Letters: Education 'improved' to death

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Christina Patterson is right that A-level results are in a constant state of apparently superficial improvement ("Not just unprepared for university, but for life", 4 April). But this may prepare them better for university than she thinks, as the same game is in full flow in higher education.

Universities now exist in a constant state of "improvement", competing with each other to generate ever-increasing amounts of red tape that will facilitate the raising of averages and above all of "satisfaction", documenting policy and procedure for educators to plan their improvements, then recording, monitoring and improving their improvements so more A-level students will choose them.

While applicants with their improved A levels will look hungrily at the numbers churned out by universitysupermarket.com (aka UniStats, soon to be replaced by the new and improved "Key Information Set"), the learner and teacher are motivated to focus on grades rather than deep learning, and to seek shortcuts to those ever-improved "results".

The Government, in its HE White Paper, pretends that this ideologically driven marketisation of higher education will "drive teaching excellence" and place students "at the heart of the system", but these are merely words to prettify the privatisation of university education.

If young people are to have any chance of learning on an equal footing with the world, we need to urgently "improve" our choice of politicians.

Peter McKenna


For years I have been pointing out to educationists the need for leading universities to provide "remedial" classes for undergraduates who, for example, have not got the basic language knowledge necessary to study that language at university. These are often extremely bright students who have not been well served by the requirements of the A-level syllabus and content of the exams. I have encountered three types of response from education academics. A few acknowledge the problem. Some deny the problem exists. A third group deny not that the observation is true but that it is of any importance.

They tend not to be explicit but strongly imply that these undergraduates, Oxbridge or Russell Group, are elite and can look after themselves. It is, I believe, the attitude which has created the problem in the first place.

Neil MacIntosh

Chief Executive, CfBT Education Trust, Reading, Berkshire

As a 57-year-old director of a small company, I had to send my CV to a potential client. I had not revised it for years. Looking through it, I removed the grades for my three A-levels. I went to a top grammar school, and got among the highest grades in my year. Nevertheless, any client looking at my one A and two B grades would not now be much impressed.

Robert K Haywood

Haslemere, Surrey

'Yes, Minister' is still thriving in Whitehall

How refreshing to read Margaret Hodge's analysis of the failings of the civil service and its lack of public accountability (Monday Interview, 2 April). What people will find more surprising is that the scripts of Yes, Minister are as accurate a reflection of the machinery of government today as they were when they were written 30 years ago (and to the uninitiated they must have seemed pretty far-fetched then).

Civil servants are obsessed by their careers and the avoidance of responsibility. They hide behind the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, when most ministerial decisions are signed off by ministers on the basis of what they are told by their civil servants.

The frequency with which civil servants switch jobs militates against any in-depth development of knowledge of the functions which they administer and leads to poor decision-taking. It would have been hoped that Gus O'Donnell, as the man leading the civil service for six years, would have been leading its reform and making it fit for purpose, rather than defending its performance by attacking the work of the Public Accounts Committee.

Why should civil servants not be publicly accountable? The most senior are certainly paid enough.

Ken Kemp


Margaret Hodge made me laugh when she said that she had to go back to civil servants to make them write submissions again. She said that they often came late. Did it occur to her that this was often because ministers had demanded three more submissions to be done now. Was she always right in what she wanted when the submission put another perspective? Has she done a real job since 1982?

Senior civil servants have had to pass exams or a number of promotion boards to get to a level where they can sign off submissions, and many have wide experience and good degrees. What do ministers have to do? Impress a local political party and get elected. No exams, or basic qualifications or intelligence is needed to be an MP.

In many years as a civil servant, I came across one minister who put the "too difficult" submissions in a cupboard in the hope they would go away. I also did submissions for ministers who could not be bothered reading them if they did not like what was being said.

Kathy Elam


Official deceit over snooping

The Government swears that, under its proposals to allow the authorities to monitor online activity, they are are only going to look at the source and destination of messages, and their timing and frequency; this is usually termed "traffic analysis".

But all mail in the Hotmail system goes to the Hotmail server with URL hotmail.com; all posts to Twitter go via twitter.com, and so on. So traffic analysis is futile: it would be impossible to distinguish terrorist Hotmail from everything else, unless they open them.

