Letters: End this farce of exams with pass rates of more than 95 per cent

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David Jones (letters, 25 August) appears to applaud the fact that the modular system for A-levels allows potential failures to be "screened out" at the end of the first year. Pupils who might, with support and encouragement, have gained one or more A-levels are denied this chance, just to protect league-table rankings. This approach has led to the farce of exams with a greater than 95 per cent pass rate, less an examination pass than a certificate of attendance.

When I studied for A-levels at the end of the 1960s, our teachers' concern was that we should realise our potential. They recognised that this meant some pupils must be allowed to strive but fail.

The 11-plus was abolished because selection at 11 denied many children a chance to achieve their academic potential; the pernicious effect of exam league tables appears to be that, again, pupils are being systematically denied a chance to try.

The denial that exams have become easier sits poorly with reports that universities must now devote a significant part of undergraduate courses to material which would formerly have been mastered while studying for A-levels. Mr Jones calls for an end to a "pointless debate" about falling standards. As the parent of a 10-year-old, I am anxious to see the debate continue in the hope that it might resolve at least some of the worst defects of the present system in time for him to benefit.

I would like my son to experience an education, such as I was fortunate enough to receive, not merely be fed through an exam pass-generating machine.

Ken Campbell Kettering, Northamptonshire

Dame Helen wrong to talk of cocaine

While it is a relief that Dame Helen did not continue to use illegal drugs ("Mirren talks of her date-rapes, then provokes furore with views on sex attackers", 1 September), giving the oxygen of publicity so casually to this aspect of her life grossly underestimates the extent of her influence, and the effect such comments can have.

As founder of Drugsline, I am increasingly concerned and frustrated that figures in the public eye are neglecting and failing to use their profile for maximum positive impact, because by talking about their own substance use in that way, it feeds into a stream of comment that normalises recreational drug-taking.

Dame Helen is a remarkably talented woman and was fortunate that she was in a position to stop taking cocaine after she discovered a renowned Nazi war criminal was benefiting from proceeds of the illegal drug trade. Others are not always able to make such rational, considered choices when faced with addiction.

By drawing attention to substance misuse and marrying it with creative success and elevated status, it can generate damaging associations and aspirations in the minds of young people, contributing to a growing blase attitude towards recreational drug use. Charities such as Drugsline are battling and educating against such harmful social acceptance to prevent ruined and lost lives and protect young people.

Drugsline aims to dispel the perception that "it is okay, because everyone does it". We would appreciate support from respected figures such as Dame Helen.

Christina Ball, Drugsline, Ilford, Essex

New satnav is aid to map-reading

After reading Michael McCarthy's article that looked at the deterioration of map-reading skills due to people relying heavily on internet mapping and satnav systems ("Internet maps 'demolish British history' ", 29 August), I should point out that, for many people, this is not true.

In fact, one new GPS device actually encourages the art of map-reading by dovetailing high-quality digital Ordnance Survey (OS) maps with satellite navigation. Increasing numbers of people are taking advantage of this fusing of technologies to plan routes and gain accurate representations of detailed OS landmarking along the way.

Map-reading as a skill may be fading in the eyes of some, but there is no reason for this to be the case. People can still explore interesting landscapes by using detailed maps but now they can also have the safety net of GPS technology working for them too, giving the best of both worlds.

Richard Calthrop-Owen Leatherhead, Surrey

Lovell Johns has been providing mapping services and interactive mapping solutions to the publishing industry for more than 40 years. Over the past 10 years, we have seen a huge shift in the services publishers are looking for, from film or static files for artwork to much more sophisticated digital projects.

Satnavs have been the key change in mapping formats. Drivers are much more likely to check their route on a computer or let their satnav do the work, rather than pull out a paper map. Part of this could be because there is unease with map-reading, not being helped by the neglect of teaching geography and mapping skills at school. As in-car navigation units become more popular, and the prevalence and use of free online directional mapping services increases, paper maps are becoming less popular. It is no coincidence that road atlas sales have declined steadily over the past two years, although excellent ones can be bought for as little as £3.99.

But I very much doubt that paper maps will disappear from the shelves completely. Satnavs are not infallible, with lorries being directed down narrow lanes, and cars into rivers. Walkers will still use their dog-eared maps and sailors their navigational charts.

David Stephens, Lovell Johns, Witney, Oxfordshire

The mapping article infers that Google is somehow at fault for the lack of detail typical of internet maps, but scratch the surface, and you will find the reason for this lack of detail can be firmly placed at the doors of the Ordnance Survey, the Treasury and the UK government.

As a trading fund, the OS is tasked with delivering a 5 per cent return on investment to the government. It does this successfully by selling digital mapping data to a handful of dependent blue-chip clients, including utility companies, for seven-figure sums. In working to this business model, the OS deprives small and medium- sized enterprises throughout Britain the benefits of working with rich digital mapping data, and companies such as Google have to make do with second-rate data from competitive commercial alternatives.

OS maps are a national treasure and of remarkable detail but are somewhat inaccessible in digital form. More must be done by the Treasury and UK government to ensure the OS mission and business model are reformed, to allow what is a probably the best national mapping agency in the world to tackle the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Rob Dunfey, Edinburgh

Hard-pressed carers need help now

Many carers are in despair at the lack of action from the government to address carer poverty (letters, 1 September). Because of the increase in fuel prices, inflation and the overall cost of living rising rapidly, carers and their families will, without doubt, suffer extreme financial hardship this coming winter. After more than a decade of ignoring most of the advice of the various committees commissioned by the government, the latest rejection of the task force recommendations is the last straw for many beleaguered carers.

