Letters: The education system

Modular courses reduce education to joyless spoon-feeding
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The Independent Online

Simon Lebus was right to draw attention to the damage being done to Britain's education system by constant political interference ("Westminster meddlers 'destroying confidence in British education' ", 9 September). However, the rising demand for international qualifications and traditional linear exams is not just a response to ministerial meddling, it is also a reaction to a more worrying trend – the creep towards modularity.

Thousands of GCSE students are already embarking this month on modular courses and the new-style GCSEs, available for first teach in September 2009, will consolidate this trend. A-levels went modular in 2000 and primary education was carved up with the introduction of SATs. The entire national curriculum has now been cut up into bite-size chunks. Education is fast becoming the joyless pursuit of compromised qualifications. It is this trend that is fuelling the quest for alternative exams such as the International Baccalaureate, the IGCSE and the Pre-U.

Schools like Rugby are opting for one or more of these qualifications in order to avoid the intrusion of continual assessment into valuable teaching and learning time. We know that by allowing pupils to resit individual units, modular learning improves grades, but we also know that it stifles creativity in teaching and devalues qualifications. It also threatens to create a generation of spoon-fed, test-driven pupils who are ill prepared for the challenges of further education.

Rugby School is already offering IGSCEs in seven subjects, because we feel that they provide the necessary stretch and challenge for our pupils. The number may grow. From this September our A-levels will be delivered as two-year linear courses, with no AS "takes" or "retakes" to interrupt the educational experience. We are not the only school striving to preserve the benefits of linear assessment. More schools will seek alternatives, unless this damaging trend towards modularity is reversed.

Patrick Derham

Head Master, Rugby School

Mothers who stay at home

I have stayed at home to raise four children. It has been extremely hard work as they have high IQ and dyslexia. They were not well supported at school, resulting in years of battling with the local authorities.

It would have been lovely to hand the stress and disorganisation over to a nanny or childminders while I swanned off to work, but none of them would have stood the pace, and, as the Centre for Social Justice report points out, it would not have been good for the children ("Mothers 'should be paid to stay home with their children' ", 9 September).

Over the past 20 years government policies have been directed towards sending mothers back to work instead of supporting our decision to take on one of the most important jobs – bringing up healthy, well-balanced, contributing citizens. Mothers who stay at home have been denigrated to the point that if I were an ethnic minority I could probably file a complaint for discrimination.

I have suffered financially in that I have few pension contributions, and have been unable to save money for when my children want to go to university. My eldest daughter has a 2:1 in politics and £20,000 of debt.

Having my own transferable tax allowance would have gone a long way towards promoting stable family relationships over the years. Similarly, £6,000 per year for 15 years would have given me just enough by now to pay for all four children to go to university.

The Government giveth and the Government taketh away.

Sharon Tringham

Tonbridge, Kent

When much of Europe is freeing mothers and fathers from restrictive gender stereotypes by encouraging shared parental leave, I find it disappointing that the most recent report on childcare focuses solely on mothers. Offering mothers just £6,000 a year to stay at home with their children in lieu of working is pointless for many women, whose cost of living far exceeds this amount.

More sensible proposals, which offer both parents on a range of incomes realistic ways to spend more time with their children, are needed. The Swedish and Danish model of maternity leave allows parents to share a year of parental leave by dividing it between them. Also, enabling both fathers and mothers to work flexibly, and making all jobs available to part-time workers, would allow parents to spend more time with their children.

Instead of demonising working mothers as "sowing the seeds of later unhappiness and anti-social behaviour", the Centre for Social Justice could better spend their time building on the excellent work already being achieved by Sure Start nurseries.

Recent research has shown that children benefit from the social environment of nursery care, and are often better cared for by a mother in rewarding employment than an emotionally drained "stay-at-home mum".

Children and their parents don't need politicians continually reinventing the wheel; instead, expand the programmes that already work, so that everyone can benefit from them.

Mary Honeyball MEP

Labour Spokesperson in the European Parliament Women's Rights Committee, London WC1

Peculiarities of the English language

Paul Clarke (letters, 5 September) thinks: "There's no excuse for the English-born not being in command of their own language."

I understand apostrophes. I tried to teach comprehensive-school pupils how to use them for 30 years. The majority learned. Some, however, found this complex and sometimes not very useful punctuation mark beyond them. If there was an "s" at the end of a word, they often, in forlorn hope, stuck an apostrophe before it.

All languages evolve. Those few that I know either have a genitive case or the equivalent of "of" for possession. We should abandon the use of the apostrophe for possession, thus avoiding the necessity of learning the intricacies of "its" and "hers", for example.

The English compromise of putting in an apostrophe where there once was a genitive is absurd. We should keep the apostrophe for abbreviations, where it is manifestly useful: in that case I believe the use of this piece of punctuation would be learnable.

Then we might avoid such a horror – doubtless perpetrated by one of my former pupils – as "Closed Tue's" which I saw recently on a notice board.

John D Anderson

Shipley, West Yorkshire

Paul Clarke is mistaken. Many people, particularly those of limited intellect, struggle to master English because of its idiosyncrasies. Is there an element of snobbery or superiority among some of those who are troubled by "incorrect" grammar? Their education has included grounding in the rules of grammar and they have the intelligence to deal with these often complex (and sometimes bizarre) constraints.

