Letters: A-levels

Today's A-levels: too many and too soft
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The Independent Online

You chastise David Willetts for want of rigour over A-levels, then seem to go back on yourselves to agree with Sir Michael Tomlinson (leading article, 21 August). He wants the already soft A-level rolled up as one duff entity with the yet-softer diploma.

The really eloquent evidence is the spread of subjects in the deluge of passes. Totals of subjects examined show: Sport 21,672; Psychology 52,872; Media, Film and TV Studies 33,822; Art and Design subjects 45,899. In contradistinction, we have Physics 29,436; French 14,333; German 5,765. Only Maths and English score well at 72,475 and 91,815 respectively. Yet I know people who have passed A-level English in perfect innocence of Milton, Pope and the Romantics.

The Tomlinsons of this world want lots and lots of something that can be called "education". There isn't the talent or the secondary teaching to provide good figures for the real thing. So we adjust downwards and keep a straight face through third- and fourth-line universities – at best, vocational centres, at worst, sponges against the unemployment figures. We need fewer and better A-levels.

Edward Pearce


Giving extra weight to traditional A-levels in school league tables is not the solution to raising standards in schools ("Scandal of class divide at A-level", 19 August).

First, we work with hundreds of state schools and know that there are simply not enough teachers of traditional subjects for such schools to realign themselves to this way of thinking. Second, there is little doubt that the current (almost proverbial) media studies A-level carries less weight than a physics A-level.

But is the Director General of the BBC any less respected than a top physics professor? The media is a hugely rich, complex, interesting, and fertile ground for academic examination and commercial participation, so we should raise the standard and depth of relevant subjects such as media studies to the level of their more traditional peers rather than continue to treat them as second-class citizens. It is the quality and not the subject that matters.

Marc Zao-Sanders

Managing Director, Pure Potential, London N1

British fawning over Lockerbie

It is proper that we should debate the decision to send the Lockerbie bomber back, but what has happened to the spine of the British political class in the face of American fury?

Not since Harold Wilson refused to involve British troops in the American Vietnam fiasco has a public official had the courage (and humanity) to face down the hawkish mood swings of Washington. Hillary Clinton's assumption that British courts exist to do her bidding was an outrageous intrusion into the legal processes of a sovereign nation, an act of clumsy bullying given that ill-equipped UK troops are even now dying for the Americans' latest lost cause in Afghanistan.

Fawning ministers run around wringing their hands. Is this what the special relationship has come down to? That the British political class will do anything for the keys of the White House management washroom?

Peter Dunn

Bridport, Dorset

Two recent events seem to me to highlight the US lack of compassion for those in need. First, the outcry from many quarters against the President's proposals to extend healthcare insurance to the 15 per cent of Americans who have none; and now the reaction to the Scottish Justice Minister's decision to allow Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to return home to die.

I do not know whether or not Megrahi planted the bomb that destroyed Pan Am flight 103 and killed 270 people, but holding him in prison until he dies would not bring back one of those people; freeing him to return home to die sets an example of compassion to the rest of the world and just might make the world a slightly kinder place.

Rita Hale

London N1

Kenny MacAskill's decision has offended many who confuse a sentence of imprisonment with an act of revenge, but I am disgusted to see that David Cameron is one of those.

The objects of imprisonment include deterrence, reformation and rehabilitation but neither revenge nor retribution have any part to play in our judicial system. Revenge is exclusively the response of the weak and the immature, and it is often the motivation behind terrorism.

In contrast, compassion, being diametrically opposite to the defining qualities of the psychopath, is the very essence of the strongest personality. It is entirely wrong to suggest that compassion for this dying man implies a lack of compassion for the victims.

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell


Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was greeted at Tripoli airport as an innocent man, not as a mass murderer. Hardly a "triumphalist" return – though it may seem so in the country where the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were presumed guilty .

The British media know there is at least the whiff of Saddam's WMDs about Megrahi's conviction, yet they insist on wringing the last drop of blood from their Arab scapegoat.

Peter McKenna


Fair pay makes for strong companies

John Lewis's strong performance against Marks and Spencer and Debenhams poses the question, why? A contributing factor I believe is that it is a partnership. So they're not madly cutting jobs to cut costs.

There is also a question of fairness. John Lewis's Chief Executive earned £500,000 and its average employee package was £14,800, a ratio of 34.4 times. Debenhams' Chief Executive earnt £939,000 and the average employee package is £10,300. A ratio of 91.2.

Executive Pay and Bonuses aren't complex. The targets to measure success are there. The basic principles are: if you pay upper quartile executive packages you should cascade them down to all employees. Bonuses should have clear, quantifiable targets and be affordable and justifiable to shareholders and employees.

I doubt we need long-winded commissions on executive pay – we just need remuneration committees to act now.

Janet Salmon

Annual Remuneration Survey of the Leisure Industry

Richmond, Surrey

EU works for peace in Bosnia

William Hague expresses concerns about stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina ("Bosnia is back on the brink of ethnic conflict", 12 August). His description of the EU's response as "weak and confused" is completely unjustified.

