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Saturday 21 June 2008
Letters: GM crops
Brown's zest for GM crops driven by Bush's election worries
Sir: Of course, Gordon Brown's sudden embracing of GM technology as the answer to all our problems has nothing to do with George W Bush and his posse riding into town last week.
Bush and the Republicans are desperately trying to retain the Midwest vote, not so that they win the next Presidential election (they know they have lost that) but to stop the Republicans being wiped off the political map. To retain that vote, they have to appease the Bible-bashers and bribe the farmers.
That's why the US is paying such high subsidies to convert food into biofuel and why Bush is still forcing foreign governments into backing GM when there is no evidence that GM, in its current forms, can address the food crisis here or in developing countries.
Sir: Jo Ripley (Letters, 20 June) has got the wrong end of many sticks. Modern intensive agriculture has enabled us to feed many more people than was thought possible 50 years ago, and to reduce the number of those actually starving.
Of course GM companies want to make a profit. Does Ms Ripley want her pension funds invested in loss-making companies?
If data show that there is no increase in yield, why are so many farmers in so many countries freely buying such expensive seeds year on year? Data show that the area supporting GM crops has been increasing by 20 per cent a year worldwide for several years.
Sir: You remind us that Downing Street reported in 1999 that Tony Blair had eaten GM food and viewed it as safe ("Minister's promotion of GM crops will anger green lobby", 19 June). Surely his aberrant behaviour since eating the GM food should serve as a warning to us all.
Goals for toddlers breach human rights
Sir: Children's minister Beverley Hughes attempts to defend the indefensible aspects of the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) regime ("Ensuring excellent care for toddlers", letter, 19 June).
Her assertion that her department "consulted many early-years practitioners and professionals during the development of the EYFS", when we now have clear evidence that the consultation process was fundamentally flawed, is woefully misleading.
Ms Hughes's assertion that "under-fives will not 'be required to be assessed on 69 writing, problem-solving and numeracy skills' " is disingenuous. This is precisely the way in which an under-trained workforce is interpreting the developmental "guidance" in the new EYFS documentation. It is surely a core responsibility of government to take into account the way in which its policies will be interpreted on the ground, and not to be lulled into wishful fantasy by its own rhetoric.
For Ms Hughes to claim that it is "nonsense" to argue that the EYFS breaches human rights demonstrates just how far the middle ground on human rights has shifted to the authoritarian pole of the spectrum. Not that long ago, the very idea that parents would have to apply, cap in hand, to a government department for their child to be given exemption from a government-imposed developmental framework for pre-compulsory school-age children would have been seen as utterly outrageous. When the politicised drive to achieve "the same standards" arrogantly rides rough-shod over the rights of individuals to make informed choices in the private sphere, something really has gone very badly awry in the Government's psyche.
Dr Richard House
Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy and Counselling, Roehampton University, London W3
Sir: Beverley Hughes is not in a position to assess whether or not her department is on a collision course with parents. It is we, the practitioners, who fully understand this collision, as we counsel more and more parents each year who fret about their children "starting school too soon", with fears around prescriptive goals and assessments.
Under-fives are required to be assessed, despite her claim to the contrary, as many of these young four-year-olds will be five before 31 August and a compulsory EY Child Profile has to be completed for them in June, when they are still a way off from being five, because of this government obsession with scales and grades.
Parents are also obsessed, and that is with wanting their children to be happy, gently learning and free of early fears of failure. They want to continue to celebrate childhood free of Big Brother.
And, Ms Hughes, the EYFS, in its statutory framework (not its guidance), is a curriculum, otherwise why does Ofsted clearly set much of its learning criteria under the banner of "Requirements" and "Shoulds"? No parent would need to seek exemption from guidance. The exemptions she talks about clearly confirm what we all know, which is that the new EYFS has gone a step too far with its mandatory framework for pre-school children.
Practitioner, Counsellor/Parent Coach, Richmond, Surrey
Sir: Beverley Hughes contradicts herself when she asserts that children "will not be tested against early learning goals" and then goes on to suggest that childminders should use these goals to check whether "a child needs additional help and support, and alert parents".
The implication that the goals in the EYFS represent normal development, and any child not reaching them is in need of extra support, is deeply worrying to those of us who are specialists in early development and know that the EYFS goals for literacy and numeracy are not achievable by the majority of five-year-olds.
In fact, only in England would the words literacy and numeracy appear in a developmental framework for children from birth to five. In other countries, where children do not start formal schooling until six or seven, it is recognised that children of this age need an emphasis on emotional development, social skills, physical development and speaking and listening. Research has clearly shown that children who are introduced to formal literacy and numeracy teaching at six or seven outperform English children in the longer term.
Parents need to be aware that the goals are politically motivated and that practitioners will have no choice but to push children towards them, thereby denying children what they really need.
Independent Early Years Consultant, Leicester
Grade inflation in degree exams
Sir: Richard Garner writes ("Lecturers 'pressed to boost degree results'", 17 June) that many academics have long been concerned at the increase in the number of higher classes (and even passes) awarded in university examinations, suspecting that it is not entirely indicative of an increase in the quality of candidates.
In many years of experience as an internal examiner, mostly in the University of London, and almost as many years as external examiner in a number of other universities and their polytechnic forerunners, I was convinced that one of the principal causes of this phenomenon was the introduction of an element of coursework in degree examinations.
It is much easier to write a good message in one's own time in a library than in a very limited time in the examination room. But it is difficult for an examiner to apply one level of marking to a coursework essay and another to an essay written under examination conditions. The candidate is almost bound to obtain a better mark for a piece of coursework.
