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Monday 25 August 2008
Letters: Our duty in Afghanistan
Decide now how important Afghanistan really is
Your lead editorial on the West's duty in Afghanistan (22 August) is right to claim that recent advances of the Taliban should be treated as an alarm call.
President Sarkozy, during his recent visit to Afghanistan in the wake of the loss of 10 French soldiers, is quoted as saying "I don't have any doubt that we have to be here . . . the world's freedom is at stake here". Really? General Dan MacNeill, the former US General Officer Commanding ISAF, opined prior to relinquishing his command that the troop level requirement to pacify Afghanistan was around 400,000. That is to say, some ten times the current force levels.
The fundamental question for the Nato alliance is whether the defeat of the Taliban and the establishment of a stable, long-term democracy in Afghanistan really is a "vital" interest to its members, as President Sarkozy and fellow western leaders have frequently asserted. If it is vital then, since security is the prime duty of any government, whatever it takes in manpower and treasure – not to mention willpower – from all member nations, must be allocated to fulfilling this aim. If this means conscription – fine. If it means putting economies on a war footing – fine
If, on the other hand, these aims are merely desirable rather than vital, with governments more concerned with interest rates, house prices and unemployment, why, that's fine too – only let them say so and then the nations can resign themselves to the steady weekly attrition of their soldiers, whose deaths are already being slowly consigned to small paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers.
Our three-tier schools system
Once again, you are claiming that we have created a two-tier state education system, ("CSEs results reveal 'two-tier' schools'", 21 August) actually, we have created a three-tier system.
In the top group come schools that produce excellent results, particularly in traditional academic subjects. Most pupils enter them with high prior achievement. The "middle classes" are represented strongly and there is consistent parental support. Few disruptive pupils find their way in and, if they do, they are soon removed. These schools are able to attract high-quality staff and, being free from behaviour issues, teachers are able to devote their energies to teaching their subjects as well as helping out with the school's other activities.
The second tier is occupied by schools that take far more pupils of "average" ability. The results of these schools are often inflated, as you point out, by entering pupils for courses in which higher grades are more easily achieved than in the traditional subjects. We must be careful, however, not to disparage these courses. For many pupils who, by the age of 14, see little point in the further pursuit of academic study, these courses are seen often as more interesting and relevant to their future needs. The problems arise when they are used cynically to boost the league table position. Although there are behaviour issues in these schools, they are manageable whilst the pupils who have the ability to achieve in traditional subjects usually do so.
In the bottom tier come schools, almost exclusively in the most deprived areas, where achievement, by most standards, is poor. They contain a large number of extremely difficult children and the local authority will tend to direct the most challenging pupils to them. The "better"' schools will be full. In these schools, teaching comes a poor second to behaviour management. Surprisingly, perhaps, in many of these schools, the small group of able, motivated pupils still does well.
It would be extremely difficult to counter this development of the three-tier school system whilst protecting parental choice. This is an issue to which governments are not prepared to face up. The confused array of developments such as academies and specialists schools has emerged as a testament to governmental determination to avoid the issue.
There are two clear reasons why A-level pass rates have changed so radically that Dr Andrew Dunn ignored (letter, 20 August).
First, A-levels are modular now, which they were not in the period 1965-1984. Potential fails are screened out at the end of the first year. In addition, this system allows re-sits, which students use to improve their performance .
Second, institutions are under much more pressure, due to league tables, to push their students and play the examination game. When I studied A-levels in the 1980s, there was little sense that my teachers worried about whether I passed or failed, I never saw such exotic items as past papers and mark schemes. Now, as an A-level teacher (and examiner), I constantly provide practice papers, mark schemes and examiners' reports (handily available on the internet); I get the same sleepless nights over the results as the students.
The exams have not got easier. The support has got better and the institutions manage (and manipulate) their figures. Please stop this pointless debate.
Dr Dunn's research is flawed. He has no way of estimating the quality of students between 1965 and 1985, because during that period allocation of grades was norm-referenced and the proportions of A, B, C etc were decided in advance.
In the 1950s only a few people could run a mile in four minutes. Now lots can. This shows the mile is shorter than it was then. To reinstate the former demands of miling, the length of the mile should be increased by 5 per cent, or milers should have to carry weights. Alternatively, and controversially, their actual times could be recorded.
Stirring up prejudice against Muslims
Johann Hari's claim to be defending the right to criticise religion is false (Opinion, 14 August). As he tells us, The Jewel of Medina is a novel, a work of fiction. Preventing its publication does not in any way impair anyone's right to criticise religion. By making such a fuss about this non-event (and incidentally revealing some of the most prejudicial content of the banned book) Mr Hari is stirring up the very prejudice against Muslims he claims to deplore.
Muslims in this country are not secure, not only as regards the content of their religion but also in relation to their civil and human rights. This article is an attack, not on fundamentalism, but on ordinary Muslim people who do not practise it.
