Blair, schools and others

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The Independent Online

Blair tries to scare us all with his vision of Armageddon

Sir: I have seldom heard anything quite so appalling as the Sedgefield speech of Tony Blair. Not only was it full of his usual "sincerity" and "conviction", but he is now apparently trying to put the fear of God into us all. Soon we shall all be as neurotic as he apparently is. I am beginning to think he suffers from hyperactivity syndrome. His life seems to consist of taking "initiatives" or "reacting" to something or other, without adequate consideration of the consequences. For the sake of his party and the country he should now go.

He should admit that the WMD was a red herring, but then go on to say "but we were afraid that terrorists might get hold of nuclear material" or whatever, or even "we had to ensure the world's oil supplies" if that was the real reason.

As things stand, I just do not believe him, or George Bush. September 11 was certainly a shock to the American psyche and national pride, but hardly a threat to the whole western way of life. In so far as those responsible for the atrocity were organised and trained by al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, and the Taliban there were supporting them, the war on that country was justified, although there is little sign of any improvement in the life of its people. A few years ago the IRA nearly blew up half the Conservative government, destroyed half Manchester city centre and nearly brought the City of London to a halt. Yet no one considered them a threat to our way of life.

So what is so different about these Muslim terrorists, who represent only a tiny minority of fanatical fundamentalists? Blair says they want to bring about Armageddon. Maybe, or may be not, but I suspect that what they really want is to "humble" the West and bring about the withdrawal of its troops and way of life from the Muslim world.

For 150 years the West has interfered in one way or another in the Middle East, and it has brought little but strife, misery and humiliation to most of its people. No doubt, Bush, Blair etc think that this time it will be different. But why should it be?

PETER GILES
Whitchurch, Shropshire

Sir: Tony Blair is a dangerous man to have as our Prime Minister. Will none of his colleagues act to stop him, as Margaret Thatcher was eventually stopped?

F H SIMON
Amersham, Buckinghamshire

Politicians ignore schools' problems

Sir: I read the latest wizard wheeze for education suggested by the Tories with a sinking sense of déjà vu ("Tories extend voucher plan", 6 March).

During my 15 years as a teacher, I have endured a succession of politicians' bright ideas. Mr Blair seemed to hold up such hope for us when he came to office. However, it is clear that neither party is willing to do anything to address the real issues.

We are not recruiting or retaining enough talented teachers to teach our children. Much teaching takes place in badly designed and poorly maintained buildings with facilities that most adults would consider unacceptable in their own working environment. Class sizes are too large for teachers to give individual children the help they need and free or "non-contact" time is inadequate and usually

lost to covering for absent colleagues. Poor parenting and the resulting behaviour of many children adds to the stress. An assessment-driven and grossly over-bureaucratic "system" overwhelms us. We have a one-size-fits-all curriculum that is based on a watered-down grammar-school model, too simple-minded for our brighter children and inappropriately difficult for many others.

Large numbers of parents, who can afford to do so, are taking their children out of the state system to avoid these problems .

I am lucky enough to have taught in a succession of good schools with few serious behavioural problems. However, in 15 years I have not seen a single colleague reach normal retirement age. Every person I know who has left the profession has gone into a different job or has retired early through ill-health or before the stress forces them to go.

We have now reached the point where half of the current crop of mathematics graduates must enter the teaching profession if we are not to have a serious crisis in maths teaching. How many of these graduates will queue up for public denigration, mediocre pay, rotten facilities, badly-behaved children and the prospect of stress-induced ill health?

IAN RICHARDSON
Royston, Hertfordshire

Sir: It was with some interest that I noted that David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, suggested that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an appropriate role model to encourage girls to assert themselves at school (report, 6 March).

Although I am a long-standing admirer of Miss Summers's more notable achievements such as reeling in a rogue goddess, stopping her best friend from destroying the world and generally ensuring the well-being of humanity, there is a very tragic side to her character.

For Mr Bell's information, some of Buffy's not so glamorous exploits include being excluded from school, losing her virginity to a vampire and almost being raped by another vampire (before eventually falling in love with him), in addition to the excessive teenage angst experienced by all American teenagers (well at least by the ones on US TV drama). It's one of the reasons that the show was so successful, because Buffy was unpredictable and often made the wrong choices in life

I have no objection to Mr Bell suggesting suitable TV role models for school children, but next time, it might pay for him to conduct a Criminal Records Check of his intended subjects.

Dr ANDREW WILCOX
Telford

Sir: There are many advantages to scrapping all tests for seven-year-olds (report, 8 March), but one that has not been emphasised is that it may reduce the numbers of parents removing their children from state education and placing them in private schools.

All state schools have limited resources and my local primary school admits that teachers often have to concentrate on pupils who are borderline passes in the tests. Smarter children can be left unchallenged and unstretched.

Frustrated at seeing their children "tread water" at school, many parents who can afford to do so are putting them into private education with smaller class sizes, in the hope that they will then receive the extra stimulation they need and deserve.

KAY SCHLICH
East Preston, West Sussex

Windfarm plans

Sir: The MOD, despite reports to the contrary, objected to only a handful of windfarm planning applications in the UK last year ("Military restrictions on wind farms 'hit green energy hopes', 1 March"). We are absolutely committed to working with industry, local authorities and other government departments to meet the Government's targets on renewable energy.

