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Monday 9 July 2012
Letters: Maths teaching
Bring maths into the garden shed
The Sutton Trust has announced a report to the effect that our kids are scandalously ignorant of mathematics ("English schools neglect brightest children, says report", 6 July). If only that low state of knowledge was combined with a strong ability to apply mathematics efficiently and innovatively to the world around. I have to tell you now that no such combination has been achieved.
When those students arrive after school or university to work in science and engineering I find that they are unable to apply even the little maths that they do know to real innovative work in industry.
A lot of this could be fixed if bright students had access, via school, via a science club, or at home, to facilities for trying science and engineering projects of some kind of their own. Kids doing something of their own invention want to learn, to learn beyond the syllabus, and in particular they want to learn the maths that will help them improve and optimise their projects.
We need to fight this ignorance in the schools and in the universities, in the science clubs and in the garden sheds of England. We need to carry on the struggle until mathematics, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue of our kids and our economy.
Professor Neil A Downie
I do hope Mr Gove is not serious about introducing a national grading system for his new O-level style exam, which ranks students from 1 to 200,000 (report, 7 July). It simply will not work because exams at this level are marked out of a few hundred marks at most, so you will see several hundred students being ranked identically because of the large number taking the exams.
The trial of this system at Burlington Danes academy in west London works because with a small population of students a ranking system will discriminate, and as a teacher, I have seen that it motivates the ones at the top to push themselves. I doubt there is evidence that shows it improves the performance of all students.
West Bromwich, West Midlands
Did RAF Bomber Command set out to kill civilians?
Alan Reid (letter, 6 July) calls the idea that Bomber Command in the Second World War set out to kill and terrorise German civilians a "gross misrepresentation". Has he read the official history of strategic bombing (Frankland and Webster), or the magisterial history of Bomber Command by Sir Max Hastings?
In August 1941, the Butt report showed that precision night-time bombing was extremely costly in lives and totally ineffective. As a consequence, the Area Bombing Directive of February 1942 clearly states that the objective now was "to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy and in particular the industrial workers". Air Vice Marshal Norman Bottomley added: "I suppose it is clear that the aiming points will be the built-up areas and not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories. This must be made clear if it is not already understood". It is noteworthy that often 60 per cent of bombs dropped were incendiary, intended to create vast areas of raging fires in built-up areas.
Many English people had severe misgivings about this policy. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, spoke often in the House of Lords against the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.
Dresden was, of course, the supreme example. After the night during which 20,000 civilians were killed, Mustang fighter aircraft flew over the area in order, in the words of one authority, "to shoot up the traffic". Many years ago, I was told by two German friends of mine (who were there) that these Mustangs were actually machine-gunning refugees fleeing from the inferno.
It is especially worthy of note that in Churchill's victory speech to the nation on 13 May 1945 he spoke warmly of the work and sacrifice of every arm of our services (Army, Navy, Fighter Command, Merchant Navy) without once mentioning the sacrifices of Bomber Command. Members of Bomber Command were outraged. By this time, he too was obviously ashamed.
Nobody questions the amazing heroism and courage of those thousands of aircrew setting off each night to a statistical death (55,000 out of 125,000). It is a tragic thought that they were only "obeying orders".
Many critics still consider that Dresden was a non-industrial city and the war clearly won by early 1945.
In his definitive account Dresden, Tuesday 13 February 1945, Frederick Taylor clarifies that it was a Nazi stronghold, administrative capital still transferring Jews to death camps, vital transport hub, and with critical military manufacturing facilities – not merely nubile porcelain shepherdesses.
In early 1945 Hitler was unleashing V1s and V2s against London and Antwerp, and we had no real idea of his potential nuclear weapons progress. The war's outcome was fairly clear, but it was not yet won, and its remaining duration certainly unknown.
By helping to end the war by early May, the bombing possibly prevented the Soviets (our allies, though little better than their German Nazi brethren) from reaching not merely Berlin and Vienna, but much further west, causing the Stalinist nightmare to encompass millions more and endure far longer than it actually did.
