Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is correct to point out that the IQ studies Dr Frank Ellis cites in support of his racism are discredited, but she is wrong in her assertion that liberals, prissy or otherwise, have been defending his right to free speech (13 March).
I have heard no one defend him at all. Even his own university is beginning its slow, institutionalised procedures against him. While academic freedom to argue against prevailing views has to be protected, it does not exist in isolation from every academic's duty to give their students equal opportunity to learn from them. Ellis's public statements have breached this duty, because we cannot be sure that black students who wished to take Slavonic studies would feel comfortable attending his classes.
I do not understand why a scholar of Russian and Slavonic languages should feel the need to pronounce academically on putative racial differences between sub-Saharan and North-American populations, when very few of either group speak Slavonic. The fact is that no psychometric test can identify between-group differences in the way Ellis claims, because by definition they have to be normalised within each group, so that the average score of each group is 100. That is what IQ means.
Anyone who uses a psychometric test on a population for which it has been neither designed nor normalised is doing so for a political reason, not a scientific one. If sub-Saharans score low on a test designed to tap intellectual differences within the North American population, I would not be surprised. Nor would I be surprised if North Americans performed poorly on a test designed to tap differences within the sub-Saharan population. This does not mean that either group is intellectually superior or deficient, merely that they perform differently on tests designed for each other.
DR JON MAY
READER IN PSYCHOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF SHEFFIELD
Teaching science to boys and girls
Sir: I read with interest your report "School science held back by battle of the sexes" (13 March), about the different preferences of boys and girls for inclusion in the science curriculum.
None of the topics selected by the girls, and only two or three of those chosen by the boys, were real science. The rest were personal, social, health, or moral education, together with some astronomy. How can these issues, valid and interesting in their own right, be properly understood and appreciated, if the pupils are ignorant of the underlying scientific principles?
Knowledge of basic science enables any scientific or technical issue to be evaluated without each such issue needing to be individually taught. I fear that the period of maximum education of the population is already past and may be irretrievable.
The reason for this, and the apparent unpopularity of science, may be more to do with inappropriate targets, as we saw in the recently published school performance tables. It became clear from them that schools prefer pupils to study subjects that gain a clutch of grade Cs, rather than science.
SCUNTHORPE, NORTH LINCOLNSHIRE
Sir: Some of the topics mentioned by the 15-year-olds would be covered in physics, and one or two of the girls' favourites might squeeze into biology, but how have things like dreams, first aid and the human soul appeared on the science syllabus?
Forty years ago, biology, chemistry and physics were taught as separate subjects and in depth. People who took these subjects did not need remedial lessons at university to bring them up to speed.
Keeping fit and first aid were looked after in the PE classes and life, death and abortion were covered in RE. The fact that alcohol might be bad for you was something that we were supposed to have the common sense to work out for ourselves.
Sir Here at a girls' independent school we have a very large uptake of students wishing to study science, with currently more than half of the sixth form opting for science subjects, and that has been a long-term trend. It has not been our experience at all that girls are put off by the curriculum and wish only to study the "softer" aspects of science.
While we agree that teaching approaches should differ when teaching boys and girls, we find the current subject matter is relevant to both sexes. Indeed, many of our students would be put off the subject if forced to study only those topics found to be popular with girls in the Leeds University study.
What we do find, however, is that in our single-sex environment girls have the confidence to explore what are commonly perceived as the "harder" scientific issues such as space exploration, astronomical phenomena and genetic engineering. It may well be that students of different genders enjoy different contexts in their learning but is this not simply an argument for teaching girls and boys separately rather than the subject matter within a subject specification itself?
We strongly oppose any move to change the syllabus along gender lines. This would inevitably cause problems with university selection procedures and restrict opportunities open to both sexes.
HEAD OF CHEMISTRY REBECCA KIRK HEAD OF BIOLOGY KIRSTY MACKENZIE HEAD OF PHYSICS TEESSIDE PREP & HIGH SCHOOL EAGLESCLIFFE STOCKTON ON TEES
Sir: What boys and girls believe will be relevant to their lives may serve as "hooks" to draw them to science, but in designing curricula it would be irresponsible for children's interests to take precedence over what adults think will be most relevant to their lives in the future.
American admirers of our health service
Sir: In the wake of Sir Nigel Crisp's retirement as chief executive of the NHS, comments have been reported that the problem with the NHS is lack of competent management. This is simply untrue.
I have 20 years of experience working for both the NHS and blue-chip private sector organisations and each has had its share of under-achievers. While there is certainly room for improvement in managing the NHS, the scale of this task needs to be appreciated.
Most NHS chief executives run the biggest businesses in their town and, unlike private-sector counterparts, have no company car or stock options, and can be responsible for life-and-death decisions. They are set arbitrary targets within a political environment, and enjoy little autonomy. Despite this, they have achieved reduced waiting times, record numbers of patients are being treated and there are more doctors and nurses than ever before.
In North America, where I am studying the art and science of health-care improvement, my colleagues often express their surprise and envy at how the NHS treats more patients per dollar than in the US. However, they do not envy the constraints and complexities imposed on UK health managers.
By the very nature and size of the NHS, it has been in crisis for years and it is the dedication, commitment and goodwill from its staff and the nation it serves that holds it together. They deserve our admiration and respect.
