Letters: Reformed A-levels

Reformed A-levels could help universities pick the best students
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The Independent Online

This problem will not be solved by revealing to universities the full break-down of candidates' marks, or by setting extra modules for promising students, if the modules are set up and assessed in the same way as at present.

It seems to me doubtful that the A-level system as it stands can provide us with all that we need to know (although they are a reasonable guide to basic intelligence, industry, and adaptability, which are important too, of course). This makes it tempting to suggest a move to some kind of baccalaureate system - not necessarily to widen the range of subjects studied, but to include, alongside A-level-type work, some more general aptitude test which would be harder to teach for.

Universities and employers could then decide what weighting to give to scores on such an aptitude test and on more traditional A-level-type assessments.



Sir: When I was undergraduate admissions tutor for the Department of Cybernetics at Reading University, it was my firm opinion that, at least in science-based A-levels, standards had dropped significantly over the decade of my appointment as a lecturer there. This decline was most apparent in mathematics, where staff had to provide remedial seminars, as many students lacked even the basic skills in algebra and calculus that an engineering-based technological subject required.

Further, I have great sympathy for admissions tutors recruiting for heavily over-subscribed courses, as the current system makes it almost impossible to differentiate between strong students. I would like to propose an alternative A-level grading scheme and award students two grades for each subject. One grade, as now, would indicate an absolute achievement level with the second demonstrating, as used to be the case, a student's achievement relative to all others sitting that examination.



Anger over killing of an innocent man

Sir: National security has become the last refuge of the scoundrel. The "incompetence, cynicism and misguided cover-up" (leading article, 18 August) with regard to the killing of Mr de Menezes applies equally to the whole political presentation of the war in Iraq.

It is surely time for a return to more traditional values in our approach to the question of defending ourselves against threats. A good starting point would be the upholding of the rule of law and the notion of accountability. Those responsible for the killing of Mr de Menezes should be held to account, as should the head of the Metropolitan Police and the Home Secretary.

However beyond this we must now recognise that the other Blair must be held to account for his mendacity and manipulation in defining a threat, using selective and questionable evidence, and using this threat as a justification for undermining longstanding traditions of fairness, justice and liberty.

As it is, we have created a culture in which it has proved a small step from attempting to legitimise imprisonment without trial or explanation to the killing of an innocent man. The anger felt over the de Menezes killing must surely be widened to the context in which such an action was possible.



Sir: There is a curious parallel between the justifications offered for the death of Jean de Menezes and for the invasion of Iraq.

If a police officer sincerely believes that I am carrying a bomb, then he may shoot me with impunity - even if the bomb turns out to be entirely illusory. If Mr Blair sincerely believes there are chemical weapons in Iraq, then he can properly unleash aggressive war on the country, even if the weapons do not in fact exist.

This seems to put back a sincere belief in things for which there is no hard evidence - "faith", as it's called - to the position it formerly occupied as the supreme moral virtue.



Sir: For a variety of reasons, partly humane but also because of the awful consequences of error, this country abandoned the death penalty more than forty years ago. Even after lengthy consideration of guilt "beyond reasonable doubt" by a jury and a careful decision on sentencing by a judge, it was a punishment too dreadful to use.

Now, in a resurgence of terrorism, which this nation has weathered before, summary execution is supposed a reasonable response to mere suspicion, and decided in minutes or less. So far the results have been poor: one Scot carrying a table leg, a Brazilian with a free newspaper, but no terrorists.

There is no reliable defence against a determined suicide, except perhaps a society where there is as little reason for hate as possible. How many innocents should we sacrifice to the guns of frightened and poorly informed policemen in an illusory bid to guarantee safety? Two already seems too many.



Sir: I do not know which is more disturbing about the execution of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes by anti-terror police officers - whether it is the fact that the police seem to have been so incompetent that they would shoot an innocent man on a mere suspicion or that the authorities seem to have kept changing their story afterwards. I thought such practices had stopped in the UK with the miscarriages of justice in the 1970s and 80s or were confined to trigger-happy US and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We were told he wore a padded jacket or rucksack: this turned out to be a lie. We were told he ignored police warnings: another lie. We were told he vaulted the barriers: another lie. He even collected his usual newspaper like any of us on our way to work.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that I am probably not the only law-abiding British Muslim to have now lost all confidence in our anti-terror police. Just like the recently expelled Sheikh Omar Bakri, I would also now feel reluctant to report suspicious activities to the authorities and would instead try to put a stop to it myself if I could rather than see more innocent blood spilled on a mere suspicion.



Feeding babies in public places

Sir: I feel outraged that Ms Mikkelson was asked to stop breastfeeding her baby in a public place ("Mother in pleas for breastfeeding law", 10 August) and would welcome any law which was on the side of the breastfeeding mother.

Historic Royal Palaces said, "We have many visitors ... who find breastfeeding either offensive or an unwelcome distraction". Oh deary me. If breastfeeding is done discreetly, no one even knows it's happening, but you sure as hell know if a baby is waiting for a feed. It's great that there are rooms available for those who wish to feed their infants in private but why should breastfeeding mothers be ushered to a small room somewhere if they don't want to be?

