Africa, reading lessons and others

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The Independent Online

Changes enforced by the West have hurt African living standards

Changes enforced by the West have hurt African living standards

Sir: Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal Africa Society, makes some excellent points about the continent's failings and indeed our own complicity, past and present (The Africa issue, 1 June). It is convenient for us in the West to ignore our own role, or that of the governments we elect, in Africa's problems, so I applaud the reference to imperial lines on the map, and unfair trade.

However, one of Africa's biggest problems, the so-called "structural adjustment" imposed upon the continent by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others, is not mentioned. Throughout Africa, since the 1980s, governments have been forced to slash health and education budgets so that Africans have often been faced with unaffordable fees for public services. Other neo-liberal economic policies which governments have been pressured into adopting include privatisation which has resulted, for example, in South Africans losing access to safe drinking water and dying of cholera as a result.

Then there is the question of debt. Yes, the very real problems of corruption will still exist, but debt relief has very real benefits. For example, since receiving substantial debt relief Tanzania has been able to abolish primary school fees, resulting in a 66 per cent increase in attendance, clearly an enormous investment in the country's children, and its future . The majority of third world debt is simply unpayable and sooner or later it will have to be written off.

I will be present among the many thousands of concerned citizens, trade unionists, environmentalists, socialists, anarchists and others in Edinburgh and Gleneagles to call for fairer trade rules, debt cancellation, more and better aid, and, indeed, to demand serious action on climate change.



Reading ability also depends on home

Sir: The Commons education and skills select committee is right to wish for higher standards of reading, but the Education Secretary's response in launching a review of teaching methods reveals a depressingly simplistic view about how children learn to read ("Kelly bows to pressure for teaching by phonics", 3 June).

On a recent visit to a school in Rochester I encountered wonderful resources along with dynamic teaching which used phonics along with other methods depending on the needs of each group. But not one child I spoke to reads regularly at home, has a parent who reads to them or even knows where the local library is.

Teaching methods cannot work in isolation. There is no single magic pill, phonics or otherwise, to this complex issue. So unless Ruth Kelly's commission is given a far wider brief, to look at all relevant factors including home involvement and support, it will be a complete waste of public money.



Sir: Once more there is debate about the methods employed to teach primary school children to read and there is concern about the seeming intractability of the percentage who succeed. However, very little discussion emerges about the 29 per cent of 14-year-olds in England who failed to achieve the expected level in English in 2004.

Surely, if it is wrong that one in four of our 11-year-olds is unable to read properly, it is even more worrying that one in three of our 14-year-olds is also failing. Good literacy is essential both for the future life chances of young people and for a healthy society. We need to extend the focus beyond primary level and ensure that support is available for the 11-to-16-year-olds still struggling with reading skills.



Sir: I was most interested to read of the Government's concerns about the various methods used to teach reading in primary schools (report 3 June). It seems that the Government is coming round to the way of thinking that one simple, easy to understand method (ie synthetic phonics) may be the best way forward.

Could I also plead that the same attention be devoted to the teaching of mathematics at primary level? Both of my children, now aged 12 and nine, have been desperately confused by the variety of methods demonstrated by their teachers for solving simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems. Children seem to have to absorb at least three different techniques for each function, meaning a possible 12 different mathematical processes to be taken on board, understood and analysed. If I ask my children how to, for instance, multiply 234 by 52, I get blank looks, confusion, attempts to recall which of the various methods should be employed and general concern from both sides that the current system is failing them. During the 1960s and 70s, we were taught one simple, fail-safe method for solving each function, and those methods have served us well in adulthood.



Sir: With the limited time that teachers have to teach reading in school, I think you will find that much of the one-on-one teaching of reading probably happens at home. In which case, phonics is the method I think that most parents would use. Children have been taught to read using phonics, among other methods.



More democracy, or EU crisis will persist

Sir: The resounding rejections of the proposed EU Constitution are a clear signal that the EU bureaucracy is completely out of touch with us, the electorate. Of more concern is the paucity of accountability for its actions. No amount of political sleight of hand by Chirac, Schröder, Giscard d'Estaing, and the other usual suspects can avoid the need for proper democratic accountability in the governance of the EU.

We are over-fond of preaching this mantra to other countries, who are often in the developing world. Until we, as good Europeans, practice some real democracy within our own borders we will not make progress. The political crisis we are currently in will return to haunt us if it is not properly resolved. If anyone is in any doubt about the way private and public institutions in a capitalist system can develop into slothful, inefficient bureaucracies, I suggest they spend a few hours scanning J K Galbraith's prescient work, The Age of Uncertainty, first published in 1977.



Sir: Being Dutch myself, I appreciate the Dutch death knell for the EU constitution, although not for the three selfish reasons Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende mentioned: fear of sovereignty loss, the pace of change, and the fact that the Netherlands would be paying too much to the EU budget.

