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Monday 6 August 2012
Letters: School sports
Do school sports make the grade?
On reading Anthony Seldon's suggestions on how the Olympics can be used to inspire a new vision for all schools, I am dismayed that he could not resist implying that state schools are inferior to those in the independent sector (2 August).
As the retired headmaster of a successful comprehensive school, with a staff of dedicated teachers who gave time and effort unstintingly to the betterment of their charges, I would suggest to him that it is impossible to make such general comparisons between the two sectors without acknowledging that they are not operating on a level playing field.
Independent schools select their pupils; comprehensive schools reject none. Independent schools "sack" unwanted pupils whereas state schools persevere with recaltricants. I, personally, have admitted and rehabilitated several pupils who were cast out from prestigious public schools.
My comprehensive school was proud of its academic achievements as well as of its traditions in music and sport. We had a brass band, an orchestra and instrumental tuition from peripatetic teachers. In addition to the traditional sports, we offered lacrosse, producing several international players, swimming, golf and table-tennis. and gymnastics.
It is true that state schools would welcome more facilities and a shame that many playing fields were sold off during Margaret Thatcher's administration.
It's a pity that Mr Seldon could not make his case without taking the opportunity to criticise the state sector – or was it that he felt that independent education needed a boost?
Anthony Seldon is absolutely right: heads should use the Olympics and Cultural Olympiad to inspire the pursuit of sporting and aesthetic prowess rather than the purely academic. But first we need a level playing field (or indeed a playing field at all). Each school should have the lavish arts provision of Wellington College or the sumptuous rowing facilities of Eton College (aka Eton Dorney Lake), where mostly privately educated rowers and spectators witnessed some of the most thrilling sport of London 2012.
It should be no surprise that such a high percentage of British Olympians were educated at independent schools. The state's lack of investment in school sports, the reduction of recreational space for children, the closing of local amenities and the concentration of facilities in "specialist" schools make it tough for those less privileged to achieve greatness.
We deal regularly with enquiries from parents who are in pursuit of a school for their sportingly gifted child and for whom a sports scholarship at an independent school seems the only way to get the opportunities he or she deserves. Such scholarships cannot meet the need – especially for the majority for whom paying even reduced school fees is impossible.
There is immense potential in children who never get the chance to try out the less obvious sports. It's no good celebrating today's harvest if we are not planting the seeds and nurturing tomorrow's.
Director, The Good Schools Guide Advice Service, London W5
International standards needed for A-levels
Your leading article ("Credibility of exams comes first", 6 August) asserts that some form of norm referencing is required to ensure the integrity of GCSE and A-level exam grades. It also accepts that norm referencing may fail to acknowledge genuine (as opposed to grade inflated) improvements in standards.
There is one way in which the twin aims of "integrity" and "recognition of achievement" can be reconciled. It is through referencing our standards against the best internationally. Data from the Programme for International Education Achievement (PISA) shows that UK standards compare unfavourably with many other jurisdictions, in key areas like mathematics, science and literacy. Referencing our standards against the best internationally will ensure that our criteria have integrity, will allow us to measure genuine improvement, and drive curriculum and assessment reform to achieve those ends.
Former Assistant Chief Executive,
English Schools Foundation, Hong Kong
There was an interesting combination of stories on the front page of 6 August. One story hailed Usain Bolt's Olympic record in the 100m race and the other described how the exams regulator Ofqual had told examiners to ensure that A-level results should match last year's. The fast times of the sprinters were explained because, not only had they worked extremely hard and been expertly prepared for their events, but they were also running on a new and specially designed track. Presumably had Ofqual been put in charge of the Olympics, athletes' times would be adjusted so that they were the same as in 1948, thus avoiding any of them recording a personal best and "maintaining standards". Indeed, given time, Ofqual could design a track so that very few athletes would even finish the race.
It is not quite true to say that A-level results before 1963 were simply pass or fail ("Fury as examiners are told to fix A-level results to match last year's", 6 August). A subject pass could also be "with distinction" where merited. Additionally, prior to my receiving the certificate showing the results, a results slip was passed to schools – I still have mine from University of Cambridge exams syndicate, 1962 – that showed the grade received in each subject as well as the grade for each of the papers taken in the subjects. I found this level of detail a useful and informative breakdown of my results.
