Letters: Education system


Rival to A-levels threatens to split the education system

Sir: The news (23 September) that Cambridge University and a group of independent schools are creating a new A-level system, the Cambridge Pre-U, is profoundly disturbing.

It is true the top universities are having difficulties in selecting the really bright students because of the plethora of A grades at A-level. However what Cambridge is proposing is a system of educational apartheid. The Cambridge Pre-U will force schools and colleges to choose whether to take the Cambridge exam or stick with conventional A-levels. Cambridge is proposing a two-tier educational system, with the implication that only students taking their exam need apply.

I have some sympathy with university admissions tutors faced with an A-level system of declining credibility. It is no accident that the news of the Cambridge Pre-U became public in the same week that the authorities, in the form of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, took a soft line on coursework. The teacher-marked components which have grown in importance over many years have contributed to the decline in the credibility of public exams. With the growth of internet-based plagiarism and parental involvement in students' work they are no longer viable. QCA seemed to be taking the right line over the summer by decreeing that exams would become the norm. But following teacher pressure, they have backed down.

This is a pyrrhic victory for the teacher lobby. The persistence of coursework will only undermine the credibility of A-level. Alan Johnson as Education Minister has a responsibility to overrule QCA and reduce coursework to those subjects where it is unavoidable, or watch the Cambridge Pre-U and other alternatives to A-level such as the International Baccalaureate develop and turn examination at 18- plus into a two-tier system where the independent schools take what are perceived to be elite exams for elite universities, and state schools teach a discredited A-level system for admission to second-rate universities.



Hobbesian horrors unleashed on Iraq

Sir: A US Army major describes Baghdad as a Hobbesian world in which everybody is at war with everybody else and the only protection is self-protection ("New terror that stalks Iraq's republic of fear", 22 September). He should go further, as Thomas Hobbes argues that the only rational form of self-protection is to kill those one considers to be a threat. In this "natural condition" violence escalates catastrophically, and the life of man becomes "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

For Hobbes, the solution comes when the population realises that its long-term security can only be guaranteed if they hand all power over to a "Leviathan" figure with the capacity to terrorise them into obeying the law. The horrible truth about Iraq, however, is that the US and UK deliberately destroyed anybody who could have fulfilled that role, and so no such solution is available. There is, therefore, no strategy available to bring the death and destruction to an end.

Hobbes is a famously miserable political theorist, but the situation in Iraq falls beyond even his pessimism.



Sir: I believe it is wrong to discuss British interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as if they are equally misguided (leading article, 23 September).

Three years ago I demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq and I would do exactly the same today if Iraq was the sole issue. However, I chose not to support Saturday's demonstration in Manchester because it extended hostility to the current Nato operation in Afghanistan.

Military action may not be the entire answer. It has failed in the past and risks increasing support for the Taliban. However, those who urge a complete withdrawal should ask themselves how they would fare under a Taliban regime. In the end it was the Vietnamese army which toppled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It may well take armed force again to remove the stranglehold of the Taliban. The people of Afghan-istan need outside help to resist this band of fanatical thugs.



Histories of Israel and Palestine

Sir: Stephen Leah's selective memory in demonising Israel's counter-terrorists forays into Gaza conveniently omits how this spat began (Letters, 22 September). Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005, wishing the Palestinians well in now giving them an opportunity to develop the Gaza Strip into a viable economic area with outside assistance, as an example of what they can achieve if they are serious about peace with Israel.

Almost immediately, however, Hamas began shelling Israeli towns, digging tunnels to attack Israeli military posts inside Israel, sniping at Israeli citizens, and killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Hizbollah did the same from Lebanon. So what are the Israelis to do? Just sit and allow this to happen? I think not. The biased, ill-informed, Israel-bashing chattering classes whose writings - as Mr Naftalin rightly says (letter, 20 September) - pervade your newspaper appear not to know the difference between right and wrong.

I was in Israel during the recent Hizbollah terrorist attacks on Israel, visiting my family, and worked packing medical kits for wounded soldiers as well as civilians - half a million of whom were shelled and forced out of their homes, refugees in their own country. Mr Leah needs to strike more of a balance in his analysis of who causes what. His friends in Gaza and Lebanon do not recognise Israel's right to exist and are pledged - as they constantly remind everyone - to destroy it. Little wonder the Jews fight back.



Sir: Mr Daniel Naftalin (letter, 20 September) argues that your presentation of the facts of Israel's killing of Palestinian children is "a subject used throughout the years to marginalise and dehumanise Jews". He is misguided on two counts. Firstly, the photographs on your front page do show children who had been killed by Israelis. This is an incontrovertible fact and cannot be seen as being biased against Israel.

Secondly, the argument that every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is wearing very thin indeed. It is also highly disrespectful of those Jews who suffered so much simply for being Jews. Their suffering had nothing to do with the State of Israel and should not be used to justify every argument in support of that state.

On the same day Professor Reuben suggests "if the notably underpopulated Arab states had compassion for their compatriots, every refugee could live in a palace". The arrogance of such a statement is unbelievable. I am a Palestinian. I wish to live in my homeland, on my father's land in Netanyah in Palestine. I would much rather live in a free and democratic Palestine in a small shack than in a palace in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.



