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Thursday 7 May 2009
Letters: Aid for Afghanistan
Aid millions for Afghanistan end up back in the US
Patrick Cockburn's piece on Kabul's new elite (1 May) is entirely accurate. I spent eight months working on a Usaid-funded project in Kabul in 2006 and earned the kind of money he mentions. The resources required to protect me and others like me were way beyond cost-effective in comparison to those available to the Afghan people, who naturally suffered the worst in bombing and shooting attacks. It is estimated that 85 cents in every US aid dollar spent in places such as Afghanistan goes back to the US as payments to contractors of all kinds. Even so, Afghanistan is an aid-dependent economy.
But the Afghan government does not always appear to act in the best interests of its people. I was working on a project to sell a poorly performing state company in a non-strategic sector to a foreign investor via open international tender. We managed, against the odds, to attract a very good bid from a Russian company which would have brought almost $400m to the country in cash proceeds and future investment. A good result for everyone, you might think.
But the final decision on whether to go ahead rested with senior government, which, for reasons still unclear, decided not to accept the offer and the bid lapsed. The company is now a big drain on an already stretched national budget.
I am not optimistic about Afghan-istan's future as a viable state or the West's effectiveness in bringing such a state to fruition.
Hartfield, East Sussex
W R Haines (letters, 5 May) says no one has come up with an alternative crop to opium. A report that Bobby Pugh and I wrote was published by the British Isles Hemp and Natural Fibres Industries Association in 2006. Hemp could give Afghanistan a vital industry, selling hemp seeds, hemp-seed oil, hemp fibres for paper, insulation and textiles, and many other uses. The west need not buy the opium crop.
School tests that tell us nothing
To paraphrase your leading article headline (4 May), it would be irresponsible of head teachers not to boycott SATs tests.
SATs testing regimes are superficial, unreliable and even, bizarre. It is unwise to place any serious reliance on the results. You test what you can and you get what you test. Yet upon this flimsy evidence an imposing, but worthless, edifice of performance and league tables has been built. It is an arid, shallow view of education and it is hard to overstate the collateral damage.
It reflects badly upon headteachers that they did not oppose the scheme from the outset. The whole system has set the educational clock back to pre-1900. The lessons of 1890s have not been learned.
Thornton Hough, Wirral
On 2 April, you published a 24-page supplement on the Primary School League Tables. The "official" tables, based on raw-output data, suggested that school "achievements" ranged radically, from 40 to 300 (out of a maximum of 300). The implication was that some schools were radically better than others, and that some "sink" schools were tragically squandering the potential of their unfortunate pupils.
One-sixth of one page was used for a "light relief" article about "novelty" tables, based on value-added data, for the top 50 schools. Only the best 25 got a value-added score of 103 per cent or more. This means that even the best 25 schools in value-added terms were producing output scores only 3 per cent better than their input scores would have. I was intrigued enough to research the source data. Sure enough, the value-added scores ranged from 96.1 per cent up to 104.5, barely above the margin for statistical error.
The implications are obvious. The "official" tables based on raw-output data are a grossly misleading representation of school achievement. There are no such things as "high-achieving schools"; there are only schools with highly aspirational and high-achieving intakes. There are no such things as "sink schools"; there are only schools with drowning and sinking intakes. A given drowning or sinking child will not morph into a high-achiever simply by switching to a "top" school.
Of course many parents will still want to send their children to "top" schools, simply to have them mix with "our sort of person" and be subjected to more desirable peer pressures. They have every right to do so. But let us not underpin such motivation with misleading statistics.
I wonder how parents ever managed to choose a primary school for their child before SATs and league tables. Perhaps, like me, they visited several schools, asked lots of other people in the local area, looked at local media sources and made a balanced decision on the information available.
SATs are a very blunt tool for finding the best school for your child. Year 6 cohorts differ from year to year because of many factors and, as a result, SATs results vary from year to year. They give very little information about the school, just how one year group performed during one week in May. If they are abolished, parents will still have many tools to assist their choice, including Ofsted reports and school websites.
Age 10-11 should be a time of awakening to the world. To open a child's eyes to its beauties; to question the way it works; to challenge its cruelties; to know that everyone has their place in it.
But at school, children spend virtually the whole of Year 6 being trained to pass SATs. The results tell you nothing about children, except to brand some as less competent than others at passing tests. They tell you nothing about the teachers, except how well they drill children to tick boxes. They tell you nothing about schools, except the depth of their obsession with SATs. They tell you nothing at all about the education your child ought to be receiving. They tell you everything about the Government's addiction to empty statistics.