Giving carers nothing, with the intention of considering help at some time in the future when the whole benefit system is reviewed, is unacceptable, especially when many carers who work long hours caring do not see themselves as benefit claimants and want to be considered separately. The Government has said, "Carers will be supported so that they are not forced into financial hardship by their caring role".

The National Carers Forum, Carer Watch and Justice For Carers, have combined to ask for immediate financial help of at least the £1,000 as suggested by the Task Force, payable to all those eligible for carer's allowance, and carers with the underlying entitlement. This should be in addition to benefits and disregarded in the calculation of income-related payments.

Tony Rhodes National Carers Forum, London SW16

Unfair to compare Israel and Georgia

In Dr Derek J Pickard's letter on the Georgian situation (29 August), he compared Georgia's "invading and bombing its neighbour" to "when Israel attacked Lebanon". He should remember that the terrorist organisation Hizbollah, which controls all of south Lebanon, sent a party of armed men across the border, murdered several Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others. Please note that the Lebanese government now includes several members of Hizbollah.

Israel's response, with the dual aim of trying to rescue its soldiers and to discourage Hizbollah from future operations of this sort, was the normal response of any government whose people have suffered continual terrorism from a neighbour's territory, a neighbour who appears to do nothing to prevent it. This is called reaction, not an attack.

The unfortunate fact that many others suffered as a result, is entirely due to Hizbollah's cynical practice of hiding its "fighters" and rocket-launchers in the middle of villages and in residential blocks, just as Hamas is doing in Gaza.

Alan Halibard Bet Shemesh, Israel

I am not the only one who is slightly embarrassed by our young Foreign Secretary's belligerent posturing over Georgia, but I have decided to do something about it.

So today I have recognised as independent the states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and say to Mr Miliband, "Come and get me, David, if you think you are hard enough".

I am also unsure why, if we refuse to buy oil from Russia it is called sanctions, but if the Russians refuse to sell the same oil, it is called economic warfare.

David Partridge, Bridport, Dorset

There's a cure for apostrophe worries

Rather than worrying about the odd errant apostrophe, as some correspondents have done recently, wouldn't it be better to abolish them?

Unlike other punctuation, such as full stops, commas, exclamation or question marks, they do not take the place of the phrasing, emphasis or inflection that we would otherwise hear in speech. We know whether we are hearing its or it's, wont or won't, or how many boys own how many boats, by the context; we do not need to ask the speaker to add the apostrophes for us.

Of course, it would look strange at first, particularly to those schooled in the finer points of apostrophe usage, but would we have any real difficulty understanding what was written? Once everyone got used to the slightly "odd" look, it would be "odd" no more.

R J Hoskin, Banbury, Oxfordshire


Spoke in his wheel

David Cameron has scuppered his chances of becoming prime minister. Anyone, especially someone as high-profile as he is, who hasn't the presence of mind to check the brakes on their bike after it's been stolen and returned, is not fit to lead the country.

Judi Martin Maryculter, Aberdeenshire

Has McCain goofed?

Though the better candidate, I suspect John McCain has goofed with his choice of running mate ("Can this woman help stop Obama?", 30 August). Politically, Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton and it seems unlikely many "Hillary Holdouts" (or "Hillary Harridans", as the US press calls them) will be "wooed" by Mrs Palin's starkly conservative views. Worse, Mr McCain has drastically diluted his greatest strength: the idea that his ticket would boast the greatest experience. On the plus side, Mrs Palin will at least excite evangelical Christians unimpressed by Mr McCain's straight talking.

Keith Gilmour, Glasgow

Flocks to crow about

What a massive generalisation Fred Barnfield makes (letters, 28 August). He states that, "When you see a rook on its own, it's a crow, and when you see a lot of crows together they're rooks". Try telling that to one of the farmers on Pevensey Levels (where I birdwatch regularly) who does the stewardship in that area to protect lapwings in particular. Flocks of up to 200 crows are a regular sight there, and this certainly isn't peculiar to this area.

Peter Brown, Brighton

My money's on two young rooks ("Getting the bird", letters, 29 August); at this time of year, like many young creatures, they take a while to work out where they fit in society.

Malcolm Addison, Woodbridge, Suffolk

Age concern

Your apology (Errors & Omissions, 30 August) for the caption, "Tools used by Neanderthals, above, were as efficient as those in the Stone Age", missed one point. In concentrating on the somewhat obvious fact that the picture showed someone's idea of what a Neanderthal looked like rather than being a photograph of one, the "facts" in the caption are nonsense, because Neanderthals lived in the Stone Age.

Clare Butler, Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire

Good advice

Following your train of helpful hints to users, I note that on the bottom of a Tesco "Bag For Life" it tells me, "To avoid the danger of suffocation keep away from babies and children". So I have. And I have.

Alan Etherington, Billingham, Cleveland

Infectious nonsense

On the packaging of M&S's "See It Safe" pyjamas with "Silver" technology is a warning, "These pyjamas cannot treat an existing MRSA bloodstream infection".

Andrew Hudson, Banstead, Surrey

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