There are two possible conclusions, neither of them agreeable. Either the Government has dreamt up a scheme that has no chance of working, or they are lying and fully intend the security services to examine content from the outset. Bad though the first is, the second is infinitely worse.

Henry Law


If I had just enabled an increase in price of first- and second-class mail to previously unheard-of levels, and if I didn't want people to turn to electronic mail as an alternative and thus threaten the value of the mail company, should it ever be sold, then I would reduce the attractiveness of email by saying that I will allow the authorities to read it whenever they feel like it.

John Hade

Totnes, Devon

Dangerous days in forensic science

Paul Peachey's article (2 April) highlights the inherent dangers of privatisation and outsourcing of forensic science services since the closure of the FSS. I totally support Professor Peter Gill's observations regarding the stark realities of such privatisation.

What is needed is a state-funded but independent forensic science bureau or service which should be separate from, but form an integral part of, the judiciary. This would oversee all forensic work and be staffed by fully accredited scientists who could function in an independent and unbiased way.

The dangers of a market-led forensic science service are all too obvious and, as Professor Gill says, are a recipe for miscarriages of justice. The outcome of a forensic investigation has far-reaching consequences not only for the police and lawyers but more importantly for the victim or innocent accused.

Forensic scientists should never be constrained by financial or outside pressures which are an inevitable consequence of privatisation. Their independence should be preserved and their neutrality and objectivity fully protected.

Dr David Holding

Medico-Legal Consultant,

Chorley, Lancashire

Struggle for truth over Hillsborough

While the families of the 96 fans who died at Hillsborough continue to campaign for justice (in the sense of acknowledgement of the causes of the disaster from those found responsible in the Taylor Report), I can only hope that their efforts lead to a more general form of natural justice: that of public acceptance of the truth. Stephen Shaw's letter (28 March) shows how that fight may never be won.

Mr Shaw was at Hillsborough, and yet seems to have relied on the limited snapshots of his own experience, rather than the painstaking analysis undertaken by Lord Taylor, to draw his conclusions.

Every big sporting event has people without tickets. The continuing inability to deal with ticket touts sees to that. But that does not mean ticketless fans were a cause of the crush.

Using turnstile records prior to the gates opening, and analysis of video footage afterwards, Taylor concluded that there were almost certainly fewer people on the Leppings Lane terrace than the 10,100 tickets sold. The crush happened because the failure in police control led to those fans being mostly crowded into two pens, rather than spread across all four.

Paul Fields

Streatley, Berkshire

James Bond's quantum of beer

Geoffrey Macnab's article on James Bond turning to lager in Skyfall misses a precedent for 007's love of a beer. In Goldeneye, on being told by 006, that time is running out and it's "last orders", Bond suggests he buys him a pint.

As for not recalling a scene in any Bond film where MI6's finest is tipsy; look no further than Quantum of Solace, where 007 is found by Mathis having had a string of "Vesper" cocktails to get over losing her.

Kev Core

Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

A cure for the ills of politics

Recent experience suggests politicians may be good at politics but they are hopeless at government. It appears that the present bunch of Tory ministers cannot even manage politics. Please step forward the medics. They have threatened to stand for election to defend the health service. Now they have an added opportunity to bring some rational thought to the process of government.

Perhaps they can persuade some friends from other relevant professions with experience of real life to join them. And if they are still looking for a banner, how about The Pragmatic Party or even "None of the Above".

Roger Woollett

London NW6

Media influence for good and evil

Apparently, prosecutors said that the boundaries between real and fictional life for Daniel Bartlam, the 14-year-old who hammered his mother to death, then set fire to her, had become "tragically blurred".

But haven't we been told over and over again that TV can be a force for good? Does that also apply to X-box, horror videos, smutty magazines and a further long list of tripe that is available to all? But mention censorship and the chattering classes fall faint with rage.

Peter Wing

Manuden, Essex

Flying the flag upside-down

Does Geoff Hinchliffe (Letters, 4 April) really believe that an upside-down Union Flag is really a "recognised signal of distress"? How many of us would recognise if it was upside down? How many of us would care which way up it was?

John Lambert

Baslow, Derbyshire