The Spectator

Feedback | 11 December 2004

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Clarke v. Clark

Ross Clark is wrong to assert that the government exerts any influence over the value ascribed to exams in school performance tables (‘Lies, damned lies and education’, 20 November). He does a gross disservice to the pupils and teachers whose attainment he seeks to belittle.

The regulatory authority for public examinations — the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) — is responsible for the maintenance of examination standards. Its extensive programme to monitor standards over time does not support the contention that there has been a lowering of GCSE standards.

It is the QCA, not the government, which established and consistently maintained its judgment that six-unit GNVQs are deemed to be the equivalent of four GCSEs. Achievement in these qualifications is legitimately counted on this basis. To describe the qualification as training in how to use Microsoft Windows is nonsense — success requires problem-solving and the application of a range of skills in a variety of contexts.

The Ninestiles story is a remarkable one. Its last Ofsted report described the quality of teaching in the school as outstanding. Let’s celebrate excellence in our education.

Charles Clarke
Department for Education and Skills, London SW1

The class of ’98

Jonathan Osborne (Letters, 4 December) misses the point of the 1898 exam paper, in dismissing it for teaching such outdated skills as the ‘ability to translate Latin into English, identify genitive plurals, multiply pounds, shillings and pence or manipulate fractions’. These exercises, at the very least, teach precision and accuracy of expression and thought; and that is exactly what most modern education fails to do.

Sheridan Gilley
University of Durham, County Durham

The UK’s Wild West

The rosy illusion of prosperity in urban Ulster for which Leo McKinstry (‘Ulster is all right’, 4 December) seems to have fallen is founded on a bloated and bloody-minded state sector which has exploited both direct rule and devolution to enrich itself. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland faces a doubling of local taxes and a vast increase in the charges which we already pay for water and sewerage services.

This government intends to force our grammar schools to convert to comprehensives and to drive state education in Ulster down to the appalling standard of that in the constituency of our Secretary for Education.

Even in these days when the holders of the great offices of state make the flesh creep, Labour is able to find a small band of even creepier no-hopers to lord it over us as direct-rule ministers, the only alternatives offered being devolution staffed by unrepentant criminals or absorption into the Eurozone.

Added to this is a social structure which encourages large families, and a benefits system which encourages the adult component of large families to stay at home. We can only thank the Almighty — and at least most people here still believe in Him — for the eastern European immigrants now flooding the province because without them the place would grind to a halt.

The IRA has given up nothing but clouds of hot air and a few rusty rifles, but has gained the replacement of a fairly competent police force with one no more attractive, but much less effective and headed by an unctuous Englishman obsessed with the traffic problems of his native place. Many of the murderers and thieves released by this government are employed at public expense to agitate and subvert, while others have gone back to their criminal careers.

Viewed from the Wild Western edge of the UK, the licence granted to a fully armed IRA for effectively unlimited criminality seems less trivial than it does from the forsaken reaches of Metroland.

Mark Wilson
Armagh, N. Ireland

Wider still ...Rod Liddle gets it wrong (Thought for the day, 27 November). There are many more readers of The Spectator than the 65,000 who buy the magazine. Library copies are read by all sorts including those who simply cannot afford it. These patrons can be decidedly scruffy and it might tax Mr Liddle to have to whip them into shape. And surely most subscribers pass their copy around. My copy works its way around a government office in midtown Manhattan.

This informal circulation of already read copies goes way back. In 1922–1923 The Spectator carried an exchange on just this topic. Many of the letters are worth quoting. One from Papua in the Pacific reads: ‘My copy is read by seven brother officers in this town, who are on my list for interchange of reading matter, and many are the interesting discussions which follow, consequent on the views expressed in your columns. When it has completed its circle in Port Moresby, I dispatch it to a planter in the Eastern Division, who in turn hands it around amongst his several neighbours. To the best of my knowledge, mine is the only copy which comes to this country, and you may be sure it is a very tattered journal by the time it is laid aside by the last reader. It probably ends its days in a native village as cigarette paper, printed matter being highly prized by our people for that purpose.’ Other correspondents told of pass-alongs at scattered military posts in East Africa and also a Moravian mission station on the border of Tibet. Remoteness bred an intense loyalty.

Bill Whelan
Port Washington, NY

Swedish sweeteners

Someone should correct the misguided assumption of all Lefties that just across the North Sea lies a safe and contented socialist utopia (‘Gordon’s Swedish model’, 4 December). A recent trip to Sweden gave me a more accurate impression of the puritanical cultural atmosphere. A week with friends on an isolated island, hiking and fishing (which is still legal), was contrasted with a visit to the nearest town.

Linkoping was impossibly neat, tidy and regimented, but at the same time totally devoid of fun. There were no bars to be seen and only a handful of non-smoking restaurants. A prohibitively expensive beer was eventually tracked down, but the by then frantic search had made us all feel like alcoholic criminals. What was most bizarre was the widespread social attachment to sweets and confectionery. Grown adults were queuing in docile desperation to indulge their infantile taste for sugary delights — obviously the only vice of which the government allowed people to partake. The lesson is clear: nanny states like the one in Sweden don’t just cost a fortune, they also corrupt the character of a people. When a government treats people like children, they eventually end up behaving that way.

Blair Gibbs
London N2

Praying for bad people

Theodore Dalrymple complains of the ‘unctuously sermonising Church of England voice’ that prompted him to turn off the wireless in disgust (Second opinion, 4 December). I am sure he is right to criticise. Public prayer is a demanding business and the middle way between sanctimony and matiness is often a hard one to follow.

Yet the parsonical voice was surely right to pray for hostages and hostage-takers alike. To pray for someone is not to condone their actions, but simply to bring them before God. The gospels repeatedly show Christ praying for those whose deeds are evil, not least those who crucify him.

Christian faith teaches that the world is created in peace and love, but is constantly cut off from God by the absurdity of human evil. Why there is evil we do not know, but we do know that it is our duty to resist it. So, we do pray for mugged and mugger alike. Not because mugging is good, or even inevitable, but because it is absurd. As St Paul says, ‘We do not know how to pray aright,’ but we do know when, where and for whom to pray. At all times, in all places and, like Our Lord, for all.

Edmund Newey
Newmarket, Suffolk

Tally whoops!

The Master of the Ampleforth Beagles, as I said (‘The hounds of heaven’, 4 December), ‘likes to ... correct hunting solecisms’ — so I must apologise for attributing an absolute howler to him: he does not count two hares, like two hounds, as a couple but, of course, as a brace.
Martin Vander Weyer
Helmsley, N. Yorkshire