Spelling is another minefield. The pedants are upset when, for example, less well-educated or less intellectually gifted people muddle up "you're" and "your", but as these words are homophones, why can't they be spelt the same? Context will impart meaning. English is encumbered with a high degree of non-phonetic spelling compared with most other European languages, which hinders the education of children who are not intellectually gifted.

Spelling reform might improve literacy, which in turn would facilitate education in other subjects.

Julien Evans

Chesham, Buckinghamshire

Watching French TV news during the summer holidays, we noted that much was made on the last days of August about the return to school.

With the change of month, the local channel led with scenes of children at school, where the priority was now to learn English. The national news then featured the Minister of Education affirming the government policy of prioritising English tuition.

The British government can relax if their French-language targets are not met, as the French have obviously given up on the Brits learning their language. General de Gaulle must be turning in his grave.

Peter Erridge

East Grinstead, West Sussex

High probability of typographical error

In "The truth is out there" (6 September), Archie Bland states that the chances of the Large Hadron Collider forming a black hole is one in 1,019 and the probability of someone evaporating while shaving is one in 1,011.

I suspect the probabilities should have been one in 10 to the power of 19 and one in 10 to the power of 11. Ten to the power of 19 is usually shown typographically as 10 followed by a superscripted 19 and represents a number one followed by 19 zeros.

If the probability of evaporating while shaving is really one in 1,011, then for every million people shaving, almost a thousand would evaporate each day. Fortunately, I've had a beard for many years now.

Paul Dormer


Arms control for other people

David Miliband's article (9 September) is more remarkable for its omissions than its reality.

He mentions conflicts in Africa, Asia and Georgia. No mention of Iraq or Afghanistan.

He mentions that the UK worked with Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya in pushing for a resolution on an arms trade treaty. No mention of the damaging military coattail-hanging partnership with the USA. He mentions that many countries are in favour of such a treaty. No mention of the fact that against any such treaty is the country we have a "special relationship" with.

He mentions that treaties exist to "control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons". No mention of the fact that the UK, rather than complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is updating its nuclear weapons system and is pouring billions into weapons research, including chemical and biological weapons.

He calls for an arms trade treaty to help prevent the spread of arms to conflict areas. No mention of the fact that the UK is the world's fourth largest arms manufacturer. He says weapons are the fuel that keeps wars burning. No mention of the fact that RO Defence, recently relocated to Cumbria and part of BAE Systems, supplies arms to over 40 countries and is in line to become Europe's leading arms supplier.

I'm all in favour of an arms trade treaty. I am afraid, however, that if we get one Mr Miliband's reality will prevail; it will apply to others, not ourselves.

Lesley Docksey

Buckland Newton, Dorset

One might have more faith in the Government's commitment to international treaties to control the arms trade if our Foreign Secretary had persuaded our Defence Secretary to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, we are breaching the spirit and letter of this treaty by investing millions in the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, failing to reduce the number of nuclear warheads and playing host to the biggest arms fair in the world.

Hilary Chivall

Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire

Thank you for mischievously publishing David Miliband's plea for arms trade control. As a member of a government which still sells vast amounts of arms and is currently determined to spend many billions of pounds on two vast aircraft carriers and new Trident missiles, he is not setting a good example.

First cut your own arms sales and expenditure, Mr Miliband, before you can expect anyone to take any notice of you.

Dr Chris Burns-Cox

Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire


Life-and-death issue

In reply to Vincent Clark's letter of 10 September, I see no conflict in Sarah Palin's being pro-life and pro-gun. How else do you think they maintain the supply of targets?

Michael Spurling


Familiar sights

Earlier this summer The Independent once more encouraged debate over whether only attractive, middle-class girls from the south-east of England pass school exams. So I was delighted to see that you've once more decided to encourage discussion over whether only young women in jeans, high-heels and cropped tops drink to excess – usually in the street ("Why drinkers do it all again", 10 September). Presumably we can look forward a man in a beard illustrating a story about real ale and a feature on Merseyside illustrated by a burnt-out car on bricks. Excellent.

Michael O'Hare

Northwood, Middlesex

Morning prayers

Hanne Stinson (letter, 9 September) draws attention to the BBC's refusal to provide air-time to non-religious beliefs such as Humanism. The most egregious example is "Thought for the Day"on Radio 4. Speakers from the main world religions enjoy a complete monopoly of this prominent slot. The inequity is compounded by the fact that Radio 4 also broadcasts "Prayer for the Day" every morning, so early-rising humanists such as myself are subjected to two doses of piety over our cornflakes.

Dr David Harper


'Wrong' verdicts

The tenor of much media coverage of the recent case where three out of eight defendants were convicted of conspiracy to murder was that the jury somehow got the verdict wrong. This approach to news stories about terrorism undermines the rule of law. The suggestion is that whenever one of these high-profile cases comes up with anything less than blanket guilty verdicts there is something wrong with the system. That relegates the courts to the role of rubber-stamping the decisions of the police and security services. That path leads to a police state.

Paul Donovan

London, E11

Sober assessment

After forty years of subsidising the shareholders of many breweries, I became teetotal 18 months ago, never realising that my abstinence would cause such devastation as we now see in the pub trade ("Pubs closing at record rate", 8 September).

Granville Stout

Leigh, Lancashire