Letters: The exam system

Sickness in the exam system
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The Independent Online

You are right that the standards set by examination boards are a cause for serious concern, and Professor Mick Waters has done secondary education a service in reminding us of how deeply flawed the system is (“A sickness in our schools”, 17 September). You are also correct in claiming that league tables distort our understanding.

We are stuck in an unhealthy cycle: schools have a desire for high grades, and exam boards, to keep those schools satisfied, have a vested interest in meeting that demand; if they don’t then schools will switch to another board which can give them what they want. Ofqual is a watchdog without teeth.

There is, however, an alternative: the International Baccalaureate is truly independent, and it has seen zero grade inflation in over 40 years of offering its diploma for sixth form students around the world. It is also a not-for-profit organisation, which further ensures integrity at every level. No wonder it is growing so quickly in countries (and sectors) which realise that their students will have to compete with the best in the world.

The Government could introduce the IB’s Middle Years Programme and Diploma as real alternatives to the broken national models currently on offer, and in so doing restore confidence to a system that has lost the trust of those who work in it; itwould also help our young people prepare for successful lives in an increasingly competitive international market place.

Dr Anthony Seldon, Master

Dr David James, Director of IB,

Wellington College, Berkshire

I am a retired teacher of mathematics with over 30 years’ experience. For most of that time I have been head of department in a state secondary school and an examiner for various exam boards. I can only agree with Mick Water about the exam system being “diseased”.

He comments on “insider dealing”. If you have access to a maths GCSE text book, have a look at the author’s qualifications. Some of the best sellers proudly declare that they hold senior posts on an exam board. I often wondered how they find the time to teach, hold the post of examiner and write books.

Some go one stage further and offer their services for what are called “booster sessions”. They are hired by schools to show pupils how to answer the questions on the exam paper and help teachers predict the questions that will appear on future exams. Some of these “facilitators” may have even contributed to the questions that will appear on a future exam.

Tim Johnson,

Wakefield, West Yorkshire

I’m not sure I follow Matthew Handy’s logic (letter, 18 September), stating that Edexcel’s core paper is “easier” than that for other awarding bodies.

As long as the standards set for the grades are equivalent across awarding bodies, then it does not matter that one paper is “easier” (ie has higher average marks) than others. As the correspondent states, the proportion of final grades is actually very similar across awarding bodies, which is entirely what one would expect assuming that candidate ability is evenly distributed.

Just comparing one exam paper with another and stating that one is “easier” tells you nothing about the standards of grades awarded.

Dr Matt Homer,

School of Education,

University of Leeds

Arrogance of the tax collectors

The arrogance of David Hartnett of HM Revenue and Customs, in his initial refusal to apologise for his department’s errors, is a predictable result of giving public bodies the responsibility to interpret the law and then punish those they deem to have broken the rules.

It is wrong in principle to put enforcement in the same hands as punishment for infringements. If HMRC had to bring alleged defaulters before a court, they would have to justify their actions and be exposed to public gaze.

Local authorities boost their revenue by imposing a variety of fixed penalty notices, administered by civil enforcement officers. The various regulators now impose fines.

If it is argued that the volume of “crime” is too great for the courts to adjudicate, then it should be questioned whether or not there are too many laws.

John Henderson,


All the fun of election night

Rupert Cornwell (Opinion, 18 September) claims that first past-the-post (FPTP) produces “rip-roaring” election results, fought out “seat by seat”, unlike proportional representation (PR)where “the first percentage estimate...is read out, and that’s it”. One wonders whether he follows British elections under both PR and FPTP.

The Electoral Reform Society estimated before the last election that there are 382 “safe seats” in Britain’s Parliament, 31 of which haven’t changed hands even since Queen Victoria. These seats never enjoy “rip-roaring” results; in fact, those MPs could have packed theirbags in June and headed off to Parliament.

The image of party-list PR Rupert Cornwell uses is colourful, but frankly incorrect. Systems of PR such as the single transferable vote and the additional member system do use constituencies, fought on a seat-by-seat basis - with none of those rotten boroughs we call safe seats.

PR constituency elections, or even ones under the alternative vote, are far more exciting than FPTP ones. Just ask anybody from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

Elliot Folan,

London N20

Lib Dems must listen to women

Philip Hensher asks “What do Liberal Democrats want?” (Opinion, 18 September). I want to revert to the original question which was “What do women want?”

