Letters: Doctors' strike

One in the eye for our Mr Lawson


Dominic Lawson's article (19 June) does not see the true reason that doctors took strike action. This is a dispute about expectation. I have worked for an organisation that 13 years from my retirement wishes to extend the retirement age and change the national insurance contribution without discussion or negotiation. That my final pension will be reduced is a side issue for me, but not for doctors who will qualify with more than £50,000 of debt.

This strike is not about my desire to earn more. It is about the expectation for most of my working career that I would retire at a decent age, having committed the best of my working years to medicine. To ask me to work as a surgeon until I am 68 is ambitious. I may be competent to do so, but I do believe that my best years may well be behind me at that age.

As a consultant ophthalmologist, I can see from the photograph of Mr Lawson that he is myopic. I would guess about minus five dioptres (though the photograph is of too poor quality to be more accurate). He will most likely develop cataracts at a younger age than the average because of his myopia.

His risks of developing retinal tears and detachment after cataract surgery are greater than those of the general population. If his ocular axial length is greater than 25mm, he will have a 5 per cent risk of developing a retinal tear after yag laser capsulotomy, and possible sight-threatening retinal detachment needing surgery. Does he really want his eye surgeons to be in their late sixties?

To talk of "greed" in the headline as the reason for striking is truly myopic. All I want is to see the finishing post in the knowledge that it will not keep getting further away. If, at this stage in my career, the Government would change the retirement age, then how can any medic starting off believe in their future? Why would the best academics undertake such an arduous training? Mr Lawson may have to shop around to find a really good surgeon.

Ayad E Shafiq

FRCOphth, MRCPPaeds, DCh, MA Cantab, BM & BCh Oxon,


The sentiments expressed by Eric Evans are apposite and long overdue (letters, 22 June). Many private sector employees and businessmen work just as hard, in "unsocial" hours, and in just as socially useful jobs as doctors. They constitute a "public service" just as much as the public sector does, and there should be no significant difference in the general terms of employment and pensions between the two.

Had the BMA concentrated solely on the outrageous generosity of top civil service and MPs' retirement schemes compared with their own pension reforms and contributions, they would have enjoyed total support from members and the public.

Instead, they muddied the waters by ignoring demographics, economics, the excessive GPs' settlement under New Labour, the long-term unsustainability of the £2bn "surplus" of current contributions over pension payments and that junior staff will still receive far higher pensions than the private sector can afford for its own staff.

John Birkett

St Andrews, Fife


Abolishing GCSEs could improve our foreign languages

By a curious coincidence, you publish on the same page (22 June) an article by Kenneth Baker defending his introduction of the GCSE, and an item reporting European Commission findings that only 9 per cent of our 14- and 15-year-olds can hold a conversation in French, confirming that the English are "the language dunces of Europe".

This juxtaposition highlights a telling fact: the GCSE is the source of the catastrophic decline in modern language learning in this country. The figures for young people studying languages to A level in the UK began to fall following the introduction of GCSE from 1988, and have continued downhill since the early 1990s.

The easy new GCSE produced large numbers of candidates with high grades who opted to go forward to A level. But the transition to A level had not been thought out or provided for, so the same cohorts that had achieved the first successes at GCSE produced high numbers of failures at A level over the following two years.

The demoralising news fed back to succeeding year groups who were put off, and the language decline started there in a vicious circle that has not been remedied despite the modifications subsequently performed on the A-level syllabus.

Now we have the paradoxicalsituation of a GCSE qualification which is virtually negligible from a linguistic point of view, but which is nonetheless associated with high failure rates and constitutes a disincentive to pupils and schools. The syllabus for GCSE is dull and demotivating, as the Nuffield Inquiry pointed out 12 years ago.

Notwithstanding the chorus of disapproval that has greeted Michael Gove's proposals, in the field of language learning at least, it seems to me that scrapping GCSE could well be a change for the better.

Professor David H Walker

BA, PhD, Chevalier des Palmes académiques, Department of French, University of Sheffield

It is hard to believe that we are still struggling with whether, and how, we should teach young children foreign languages. For all the curriculum changes and teacher-training advances of the past 50 years, it is reasonable to expect much more progress than has been achieved.

In 1965, starting secondary school in the impoverished Rhondda Valley, we were taught French by watching slides and repeating tape-recorded French phrases spoken by French people. The phrases were all useful conversational subjects, not just verb conjugation.

