Patriotic principles, A-levels and others

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Declaration of patriotic principles shows the power of hymns

Declaration of patriotic principles shows the power of hymns

Sir: I can but applaud Terence Blacker's judgement on the hymn "I vow to thee my country" (13 August). It was never intended as a hymn, but was a declaration in 1918 by Sir Arthur Spring-Rice, His Majesty's Ambassador to the United States, of the principles by which his life was directed. He did not know, of course, but he wrote it on the eve of his death and it was a moving last testament. It might just have been justified as a hymn at Prince Charles' wedding, but surely nowhere else.

I cannot however applaud his idea that hymns should not be taken seriously. While one may not think much about the words at the time, the very act of singing slides the words into the mind, where they very often stick, and become a much more important definition of the singer's faith than any credal statement. That is why it is so important that hymns should be both true and honest. Not all the contents of our hymnbooks are that.

The sticking power of hymns is well illustrated by my experience with this very piece. In the 1980s I had the task of setting up wedding services in London for a number of very well-placed young people. The most common requests for hymns were for this and "Jerusalem", neither of which have much to say about what is happening in a wedding service. In discussion the reason given for the choice was usually that it was what had stuck in their minds from school chapel.

We in the hymn societies of the country study hymns and promote their thoughtful use not simply because we like them, but because they are so very important to the spiritual health not only of churchgoers, but of the many who do not attend church but are fond of hymns.

Vice Executive President, Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Cardiff

A-level 'gold standard' narrows opportunity

Sir: How depressing are the debates already raging about this year's predicted A-level results, conversations so constrained by the peculiar English respect for elitism and contempt for aspiration and self-improvement.

David Miliband has correctly characterised the rising levels of success in examinations as indicative of a new wave of commitment to higher education from a sector of society which has not previously contemplated this. I attended university in the early 1960s and was then part of a similarly new cohort of undergraduates whose parents had never been to university. We were the beneficiaries of the expansion in and improvements to school education in the 1950s, and also of the belief in the expansion of opportunity on merit rather than on privilege.

The definition of "merit" then was narrow, and this reflected both an exaggerated deference for presumed excellence as represented by the old Oxbridge vision and also the pragmatic need to manage demand when relatively few university places were available.

Forty years later, neither of those justifications for barriers to access holds water. Ensuring that university education is more widely accessible will inevitably mean that the criteria for university entrance will be broadened, as the normal distribution of ability does not fluctuate to reflect political preferences. But our snobbish and ambivalent attitudes towards education mean that public debate is concentrated on how to make sure that the undeserving do not have access to university, rather than on more important issues such as what education should be doing for our children and how we can manage selection for tertiary education without distorting secondary education and imposing unacceptable stress on young people.

Proposals for refining A-levels are likely to force an even more claustrophobic and narrow concentration on ensuring that relatively few children learn to give the correct responses to a small range of questions, where we should be aspiring to the development of a wide range of talents, skills and interests.

We cannot have it all ways. If we want to broaden opportunity, then those taking it will come from a wider range of abilities. We have nothing to fear from this. But if we want to continue with our obsession with "gold standards" and "elite universities", we must recognise that this undermines the expansion of opportunity. We need to learn that it is possible to recognise achievement at all levels.

Walton on Thames, Surrey

Sir: I am 18 years old and am awaiting five A-level results, which I ought to receive on Thursday.

Every year there are many arguments concerning the exams, and most state that they are getting easier or are marked less strictly. I think that, in general, students are working harder and harder because they want to access popular university courses with high entry requirements, coupled with the fact that teaching standards are also improving as each year teachers know more about the curriculum 2000 syllabus.

A reform of the system to "grade the A grade" would leave many students who work long and hard for the A grade feeling unhappy. At present, students must achieve 80 per cent or more to be awarded the A grade. After taking many such examinations myself I can assure you it isn't easy.

I do not believe it is necessary to introduce a starred A grade for universities to select candidates. They can look at module scores and many top universities also interview candidates.

Aycliffe, Co Durham

Prisoners' children

Sir: It is heartening to see the Government recognising prisoners' children as a vulnerable group ("Children of criminals to be 'targeted' and 'tracked' ", 16 August); however, the measures proposed by Ms Blears could lead to children being labelled and stigmatised.

Prisoners' children have committed no crimes, yet they are already being labelled as future criminals. They are, in fact, an extremely vulnerable and excluded group in need of early support and information. Any plans to track them must be done with the utmost concern for the welfare of the child, and only with the co-operation and consent of a parent or guardian.

I question Ms Blears' figure of 65 per cent, but agree that prisoners' children are at a higher risk of ending up in prison themselves. However, this is not because they are predisposed to offending. Prisoners' children are often from very deprived families, which already places them in a higher risk group. This is exacerbated when a parent is sent to prison. Many families are forced to move home, and face financial hardship and stigma; children face problems at school and many lose contact with their imprisoned parent.

The answer lies more in keeping prisoners closer to home, reducing the number of people being sent to prison in the first place and providing families with non-judgemental confidential information and support.