QUALITY MANAGEMENT SPECIALIST ST VINCENT'S HOSPITAL BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT, USA
Challenge to closure of ecology labs
Sir: There is a question over whether the Natural Environment Research Council is actually acting within its own constitution in making the sort of decisions it has made ("Green lobby criticises decision to close eco-labs", 14 March).
According to the Government website that is currently offering two vacancies on NERC, "Council is accountable to Parliament, users of services, individual citizens and staff of the organisation for the activities of the Research Council". The fundamental restructuring is clearly a big issue but Parliament has not been asked about this to date.
I shall be testing reactions to the proposals in Parliament on 15 March with an amendment to the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill.
BARONESS MILLER OF CHILTHORNE DOMER, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT SPOKESMAN ON ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS HOUSE OF LORDS
Schools Bill needs further changes
Sir: The Education and Inspections Bill is a significant improvement on the Education White Paper. We welcome the fact that parental councils will now be put on a statutory footing as opposed to being voluntary. We will be supporting the Bill at Second Reading.
The Co-operative movement has been involved in supporting a network of specialist schools for the past three years. Evidence shows that parental involvement is crucial to the delivery of high quality education. If parents are to have genuine control over their children's education, we believe that further amendments to the Bill are required. Governing bodies must be accountable to parents, who should themselves be represented on them. This is even more important with charities and others running schools.
We will be asking the Government to accept amendments in these areas.
MARK HENDRICK MP
(PRESTON, LAB/CO-OP, ) CHAIRMAN, CO-OPERATIVE PARLIAMENTARY GROUP ADRIAN BAILEY MP (WEST BROMWICH WEST, LAB/CO-OP) MEG HILLIER MP (HACKNEY SOUTH & SHOREDITCH, LAB/CO-OP ) ANDY LOVE MP (EDMONTON, LAB/CO-OP) HOUSE OF COMMONS
Why you cannot buy a peerage
Sir: Readers concerned that major donors to political parties might be contractually entitled to a peerage following Matthew Norman's tongue-in-cheek legal analysis ("Every party donor is entitled to be titled", 10 March) can rest easy.
It has been established in the law at least since 1925 that contracts purporting to sell public honours or offices are illegal and hence unenforceable. In Parkinson v College of Ambulance, the secretary of a charity falsely told a potential donor that he would receive a knighthood in exchange for a donation.
Since the contract was illegal, no damages could be claimed or performance ordered, so the hapless donor sought simply to get his money back, saying that he had paid out under a mistake (that he thought he was purchasing a knighthood). This claim, too, failed, on the basis that the donor was in a morally grubby situation and knew the agreement was one that should not have been made.
Accordingly, should a disappointed donor be unwise enough to bring legal action against the Prime Minister, the response from the courts would be a resounding "Get lost." It is encouraging to see that the law is not such an ass after all.
DEPARTMENT OF LAW, SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES UNIVERSITY OF LONDON
Sir: Jack Straw claims that peerages are not for sale. Would the Government be prepared to loan me one?
HARROGATE, NORTH YORKSHIRE
British companies rebuilding Iraq
Sir: I am generally a fan of your single-issue front pages, and your willingness to feature lead stories different from those of the other newspapers. However, I cannot see what point you are making with the "£1.1bn war dividend" story (13 March). Are you saying that it is wrong for British companies to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq? I would have expected you to have been incensed if all the contracts had gone to Bechtel, Haliburton and other US firms, with British companies not getting a look in.
Or are you saying that British companies should regard this work as charitable, and make no profit on it? To the best of my knowledge, Amec, for instance, is a long-established and respectable construction firm, but they are a public company with shareholders who should see a reasonable return. If they have been able to win a £500m contract, no doubt in the teeth of competition from US and other firms, then good for them.
KIRKBYMOORSIDE, NORTH YORKSHIRE
Betrayal of trust
Sir: Can I now expect an apology from Sir Ian Blair for recording my image without permission every time I step in front of a CCTV camera?
Sir: While no advocate of nuclear power, I fail to see the relevance of the "catastrophe" argument ( "A poisonous legacy", 14 March). With so many of our near neighbours proceeding down the nuclear road (France generates some 70 per cent of its energy by nuclear means) it would be futile for the UK to say no on grounds of pollution potential. Or do we think that fallout from a near neighbour's disaster would miraculously avoid us?
SUTTON COLDFIELD, WEST MIDLANDS
Greek world measured
Sir: Not only did the Ancients know that the Earth is round (letter, 14 March), they also knew how big it is. In the third century BC the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes measured the earth's circumference by a cunning application of Euclid's geometry and arrived at 39,000km. He was less than 3 per cent off the mark.
DR EDUARD J ZUIDERWIJK
Family of failures
Sir: Ben Warren ( letter, 13 March) has followed in my footsteps. I too failed the 11-plus - twice! - and yet became head of a 900-pupil community college at 43 in 1972. I was told that had the opportunity arisen I would have gained a degree. Two of our sons followed suit and after 11-plus failures the elder has become orchestral manager of a major symphony orchestra while the younger, holding a doctorate, is a partner in an environmental consultancy. The 11-plus as a measure of an individual's potential is risible, were it not so destructive.
Sir: Regarding sequels (article, 13 March), when I worked on the film Gandhi, the standing joke was that the sequel would be called The Empire Strikes Back.
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