Letters: The Tebbit test

Do we fail the Tebbit test? Am I harbouring a nest of terrorism?
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My husband and I are first-generation immigrants from India. We passionately support the Indian cricket team when they play England, and the England team in the Ashes matches. My husband has been a hard-working, undervalued doctor in the NHS for over twenty years. I stayed at home till my youngest child was ten. Our sons both got straight As in their A-levels, and are at good universities now. One of them was among the top five attainers nationally in his GCSE English exam. Last night, I enjoyed (and understood) a local production of a Shakespeare play. Your newspaper, Radio 4, Zee TV and hip-hop all have a place in our lives.

On the other hand, our home is a shrine to our Indian, Hindu roots. We are surrounded by artefacts, books and music that keep our heritage alive. Today we will chant ancient sanskrit mantras as I celebrate the feast of Lakshmi and the men perform the annual ceremony to change their Brahminical sacred threads.

We proudly maintain our tradition of hospitality, and do not twitch our curtains in panic if a neighbour rings our doorbell. And there are hundreds of families like ours all over Britain.

Pass or fail? Am I sitting on a terrorist time bomb in my house? Should my neighbours in leafy Knaresborough keep an eye on my rucksack? Should I join an elocution class to add a Yorkshire flavour to my vowels? Must I laugh at Bernard Manning's "jokes"?



A-levels do not pick out best students

Sir: I agree with those who argue that much of the criticism of the A-level grading system has been missing the point. The real problem with A-level is that it is no longer an effective measure of candidates' relative merit.

It is misguided to suggest that there is an intellectual bar above which all students are equal and should be treated as such. Whichever way you look at it, an A-grade student who is in the top 2 per cent of candidates has performed better than an A-grade student who is only in the top 22 per cent; yet under the current grading system both students are given the same result. As a result, those of us involved in university admissions have no reliable way of distinguishing between those students at the top of the A grade bracket and those at the bottom (which as the percentage of A grades awarded creeps towards 25 per cent is becoming an acute problem).

Unlike the hopelessly subjective and largely irrelevant question of whether exams might have been harder in the 1990s, this problem also has a straightforward answer: set a challenging exam with a good spread of results and then provide each student with his or her percentage mark and/or a grade awarded on a percentile basis (with an A* going to the top 5 per cent). This would not only give the brightest students something challenging to aim for, it would provide employers and tertiary institutions with vital information which they currently lack.



Sir: The change some years ago from norm referencing to criterion referencing in the assessment of A-levels might be part of the explanation for the higher proportion of A grades being awarded each year, as Bethan Marshall claims in her article about the near-collapse of the current A-level examination system (18 August). There is, however, another contributing factor which she overlooks.

At one time there were about a dozen A-level examination boards in operation but mergers have reduced them to only four today. Each board is a commercial enterprise in search of customers and in competition with the other boards. Part of the process enabling a board to obtain a competitive edge over the others is to consider awarding slightly higher proportions of A grades as an inducement to schools to switch to it from other boards.

Each board does, of course, compare the performance of its candidates in a given year with the performances of its candidates in previous years, as a means of delivering consistency of standards year on year. But to my certain knowledge (as a former senior examiner) at least one board also compares its performance (or, more accurately, the performance of its candidates) in a given year with the performances of the other boards in the previous year. If it is deemed appropriate, a marginal adjustment is made to the grade boundaries (and thus to the percentage of candidates being awarded specific grades) in the final stages of the assessment.

One part of the solution to the current problem with the assessment of A-levels must be completion of the merger process and the establishment of a single schools examination board for England and Wales. This is, of course, the situation in Scotland and in many European countries and they manage to avoid the annual media attack on examination standards which has become such a demoralising feature of the academic year in England.



Politics focused on the party battle

Sir: My MP, Michael Ancram, seems confused (Opinion, 17 August). On the one hand he admits that no one is interested in the adversarial party politics as currently exist, on the other hand he suggests that consensus politics is instinctively mistrusted. He then goes on to list a number of "Why not ... ?" questions all of which I would guess would be shared by the Labour Government.

The problem with adversarial politics is that the focus is on the party battle and not the policies. Always the underlying question is, "Will this policy ensure that we get in at the next election and they don't?" This ensures that no party is capable of looking further than four years ahead and that short-term populist policies will be introduced.

What is needed in the fields of health, education and transport, to name a few, is a political system that can look ahead more strategically and ask the question,"What kind of service do we want in ten to twenty years' time and how can we engage the public in developing that service?"



The lives saved by Hiroshima

Sir: David Porter (Letters, 10 August) wrote that, in spite of being one of the million whose lives were saved by the atomic bombs, he got "very angry when fools suggest that this sort of atrocity was justified".

The likely casualties to end the Japanese war without those bombs are given in the epilogue to the book Codename Downfall (the secret plan to invade Japan in 1945) by Thomas B Allen and Norman Polmar. That invasion could have taken up to a year to complete, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of American and Commonwealth troops and millions of Japanese, military and civilians.

