Letters: The difficulty of GCSEs

GCSEs are no dumber than the O-levels we took 25 years ago
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As a mid-life career changer, I can offer some insight into the debate concerning how "easy" GCSEs actually are, in relation to the O-levels I sat a quarter of a century ago. Moving from a career in the City to work with inner-city children, I sought to ensure that my science was up to date by studying for a combined science GCSE.

If I had believed half of what I had heard and read I would have expected an A* just for being able to write my name in vaguely the right place on the exam paper and ticking a few boxes in multiple-choice questions. Far from it. The course was stimulating, topical and relevant. Much emphasis was placed on being able to understand key scientific principles, analyse data, deduce reasonable conclusions from evidence and apply knowledge to new situations. These were wholly worthwhile attributes and a long way from the regurgitation of facts I associate with my O-level days.

Multiple-choice questions did, indeed, account for half the total of available marks. Such questions were designed to test students' understanding of the full range of the syllabus, and often involved analysis of opinions and data to deduce the correct sequence of events or outcome. Most of the remaining 50 per cent of marks available involved extended written work where credit was given for well-structured arguments, coherent analysis and a rigorous thought process.

This degree-educated professional is not talking about "dumbing-down" from a golden age that never was. He is saying congratulations to students and teaching professionals alike. Celebrate your success; you deserve it.

Mike Tuer

New Malden, Surrey

Why rescue these mortgage gamblers?

David Prosser's plea for homeowners who took out bigger mortgages than they should have (Business, 28 August) should be resisted by the Government. It was obvious to anyone with even half a brain that a housing bubble was being created in the UK (and Spain and Ireland).

With easy credit and no deposits required, there was not a cat in hell's chance of house prices continuing to grow as they had, and yet the media did all they could do to talk this up, with no mention of the inevitable downside. Industry professionals who had made their millions from talking the market up, wisely sold out before the bust.

Why should the taxpayer pay for people's bad judgement? We don't cover losses at the roulette table, so why should we pay for gambles in the housing market?

Steve Brickle

Biarritz, France

We were pleased to see Vince Cable back the idea of a mortgage rescue scheme (leading article, 28 August), through which people threatened with repossession could stay in their homes, especially as we submitted a similar package to the Government this summer.

Mr Cable is right to say that a scheme could be set up whereby people failing to keep up with their mortgage repayments could sell all or part of the equity in their home at a fair price to housing associations, then stay in the property as low-cost home-owners or social tenants.

We have now discussed our package with ministers and are hopeful they will implement it soon. If they do, it will be welcome news for the many people under the terrible threat of being thrown out of their own home.

David Orr

Chief Executive, National Housing Federation, London WC1

I will not be very happy to see a rapidly shrinking pot of taxpayers' money being diverted to prop up a housing market that resembles a Ponzi scheme.

The last time I bought a house, I did so using a mortgage that I knew I could afford if my circumstances changed; in other words, I opted to live within my means. I have very little sympathy for those naive enough to think that investments can only ever go one way. Taxpayers' money should not be used to help them out.

Dr Neil Lowrie


West on shaky ground in Georgia

It was a change to read a calm editorial in The Independent (28 August) asking for cool heads concerning the conflict in Georgia and the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The West is on shaky ground in so many ways. One of "our" client states, Georgia, has decided to settle its arguments by invading and bombing its neighbour. That Russia would react was entirely predictable, and the USA should have given better counsel to the Georgian government in the first place. Just as when Israel attacked Lebanon, US foreign policy has been found to be flawed and hypocritical. This has been a major weakness in George Bush's term in office.

Second, the policies of the West towards the Caucasus are not exactly cohesive and even-handed. The second conflict undertaken in Chechnya by the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin's command was a far worse case of invading a sovereign state, and the destruction and human rights abuses were substantial and well documented. The West excused it, turned away and said nothing.

Parts of Georgia are occupied by Russian troops, but maybe if the West's response had been more balanced and critical in the first place, Russia might have felt less liable to react in turn.

Dr Derek J Pickard

Sawston, Cambridge

Anglo-American hypocrisy over Russia and South Ossetia has been truly breathtaking, but the Foreign Office's description of the former's recognition of the latter as an "unprecedented step" really takes the biscuit ("Joint statement 'deplores' Russian foreign policy", 28 August).

David Miliband's concept of "precedent" clearly does not extend to the West's disastrously premature recognition of breakaway republics in the Balkans, or of the US and UK's even more recent recognition of Kosovo in contravention of UN Resolution 1244.

Peter McKenna


How Serota got a permanent job

In response to Charles Thomson's letter (22 August) regarding the contract of Tate director Nicholas Serota, the changes brought about by the introduction of the Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations in 2002 have been correctly applied.

Nicholas Serota's seven-year contract is due to expire on 1 September 2009 and has a provision that a decision on renewal will be made by 31 August 2008. The trustees of Tate considered the matter at their meetings in May and July. At the first meeting, they were unanimous in their wish to renew the contract in view of the outstanding success of Tate under his leadership. At their meeting in July, the trustees were advised that no formal renewal was required, since, as a result of the regulations, Nicholas Serota had effectively become a permanent employee.