We spent a couple of years doing this before we saw a single written French word. Our accents were impeccable and subsequent learning more than made up for the early lack of grammatical understanding. This, after all, is how children learn their mother tongue.

How is it that our children can't expect the same quality of learning as a state school in a high area of unemployment 50 years ago?

Allan Jones

London SE3

Your correspondents argue that languages are variously too hard for study, irrelevant or not for us, the splendid English. My wife, teaching an elementary German class, was told by one young man, "I only need three words of German, 'Ich spreche Englisch'". The much-resented Michael Gove is assailing holy traditions of soft optionism and island arrogance.

One learns a foreign language to enter another culture and to make an intellectual effort. In most west European countries, the native literature is cherished, and foreign languages, notably English, learnt shamingly well.

Here, we defer to potential truants who flinch from that effort and know less in every generation of our own literature. The English spoken by the English is increasingly demotic and will eventually make the accurate form deserve the term "classical". Yet the shared assumption of idle pupil and rationalising educationalist is that we are rather too good for the words and structures of pointless foreigners.

Edward Pearce

Thormanby, York


Living with a wish to die

I'm a fan of Christina Patterson, so was very disappointed by her article about Tony Nicklinson and his efforts to escape a life he clearly now finds intolerable (20 June).

The usual arguments "it's the law", "you have to suffer for the good of the rest of us", "slippery slope" etc are all trotted out. Ms Patterson says, "sadness ... is the price we all have to pay". This is just not truthful. Within a day or two, this awful "story" will be forgotten by most of us. It's Mr Nicklinson who will pay, and carry on paying.

What Ms Patterson (along with the "life is God-given and sacred" brigade) is actually saying is this: "You are disabled, helpless, that's your rough luck. We're fit and able and can make choices. Therefore you have to do what we say."

How dare they?

Patrick Devlin

Wembworthy, Devon

I fear that Mr St Leger-Davey (letter, 21 June) has overlooked the internal contradiction in his statement that "respecting the freedom of the individual to judge the worth of their own life is a far cry from going around killing everyone we deem to have a worthless life".

If I alone am the arbiter of the worth of my life, then my life has no objective value. In that case, it is open to anyone else to form a judgement that my life has no worth and to take steps accordingly, thus creating the very situation that Mr St Leger-Davey claims does not exist.

J R G Edwards

Birchington, Kent


Henry St Leger-Davey argues that every person has the right to be helped to die, if they decide their life is not worth living but he fails to take account of Indians, like myself, who believe suicide does not terminate your life.

This is because we believe we are trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth we term samsara, until we reach nirvana, or enlightenment. We view nirvana as the only "true" suicide, so all others are futile, and helping someone commit suicide, reflects badly on their karma and prolongs the number of cycles they must travel through.

Kartar Uppal

West Bromwich, West Midlands


Who's entitled to exactly what?

David Cameron says many young people on housing benefit have a sense of entitlement. I have friends I would describe as upper middle-class. They also have a dreadful sense of entitlement. They feel entitled to a private education, a place at a top-class university, a nice home, a satisfying job, etc. Yet they do not usually earn enough to pay for these goodies. If Mr Cameron is going to tackle one group's sense of entitlement, he should remember the other.

Robert Senecal

London WC1


Farewell freedom

Gone are the days of driving according to the road conditions. In the new world of camera traps and variable speed limits, we must adapt to driving according to arbitrarily imposed speed limits, usually at the behest of local "nimbies". For those of us old enough to remember "the freedom of the open road", it is all a little sad.

D Sawtell

Tydd St Giles, Cambridgeshire


Number was up

I am glad Simon Parkinson's 16-times table (letters, 22 June) has served him in good stead. Having 16 annas in a rupee has more logic than the denominations of the Burmese kyat under Ne Win, with his love of numerology. He issued 45- and 90-kyat notes. Fortunately, inflation made them redundant before people got used to them.

Ken Westmoreland

Croydon, Surrey


HS2 is needed

Of course HS2 won't stop between London and Birmingham (letters, 22 June); its main purpose is to remove fast, long-distance traffic from the existing routes. The lines through Milton Keynes and Banbury will still be there, providing faster and more frequent local services, which will indeed tempt people off the roads.

Adam Sowan

Reading, Berkshire


Don't bank on it

I look forward to hearing what the cost of cleaning up the NatWest/RBS technical problems was, and having the banks' assurance that the entire bill will be met from directors' bonuses and not from my bank account.

David Penn

Kendal, Cumbria.

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