The numbers of Japanese civilians killed and injured by those bombs were similar to the numbers killed in the fire bomb raids on Tokyo on 9/10 March 1945. Those raids were atrocities, too.

Unfortunately politicians who start wars (and consequent atrocities) seem to get implicit approval from those who may, later, be killed in retaliation, like the ones in Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Our present government, too, thinks that it has the implicit approval from its electorate for its war in Iraq.



Feeding babies in spite of prudes

Sir: I hope that mothers will not be put off breastfeeding by reports of public disapproval ("Mother in plea for breastfeeding law", 10 August). Conflict between mothers and prudish members of the public is news; uninterrupted breastfeeding is not. The reporting of a few bad experiences should not be allowed to outweigh the good experiences of the majority of mothers.

For the record, I breastfed in public in historic buildings, museums, airports, shopping centres, department stores, car parks, at work and on trains, planes and buses. I did not receive a single adverse comment in 30 months, just plenty of interested questions about my babies.



Oxbridge tutorial system under threat

Sir: I was amused to read Hamish McRae's article "We may worry about standards, but British education works best for the modern world" (17 August) in which he uses Oxbridge's famed tutorial system as an example.

I have benefited from this system myself and it is indeed a good one, but it is a very small number of universities to use as representative of the British system. It is also increasingly clear that even in Oxford and Cambridge it is an unsustainable system and in many departments they are using more seminars and classes to make up for the lack of availability of staff.

McRae does acknowledge the money shortage in higher education but the pat on the back for winning the "silver in the world higher education Olympics" seems a little premature, as we surely face a crucial juncture in the history of our education system, during which, and for better or worse, many of our traditional privileges that have only ever been for the "élite" will fade away.



Police falsehoods hit the intended target

Sir: Matthew Norman, in his otherwise perceptive article on the "no blame" culture (19 August), has, I think, misunderstood the intention of the Metropolitan Police in putting out blatantly false statements about the Menezes shooting.

It was not intended as a cover-up - a cover-up would not use a story that would explode so quickly. Nor was it aimed at politically aware columnist like himself, or news junkies like me, but at those who get their news from a quick perusal of the tabloid headlines or the TV headline news.

These presented an easy-to-understand narrative, which could only be countered by a more complex rebuttal involving some detailed analysis - which neither of these two media is prepared to do. As an example, one of the tabloids only covered the affair in a report of Ian Blair denying there was a cover-up, without once saying what he was supposed to be covering up: thus giving the impression of false accusations against the police.

The general population has been left with a feeling that the victim was a "wrong-un", who, although innocent, somehow deserved what he got.



Sir: Stockwell was a classic example of a lie being halfway round the world before the truth had got its jacket on. Thankfully there are still those who possess enough true morals and modern technology to help the truth catch up and hopefully, for the sake of all good people, it will eventually win.



Sir: In all the speculation over the death of a seemingly innocent Brazilian at Stockwell, people seem to be missing the fundamental questions: when was the "shoot to kill" policy adopted on the streets of the UK, on whose authority, and why was no one told about it at the time?

If "the rules have changed" to enable police and special forces to shoot people at random on suspicion, without going through all the tedious paraphernalia of justice that used to make us the good guys, we should at least have been warned, so we could leave our rucksacks at home.



Sir: Do I hear Ian Blair's statements correctly? Do we now have to accept "collateral damage" in the policing of the streets of London?



Sir: Perhaps the horrifying death of Jean Charles de Menezes will put paid once and for all to the mantra of all repressive states: If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about.



Respect for the dead

Sir: Nice of Tony Blair to make such glowing and respectful tributes to first Robin Cook and then Mo Mowlam upon their deaths. Pity he didn't take more notice of them when they were alive.




Sir: After 25 years and 50 assignments as a management consultant in the private and public sectors, I support Marie Woolf ("Advice from private consultants costs Government £1bn a year", 19 Aug) about their excessive use. Organisations call them in when directors cannot agree on major changes which are obvious to everyone else and when a weak chief executive cannot bang their heads together. This incompetence in business is bad enough but in the public sector it costs us £1bn a year.



Two-wheeled menace

Sir: Andrew Cosgrove (letter, 19 August) defends pavement cyclists on the grounds that pedestrians should look where they are going. I am sure that most do, but they are not equipped with all-round vision, and it is the silent menace approaching from behind that creates the greatest hazard. Possibly cyclists can indeed live with pedestrians, but the converse is less likely to be true. A rider and machine, together weighing perhaps 100kg and moving at 10 mph, can do a lot of damage to human tissues.



Dropouts kept out

Sir: You report that there are more students wishing to enter British universities than they can accommodate (20 August). There is a brighter side to this picture. A high statistical positive coefficient of correlation is found between how difficult it is for students to be admitted into universities and the percentage of them who graduate.



Triumphant return

Sir: According to various reports it costs Nasa approximately $500,000 to fly the space shuttle Discovery back to Cape Canaveral in Florida from Edwards air force base in California on the roof of a Jumbo 747. At those prices they could have at least put it in business class.