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Figures don't add up:

The figures you published on pay differences between men and women in universities ("It's time for women to turn the tables", EDUCATION, 11 November) are misleading. There are two issues here. One is that there are fewer women in top jobs in higher education - an equal opportunities issue. The other, separate issue is equal pay for equal work. A comparison of pay levels by grade would have been fairer and the differential would have been far smaller (see the Bett Report).

Nevertheless, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) views this issue as a priority, and is working actively on it. The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, on behalf of CVCP, has set up working groups with the unions to implement the equal pay recommendations in the Bett Report.

Contrary to the impression given by Tom Wilson, the head of the universities department of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, in your article, the Commission on University Career Opportunity (CUCO) on behalf of CVCP is driving through equal opportunities in universities. CUCO monitors the sector regularly. A survey of the impact of its flagship publication, Equal Opportunities - A Guide, found 85 per cent of respondents were using it as a basis for their equal opportunities strategies.

CVCP is committed to its role of leading the sector towards equality on campus and will be working with CUCO to step up that activity in the coming months.

BARONESS WARWICK of UNDERCLIFFE

Chief Executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals

There may indeed be pay discrimination against women in universities, but the survey you cite is not "damning proof" of it. Indeed, if universities were improving the gender ratio of their staff, one would expect women's average pay to be lower, since most new appointments are in the lower grades.

An important point not made is that the average pay of women within given grades is also lower. Since advancement within a grade is solely by annual increment, this indicates either that women's initial appointments are at lower levels (which would certainly be discriminatory) or that women are more recent appointees, or that they are being promoted out of their grades before they reach the top. It is certainly the case that there are many older men who have reached the tops of their grades and who will not be promoted further, and these would lead to higher average pay for men.

NIALL MACKAY BA, PhD

Lecturer, University of Sheffield

Toys aren't us

Your interesting feature article on the German "nursery without toys" research project ("The nursery that took all the children's toys away", EDUCATION, 11 November) contained much affirming evidence for those who find the thrust of current British early years educational policy fundamentally wrong-headed. In pre-school years, children's central developmental need is to develop the will and nourish the imagination.

The current British early years policies have far more to do with the unconscious, anxiety-driven projections of adults (particularly control- freak politicians and policy makers) than they do with children's objective developmental needs. A state-imposed early years learning environment that is obsessed with intrusive surveillance and adult-centric assessment is fundamentally antithetical to the kind of healthy early years environment highlighted so effectively by the German project.

DR RICHARD HOUSE

Norwich

Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten should be compulsory reading for Tony Blair and Chris Woodhead.

This project, where children are, within reason, left to their own devices with spartan resources (blankets, tables, chairs etc) at certain times during their nursery education, nurtures imagination, interactive skills, a sense of purpose, and an ability to concentrate on tasks. They are naturally developing - by and within themselves - learning skills thatthey can use later on in their educational lives. And because these activities reflect their own stages of development and ability - rather than an arbitrarily imposed norm - they are able to feel good about their own achievements, and the learning process itself.

In Britain, unfortunately, children are expected to grapple with a welter of abstract concepts before many of them are ready, and this too often leads to an antagonistic attitude at school because they are unable to cope and feel alienated by the whole process. A vicious circle of disruption and failure soon develops, and this continues and worsens throughout their education to the detriment of themselves, their peers, and their teachers. It is time to raise the school starting age to six, as in many European countries, so that by the time children start school, they are developmentally equipped and ready to learn in a more formal and structured way.

DAVID ROBERTS

BA (Hons) PGCE

Hastings, East Sussex

Practice makes perfect, sometimes

I read with interest the article (Home Help No 5: "Nag or praise? How to hit the right note", EDUCATION, 11 November) on how to encourage one's children to practise the musical instrument they are learning to play.

But what are the parents' long-term expectations of their children? The article focused on the social aspect of music-making, but parents should be wary; they may get more than they bargained for. If their child discovers a talent for and a joy in playing, the child may wish to pursue a career as a musician.

As a student, I played alongside people who were torn between their own love of music and their parents' desire for them to pursue a career in a respectable, safe profession, such as law or medicine.

On the other hand, it can be the parents who have responded to the child's natural talent and see themselves as only providing an opportunity for that talent to develop. Unfortunately, because the world of orchestral musicianship is both time-consuming and insular, a child who starts an instrument in primary school, proves talented enough to advance in high school through the county, regional, and then perhaps national youth orchestra, may not discover until they are halfway through a three-year course at music college that what they really wanted to do was to work with horses.

MOIRA LANGSTON

Ealing, London

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