Letters: Examination nation

Children are threatened by turning exams into an industry
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The Independent Online

Sir: I attended a seminar aimed at assisting RE teachers develop an insight into the sort of answers examiners look for. Being new to teaching to a GCSE curriculum, I was keen to gain insights. But during the seminar I gradually became aware of worrying undercurrents.

The first was commercialisation. The presenters worked for a company that made its money by selling exams to schools. Schools, in turn, are targeted with achieving levels of passes. The presenters discussed the need to write an exam that people could pass. So, an exam board capable of meeting the government specification for GCSE RS while making the exam as passable (easy?) as possible is likely to be more commercially successful because its product becomes attractive to schools competing on pass-rates.

The second was the blurring of the boundary between opinion and fact, or between one's own ideas and the orthodoxy of faith positions. As long as what was written could make sense to somebody it could earn the student marks, irrespective of accuracy.

For example, one model answer provided by the examiners boldly stated that any religion that argued for the possibility of a "just war" must accept nuclear weapons because they keep the peace. This answer is incorrect because the Christian faith (and Islam) views weapons of mass destruction as unjust because they are indiscriminate and kill civilians. But it was marked as correct because it expressed a possible opinion.

Do we really want our children's qualifications to become the currency of profit, and thinking any idea is as good as another and it doesn't really matter what anyone thinks?

The Rev Julian Wilson

Denstone College, Uttoxeter, Staffordshire

Take a stand for civil rights in China

Sir: Steven Spielberg takes a stand against the Chinese Communist Party. Tessa Jowell says that any boycott of the Olympic Games "would not serve any purpose". A noble and honourable man contrasted with a politician.

During the furore about China, please let's remember the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong is a peaceful spiritual practice which causes no harm to anyone, yet it is illegal in China. Practitioners are imprisoned, tortured, sent to brainwashing centres and forced labour camps, and even subjected to organ harvesting.

In view of Mr Spielberg's action, I would ask every Olympic athlete: what are you going to do about it? Your trifling medals will be tainted with shame. What is a medal beside even one human life?

Richard Brown

London SW19

Sir: The situation in Darfur is appalling, but so was the situation in Berlin in 1936. Thank God there remains one area above politics and even war, and that is sport. The Olympic Games is the only area left where men and women of all races, creeds, religions and politics can interact. If we lose even that we have nothing.

Dr Tim Lawson

Cheam, Surrey

Sir: I welcome your efforts to exert pressure on China for their support of the genocidal regime in Khartoum in the run-up to the Olympics.

Liberal Democrats believe the negative publicity for China should be matched by targeted divestment campaigns along the lines developed by Sudan Divestment UK and the Aegis Trust. We, too, would encourage organisations and individuals to divest from companies, Chinese or otherwise, particularly in the arms trade but also in other sectors that help to sustain the present regime in Sudan.

Yet while we seek to isolate the government of Sudan, we should also ask why the joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur (Unamid) is being starved of the personnel and equipment it needs to do its job.

In particular, the failure of Nato countries, including the UK, to provide Unamid with the helicopters vital to its role is a scandal. Our efforts to raise this with British ministers have met with warm words, but no action

Edward Davey MP

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman, House of Commons

Sir: It is laudable that Mr Spielberg has made China's connection to Darfur a beacon for media attention, but Darfur is not an isolated case. China's foreign policy and attitude to international trade is a root cause of the many recent shocking abuses of liberty and human rights globally, financing regimes such as the Burmese junta and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Beijing's opposition to democracy and self-determination has been apparent throughout their planning of the Olympic Games, suppressing potential dissenting voices, some expressly stating, "We want human rights, not the Olympics". China's bullying of the International Olympic Committee means Taiwanese athletes have been denied the right to compete under their own flag.

Beijing has downplayed Mr Spielberg's actions. But if political leaders such as Gordon Brown and George W Bush retracted their acceptance of President Hu's invitation to the Games, in line with the sentiments of the eight Nobel Peace laureates, they have the potential to affect China's domestic and international policy. The people of the world are speaking out against China's conduct. Their elected leaders should do the same.

Sherman Lai

Bromley, Kent

Sir: George Bush is planning to go the the Beijing Olympics, in spite of his worries about Chinese influence in Sudan, on the basis that they are "purely a sporting event". Mr Bush is well known for his idiosyncracies with language but I wonder whether he intended this expression to have a different meaning from when used in the sentence, "Although they are purely a sporting event, the US government is preventing American athletes from attending the 1980 Moscow Olympics".

Barry Butler

Kings Heath, Birmingham

End the pretence about drugs in sport

Sir: Stephen Wilkinson (Letters, 14 February) is mistaken in disputing Terence Blacker's argument that there is inconsistency, if not hypocrisy in our treatments of Amy Winehouse and Dwain Chambers. The former is venerated, the latter is demonised. Winehouse has profited from her well-documented habit: it has brought her the kind of notoriety that is hard currency in today's celebrity culture and thus elevated her above fellow singers.

In any case, how does Wilkinson know for sure that Chambers' use of drugs has "disadvantaged his peers"? Can he prove that each one of Chambers' rivals over the years has run "clean"? Chambers said it wasn't possible to win races without drugs. The truth often hurts, as the outcry over his selection for the British national team suggests.

Surely it's time to rethink sport's policy over drugs. Athletes in the 21st century compete for high stakes: they have made their intentions to enhance their performance by any possible means signally clear. We can create a safer environment and one more congruent with reality if we allow them to make mature, informed and intelligent decisions about whether or not to use drugs.

