Key Stage tests corrode children's curiosity and teachers' morale
Sir: Richard Garner's article (The Big Question, 3 May) was a timely summary of the arguments about Key Stage tests in schools. He does not, however, raise the really crucial questions about the value of the test results.
Unlike GCSEs and A-Levels these are not qualifications that can be used by pupils. Neither are they of any use diagnostically, because teachers know all too well how unreliable they are, and better tools for this purpose have long been available. Published league tables of test results are however an essential element of Tony Blair's personal, non-negotiable, dogma of competition and choice that is being forced upon schools by the Prime Minister's well-honed control strategy of punishment and reward. For headteachers this translates into patronage and fear.
The key research is that of Peter Tymms, of the University of Durham, "Are standards rising in English primary schools?", published in the British Educational Research Journal in 2004. This comprehensive study concluded that the national tests lack both reliability and validity for reasons including: faulty statistical procedures, teaching to the tests, the high stakes for teachers and schools, changes over time to the form of the tests, and doubts about political interference in the results.
By adopting a target that 85 per cent of pupils should reach a certain level the tests are constrained into a vocational training rather than an educational model. Valid tests of understanding produce Normal Distributions (bell curves) in which only half the candidates exceed the average standard. The training model (called Criterion Referencing) rewards instruction, rote learning, repetition and revision and this corrodes both the natural curiosity of children and the morale of teachers. It is the main underlying reason for the relentless growth in disaffection and poor behaviour in our schools.
Members of the National Association of Head Teachers are therefore right to be taking a stand against the tests. Headteachers have always known them to be flawed and educationally undesirable, so why have they submitted so meekly to such centralised coercion for all these years?
Working-class anger boosts BNP vote
Sir: Very patronising comments have been made in the media of late about working-class citizens and the potential for voter anger manifesting itself in a vote for the BNP. Few middle-class columnists actually consider that the case that New Labour makes about raising the poor out of poverty is actually simple spin, contradicted by the reality experienced by working-class citizens.
Currently New Labour is engaged on a project of throwing claimants off benefits and forcing them into minimum-wage employment. This pays £176 for a 35-hour week. But individuals then lose housing benefit covering rent costs. They also lose council tax benefit. For working a full week they get a mere £19 more than their basic subsistence benefit payment of £57.
There are very many more issues to do with housing, infrastructural provision, tax, and funded educational opportunities that the working class has been abandoned on by New Labour. Voting BNP may well be an appalling thing to do. But even I as a mixed-race black Briton can understand that they have many substantial grievances to feel angry about.
Sir: I live in the same Labour-controlled borough as Paula Jones (letter, 3 May), judging by her postcode; her ward is not the same as mine and neither are my experiences.
We also have one Labour councillor and two Conservative councillors. The only councillor who has made regular visits around the ward is our Labour councillor, which is how I got to know we did actually have a representative on the council.
The leaflets which have been delivered to our doors by Labour have explained who our candidates are, where they live, what they do, their full contact details and what the achievements of the council have been. The Conservatives have belatedly also delivered leaflets giving their candidates names but no contact details apart from their constituency HQ.
I do not know the reason for the difference in approach in our two wards but I know which party deserves and will get my support.
The links between smoke and death
Sir: Tim Luckhurst's attempt to rubbish the well-established link between passive smoking and ill-health ("Smoke-screen", 2 May) is not convincing. He may be a non-smoker but his language is emotional and tendentious.
The close relationship between cigarette smoke and death is no "sanctimonious superstition" but a reality to many thousands of patients year-on-year. To say that passive smoking does not kill because Sir Richard Doll did not mind people smoking in his presence is like saying that because I can cross the road safely we can conclude that cars don't kill pedestrians.
He distorts the language of the British Medical Journal when it states (March 2005) that passive smoking "may" kill 11,000 people a year in the UK. The word "may" in this context means that the number of such deaths is an estimate rather than a directly measured figure, not that there is any doubt about the causal link. His parallel with Nazi Germany seems to be an attempt to tar health campaigners with a fascist brush. (How do you repeat a historic error "in reverse", pray?)
Come off it Mr Luckhurst, the only mumbo-jumbo in this piece is your own.
DR PHIL BARBER
CONSULTANT RESPIRATORY PHYSICIAN, MANCHESTER
Sir: Dr Ken Denson, quoted by Tim Luckhurst, appears as ill-informed about legal developments as he is about the conclusions of every major non-tobacco industry run agency and commission which has reviewed the evidence on second-hand smoke.
He claims it is unlikely that a passive smoking case "would ever stand up in court". In 2001, the New South Wales Supreme Court found in favour of a non-smoking bar worker, agreeing that it was likely her throat cancer was caused by her years of exposure to tobacco smoke and awarding her A$400,000. The case has never been appealed.
PROFESSOR SIMON CHAPMAN
SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY
How to pay for political parties
Sir: Chris Sexton suggests that political parties need to be state-funded because political parties are necessary for our system of government to work (letter, 2 May). I agree that political parties are essential to our system of government but I disagree that state funding is the best way of ensuring a healthy political environment.
The current funding of political parties, where parties acquire a substantial element of their funds through rich and influential individuals who expect something in return, has lost the political system all credibility among the public. State funding would only be increasing the power of the leaders of political parties, leading to a government even less accountable than what we have at the moment.