Coursework also suffers from being wide open to plagiarism, especially with the aid of the internet. I did once trace virtually the whole of a PhD thesis to various published textbooks on the subject, but tracing is impossible when someone has been paid to write a coursework essay for another. It is difficult for the examiner who suspects it to mark it down on mere suspicion.
This drawback does not apply, of course, to such coursework as participation in ongoing experiments or research, the result of which is reliably assessed. I remain, however, a convinced opponent of the inclusion of marks for assessed coursework in university degrees.
Professor R W Rideout
Sir: I have just been awarded a first-class honours law degree from Liverpool University, which I am thrilled about. This is all the more satisfying because I come from a working-class background and attended a "failing" comprehensive school.
Imagine my disgust then when reading a quote from Geoffrey Alderman in your front-page article that "it is now possible for Liverpool students to be awarded first-class honours without having actually achieved a first-class mark in any individual component".
This is utter garbage. In order to be awarded a first-class degree, I needed either to have an average of more than 70 per cent in my second- and third-year modules, or to have achieved an average of more than 67 per cent and attained eight individual first-class grades.
My overall average was 72 per cent, achieved by gaining eight first-class marks and eight high 2:1s. It would have been impossible to get a first-class grade without attaining any first-class marks.
I now feel that my degree has been devalued overnight by Mr Alderman's remarks, because potential employers, who may have read his comments, may think that Liverpool University is a soft touch on awarding first-class degrees.
Public warnings on secret documents
Sir: When I was travelling into London from the West Country by train a few days ago, the guard made his usual announcement prior to arrival, encouraging passengers to take their belongings with them. He concluded this with a coda, however: "And finally, do remember to take all your top secret documents with you."
What an easy and practical contribution it could be to national security, were the rail authorities to ensure that such a reminder became a standard feature of all final onboard messages.
Sir: In 1950, as a corporal in the Intelligence Corps, I was serving at GCHQ, then at Eastcote in west London. One day there was a bonfire of unwanted secret documents in an incinerator with a tall flue. The fire was lit, and some documents were thrown on the fire and burned merrily. Unfortunately, when the next papers were thrown on the fire, a combination of the heat and the flue lifted them up and the breeze carried them over the neighbourhood. Plus ça change...
Detention plans need compromise
Sir: Chris Gale (letter, 16 June) argues that by extending detention to 42 days the Government is protecting us from terrorists. It's true, they do have a duty to protect the people from danger. They also have a duty not to imprison us without clear and timely accountability. The only reasonable position is that there must be a compromise between those two duties.
Since there will never be a shortage of politicians willing to give the police more power, I think it reasonable to put a burden of proof on those who wish to do erode the human rights we've enjoyed for hundreds of years.
Latin maxims for fools and madmen
Sir: If James Duport "invented" the saying "Quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat prius" (Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad), as Harry Graham says (letter, 19 June), he seems at the very least to have been inspired by a maxim of Publilius Syrus (1st century BCE): "Stultum facit Fortuna, quem vult perdere." (When Fortune wishes to ruin a man she makes him a fool.) But the observation was far from new even in Publilius's time.
I leave you with another of Publilius's quips: "Taciturnitas stulto homini pro sapientia est." (Let a fool remain silent if he would appear wise.)
Ariel Sharon's failings
Sir: Michael Gelman insists that Ariel Sharon's failings do not include the "gruesome mutilation of babies" (Letters, 20 June). I know he refuses to buy this newspaper any more, but if anyone sees him, perhaps they could slip him a copy of the Kahan Commission on the Sabra/Shatila massacre.
Courtesy on the buses
Sir: I am sorry to hear D F Taylor received discourteous treatment when using the new bus pass in the East Riding (letters, 13 June). He has been unlucky in his experience as this attitude is certainly not reflected in our part of the country. In west Dorset our bus drivers are unfailingly kind, courteous and cheerful. They are very patient with their band of elderly passengers and do all they can to help us to enjoy the benefits of our excellent new bus passes.
The faces of capitalism
Sir: Nitin Mehta (Letters, 19 June) says that "opposing biofuel should not be seen as opposing capitalism or globalisation. Capitalism with a humane face is in the best interest of all." Capitalism cannot have a humane face. It sells to the highest bidder, irrespective of need, and people who drive cars are richer than those who are starving.
Little belief in Labour
Sir: Walter Wolfgang urges the Labour Party to "reconnect with its core voters" (Letters, 20 June). If this is the same Labour Party member who was ejected from a party conference for informing Jack Straw that he was talking rubbish, then your correspondent's loyalty and optimism is admirable. Unfortunately, I would suggest that a great many people no longer believe Mr Wolfgang's Labour Party even exists any more. Trade unions, for example, are threatening to withdraw financial support. If this is true, then the reconnection he advocates is not possible.
Hedon, East Yorkshire
A guide to atheism
Sir: I look forward to a series of booklets on atheism to complement those on religions, especially for those of us who do not believe in an imaginary being.
Refugee crisis: Austria welcomes thousands arriving at its border on buses from Hungary
Refugee crisis: Germany 'expecting as many as 10,000' arrivals as refugees head through Austria
Refugee crisis: Local councils to offer sanctuary to Syrians fleeing conflict, says Yvette Cooper
Syria crisis: Britain may not be able to join military action if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader
Refugee crisis: Man who died at Hungarian train station was 'running away from police'
150 schoolgirls sent home for wearing skirts that are 'too short'
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