Child education is being sold off
Some see the shiny new buildings of academies and think they must be a good thing. Think again. This is what the new Tory/Lib Dem coalition has brought us, the selling-off of children's education to private businesses and run by unaccountable governing bodies.
Michael Gove has written to every school offering head teachers freedom from democratic local authority control. They will have the ability to tear up nationally agreed pay and conditions set by Parliament after decades of workers' struggle. Already, limited "freedoms" in foundation schools allow the exploitation of cleaners and other support staff with low pay and term-time only contracts. This could be extended to teaching staff.
Business-driven governing bodies will be given the "freedom" to opt out of the national curriculum. This means that children will lose their entitlement to a broad-based education, allowing it to be skewed in favour of market-driven non-subjects because they get better results on the league tables.
This is the end of the state education system as we know it.
You say that the Conservatives have got through most of their reform agenda on education unscathed (leading article, 27 May). Yet the first Bill to be published by the coalition, to create many more academies, was not mentioned in the 32-page Coalition Programme for Government issued only last week.
Was that because the Conservatives introduced it without consulting their coalition partners, or because the Lib Dems were too embarrassed to admit they had agreed to it? The independent five-year evaluation concluded that "there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgement about the academies as a model for school improvement".
Professor Ron Glatter
Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire
As a long-term school governor and an even longer-term Liberal Democrat, I swing between optimism and anxiety as the coalition government publishes its policies. Most seem eminently sensible, some less so and some, like the push to academy status for schools, to be downright disastrous.
Education departments of local authorities are presented as being staffed by "bureaucrats" out to stifle progress, but in the London borough of Camden I have consistently found the officers to be highly professional, intelligent, committed and supportive. I shudder to think how even the best-resourced groups and governing bodies could manage without them.
As for the precipitous plan to move to academy status by September, it beggars belief. Does Michael Gove have so little idea of what is involved in setting up and running a new system in just over three months? Not only is this, as your leading article suggests (27 May), an "incomplete policy", I also see it as most likely to liberate chaos and confusion. Our children deserve better.
Ken Muller should have read his letter from Sarah Teather more carefully (28 May). Her response included the phrase "legislation that a potential Liberal Democrat Government [has] pledged to implement" in relation to the introduction of academies.
I'm sure it hasn't escaped Mr Muller's notice that the country failed to elect a Liberal Democrat government; nor did it see fit to give a majority to any other party. The key education priority for the Liberal Democrats was the introduction of the pupil premium to support the most disadvantaged pupils, and this did indeed make it into the coalition agreement. Compromise is a fact of life for coalition governments, and an everyday part of life for most individuals. You can't always get what you want.
It is astonishing that the coalition government should maintain one of Labour's most unpopular policies, that of increasing the number and diversity of state-funded religious schools.
In addition, the creation of thousands of academy schools will open up hundreds more schools to religious sponsors, all of which are likely to have similar privileges to other religious schools to discriminate widely in employment and admissions. The government must act now to rule out religious discrimination in the schools system, if they are truly to be inclusive.
Chief Executive, British Humanist Association, London WC1
A mercy to let oiled birds die
The Gulf of Mexico oil-spill will soon bring heart-rending images of oiled seabirds to our screens and of the valiant attempts to clean them and release them back to their natural habitat. As with all oil-spills, much of the hard work will be done by well-meaning volunteers. Unfortunately, most of the cleaned birds will die.
In February 1996, when Sea Empress ran aground in Pembrokeshire, polluting a large sea area and 200km of coast with 72,000 tonnes of oil, about 7,000 seabirds were found oiled. If the disaster had happened a few months later, when many more seabirds would have been breeding in the vicinity, their numbers would have been far higher.
At the time, the Countryside Council for Wales contracted the British Trust for Ornithology to assess the survival rates of oil-cleaned guillemots – one of the most commonly oiled seabirds in British waters – from previous spills. They compared their survival with that of unoiled birds. The cleaned birds survived, on average after release, for just seven days compared to an average 599 days for unoiled birds.
There is no reason to suppose that badly oiled seabirds such as brown pelicans, black skimmers, various terns, gulls, jaegers and others in the Gulf of Mexico will survive any better after treatment.
It would be kinder not to put any birds that are substantially oiled through the trauma of cleaning and dispatch them humanely as quickly as possible after capture.
Dr Malcolm Smith
Chief Scientist (1998-2004), Countryside Council for Wales, Colwyn Bay, Clwyd
Blind school builds futures
I read with interest Kim Sengupta's account of Sierra Leone in a time of peace ("The saviour returns to Sierra Leone", 27 May), though found his account of Milton Margai School for the Blind perhaps too bleak.