Director, Action for Prisoners' Families
London SW6

Sir: Tom Curr (letter, 16 August) supports the building of more prisons to house more "criminals". To illustrate his argument, he suggests that those promoting a cut in prison population would also "reduce the treatments provided by the NHS in order to solve shortages of hospital beds". This analogy serves to highlight the short-termism and populist agendas that blight most moves to provide solutions to social, cultural and political problems.

To solve the shortages of hospital beds, we should be working harder to develop a society that is more educated and responsible in regard to its own health; to solve our waste-disposal problems, we shouldn't be providing more landfills or researching ways of destroying waste, we should be developing a more responsible attitude towards the production of waste; to alleviate congestion on the roads, don't build more roads, encourage less use of vehicles; to reduce overcrowding in our prisons, we should be taking more responsibility for the social conditions which encourage criminal behaviour.


Sir: One can understand (if not approve of) the efforts of politicians such as David Blunkett and Michael Howard to try to gain political advantage by playing on the electorate's fear of crime. What is harder to appreciate is why a journalist such as Bruce Anderson should fill half a page of your newspaper with a piece on "the collapse of order and rising crime" (Opinion, 16 August) when the latest British Crime Survey report confirms that most forms of crime have been declining since 1995.

School of Law
University of Bristol

Shift in the weather

Sir: Florida voters would be right to take a cynical view of George Bush's political opportunism in visiting the hurricane victims ("Bush accused of exploiting hurricane in Florida as he offers to aid disaster area", 16 August). The US President may be desperate for their votes, but he has no intention of doing anything to reduce the likelihood of such extreme weather events occurring again and again.

Hurricanes are naturally occurring phenomena, but the evidence suggests that their frequency and impact is being exacerbated by warming sea surface temperatures resulting from climate change - something Mr Bush is very reluctant to do anything about.

So as the victims pick through the wreckage of Hurricane Charley, they might care to consider whether it really is in their interests to allow the President's friends in the oil industry to carry on raking in profits while carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. They might also like to spare a thought for some of the less wealthy countries that are exposed to these hurricanes, where many more lives are lost and even more damage done.

Executive Director, Friends of the Earth, London N1

Sir: As I look out at another inclement day and see the report of the disastrous flood at Boscastle in the paper it occurs to me that as spring gets earlier every year and autumn gets later, so summer is stretched - to breaking point? Is it possible that we now have five seasons of approximately equal length, the new one being a rainy season from mid July to late August?

Thurlestone, Devon

Work and family

Sir: I am very sympathetic to Karen Rodgers' last paragraph (letter: "Medical profession and work-life balance", 9 August), but there is a point to be made. I write as a trainee and a consultant in surgery in the NHS from 1948-1988, and then as one who himself needed major surgery.

The practice of surgery does make special demands. A real personal relationship is formed when a patient entrusts her or his fate to the skill of the surgeon. The nature of an operation is not always predictable and recovery may be complicated, and then the surgeon has an obligation to see the patient through to recovery. I was deeply thankful when my surgeon appeared at 7am on Good Friday, because recovery was not straightforward.

It is a fact of surgical life that its demands are not always respectful of the clock. Candidates for a career in surgery - irrespective of gender - must recognise that meeting its obligations will, often, rely on the goodwill of partner and children. Effort must be made to keep potential clashes between the demands of family and work to a minimum, and they must be anticipated and discussed. Then, "empathy, selflessness and good sense" will more easily lead to a fairer work-home balance.


Pension plan

Sir: Michael Harrison proposed an interesting solution to the pension time bomb, "the third way" (business, 11 August). In essence it is a system of "non-pensionable" pay rises for public servants. However he is well behind the times; Mr Brown is already on the case. As an MoD civil servant I already receive a significant proportion (10-15 per cent) of my income as a bonus/retention allowance, which is neither cumulative nor pensionable. Why not others?



Sir: David Ross (letter, 11 August) seems to think that discounted cash flow, the premise that costs arising at the start of a project are of greater value than costs arising in the future, is "preposterous". Would he prefer to invest his money in a project that started paying him interest immediately, or the same sum in an alternative project, promising the same rate of interest, but with payments starting in say 10 years' time? Don't forget the risk that in 10 years' time some advance in science or engineering may have rendered the latter project completely worthless.

Offham, Kent

Politics of envy

Sir: Do I detect a taste of sour grapes in your disparagement of the Blairs' villas and Mrs Blair's US speechifying (editorial, 14 August)? Are they not commoners who have made it to the top by dint of hard work with their political and legal skills? Why should they not take advantage of the perks offered by the establishment? Are they not better role models than Lord Home of the Hirsel, Harold Macmillan and even Churchill, who all started much higher up the ladder? I am not out of the top drawer myself, so I cannot help admiring the "arriviste".

Ripon, North Yorkshire

Power to the robins

Sir: The artist Angela Cockayne claims (Visual Arts, 12 August) that manufacturing something in large numbers can "empower" it; and that by making a flock of 364 wax robins the bird is "empowered". According to the OUP Twentieth-Century Words "empower" means "to make a person or group stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their lives and claiming their rights". Does this mean that it will be no longer safe to work in the allotment as the robin (a bird noted for aggressive behaviour towards its own kind), thus "empowered", exercises its rights to worms and territory?

Wells, Somerset