Lords reform fight goes on
If the Lords Reform Bill is dropped, it will be a travesty of democracy (report, 4 August). MPs approved the Bill by a massive majority of 338. Despite this, the Prime Minister is proposing to allow himself to be held to ransom by 91 of his backbenchers.
The backbench Tories' arguments are wrong. The primacy of the House of Commons can be secured by setting out the rules for relations between the two Houses in a "concordat", as outlined by the all-party Joint Committee on the Bill; and by other measures.
The rebels have forgotten their own history too. Conservatives supported a democratic House in reports by Lord Home in 1978, and Lord Mackay of Clashfern in 1999; and in their 2005 and 2010 manifestos.
This Bill can still be saved. The Prime Minister needs to work with all parties to agree a suitable allocation of time that ensures proper debate while enabling the legislation to progress. If he will not, the issue will return in the near future. The appointed House is growing to an unsustainable size. Strengthening Parliament would benefit ordinary voters, by providing a more effective counterweight to an over-mighty Executive.
Co-ordinator, Campaign for a Democratic Upper House London SE3
Horror of the atomic bomb
Speaking many years later, the physicist Richard Feynman, who had worked on the atomic bomb, said: "I can only say: I didn't think." And that seems to be the answer as to why they dropped it, far more than the speculations aired by Phil Strongman (6 August), certainly some of the more egregious ones such as it being a particularly excellent nuclear test (though his evidence that Japan was putting out peace feelers is very interesting, and negates the claims I've seen before).
The thing to remember is that the peculiar horror attached to nuclear weapons only came afterwards. At the time the attitude was simple. They had an enemy whom they wished to defeat, so they used whatever weapons were available. Worrying about whether it was really necessary belonged to a different time and a different mindset. They had built a "new explosive device", so they used it. It was the ultimate amoral decision.
Terry Eaton (Letters, 1 August) refers to the fact that Britannia was said to be designed to be converted into a hospital ship but was not used as such. As Peter Hennessy has explained in his book The Secret State, the potential use as a hospital ship was a cover story. The real plan was that, in the event of a nuclear war, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Home Secretary would be evacuated on to Britannia, which would remain at sea. These three, together with the Queen's Private Secretary, would then be able to convene a meeting of the Privy Council to appoint new ministers or issue other orders in the event of the rest of the cabinet being killed.
Women and children first
Steve Connor (31 July) makes no reference to the origin of the concept of "women and children first". It arose following the sinking of the British troop ship Birkenhead in 1852 off Cape Town. Only 193 of the 643 passengers and crew survived, but most of the women and children lived, as many of the men on board stood to attention while women and children were given priority in the lifeboats. The incident gave rise to the term "Birkenhead Drill", a maritime phrase meaning women and children first.
The phrase is referred to by Rudyard Kipling in the line "to stand and be still, at the Birkenhead drill, is a damn tough bullet to chew".
Bring back prefabs
Like Malcolm J Forley I grew up on one of the prefab estates that was built in the late 1940s (Letters, 30 July). These communities provided children with a wonderful start in life, and helped to heal the wounds of an older generation that had been traumatised by years of depression and war.
In trying to explain what virtues were lost when their old estates were bulldozed into oblivion many ex-prefab residents will feel that their words are falling on deaf mobile-phone covered ears. But with more and more people living in anomic, fragmented neighbourhoods, and enduring pitiful housing conditions, the idea of a prefab community could re-emerge.
An answer to the crossword today (4 August) required the name of Christ to be used almost as a swear word. Would you ever consider doing this to any other of the religions represented in the UK? Christianity is disparaged too much in the press. Perhaps the fact that one of the tenets of the faith is that we "turn the other cheek" makes your contributors feel free to do with the church and its teaching as they would never do to other faiths.
Another gaffe by Mitt Romney, one of many. If he is elected President it will not be God Bless America but God Help America.
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
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