I am sure that one reason so many women have problems with breastfeeding is that it is very rarely done in public places or in front of other people and we no longer learn how to do it from our mothers, aunts etc because we just don't see it happening ... and often it can take a bit of learning. And actually I have to say that it's a lovely sight.



Cyclists can live with pedestrians

Sir: As a cyclist I was prepared not to agree with Miles Baynton-Williams about pedestrians (letter, 16 August). However, I did not expect such an asinine comment as "I have to watch [cyclists] rather than the scenery. My life would be less stressful if all cyclists kept to the road or cycle paths."

If Mr Baynton-Williams really does not wish cyclists to use the pavements he surely could come up with a better reason than "I can't be bothered to look where I am going." And are we to base our lives on Mr Baynton-Williams's stress levels? My life would be less stressful if cars didn't cut me up at junctions and pedestrians didn't step off the pavement directly into my path without checking. Should we ban cars and pedestrians?

There is no intrinsic reason why cyclists and pedestrians should be completely separated: there are plenty of dual-use pedestrian walkways and cycle paths in the country, and almost infinitely more multi-use motor and cycle ways with pedestrian access (also known as roads). For them to be successful they just require a modicum of common sense and mutual respect between users and an end to the gladiatorial "us and them" mindset of many pedestrians and cyclists typified by Mr Baynton-Williams's letter.



Israeli settlers' exit from Gaza

Sir: The nature and tone of extensive coverage of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is a reflection of that dreaded one-sided Western policy in the Middle East.

One report after another portrays the so called "predicament" of the so called "settlers". For crying out loud, this is stolen land. Have some thought for those who have been rotting in refugee camps for 38 years through an act of huge injustice and a crime against humanity. No wonder there is so much and so wide-spread hatred against such malicious Western prejudices in the Middle East.



Sir: It is common now to write about the l967 war as the time when as a cruel and expanding militaristic power Israel invaded and occupied land to its south and east. I was there, and remember that war differently.

Before that war, under the leadership of President Nasser, the massive forces of Egypt and other Arab states were ordered to obliterate their neighbour Israel; to drive the Jews, as they put it, into the sea. Israel fought back, and by taking the battle to the enemy and a good deal of their land, prevented the genocide of its people.

Many state boundaries are the result of wars, whether fought defensively or aggressively, and no one questions them. If in l967 Nasser and his allies had succeeded in occupying Tel Aviv, they would not for a moment have contemplated voluntary withdrawal from the land they had conquered.



Why I no longer write for my supper

Sir: Following Pandora's little piece on me (11 August), for the record I was not the producer of You're Fayed (it was made by my company, Associated-Rediffusion Television), nor was I remotely concerned by The Guardian's coverage of the transmitted programme.

However, when the documentary was still at the shooting and editing stage, that newspaper did print an inaccurate story which caused serious legal problems and almost terminated the project, and their reluctance to print an adequate retraction did them little credit.

Nevertheless, the reason I subsequently decided to quit as their restaurant critic was simply because I had too much else on my plate, and realised that if I started buying my own dinners, I wouldn't have to write about them afterwards.

As it happens, The Guardian gave You're Fayed a good review; not that I'd have cared if they'd panned it. After all, who cares what TV reviewers write? Or diary columnists, for that matter?



The intelligent designer

Sir: The most baffling thing of all about clever clogs like R Whittington (letter, 18 August) on intelligent design is the cocky assumption that their own intelligence is adequate to make an assessment of any universal intelligence. If there really were an intelligent designer she'd make damn sure that jumped-up human egotists would be sufficiently backward to be incapable of cottoning on to her subtlest tricks.



British identity

Sir: Gavin Turner (Letters, 17 August)asks "Who feels British?" I do. That is my sense of identity, even though others from the same part of the country may not share it. That is the nature of identity. Every person has their own unique sense of who they are. To me, my country is the United Kingdom rather than any of its constituent parts, though I accept that other people, such as Mr Turner, take a different view. Please can people stop assuming that it is their choice of labels that is the right one?



Sir: Having a Scottish father, an English mother, a French wife and Franco-British children, I feel more British than English and more European than British. I would certainly fail Tebbit's cricket test and as a republican I don't want to belong to a kingdom, united or otherwise. I'd rather just be a world citizen, but I'd better say no more lest I be deported.



Partners' rights

Sir: Yvonne Roberts (Opinion, 18 August) is right that an unmarried partner has no right to switch off the life support machine of a partner. But neither does a married partner. A doctor must act in a patient's best interests. Whilst a doctor may be informed as to what those interests may be by a partner, the partner cannot insist on any course of treatment. Where there is a dispute, it is for the courts to make the final decision. Yvonne is right that there needs to be greater certainty of a partner's rights.



Saved from airline food

Sir: I flew back from Nairobi to Heathrow last Saturday night and apart from a 30-minute delay it was the best flight ever. No trolleys interrupting a good night's sleep. Packed food was provided on your seat on boarding and you could eat whenever you wanted. The quality of food was as always poor, and I ate the food I'd brought with me. Why cannot airlines provide decent food to buy in the departure area, so we all carry it on and eat what and when we choose?