St Andrews, Fife
Although needless mass-incineration of German civilians can be counted among Allied "crimes" during a war initiated by the Nazi attack on Warsaw, our bomber crews who obeyed orders must never be vilified, but honoured as outstanding heroes.
One of my cousins, shot down in such a raid, his body never found, had been, like more than a few young patriots who loved flying, a political supporter of peaceful coexistence with Germany; but once war had been declared, was ready and willing to risk his life for an endangered Britain.
As in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the real war criminals are civilian politicians and their financial backers, with our own servicemen counted among their victims.
Perhaps we could bring to an end the debate in your letters page about the rights and wrongs of Bomber Command by acknowledging the immense bravery of those young men who risked and lost their lives in their flimsy planes, while at the same time remembering the words of Captain Philip S Mumford who had witnessed the consequences of aerial bombardment: "What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies ?" he asked. "There is none."
Maybe this quotation should be on every politician's desk.
A gay celebration to be proud of
Chris Bryant's question, "What is it about the gays that we can't organise a decent march and carnival?" is a classic piece of self-oppression (7 July).
Pride originated in 1971 when a small group of gay men and lesbians had the courage to come out at a time when it was really dangerous to do so. The Tory Party continued to oppress us until it lost office in 1997. However, the Labour Party, apart from some individuals, was late in supporting us, not officially doing so until the late 1990s.
Bryant also forgets that those who campaigned against the odds included lesbians, bisexuals and trans people. Pride is largely run by LGBT volunteers, who must be heartbroken.
We campaigned to defeat discrimination at work as well as social and personal oppression. We have been very successful. Pride developed until it became a large, happy event supported by many straight friends, trade unions and public bodies, and latterly by commercial companies.
Bryant is right to ask what went wrong this year. It is a tragedy and we should conduct an investigation and build for next year.
Dispute over women bishops
Richard Coles states ("A typically Anglican compromise on women bishops", 5 July): "Those who seek change think they [the amendments] so weaken the episcopal ministry of women we would be better off not bothering."
It is not that the church would be "better off not bothering", nor even that the proposed amendments would weaken women's ministry – though they would – but that the church, against the law of the land, would be enshrining in its constitution discrimination against a body of people on the grounds of their gender. No other institution is allowed to do this.
It is not good enough to portray these proposals as simply another good old Anglican compromise designed to keep everybody rubbing along together: they are discriminatory, mean-spirited, divisive and almost certainly illegal.
That Richard Coles finds the idea of a bishop called Belinda Carlisle "tantalising'" suggests to me an underlying and unacknowledged sexism disguised, as it so often is, as humour.
Askrigg, North Yorkshire
We don't need plastic bags
The reasons put forward by the British Retail Consortium for the increase in use of plastic bags ("Steep rise in plastic bag use by shoppers", 6 July) are obscuring the fact that the default action by the vast majority of their members is to put every purchase in a bag without asking. I am normally met with an expression of mild surprise when I say that I don't need one.
I spend a good deal of time in France, where free bags have been removed entirely from supermarket checkouts, and shoppers seem to cope.
Ian Birrell (7 July) says Stratford was going to be regenerated regardless of the Olympics. Barely a penny has been spent on the lower Lea Valley in my lifetime and the idea that any resources at all would have been made available without the Olympics is science fiction.
Out the window
Further to the correspondence regarding warnings on train windows, a couple of years ago I travelled on a local train to Milan where the Italian warning had been translated to English: "Do not throw objections out of the window." I presume they were anticipating euro troubles.
Your report "Seven arrested in anti-terror raids as police find weapons" (7 July) mentions a "white Muslim". Tens of millions of Muslims are white. So the need to refer to the shade of the bodily surface of this particular one leaves me quite flummoxed.
It's an old observation that tall buildings are phallic symbols. London's newest excrescence appears to be a clear statement that "mine's bigger than yours" – or is this just a case of Shard 'n' Freud?
The actress who played the gold-painted girl ("Golden girl celebrates 50 years of Bond", 6 July) was Shirley Eaton. It was the character that was called Jill Masterson.
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