I joined the Liberal Democrats as a young and enthusiastic mum who thought that she could change views and priorities in this country. Since then I have worked my way through two councils with various positions of responsibility and ultimately stood for Parliament three times. This is what this woman wants.

A fairer voting system: countries where there is proportional representation have more women MPs.

Less talk of cutting the deficit and more about investing in manufacturing: Every European country now invests more in transport and energy efficincy than we do. Government-led industry will lead to more jobs and more money for people to spend and therefore a reduction in the deficit.

Land reform bringing in some form of land taxation: 85 per cent of land in England is owned by a few hundred families and organisations. And most importantly I want the Liberal Democrats to take more notice of the women in the party. Many of the most sensible politicians I have met during my career have been women with a wealth of experience in family life and work.

Gail Coleshill,

Radstock, Somerset

As Liberals gather in Liverpool we ask other mothers and their daughters: did you vote for austerity measures that would hitwomen and young people hardest?

The House of Commons library identified that 72 per cent of the cuts in the emergency Budget will be met from women’s income. Add to this the public sector pay freeze and its impact on women, who make up 65 per cent of the workforce, and women of all ages will be set back decades.

These measures will widen economic inequality and in particular the UK’s gender pay gap. A young woman aged 17 today will be 74 years old before she earns equal pay at the current snail’s pace.

The Coalition plans will put even what little progress we have made into reverse.

Gail Cartmail,

Eleni Astrinakis

London SE27

Missing aircraft

In the debate about proposed cuts to the RAF, it has been suggested that the Tornado force should be axed.

At any time, as I understand it, between a third and a half the aircraft in a squadron may be non-operational, owing to servicing, essential maintenance or awaiting spare parts delivery. Pilot availability or shortage is sometimes a factor also.

If roughly half the aggressive element of the RAFis axed, a worst-case scenario of aircraft non-operational might leave us with as few as roughly 60 active warplanes (the remaining Harriers and Typhoons) in a crisis..

There are also losses in training and active service. If (God forbid) there ever were another conventional air war of any import, what about attrition?

Do we learn nothing from history, as we revisit the Battle of Britain? Do we have any aircraft reserves?

Chris Collard,

Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The question posed by the headline “Must air power be provided by the RAF?” (14 September) is timely.

Land-based as it is, the RAF cannot always get to where it is needed to counter today’s threats. This is an entirely different situation to the Battle of Britain and even the Cold War, but the RAF’s limitations were already evident in Korea, the air war ofwhich had to be entirely fought by the US and Royal Navies from carriers.

In 1958 when Britain flew troops in to stabilise the regime in Jordan, again the Navy was the only service able to provide the necessary fighter cover in a hostile east Mediterranean. The Falklands War provided another example of the superior value of carrier borne aircraft.

The financial savings of absorbing the RAF into the other two services would be considerable and would lead to greater fighting efficiency in the long term.

David Gunn,



Of course, retired RAF Group Captains will believe defence of the United Kingdom remains the “cornerstone” of our national needs. (letter, 16 September). It is unlikely they would have pursued their careers otherwise.

Alongside this popular view is another widely held belief, that Britain needs to continue to be present at the “top table” in world government.

Apart from the massive contribution our military “defence” gives to our economy – from employment to manufacturing – in support of these outdated concepts, it is surely time for a senior politician in any party to advocate the alternatives. Switzerland, to name one western country, seems to have managed well enough in recent history without a similar “cornerstone” or presence at the “top table” and, presumably, maintains a military budget more apposite to its gross national product. What a difference that would make to our present financial condition.

Keith Turner,

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Inflated cost of festivals

David Lister (18 September) is being somewhat disingenuous quoting an NME survey in which 70 per cent of respondents apparently complained that music festivals were becoming more expensive. Is there anything at all which hasn’t become more expensive since 1970?

The festival-going public demand much higher standards now – multiple sound-stages, semi-permanent feeding, accommodation and sanitary facilities, and easy access. The promoters arrange for elaborate security, more electrical installations than Blackpool, and sophisticated ticketing.