The regulations state that where an employee has been continuously employed on fixed-term contracts for more than four years, restricting the duration of employment is no longer relevant and the individual shall be deemed to be on a permanent contract.

The only exception to this rule, as Charles Thomson points out, is if at the time the fixed-term contract was issued, there was an objective justification established for engaging someone on a fixed-term contract. In this case, there was no objective justification established, as defined in the regulations.

Accordingly, we are pleased to say that Nicholas Serota has agreed to stay at Tate and we look forward to working with him to achieve Tate's goals, including the planned extension to Tate Modern and the further growth of the collection.

Paul Myners

Chair, Tate Board of Trustees, London SW1

The English who won't write English

Several of my continental European friends who work on global projects for major international companies have been consoled by reading Rod Danton's remark (letter, 20 August) that "the inability of the English to communicate intelligibly in their own language" is potentially a greater worry than the shyness the British have for foreign language learning.

Complaints from these now senior executives have grown over the past two decades, yet have never been about the general monoglot culture of the British. Rather, grumbles have been about the unwillingness of some of their English-speaking counterparts to acknowledge the difficulties non-English speakers have when receiving poorly constructed messages.

Messages packed or peppered with grammatical inaccuracies, colloquialisms or structural reductions may be acceptable among native speakers; in the international boardroom conference – and more acutely, in the international telephone conference – adherence to the rules of English, which our European neighbours have studied hard to understand. would cheer my friends enormously, and might even save costs .

Megan Keeler

Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire

Pragmatic waysto save energy

Although climate and energy issues are our most important challenge, I fear that the steps taken by Janet Alty (letters, 15 August) will make the situation worse. A solar panel to heat water costs thousands of pounds and is unlikely to save its cost in reduced energy bills. It is unlikely to save enough carbon dioxide or energy to offset the energy used and the emissions created in making, transporting and installing the panel. The same argument applies to solar voltaics.

Selling surplus energy back to the grid is a red herring. Surpluses occur when everyone has a surplus, so selling these minute amounts to the grid which can neither use nor store them is a waste of time. And the Carbon Trust and the Met Office say domestic wind turbines were generally unviable in the UK. The "energy in" exceeds the "energy out".

At the individual level, the actions which will do most for the planet and our pockets is buying that extra pullover and upgrading our home insulation.

Most action must come from the Government, and we should be demanding a sustainable energy strategy, starting with underground coal gasification, geothermal resources (as used in Southampton), combined heat and power for every new public and commercial building and housing development, more demanding building regulations for insulation and revised energy tariffs so the first 100 or so units are cheap and the rest are more expensive, rather than the other way round as at present.

A 50mph speed limit, or even enforcing the 70mph limit, would significantly reduce road fuel use. Unfortunately, a government which has shied twice from a 2p fuel tax increase has clearly neither the foresight nor the courage to take such a step.

Anthony Day


We have lost our depth in athletics

Mike Rowbottom's analysis of Great Britain's athletes (25 August) missed an important factor. Thirty years ago, there was enormous depth in British athletics: for every athlete selected, a dozen were knocking on the door. Coe, Cram, Steve Jones, Ovett, and many others, came out of then thriving club athletics. This depth has diminished, so we have to rather artificially cultivate an elite, a policy which may deter young athletes who have potential but are not good enough.

To illustrate: in the first London Marathon, I ran 2:32:19 (a modest time in those days) and finished 183rd; this year, that same time would have given me 72nd place in a field three times the size of the first event. For success in 2012, that depth needs to be recreated.

Lyn Atterbury

Szydlowo, Poland


What elections?

Please bring back the extravagant Olympics coverage. I'm fed up with the US elections already.

Keith Bailey

Basingstoke, Hampshire

Problem solved

Surely the answer is obvious ("Plan to exhume cardinal's remains 'homophobic' ", 25 August). Let Father Ambrose St John's remains travel with his friend, the cardinal, to Birmingham.

Lovedy Cornish


Flying foolishness

Our granddaughter was given for her fourth birthday a Barbie zip-up bag containing a tiara, a wand and a pair of lilac-coloured gauze wings. The wings carried the warning label, "These wings cannot be used to fly". Still, at least she's now old enough to wear the badge she received on her first birthday, saying, "I am 1 today"; it bore a sticker saying, "Not suitable for children under 36 months".

Marjorie Clarke

Totnes, Devon

Helpful information on a packet of Tesco salmon: "This product may contain fish". Whew, what a relief!

Simon Allen

Watford, Hertfordshire

Caught out

Your article "A real catch"" (28 August) states that oysters are "caught", which is not the same as dredging an effectively motionless mollusc. Some years ago, on Llangwyfan island on Anglesey, I listened with great amusement as a middle-aged gentleman told his flamboyant Essex moll about the birds on the beach. She was particularly taken by the oystercatcher. "Do they really catch oysters, then?" she asked. "Oh, certainly," he replied. Then an oystercatcher ran across the beach. "Oh look!" she shouted, in great excitement. "He's after one!"

Michael K Baldwin

Sittingbourne, Kent

Getting the bird

I was out walking this morning and saw two large, black birds. Perhaps Fred Barnfield (letters, 28 August) could tell me whether they were a pair of crows or a small group of rooks?

David McNickle

St Albans, Hertfordshire