Professor Ellis Cashmore

Staffordshire University

Scottish and English borders on the move

Sir: The English think that Berwickers are Scots anyway ("The English town that wants to be Scottish", 13 February). Leaving aside English claims to France, which they are colonising as it is, there are good practical reasons for reviving ancient borders in France and the UK. Post devolution, to achieve balance between the nations and sub-states and to preserve the union, England needs to be cut down to size. Cumbria could revert to Scotland (and the earldom of Ulster, with its Scottish roots, might be resurrected). And, of course, Wessex should be officially recognised.

Robert Craig

Weston-super-mare, somerset

Sir: If the people of Berwick wish to be in Scotland, that is fine; there is nothing sacrosanct about a border fixed centuries ago. But the same principle should be applied elsewhere. In particular, it is well known that the people of the Shetlands have always preferred to be ruled by Westminster than by Edinburgh, with which they feel nothing in common, and they should be allowed to opt out of Scotland.

Alan Pavelin

Chislehurst, Kent

Don't worry about warm weather

Sir: Bruce Harmsworth ("Mild weather is a terrible warning", 12 February) could be too pessimistic in allowing himself to be depressed by the recent few days of glorious February weather, thinking that it is further evidence of global warming.

It may cheer him to know that, in 1958 my wife and I were so cheered by the glorious weather in early February that we drove down from London to the West Country on a Friday evening and enjoyed a weekend of beautiful weather. It was so warm that we sat on the beach in south Devon in our shirt-sleeves.

It may cheer him further if he visited the website of the Climate Research Unit of the UEA where he would discover that the global temperature for 2007 was lower than that for 2006, 2005, 2004, 2002, 2001, and 2000. Now, nearly 10 years on, 1998 remains the warmest year on record.

Nevertheless, 2007 was the eighth warmest year on record, but I would advise Mr Harms-worth to stop worrying so much.

Ron Watts

King's Lynn, Norfolk

Take this chance to curb nuclear arms

Sir: As the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marks its 50th anniversary this weekend, world opinion has come to recognise nuclear weapons are a global security problem that can be solved only by nuclear disarmament.

In Britain, this trend has been indicated by majority opposition to the replacement of Trident. Internationally, it is demonstrated by calls from figures such as Kofi Annan, Mohamed Elbaradei, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Hans Blix and Mikhail Gorbachev, for new initiatives towards outlawing nuclear weapons and achieving global nuclear disarmament.

Nuclear disarmament will require practical steps and political will. Now is the time to take those steps and exercise that will. The alternative is a downwards spiral towards nuclear proliferation and war. For the future of humanity, we call on the British Government to respond to this urgent need by abandoning plans to replace Trident, and taking concrete steps towards global nuclear disarmament.

Ken Loach, Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter, John Pilger, Damon Albarn, Bianca Jagger, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London N7

Theatre stages a seat swindle

Sir: David Lister made an interesting suggestion last Saturday ("A seat with a restricted view should be free"), but I am inclined to go further: some seats should not be offered at all. For instance, the end seats in the top gallery of the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, are behind thick iron columns, so it is not possible to see the stage.

And because it is bench-type seating with stingy space allocation, and each occupant slightly exceeding their allotted space, it is not possible to be fully seated. I would rather be told there is no possibility of seeing the show than be offered a swindle.

Geoffrey Robinson

London SE 7

Disappointed in DAB radio

Sir: In your Outlook column (12 February), about the withdrawal of the GCap company from DAB radio, Jeremy Warner said there has been a muddled public policy towards digital radio. Eighteen months ago, I bought a small DAB set and I have found the quality of the services and reception to be disappointing.

One expert has said DAB could become the Betamax of radio broadcasting. Less money spent on lavishly advertising the virtues of the service and more on technical improvement would help.

Peter Medwell

Broadstairs, Kent

Bush gave game away

Sir: Terence Blacker's perceptive reflection on George Bush (Comment, 15 February) overlooked the fact that through his incompetence in presentation, Bush enabled the world to see beyond the "American dream", so ably presented by Reagan, Carter and Clinton, to the reality of its foreign policy. The dropping of this veil is another plus.

Geoffrey Payne

London W5

That Tardis feeling

Sir: I was drawn to your reference to the Parliament Act 1949 in your timeline of the British constitution ("The Big Question", 14 February) stating, "Reduced time Lords could delay Bills". By the time the Daleks had reduced them to just Doctor Who and the Master, the Time Lords were in no position to delay anything.

Michael Petek

Brighton, Sussex

Honesty pays

Sir: Andrew Grice's report that MPs are seeking a £22,000 salary rise to "clean up" politics (11 February) portrays a worrying attitude. If it were said that MPs thought pay should be increased to attract the best candidates, this would be an acceptable argument (even though many disagree). There is also a strong case that parliamentary allowances should be more strictly regulated. That some MPs want such a steep rise on the proviso that with enough money the scams outlined in the report are less likely to occur will leave many a taxpayer feeling duped.

George Leigh

London SW5

Double standards

Sir: David Miliband, in his democracy speech in Oxford, suggested it is our moral duty to support democracy throughout the world (with or without use of force). How does this square with the British intention to recognise the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo Albanians, thereby ignoring the will of the democratically elected Serbian President and his government, and the Serbian Constitution and UN Resolution 1244 stipulating that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia?

Avram Balabanovic

Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

Step right up

Sir: As Ken Livingstone is going to invest £500m in cycling and walking (report, 14 February), will that include a Ministry of Silly Walks?

David McNickle

St Albans, Hertfordshire