When we went to the Isle of Wight in 1970 and 1971 there was a charmingly amateur gipsy camp atmosphere with only one stage, so that changing between groups could take an hour, the sanitary arrangements were indescribable and the catering offered a choice of either hamburgers or hamburgers.

All five local policemen stood at the entrance trying to look as though they were in control of the crowd of several thousand, so it was fortunate that there was so little trouble. Your “ticket” was a blob of fluorescent marker applied to the back of your hand.

Enormous fun and I think memorable, though I can’t be absolutely sure about that.

Terry Eaton,

Milton Under Wychwood,


Hidden pistons

Robert Fisk (“Relic of a bygone age” 18 September) seems to be obsessed with “thrashing pistons”, which he claims to have seen on the old Irish locomotive No 186. Sorry, but pistons are tucked away inside the cylinders, and the cylinders on No 186 are hidden beneath the smoke box and boiler. What Robert saw thrashing about were the coupling rods, transmitting the power to all six driving wheels.

Geoff Heath,

Stockport, Greater Manchester

Perspectives on the Pope’s visit

Under attack for my beliefs

Over the past couple of days I’ve felt that my dearly-held beliefs have been under constant attack. I am beginning to feel quite persecuted.

For example, I believe that it is morally and criminally wrong to take any action which might help prevent a paedophile being brought to justice. I believe that gay people and women have the same basic human rights as me. I believe faith schools are damaging and divisive and can lead to impressionable children being taught inaccuracies, while sometimes being segregated along racial lines.

I believe you don't have to be a theist to be kind, considerate or charitable. Moreover, I believe that everyone is born a nontheist, even Joseph Ratzinger, but that something or somebody persuades a proportion of human beings to believe in the existence of a god for whom there is not one shred of supporting evidence. I believe that those who have not been persuaded should be left alone and not branded aggressive, nor compared to Nazis.

Finally, I would like to know why, if there really is a god, does the Popemobile need bulletproof windows?

Phil Edwards,

Godalming, Surrey

In the front line of the Aids battle

I worked as a teacher in a secondary school in Rwanda, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, for two years, in the employ of the Rwandan Ministry of Education. I was encouraged by the ministry to promote the anti-Aids message, using the government’s strategy: abstinence, fidelity, protection. (If you can’t be abstinent or stick with one lifelong partner, you should use a condom.)

The school authorities, being Catholic brothers, asked me to veer away from the subject of condoms and stress the abstinence and fidelity parts. I did not veer away, knowing I had myemployer behind me, but in each of the five classes in which I introduced the subject of condoms, I was met with: “We can’t use condoms, teacher, they are against God.” “Who says?” “The Pope.”

With many countries in Africa (Uganda and Nigeria being the most often remarked-upon) seeing a huge move towards Christian fundamentalism, conversations such as the one I had with these students are only likely to become more commonplace.

How can Pope Benedict suggest that the will of God is being carried out when his and his predecessor’s words have caused hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths and produced hundreds of thousands more orphans? What kind of God would approve of this?

Stephen Pratt,

Bridport, Dorset

Media obsessed with sex abuse scandal

A priest asking for some objectivity and fairness in the reporting of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church is leaving himself open to being accused of seeking to defend the indefensible. I take that risk in objecting to the obsessive way in which every item of news about the Catholic Church is placed in the context of child abuse by clerics.

The front page of Friday’s Independent carried a half-page photograph of the Pope, and a text of two sentences, the first announcing his arrival in Scotland, the second suggesting his every move would be overshadowed by the scandals. On page 4, you report his encounter with reporters on the flight. Among the several questions on different topics asked by the reporters, you report only the question on sex abuse. I suggest that this obsession with sex abuse is typical of much of the media’s reporting on anything to do with the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, the reporting tends to concentrate on pointing the finger at those responsible for the crimes, and those in authority whose response was inadequate, and the more senior the better. That is fair enough, but there is little sign in the reporting of concern for the plight of the victims and how they might be enabled to recover their lost dignity.

The hundreds of thousands of people who waited patiently for hours to get even a fleeting glimpse of the Pope and to greet him as he passed, expressed that they recognise something else in the Catholic Church that even some of our quality news media seem to be missing.

The Rev Bernard O'Connor Osa,

London W6


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