It is not unusual for companies to propose multiple sites to the MoD - and other bodies - for possible windfarms on the understanding that some will not be appropriate, and with the intention to build only one farm. For this reason, to talk of the number of objections the MoD raises at the informal "pre-applications" stage is misleading, since our objections do not directly relate to final numbers of windfarms built, nor are they the only reason windfarm proposals may eventually fail.

We encourage industry to work with us at an early stage of proposed development to ensure that together we can minimise a proposed windfarm's impact on defence infrastructure and maximise its likelihood of planning success. For example, recently, at Hadyard Hill in Scotland, we worked constructively with industry to enable consent to be given to a windfarm close to the edge of a low-flying area that will meet 13 per cent of Scotland's renewable energy targets by 2010.

IVOR CAPLIN
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
Ministry of Defence
London SW1

Palestine's history

Sir: Harry Sparks (letter, 6 March) has a odd view of history. Not a single Arab would have left Palestine if five Arab armies had not lost the war they declared on the Jewish state instead of accepting the partition plan of 1947.

The British committed the tragic error of making Sunni Muslim élites - the heirs to the Ottomans - the rulers of the new Arab states of the Middle East. Their aggressive tyrannies derived legitimacy from hostility to Israel. They repressed and hounded out the indigenous non-Arab groups - Copts, Assyrians and Jews.

It is often forgotten that half of Israel's Jewish population, their parents or grandparents, fled the Arab world. Israel was not simply a creation of western antisemitism, it is a necessity born of intolerant Arab Muslim nationalism.

LYN JULIUS
London SW5

Asylum challenges

Sir: Lord Woolf is right to be concerned at the implications of Clause 11 of the Government's Asylum Bill (report, 4 March). This legislation proposes to do away with a legal principle that is central to the constitutional fabric of this country - the right of individuals to challenge decisions of the state. Awarding the Home Secretary unprecedented powers, it would prevent any Home Office decision in immigration and asylum cases being challenged in the courts.

Of the 16,786 asylum seekers granted leave to remain in Britain last year, half were appeal cases whose initial applications had been wrongly refused. Access to the courts is essential when Home Office decisions are so often wrong. Without it, people who are desperately in need of protection will be wrongly returned to face torture, imprisonment and death.

The Government argues that reform of the asylum appeals system is necessary because unfounded appeals are causing costly delays. This is certainly not true of access to the courts, which is stringently controlled. Asylum seekers are given leave to have their cases heard in court only when there is compelling evidence that their application has been dealt with unjustly. In 2002, only 9 per cent of those who applied won leave to have their cases heard. However, of those 276 cases, one in three resulted in an unlawful Home Office decision being overturned.

The right to appeal to the courts is one we afford to all in our society, even those convicted of the most serious crimes. To remove this right from asylum-seekers sets the dangerous precedent of suggesting that unpopular minorities should not be given the same rights under the law as everyone else. In undermining the rule of law, this Bill threatens the rights and freedoms of all of us.

SANDY BUCHAN
Chief Executive
Refugee Action
London SE1

Sir: Your front page immigration story (2 March) and your leader of the same day shed no more light on immigration matters than those other tabloid newspapers you quote.

Yes, we import cheap labour from needy countries for our once glorious NHS. It is shameful because we do not pay health staff enough! It is not a matter for pride.

Yes, the Government seeks to reduce the huge number of seemingly endless appeals. They are fed up with asylum-seekers and greedy lawyers who have exploited the appeals system ruthlessly.

And, yes, our unique free service is open to health tourism on a large scale. Do we ignore such exploitation of our generosity?

Yes, schools in many areas have seen a fall in standards for English speaking children because of the huge numbers of pupils just cannot speak English. Is that right?

And who suffers the most from all this incompetence and sentimentality? Not the middle class, who can opt out. Does The Independent care? Apparently not.

JOHN KELLY
Cardiff

Tory choices

Sir: Michael Howard's reference to "historic choice" in his conference speech will, no doubt, remind the electorate of the Tories' political history. Boom and bust, negative equity, huge increases in crime and unemployment. When the voters consider that value-added tax was more than doubled to 17 per cent they will, I'm sure, vote the same as in 1997 and 2001.

DUNCAN ANDERSON
East Halton, North Lincolnshire

High probability

Sir: Rupert Cornwell writes (4 March) that "as a rule of thumb in modern US elections the perceived nice guy tends to win". The fact is that about 90 per cent of 20th-century US presidential elections were won by the taller candidate. My money is on Kerry based on statural statistics.

DENIS GILL
Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, Ireland

Matter of trust

Sir: Who are we to believe, Peter Foster or Tony Blair? Peter Foster is a liar and a con man and Tony Blair is er...

B EMMERSON
Selby, North Yorkshire

Iraq won't split

Sir: What does Terry Eaton (letter, 4 March ) mean by a "peaceful return to historic boundaries" inside Iraq? Iraq has three main groupings - Shia, Sunni and Kurd - and was formed of three Ottoman provinces. But there was no correlation between groupings and provinces. For instance, there are more Kurds in Baghdad than any city in Kurdistan. To Balkanise Iraq by dividing it into three would create many problems.

JOHN McHUGO
London, SW15

Honest sizes

Sir: Perhaps the answer to the size/weight problem about clothes (letters, 28 February, 6 March) is to change Small, Medium, Large, XXL etc to Slim, Average, Obese, Clinically Obese.

MARTIN RADFORD
Chelmsford, Essex

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