For sure, some voters were concerned about these issues, but other unmentioned reasons have played a significant role in the resounding 'Nee' as well. These include impaired democracy and social justice, degradation of the environment and a step back for animal welfare in the EU. Paying lip-service to animal welfare in the constitution while at the same time acknowledging cultural traditions which include bull-fighting, production of foie gras and the shooting of migratory birds is hypocritical to say the least. Even more so, the only aim in Articles III-227 and III-228 of the agricultural policy is to increase animal production, thereby excluding animal welfare from the agenda entirely. "No" to the current constitution means no to animal cruelty, and no to social injustice and environmental degradation. Once these areas are improved, I will reconsider my vote.



Causes of leukaemia in children

Sir: In Jeremy Laurance's article headed "Fears over child leukaemia link to power lines" (3 June), he quotes Professor John Toy, the medical director of Cancer Research UK, as saying: "The triggers that cause childhood leukaemia are most likely a random course of events over which a parent has no control."

Professor Toy appears to have overlooked another study, also published in the British Medical Journal this week, which concluded that children attending day-care centres on a regular basis in the first few months of life are less likely to develop acute lymphoblastic leukaemia than are children who do not. The researchers suggest that the most plausible interpretation is that this protection comes from exposure to common infections, noting that similar associations have been reported for type 1 diabetes and allergies in children.

There is, therefore, a positive message which parents can do something about.



The strain of taking the train, or trying to

Sir: I was struck by your front page report of 28 May on the many disadvantages to our climate of air travel. I had hoped to travel this summer to Poznan, in Poland, by train. After many long and fractious phone calls, I finally gave up and booked a cheap flight to Warsaw. No one on the end of any phone came anywhere close to telling me if could I actually get to Poznan by train from London ("You'll have to change at least four times before you get to Berlin."), or how much it would cost ("You'll have to phone German railways."). If train enthusiasts can't take the train, there's not much hope for the rest, is there?



Vote 'RON', and get 'none of the above'

Sir: Rob Archer (letter, 3 June) asks for "none of the above" to be added to ballot papers. Not for the first time, Oxford University has already taken the lead in this matter.

A candidate called RON is present on ballot papers for elections to all posts in the Middle Common Rooms (MCRs) and Junior Common Rooms (JCRs) of colleges, as well as to posts in many other student societies, including the students' union. RON is not a real person, but an acronym for "re-open nominations", and appears on the ballot papers even against candidates who might otherwise have won uncontested. This means that voters can choose to reject any and all candidates they are dissatisfied with, opening up the possibility that more suitable candidates can thereafter be found. This choice, as Mr Archer correctly says, is a valuable political right.



Sir: Politicians should be wary of making general judgements about voter apathy when public eagerness to participate in the democratic process is ably demonstrated in recent referendum polls in the Netherlands and France. Voter apathy appears to be inversely proportional to the power of the vote. Greater consultation of voters by politicians is one way to improve and modernise democracies that were built for a bygone era.

Referenda are expensive and unwieldy but fortunately we are now in the age of high-speed broadband with relatively cheap, regular and secure electronic political consultation a distinct possibility. An interesting spin-off from the UK government identity car programme will be the chance to use our unique identities to participate in secure electronic parliamentary consultation and election polling. I await the day when Governments, select committees and MPs have at hand up-to-the-minute public opinion on any important subject matter that they may be debating. The democratic pinciple should mean that the voting public have the whip hand!



Sir: Charles Kennedy states that it takes, 26,877; 44,251; and 96,378 votes to elect a Labour, Conservative and a Lib Dem MP, respectively. May I suggest that henceworward you use these numbers as multipliers to portray how each Commons vote went according to the wishes of the voting public.

It could also form the basis of an easily understandable form of PR. We would vote twice, once for an MP and then for a party. MPs would, in Commons divisions, wield the voting power of all their party's votes, divided by the number of that party's MPs.



VC heroes of India

Sir: In your article "The army history forgot" (3 June) you included a picture of "Three unnamed Indian soldiers at Buckingham Palace in October 1945 after receiving the Victoria Cross." I'm not certain of the number of VCs awarded in the period 1939-1945 specifically to the Indian Army, but surely you should have known and included the names of these gallant men in the caption. Are you not perpetuating your own headline? We should never forget these individuals and what they achieved.



Dangers of smoking  

Sir: Lord Nimmo Smith was correct - the general public should have known about smoking causing cancer by 1964 ("Widow loses 12-year compensation battle with cigarette firm", 1 June). My friends and I who were at school before that time called cigarettes cancer sticks. I quote from chapter 13 of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis: "It sounds dangerous ... It is, more dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at 50 unless I stop this smoking". That book was first published 1920.



Armani Man gets about

Sir: Armani Man must be expanding his activities along with the European Union. I first met him in Rome in 1992, since then in Verona, Paris, Rome again, Milan and finally to date, Paris again last month. I can't claim that he was the same man each time, unless he is a master of disguise.



It's a tough language

Sir: I applaud the move to return to teaching reading through synthetic phonics, but there are problems. Try this sentence I have just devised which has 30 words ending in "-ough", with 9 different pronunciations:

Although I thought that I ought to have bought enough doughnuts on furlough with the dough I brought to the borough, I coughed roughly and hiccoughed as the wind soughed in the boughs and wrought havoc in the drought, and the snake thoroughly sloughed its tough skin in the trough by the lough, while I fought doughtily, ploughed through the slough, sought help as a chough flew by, and all for nought.