The more appropriate method of funding would be through membership subscription. Political parties would then have to be accountable to their members, who would have a democratic control over the affairs of the party they finance. The state could impose a maximum membership fee with strict limits on the size of voluntary contributions. The party leaderships would have to make their parties acceptable to those willing to fund them from the general public. In the case of the Labour Party, we would return to the days when members had some say in the way the party operated and worked out its policies through party conferences.
Cameron and the burdens of office
Sir: David Cameron, questioned about the car that follows him when he cycles to work, says: "If you find me panniers big enough to take my work with me, I'd be delighted to use them" (You ask the questions, 1 May). This shows how half hearted he (and most of the rest of us) is in making the necessary change in life styles to have a real impact on climate change.
The answer is simple - get a trailer. Thirty years ago I made one to do my week's shopping and it once managed two 50kg bags of cement. There are many excellent designs now - I suggest he take a look at some slimline single-wheelers. We are only talking about one night's reading, after all.
NORTHALLERTON, NORTH YORKSHIRE
Prescott's intrusive sewage works
Sir: I have just read the revelations of Tracey Temple and her fling with "DPM". So what? She was consenting, she enjoyed it and now she's been rewarded by a six-figure sum for her story.
In his professional life there's no foreplay. John Prescott shows no sensitivity in his planning policies in the South-east. We are being metaphorically gagged and plundered.
The village of Fen Ditton, its ancient water meadows, picturesque high street and wealth of listed buildings is a lovely place to live and work. The proposed re-siting of the Cambridge sewage works in Fen Ditton was, until February this year, a well-kept secret. South Cambridgeshire District Council, relevant parish councils, and even the owners of the proposed site had not an inkling this was going on.
We are told it will be a "state of the art sewage works". We are told an estimated cost of £100,000,000 will be borne by the tax-payer. And the reason it has to move? Three thousand more houses.
Mr Prescott has gagged our parish councils. Thanks to DPM, personal interest and prejudicial interest are as one. I guess being a parish councillor can be pretty thankless. I am grateful they have a "personal interest" in my village; why else would they do the job? Sorry mates, from now on, if you can so much as smell the sewage works...zip it. You're out!
Tracey Temple got let off light; she'll get over it. We might not be so lucky.
FEN DITTON, CAMBRIDGESHIRE
State funeral for Italians killed in Iraq
Sir: One of the great advantages of living abroad (apart from being far from Blair, Clarke and Prescott) is that, every so often, I get an opportunity to "see ourselves as others see us".
Yesterday, for example, I was able to watch on Italian state television's main channel the very moving state funeral of the three Italian soldiers who were killed in Iraq recently. The President of Italy was there, as was the country's outgoing (and not before time) Prime Minister, together with hundreds of senior government, military and church figures to pay tribute to the sacrifice of these young lives and to help comfort their families.
If Italy can do that for three, can't the UK do as much for 103? Have any of Blair's senior ministers ever attended the funeral of one of our war dead? If Silvio Berlusconi can face the families of the young men he sent to Bush's war, can't Tony Blair find the courage to do the same?
Sir: The Prime Minister wants us to ignore nine days of headlines in favour of nine years of achievements (report, 3 May). So that would be Bernie Ecclestone, 45-minute WMDs, dodgy dossier, Dr Kelly, Iraq, identity cards and loans for honours? He's right, you know; you don't need Patricia Hewitt and the nurses, Charles Clarke and his prisoners and John Prescott and his mistress to make up your mind, do you?
Moment in time
Sir: The date number sequence that Neville Atkinson (letter, 3 May) points out can be equalled by an occurrence that happens once every year throughout this decade, the next being in just over a month's time. At six minutes and six seconds past six on 6 June the date will be 06:06:06 06 06 06.
Sir: On 5 May 2005 (05.05.05) I placed £5 on the number 5 horse in the fifth race at each meeting held that day in the UK. Not one came fifth, never mind first, although one did come second. I'll let you know how I go on on 6 June 2006.
Sir: After reading that Americans are lacking geographic literacy (report, 3 May), it occurred to me that The Independent may have hired some Americans to compile map supplements. The "literary map" in April located Whitby on the west coast of England, and "The US in Facts and Figures" (3 May) lists "Gulf coast beaches" as a tourist attraction in Wisconsin. Florida's tourist office is in for some stiff competition.
Sir: I belong to a gym which uses fingerprint scanning for members wishing to gain access; my fingerprint (all 10 have been tried) never works, and quite a few other people have the same problem. I have since found out that fingerprint scanning is often not effective for various reasons (which can be due to age, gender, occupation, sometimes even ethnic background). If this biometric method is to be introduced for a variety of things (ID cards, passports, banking, shopping) it will turn my life into an Orwellian nightmare of anxiety!
Press and privacy
Sir: David Sawtell (letter, 3 May) says that the gutter press should be controlled by draconian privacy laws to protect those in public life from "Prescott" type revelations. I regularly read newspapers and (less regularly) House of Commons debates. It seems to me that both the free press and democracy are despicable in much of what they do. But I can't think of a better system.
Sir: Not only does Rooney's broken metatarsal (Letters, 1 May) show signs of a flawed design but also of a flawed designer - clearly God cannot be an Englishman after all.
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