Reasons to criticise the World Bank

Sir: I don't mind being accused of being foolish or inaccurate; they are the occupational hazards of journalism. But for Johann Hari (18 September) to bellow that I and your own columnist Dominic Lawson have been "astonishingly dishonest" in maintaining that Britain, France and many charities are opposed to the World Bank's zero tolerance campaign against aid being stolen by poor world elites would be hurtful if it weren't laughable.

I "made it up," according to Mr Hari. Hilary Benn, the International Development minister, and his supporters have as hard a line on corruption as the toughest cop. Apparently, I only pretended they didn't because I wanted to divert attention from a sinister campaign to force privatisation on poor countries - which, for what it is worth, I oppose.

Well if I did make it up, I had many accomplices. Your readers can find one for themselves by going to the Department for International Development website where they will see a long speech by Hilary Benn on the danger that rigorous anti-corruption campaigns will stop at least some aid trickling down to the needy. If they still doubt me, your readers can turn to a piece in the news pages of last Tuesday's Independent about the World Bank's meeting in Singapore. Its headline? "Benn beats World Bank chief over corruption policy". Does Mr Hari maintain that your reporters are "astonishingly dishonest" as well?



Hounds on the scent of a fox

Sir: Matthew Higgs (letter, 21 September) ridicules the accusation made earlier by Helen Weeks that laying "fox-derived scent" (bits of dead foxes, "boiled" foxes, or imported fox urine from US fur farms) will attract local foxes to the "trail" and thereby tempt the hounds to divert "accidentally" on to those foxes.

As a wildlife consultant specialising on fox deterrence I can confirm that, like all territorial wild canines, foxes will quickly become aware of the scent of alien foxes, and will "mark" the area with their own scent to warn off the "intruder". When the hounds arrive following the trail they will naturally want to take off after the more natural and fresher scent of the live fox.

Mr Higgs claims that hunting bits of a dead animal or its urine is drag-hunting. Genuine drag hunts follow artificial scent as they don't want their hounds to divert on to animals, whereas fox hunters don't want their hounds to lose the idea of hunting foxes, because as Mr Higgs says, they hope for "that happy day" when a future government brings back the sport of hunting and killing of wild animals with dogs.



Climate science is our best guide

Sir: Dominic Lawson argues that PR executives of oil firms should be allowed to speak on climate change without being criticised by scientists (Opinion, 22 September). He goes on to claim that because climate modelling is complicated scientists couldn't possibly understand it.

Climate science is built upon fields such as thermodynamics, which specialises in systems with "almost infinite numbers of variables". Perhaps Mr Lawson would prefer to read pamphlets from Exxon for his information on climate change, but I for one would rather listen to the Royal Society, Nature, and Physical Review. Mainstream science does not claim to know the "precise role of human actions in climate change". It does however offer the best estimates humankind possesses.



Coalition? No, thank you

Sir: I'm relieved that Steve Richards (Opinion, 21 September) thinks the Lib Dems won't go into coalition with either Labour or the Tories.

These two parties have far more in common with each other than either does with us. Both have been consistently centralist. Both have failed badly on the environment. Both oppose electoral reform - especially any system that allows voters to choose between candidates of the same party. Both have taxed those on low incomes relatively more than those of us who are more comfortably off - worse, they have failed to close tax loopholes available only to the very well off.

Who with any decency or self respect wants to go into coalition with either? Not, I suggest, most Lib Dems.



Bread and Marmite across the world

Sir: I have read all of the recent correspondence about the delights (and otherwise) of Marmite with an increasing incredulity: am I really the only person in the country who believes that the perfect Marmite sandwich involves nothing except my favourite spread and two slices of bread? Brown is usually best, but muffins, crumpets or crackers are all excellent, especially with a glass of milk.

Whenever I travel, the first things into my rucksack are a jar of Marmite and a pack of plastic knives. After all, for the starving student with an Inter Rail pass, a few coins can purchase a fresh loaf of bread, which then provides a day's nourishment. I once travelled for a week in this manner and remained in good health.



Watch your language

Sir: Delivering his make-or-break speech at the Labour Party conference, Chancellor Gordon Brown expressed the pious wish that in future all immigrants to Britain should be taught to speak proper English. This from a man who had just a couple of sentences previously come out with the howler: "My mother taught my brothers and I ..."



Sir: While I commend Banksy for his creativity (profile, 23 September), isn't the main problem with graffiti not just that it usually involves vandalism but that it all-too-painfully demonstrates the artists' illiteracy? To paint in six-foot-high letters "We're bored of fish" on the penguin enclosure wall sadly reflects a problem with prepositions that, for pedants, must detract from its entertainment value. That is unless our little flippered friends have mastered the art of wielding paintbrushes themselves and have their own literacy issues.



Macho drivers

Sir: Women are better drivers than men, as proved by insurance premiums. So why do men insist on driving when accompanied by a woman? Clarkson gas a lot to answer for.



Lincolnshire loaf

Sir. Born and bred in Boston, lived in Lincoln, domiciled in Cleethorpes, I have never in my life seen the spelling "harslet" for "haslet" in Lincolnshire, as maintained by Mark Hix (23 September). As for haslet being "a British version of the American meat loaf", surely the converse is likely to be true. Many of the first American settlers came from Lincolnshire, and they no doubt took their culinary delights with them.



Labour's name

Sir: After more than ten years of New Labour isn't about time the party dropped the irrelevant word in its title and become just the New Party.



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