The EU has a vital and sustained interest in embedding peace, prosperity and security across the entire region. It has invested a huge amount in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last two decades, working to end division and increase stability. It has offered a clear prospect of EU membership. The EU is playing a leading role through the work of the EU Special Representative and his office, the European Commission, an EU led military presence (EUFOR), and a police mission.

We are under no illusion about the challenges posed by continuing political tensions. That is why last month, when I met political leaders in Sarajevo, I gave clear messages to all sides: they must overcome their differences, intensify the pace of reform, and take responsibility for meeting the membership conditions required by the EU and Nato. The recent joint visit by Javier Solana and US Vice-President Biden sent the same, clear messages.

The UK and EU partners will continue to help drive this process. We are determined to ensure that the entire region, builds a stable future free from the conflicts of the past.

Baroness Kinnock

Minister for Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

London SW1

The ground-level experience of our charity, which has been setting up a first-aid scheme in the war-torn villages of the Srebrenica area, is that the Bosnian Muslims, mostly returnees, and the local Serbs are ready to co-operate with each other. In Srebrenica, now slowly returning to prosperity, we have witnessed training sessions involving members of both communities.

Of course Bosnia has a long way to go to become a viable state, but perhaps its ethnic troubles are exacerbated by vote-catching nationalist politicians.

Ann Shukman

Dumfries & Galloway Action


The religion of the American right

Johann Hari is right to put an over-reliance of faith at the heart of the US Republican delusion (Opinion, 19 August), but wrong to equate this with "religion".

Mainstream religious thought has long held that faith without reason is too weak to lead to any meaningful truth. But many "evangelical" Christian groups in the US can trace their origins back to those who left the Old World for the New precisely because they were outside the mainstream of religious thought.

A reluctance to accept the importance of reason is easy to explain. To ignore reason is to avoid a sense of personal responsibility, which makes it easy to explain everything that you see in terms of the tenets of your "faith", be it religious, political or economic in origin.

Robert Hall

Stone, Staffordshire

How new drugs are invented

Dr Gareth Hardy (letter, 13 August) says scientists invent new drugs because they enjoy solving problems and discovering things, rather than as a result of any financial incentive. This may be true, but someone has to pay the salaries of these scientists as well as paying for testing, licensing and other costs associated with developing a promising molecule into a viable drug.

These costs must be paid for all the inventions that fall by the wayside as well as those that reach the market. This money has to come from somewhere and, while one might debate whether drug company profits are commensurate with costs and risks, it is fatuous to pretend that financial incentive plays no part in driving innovation.

Jonathan Wallace

Newcastle upon Tyne

Remember real rock concerts

Tim Walker asks "What's been lost from the stadium rock experience – puddles of urine on the floor?" (24 August). The answer is, among other things, democracy.

I remember attending, as a Metropolitan Police officer, a Rolling Stones concert at the old Wembley stadium. I was standing next to a man seated in the terraces, who was clearly agitated. At the half-way stage, he turned to me and said, "It's no good, man. Nick me if you have to, but I've got to have a spliff."

I didn't arrest him, and spent the second half in a haze of cannabis smoke. At the end, he shook my hand and offered me a good deal on a mattress (he was a bed salesman). There were no puddles of urine on the floor.

Michael Ricketts

London W5


Total in Burma

M Lassalle's reply (24 August) to your article of 14 August is disingenuous. If Total was truly committed to human rights in Burma it could cease all trade connection with the current regime and play its part in that government's demise and the restoration of basic liberties to the Burmese people.

Kevin Ahier

Bourne End, Buckinghamshire

Casualties of war

It is interesting to compare the treatment by the press of wartime casualties today and during the world wars. Then, such things were dealt with in an objective and factual way. Now the press tries to exploit the emotional aspect with a view to undermining the government. It is right that there is a vigorous debate on the rights and wrongs of any conflict, but to exploit casualties to play on the nation's heartstrings can impair the military effort and is fundamentally unpatriotic.

Patrick Streeter

Harlow, Essex

Relying on crooks

Steve Mackinder (letter, 24 August) seems to have suffered amnesia. The avaricious money-grubbing, cigar-chomping banker he'd rather have looking after his pension-fund decisions is epitomised by the likes of Mr Madoff and a number of others who have, so far, escaped jail. Pension-fund, sir? What pension-fund?

Rod Danton

Wingham, Kent

Clean catch

John Rogers (letter, 25 August) asks, "Is there any one who doubts that Strauss did not catch Hughes cleanly in the second Test?" I don't know upon what evidence Mr Rogers is basing his belief, but I sincerely hope it's not the slow-motion television replay. If ever the canard that "the camera never lies" needed basting in butter and roasting in the oven it's now: the catch was good, and I am convinced that Strauss believes so too.

Edward Collier

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Unknown creature

I think you have discovered a new species. The "lion" shot by Prince Philip in the picture caption to the obituary of Gayatri Devi (25 August) must be the first (and as it's dead, last) striped lion in India. Oh, hang on, India, striped big cat – could it be a tiger?

Dave Morgan

Beddington, Surrey