Today's news

August 13, 2002

Minister defends exam standards
Critics of rising A-level pass rates are today branded elitist and incoherent in the first signs of a government fightback on standards ahead of record-breaking examination results expected on Thursday. David Miliband, the school standards minister, writes in The Times today that there is no research evidence to support assertions that A levels have been watered down in spite of 20 successive years of increasing pass rates.

Lax exam boards could explain improved passes
The relentless rise in exam passes has been attributed to a variety of causes including lax examiners, better teaching and even improved nutrition. Last summer Jeffrey Robinson, a senior examiner with the OCR board, said GCSE grade boundaries were fixed to get better results. But Professor Roger Murphy of Nottingham University believes that the improved performances are largely because of greater pressure on pupils to achieve good grades and the availability of more information about how to achieve good grades.

Bar on poll showing pupil despair at A-level carping
The government has blocked publication of research showing that sixth formers feel their exam results are devalued by repeated claims that the exams are getting easier. They also believe that their workload has increased because of changes to A levels two years ago and they consider that employers and the media lack understanding of what their exams and workload involve.

You can't beat a bac
Conor Ryan, former adviser to David Blunkett when he was education secretary, urges Estelle Morris to take the bold way out of the annual row about A levels and go French -- adopt the baccalaureate.

Ten numbers that can trace your family tree
An Oxford University spin-off company is to launch a service that will enable the public to trace their ancestors by typing DNA code into the internet. The service from Oxford Ancestors, founded by Brian Sykes, professor of genetics at Oxford, can be used by anyone who knows their ten-digit code for their Y chromosome, which is easily found by sending the company a swab taken from the inside of your cheek, and £150. When the code is typed into the website, it will bring up the matches for a person's surname and DNA and the country where they live.

Killer virus may spread through US, expert says
America's epidemic of West Nile virus, the disease passed on by mosquitoes that has claimed at least seven lives, is the worst in US history and may spread to the whole of the country, according to Dr Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control.
(Times, Guardian)

New courses adapt to changing times
Universities are having to rewrite their prospectuses to attract highly discerning candidates in a tight market. Engineering courses are being promoted as 'music systems engineering' and would-be aviation students are being wooed with the promise of a flight simulator.

Scientists identify brain's lie detector
A 'cheating centre' in the brain has been identified by researchers led by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California at Santa Barbara. The findings suggest 2 million years of human evolution have led to a specialised set of brain cells devoted to the critically important social task of detecting whether someone is a cheat or a liar.
(Independent, Daily Telegraph)

Scientists breed mice that stay slim
An animal that can eat a rich, high-fat diet without putting on weight or risking diabetes has been created by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. The development of mice that defy attempts to make them fat provides new insights into the genetic mechanisms that underpin diet and suggest it may one day be possible to devise drugs to protect against obesity and diabetes.
(Daily Telegraph)

Leukaemia drug approved in U-turn
Cancer charities have welcomed a reversal by the medicines watchdog that will back the use of a 'landmark' drug for the treatment of leukaemia in the NHS. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence said that Gilvec should be recommended for patients who had not responded to other therapies or who were in the chronic stage of the disease.
(Independent, Financial Times, Times)

A banana a day can keep strokes at bay
A daily banana is a good way of warding off strokes, scientists at the Queen's Medical Center in Hawaii have found. An eight-year study of 5,600 men and women over 65 found those with the least potassium in their diet were 1.5 times more likely to have a stroke than those with the most. Bananas are a useful source of potassium.
(Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph)

Crowded classes add up to failure, says maths pioneer
The head of an internationally renowned centre for teaching maths has warned that standards in Britain are suffering because of overcrowded classrooms. Hiroshi Kumon, chairman of the Japanese Kumon Institute, said teachers could not deliver effective maths education in classes of 30 pupils.

Orwell's dirty secret
What happens when biographers discover something loathsome about their subject? D. J. Taylor on the ugly side of a radical hero.

Israeli writer calls on 'cowards' to act
Amos Oz, Israel's leading novelist, yesterday called Israeli and Palestinian leaders gutless cowards and said that the Middle East would eventually be divided 'into two separate family units, like a semi-detached house'.

Passion play
Why David Mamet's Oleanna, which concerns the balance of power between a student and tutor, seems even more electric in today's academic climate than when it was first produced a decade ago.

Thalidomide campaigner dies
Professor Richard Smithells, the award-winning paediatric researcher who fought for compensation for the victims of Thalidomide, has died aged 77.

Lit.critic and gay campaigner dies
A. E. Dyson, literary critic and editor who opposed 'progressive' education and campaigned for reform of homosexual law, has died aged 73.

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