Is this the sort of transparency parents want? For meaningful information, try talking to the teachers and reading the school inspection reports. SATs and league tables based on them won't help.
Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire
Political reasons for making arrests
I read with grim amusement the assertion of Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester (letter, 29 April) that "In this country, there is no political interference in the decision of whether or when to arrest an individual".
Perhaps he would care to solicit the opinion of Damian Green MP, arrested for no better reason than that his revelations were politically embarrassing to the Home Secretary. Or the thoughts of the elderly gentleman held a while back on terrorism charges for heckling a speaker at a Labour Party conference.
He may also care to review the video footage of the actions of his fellow officers at the G20 demonstrations in London, actions witnessed by me not far from where I work, and which I never expected to see in my lifetime from British police on the streets of our capital city. Those actions had more in common with a documentary about storm-troopers than anything from the Dixon of Dock Green school of British policing.
Mr Fahy may naively choose to believe that his assertion is still true. But most of the population will remember that actions speak a great deal louder than words.
Sleepwalking towards ID cards
The airline pilots' and flight engineers' union, Balpa, is to be congratulated on its stance against the compulsory imposition of ID cards upon its members, and I hope its legal challenge will be successful. That said, the silence of other bodies throughout the land – trades unions, professional organisations, churches, community groups, local government – is deafening.
As so often happens in this country, the populace seems to sleepwalk towards a disaster and only awakens when the precipice is close at hand.
A prime minister who needs friends
Without seeming too conspiratorial, one wonders where Peter Mandelson is these days. He is well known, justifiably, for his political savvy. He was brought back from Europe to help to shore up the Government and, more importantly, to bolster Gordon Brown's political instincts. Both he and Alastair Campbell allegedly meet regularly with the Prime Minister to give political insight into current problems.
Where were they with regard to the fiasco of the YouTube and Gurkha questions? Their silence was deafening. Old enmities take a long time to fade.
It is a wonderful irony, if indeed Hazel Blears's message was that, "The government has failed to get its message across", that she has, er, failed to get her message across. Nevertheless, she deserves full marks for obfuscation.
Given the heartless treatment of wounded and traumatised British ex-servicemen, Gurkha veterans and Iraqi interpreters and Army support staff, isn't it time that the Queen, in her capacity as commander of the Armed Forces, summoned Gordon Brown to her office for the "right royal rollicking" advocated by the Government's school behaviour "tsar" as an alternative to immediate suspension?
Local vote on local issues
David Cameron's call for voters to tell Gordon Brown "enough is enough" is presumably because he does not want to fight local elections on the record of Tory administrations.
That would certainly be likely here in Surrey, where the Tory-controlled council has presided over appalling road maintenance, wasted huge amounts of money and received a poor rating from Ofsted for its services to children and young people.
Trying to cover up Tory mismanagement at council level by focusing on the record of the Government smacks of desperation to avoid a poor showing in the last elections before a general election. Councils are responsible for huge budgets and their decisions have a major impact on local residents. The Tories must not be allowed to divert attention away from these very important local elections
Pubs without smoke
Steve Halden (Letters, 5 May) says pubs are closing because of the smoking ban. I have spent more time in pubs since the ban was imposed than in the previous 30 years. I appreciate returning from the pub without hair and clothes reeking of smoke, and most of my friends agree.
Chris Evans (letter, 5 May) argues that World Heritage Site status does not increase visitor numbers. There are knowledgeable travellers who do, in my experience as a teacher, visit these sites precisely because of their outstanding "world heritage" characteristics. These are not all "anoraks". However I do agree that maintaining a quality experience is the key.
National Association for Environmental Education (UK)
The Government should immediately shelve the crassly irresponsible plan to ease the rules on keeping exotic animals (report, 6 May). The Government should work with the experts in animal welfare organisations to strengthen and extend laws to protect animals, not be bringing out policies which will do exactly the opposite. Who on earth is advising ministers?
Truth about torture
Of your pro-torture correspondent Dr Winters, S G Norris (Letter, 6 May)asks: "What evidence would he require that captives have relevant knowledge before sanctioning torture?" Surely incriminating statements from known associates would suffice. And it's well known that such sincere testimony is reliably obtained by applying electric shocks until they come out with it. You liberals always have to complicate everything.
Dr Adrian Padfield (letter, 6 May) is correct in saying that "amateur" is not an antonym of "expert" but the addition of the word "rank" indicates an amateur of the extremely inexpert kind and therefore qualifies. Dr Padfield should take care, being a pedant requires accuracy, and he could find he is demoted to the ranks.
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