The mile is no longer a mile (1 of 2)

August 25, 2011

I was disappointed to read Ann Mroz's uncritical support of the "four-minute mile" analogy for A-level standards offered by Neil Hopkins, principal of Peter Symonds College in Winchester (Leader, 18 August). If you will allow me to run with it a little...

While it is true that it is commonplace for modern athletes to run a mile in under four minutes, even more of them would be able to do so if they were allowed to break the mile into smaller distances and take rest breaks between each. Yet greater success would be achieved if runners were entitled to re-run any section of the mile, with the final timing being an aggregate of their fastest times over a sequence of short runs taken over a period of, say, two years.

No one questions whether the mile has become shorter, because it hasn't. Many of us question whether A levels have become easier because they are constantly changing. Indeed, so far as A-level mathematics is concerned, the race is unquestionably run over a shorter distance: in 2004, the three modules in pure mathematics were divided into four modules so that, since then, candidates have studied only five-sixths of the material studied by their older peers. This change was deliberate: not enough "runners" were entering the race as it was considered too long and too hard. Now it has been shortened, the number of competitors has increased, as has the number awarded As. The mile is no longer a mile.

Matthew Handy, Director of mathematics, dotmaths

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