit Turkey into the EU? I am no EU supporter and enjoy holidays in Turkey as much as the next man but Turkey is hardly in Europe; geographically, it is in Asia with a tiny European appendage.

What concerns me more is the effects of a Muslim population of 80 million and its uncontrolled borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and the implications this will have on further limitless migration into Britain from the EU. If Turkey were to join the EU, the salaries and social advantages offered here would attract millions under the free movement within the EU.

There is already enough tension and resentment surrounding Islamic terrorists, so why take the risk? Cyprus remains unresolved as does the treatment of the Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, and none of this is ancient history.

Steve Parker

Stroud, Gloucestershire

The job we had to do in Iraq

Now that we are being absolutely clear about why we are leaving Iraq (Job done! – Handing over power!) let us be equally clear why we went there in the first place.

We invaded Iraq to get rid of al-Qa'ida and arrest Osama Bin Laden. No, wait, we invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. No, sorry, we invaded Iraq to bring democracy. No – to protect the citizens of the UK. No – to protect Afghan women. Hey – we got the job done, didn't we?

Jim McCluskey

Twickenham, Middlesex

John White seems to inhabit an alternative universe. His idea of Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida collaborating (letter, 19 August) is right up there with Oswald Mosley joining the Labour Friends of Israel.

His suggestion that Blair took his decision to wage war out of "moral courage," is just as far-fetched. It is now obvious that Blair was expecting to be rewarded by the US by being strong-armed into the Secretary General's job at the UN, or, failing that, America would use its then right-wing allies among Europe's leaders to get him the EU Presidency. This is less moral courage than colossal self-importance, over-reaching ambition and preening vanity.

Gavin Lewis


Architects do debate beauty

In his review of the book Architecture and Beauty, Jay Merrick (16 August) questions whether architects think about beauty when they design, whether they are able and willing to discuss beauty, and even whether there is any precise definition of it. Do we, he asks, find it easier to discuss taste?

Are there any universals? Can we measure beauty? Is beauty elitist and only for the few? If architects are preoccupied with beauty, are social and economic concerns sacrificed?

Contrary to the article's claim that architects resist debating beauty, these and related questions about beauty and architecture are to be debated next month in a symposium at the Royal Institute of British Architects. I hope your correspondent will be able to come and contribute, along with any of your other readers interested in debating beauty and architecture.

Dr Sebastian Macmillan

Royal Institute of British Architects, London W1

Return of the sparrow

Ten years ago there were no sparrows in my garden in Clapham. They had completely disappeared ("Mystery of the vanishing sparrows still baffles scientists 10 years on", 19 August). Then in March 2003 one cock sparrow took up residence in a bush near to the house and sang there every day for three weeks. It was eventually joined by a hen. This summer the local "host" numbers around 50.

Yesterday I saw a sparrow in a bush outside St Thomas' Hospital, less than a mile from Trafalgar Square. It can't be long before they cross the river again. The Independent's prize for discovering the reason for the obliteration of the sparrow in London may eventually become irrelevant.

David Gibbs

London SW4

I live in central London and we have around 40-50 sparrows living in our immediate back gardens. It must be the fresh N5 air.

Nancy Rohde

London N5

Fighting back

So, in Spain, a bull escaped from the ring and gored members of the crowd. Good.

Pete Barrett

Colchester, Essex

Perspectives on the Pakistan floods

Victims really do need our money

Compared with the Haiti disaster earlier this year, which saw the world coming together, the response to Pakistan's flood has been fragmented and slow. Several reasons underlie this unusual collective behaviour.

The death toll of 1,600 is a fraction of the nearly a quarter of a million witnessed in Haiti, and does not help to quantify the scale of damage. With increasingly frequent natural disasters, and Haiti, Chile and the Burma cyclone fresh in memory, a relentless donation requirement is perhaps taking a toll.

Pakistan's corrupt leadership, showcasing incompetence by touring Europe in times of crisis, has widened the chasm, while its tarnished image as a sanctuary for terrorists has done no favours. Fear of donation money getting in the wrong hands, corrupt politicians or the terrorist groups, is widespread. Even people in Pakistan are contributing privately and avoiding relief funds set up by the present government.

Some also cite their dislike of the high military spending in the past, instead of infrastructure development.

However it is undoubtedly the biggest disaster of our lifetimes, with the poorest being hit the hardest. Around 20 million have been displaced and many of them left with nothing but their tattered clothes. Alarms have been raised on a new wave of deaths – in thousands – unless medicines, food and water supplies are restored.

Medical camps in various parts of the country are starting to report deaths due to water-borne diseases and even dehydration.

While reservations about money not being rightly channelled are understandable, people can still donate to international charities (UNICEF, Red Cross, Islamic Relief and Oxfam) which ensure transparent usage of their contributions. Swift and world-scale effort is needed now.

Dr Haroon Junaidi


Interest-free loan from World Bank

The World Bank's agreement with the Government of Pakistan to provide $900m of financial support for reconstruction following the devastating floods is not "expensive borrowing" that Pakistan "can ill afford" (Omar Waraich, 18 August)

The funding will come from the Bank's fund for the poorest countries, which means the loans are concessional and will attract no interest payments. Moreover, this is already programmed money that is being diverted to meet immediate needs.

In addition, the Bank has made a grant of $1.3m through a fund for disaster reduction and recovery to support an urgently needed damage and needs assessment in the wake of the floods, to be led jointly by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, at the request of the government. Some of this grant has already been used to purchase rescue boats, delivered to the government last week.

Isabel Guerrero

Vice-President, South Asia Region, The World Bank

Washington DC