Put life back into local authorities
Rightly, we condemn the absurd sub-Johnsonian nostrum in Policy Exchange's report, Cities Unlimited (13 August), that the noblest prospect which a Northerner ever sees is the high road that leads him south. But we should not be wholly blinded by this daft, headline-grabbing notion to other proposals in that report.
Devolution of responsibilities to properly accountable local authorities, strengthened by changes to the electoral system to breathe life into an otherwise moribund process, is a sensible suggestion. Equally sensible is the suggestion that land currently designated for industrial use be reclassified so it can be developed to provide the homes that almost every commentator recognises are so desperately needed: there's plenty available "up North", by the way, not just in London.
David Cameron labels the report "insane". Perhaps it's the idea of a revival of local government (and power) that he is referring to here, rather than the proposed "Great Trek". After all, why raise from the dead the Lazarus so effectively dispatched by his Conservative predecessors?
More convictions for domestic violence
Your report, "Domestic Violence laws fail to increase convictions" (16 August) fails to say that more cases are being taken to court, and that Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) performance is continuing to improve in this area.
Data based on cases from charge to conviction is the most useful and accurate way to record prosecution outcomes, because not every domestic-related incident reported to the police is a criminal offence. The charge-to-conviction rate in the final quarter of 2007-08 was 70.7 per cent. This is a significant improvement: four years ago, the conviction rate was 59.7 per cent. Indeed, the CPS has already exceeded its target set for April 2009 of securing 72 per cent successful prosecutions across England and Wales. There has also been an increase in the volume of prosecutions, from 34,839 cases in 2004/5 to 63,819 in 2007/8.
This month, we announced a public consultation on our domestic violence policy. The CPS intends to continue to drive up performance even further.
Violence against Women Project Manager, Crown Prosecution Service, London EC4
Olympic wins for equestrian women
Sarah Churchwell (22 August) is probably correct in stating that women were barred from the Olympics in the early years of the games, but it seems likely that by the 4th century BC rules were relaxed, as women were allowed as spectators and as competitors.
One had a statue of herself and her chariot horses erected, with the inscription "My father and brothers were kings of Sparta. I, Cynisca, conquering with a chariot of fleet-footed steeds, set up this statue. And I say that I am the only woman of all Greece to have won this crown."
And this leads nicely into the reminder that it is only in equestrian events that men and women still do compete on equal terms. Among these disciplines is eventing, which is probably the most dangerous of all the modern Olympic sports, involving as it does horses jumping at speed over fixed obstacles. Come to think of it, two-horse chariot racing might make an interesting addition to today's Olympic menu.
P A Reid
Team GB (letter, 23 August) was made up of competitors from all parts of "Great Britain". This includes the Isle of Man – hence the presence of Mark Cavendish in the cycling team. The Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom. So the team was rightly entitled Team GB, not Team United Kingdom.
If our successes at the Olympics encourage more people to take up cycling, I just hope they keep off the pavements.
The other war at Bletchley Park
As one who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, I support your proposal for a conservation fund and would gladly contribute to it. I would add a footnote: while "Station X" is rightly celebrated for its contribution to the European War, it is often overlooked that there was a smaller but important Japanese section, which played a significant part in the Far Eastern War. I myself worked in this section, in Block H, where was housed the famous Enigma computer.
With yet more confirmation that our present government cannot be relied on to hold any UK citizen's confidential information securely, can you imagine what would have happened to the secrets of Bletchley Park and the outcome of the Second World War, if Jacqui Smith and her department had been entrusted with their safekeeping?
Just imagine that
If Nick Clegg "can't imagine what it is like for the many millions of British families who aren't as lucky as we are" (report, 22 August), what the flaming heck is he doing leading a political party that wants to run our lives?
Wickham Market, Suffolk
Congratulations to Matthew Norman (22 August) for having the courage to state that no matter how we view Garry Glitter or his actions, he has the right not to be hounded by the media and is entitled to protection from vigilante justice. It was pathetic (but not surprising) to see Mr Glitter singled out for special attention by our Home Secretary. Has he taken over from Osama Bin Laden as Pubic Enemy No 1? Maybe he's just easier to catch.
South Shields, Tyne & Wear
Chris Savage (letter, 21 August) is obviously not a student of history. The only "evidence" we need to prove that regulating drugs is better than prohibiting them is the fact that prior to 1913, when all drugs were legal, the term "drug related crime" did not exist. There were about the same percentage of addicts as we have today, but today we have multibillion dollar organised crime syndicates and an equal amount spent on enforcement of unenforceable drug-war policies. Those that do not learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
Santa Cruz, California, USA
The career of 'careen'
Dr Branfoot's letter (20 August) about "careen" is a good example of language mavens closing in on quite normal (if rough and ready) usage. Fifty years ago, "careening about" was a frequently-used dead metaphor for running out of control, derived from a sailing boat on a fast reach across a lake with one side of its hull well out of the water, endangering all the scullers and general pooterers. Relax, Dr Branfoot.
Recent letters about safety warnings remind me of a warning in the operator's manual for a 1980s Kubota tractor: "Before changing the oil, be sure to stop the engine."
Keighley, West Yorkshire
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