He says the children there face "an uncertain future after they leave the school", with unemployment sky-high. But having recently visited the school myself I came away with a different view, one where children are being given an education as well as life-skills to live and work independently in their adult years.
Education is fundamental in safeguarding these children's futures, and there are positive changes being made, thanks to Milton Margai school, Sierra Leone's Ministry of Education and indeed the charity I work for, Sightsavers, to ensure these children don't fall into the trap of unemployment and poverty.
For instance, very soon the first Disability Act will be passed to guarantee that every school in Sierra Leone can provide education to a child with disabilities. This is a monumental step for a country with few teaching and learning materials for blind children in mainstream schools. With such positive developments, my hope is that these children's futures aren't as uncertain as Kim may suspect.
Sightsavers, Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Stravinsky was a bit off-tune
Nice quotes from Stravinsky ("Film music", leading articles, 26 May) demonstrating his dislike of Hollywood scoring. But you neglected to mention why Stravinsky, a long-time resident of Los Angeles, might have held those views. He did, in fact, write the music for two Hollywood movies.
He scored The Commandos Strike at Dawn before the film had actually been shot; when production began proper, Stravinsky was paid off and another composer came in to score the finished film (earning an Oscar nomination, just to rub salt in the wounds).
Stravinsky's original music for Song of Bernadette was also rejected and Alfred Newman, head of music at 20th Century-Fox, who had hired Stravinsky in the first place, scored it instead, and won an Oscar.
Stravinsky also had a run-in with Walt Disney over the celebrated use of his Rite of Spring music in Fantasia. Offered what he thought was an insultingly low fee of $5,000 for its use, Stravinsky was going to refuse permission until Disney pointed out that the piece wasn't copyrighted in the United States, so they could use it for nothing.
Stravinsky may have thought film scores "primitive and childish", but perhaps he'd have revised his opinion had his own scores actually been used.
Rail sleeper was the driver
Further to Chris Haines' letter (28 May): in 1993, I visited China and managed to arrange a ride on the footplate of a large steam locomotive (QJ class for those in the know) on an express train.
The crew consisted of the driver, a second driver (effectively the fireman) and three other firemen who moved the coal forward.
As we sped along at about 50mph I noticed the driver was asleep at the controls. Every so often, the second driver would stop firing the loco, look out for a signal then keep shovelling coal. He woke the driver only if a signal was against us. After taking the appropriate action, the driver went back to sleep.
There is a simple solution for Willie Walsh. Send all his cabin crew for a week's sabbatical with either Ryanair or easyJet. They would have such a shock, they would go back to BA begging to have a pay-cut.
Capt Rod Elliot
Heard this one?
I had a little chuckle when I read about U2 dropping out of the Glastonbury Festival (26 May). Apparently, Coldplay are among the many acts being "muted" as a replacement. How about Simon and Garfunkel singing "The Sound of Silence"?
Perspectives on sea monsters
Beast kept a cold eye on us
It doesn't matter how long a sea monster is (letters, 27 May); it's the way he looks at you that is really impressive. We found that out one summer off the east coast of the United States.
Jigging a lure from the stern of our 27ft sloop while sailing across Block Island Sound, we had just hooked a bluefish into the cockpit when we noticed a black triangular fin lurking close by. Suddenly, the monster surfaced, with a great smooth rush.
He made no attempt to board us, merely swam alongside for about four seconds, with his port flank mostly clear of the water. We had cheated him out of the bluefish, and he gave us a keen, cold examination with the one eye that we could see, no doubt checking us for edibility.
His nose was level with our mast, his tail level with our rudder. Would that make him (not quite a perch) about 14ft long? Plenty long enough for us.
There was nothing serpentine about him, except his speed and power; his green-grey tic-tac-toe markings showed him as more of a sea tiger than a sea snake. Accelerating into an advancing wave, he vanished as abruptly as he had come. We gave up plans for a swim that afternoon.
West Mersea, Essex
As a lifelong admirer of Guy Keleny, I leap to his defence in his criticism of "about 129ft" as a measurement of the length of a sea-snake. But the unwitting mistake here (and he does occasionally make them) was not to put the "129ft" in quotes, because it was indeed a quotation, as David Gould informs us (letter, 27 May) .
If the measurement of the sea monster had been converted into a unit commonly used by newspapers, as one of your correspondents suggests, then surely it would have been described as being approximately the size of whales.