Letters: Class sizes

Only smaller class sizes will allow teachers to teach
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Sir: As a supply teacher, having been a deputy head, I now find almost every primary school class has at least one poorly parented, disaffected and/or profoundly depressed pupil. I have recently witnessed one unruly newcomer completely shift the paradigm of a previously industrious, co-operative and courteous class of 35 children.

Class sizes should be no more than 18, appropriately staffed, enabling adults involved to create personal and individual teaching, learning and behavioural opportunities.

Halving teachers' workloads in this way would have fundamentally positive effects both for children's behaviour and learning, and for the physical and mental health of staff.

Who will be brave enough to thus transform the primary sector and allow teachers to teach?

Jane Downes

Hastings, East Sussex

Sir: The discussion of primary school class sizes raises interesting questions about the use of classroom assistants. As more and more children come into school with behavioural and emotional issues, together with an increase in the number of pupils with English as an additional language, classroom assistants have an invaluable role to play in helping the teacher concentrate on the actual teaching of the class and overall classroom management.

The extra adults can focus on the disruptive and difficult children who may hamper the learning of the other pupils and, where English is not the first language, can differentiate the classwork or even provide different work altogether.

Some classroom assistants are also being used as cover supervisors when teachers are absent. Instead of supply teachers being wheeled in to cover, regular members of the school team, whom the pupils know, deliver the prepared lessons. The cover supervisors know the school and its routines and, more importantly, they know the pupils, including the potentially problematic ones, and are aware of the strategies to deal with them.

In my experience, classroom assistants are not being used as "cheap labour", but rather deployed to support the teachers in what is becoming an increasingly challenging environment in the classroom.

Gill Stephenson

Cranfield, Bedford

Science and the 'sanctity of life'

Sir: Mary Dejevsky hit the nail on the head in her analysis of the issues arising from the current debate regarding stem cell research, in particular the use of human-animal embryos (Opinion, 26 March).

Scientists are, indeed, slow to come forward with their side of the argument and I would like to see them stress one point. Namely that such embryos would never "live" long and certainly would never come to full term. They would be recognised as abnormal by the mother's body and would be aborted well before then.

Nature – or in the terminology of the Church, God – has already got systems in place to prevent such "attacks on the sanctity and dignity of human life", or does Cardinal Keith O'Brien not trust in his Maker?

Louise Thomas

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Sir: The question "Is this a clump of cells or a living being with a soul?" (front page, 26 March) is an interesting one.

The answer may lie in research conducted in Birmingham in 2003 which concluded that the brain cells of the unborn child do not "fire" until the 22nd week. Before that it is a living organism without a working brain. A soul? Hardly.

Geoffrey Whitfield

Lewes, East Sussex

Sir: The Roman Catholic Church has for the past two decades washed its hands of the deaths of the untold numbers of HIV/Aids victims who would still be alive but for its doctrines on birth control and the use of condoms.

Now it is extending its concern for the "sanctity of life" to the present and future victims of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. For obvious reasons, neither condoms nor embryo and stem-cell research featured prominently in Jesus Christ's teachings.

Given the part played by healing in Christ's ministry, one might have expected all Christians to regard the "sanctity of life" as being better served by promoting measures to prevent or alleviate terminal illnesses rather than by opposing and obstructing them.

D A Maughan Brown


Sir: You are within your rights to be critical of the Catholic Church's opposition to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in your leading article (24 March), but what I (and I suspect many of my fellow Catholics) find annoying, to put it mildly, is your cartoonist's depiction of presumably Catholic clergy – bishops and cardinals – as ghoulish monsters hovering over a sleeping Gordon Brown.

Would your cartoonist feel free to depict prominent clergy of any faith other than Roman Catholic (Hindu, Islamic or Jewish) as hideous entities worthy of Nazi publications that specialised in loathsome cartoons of individual Jews, or do you only make an exception for my own faith and its leaders (the disgraceful Germanophobia in some of the British "pop" press when Pope Benedict XVI was elected has not been forgotten) whilst deferring to other creeds (militant Islam springs to mind)?

I am not saying your paper should never criticise editorially either any individual who happens to be a Roman Catholic or my Church's stance on the Bill or any other issue, but it should be careful to extend the common courtesy to my faith that it does to any other creed.

Terry Washington

London SW17

GM crops: menace or blessing?

Sir: Country Life magazine is wrong to suggest that GM crops are the way the world should feed itself ("It's crazy to ignore benefits of GM food, says Country Life", 20 March). GM crops have not produced increased yields, lower use of fertilisers, pesticides etc. Worse, peer-reviewed research is increasingly showing evidence of the negative health impacts.

A Russian study which investigated the effects of feeding GM soya to pregnant rats found very high mortality among their litters, and recently published Australian research showed GM peas fed to mice triggered allergic reactions. There is no sign of any retailer planning to stock GM food, and no advantage to consumers in buying these products.

GM companies are being irresponsible by spreading this poorly understood, inherently uncertain and potentially very dangerous technology, and people are right to continue to reject it.

Emma Hockridge

Policy Department, Soil AssociationBristol

Sir: I hope the executive of the Green Party read your article "It's crazy to ignore the benefits of GM food". Although my opinions on this topic are the opposite to theirs, I will continue to vote for them because I believe that the more Green councillors we have, the better it will be for my grandchildren.

I used to be an oilseed rape grower and dreamt of the joys of growing GM rape. To get enough plants on my fields, I used to sow about 10 times the seed necessary and had to spread wildlife-destroying slug pellets two or three times. My rape also received two or three sprays according to what weeds came up. The result was that on my fields the plants were mostly much too thick but with large bare patches.

If GM OSR was available it would be easier to sow a mixture of GM and non-GM rape and allow both to grow with the weeds to provide plenty of grazing for the slugs. Come the spring, one spray with non-toxic glyphosate would kill off the non-GM rape and all the weeds to leave the ideal plant density for good yields.

You can be sure when climate change starts to cause more starvation, holding back crop production will not be a vote-winner.

R F Stearn

Stowmarket, Suffolk

Unfettered markets cannot survive

Sir: Johann Hari puts his finger on the crux of the issue ("Has market fundamentalism had its day?", 20 March) by showing how unfettered market capitalism has increased inequality and become inherently unstable. As George Soros has also noted, market fundamentalism is the main enemy of the open society. But the solution should not be, as Hari claims, a "shift of global politics dramatically to the left", because this would simply swing the pendulum back to the other extreme.

What we need is a new form of social capitalism which encourages and rewards enterprise, but within a tough regulatory framework based on agreed social and environmental objectives. Vince Cable has argued persuasively for this ("You ask the questions", 17 March). It seems even the markets now realise they cannot survive without a set of internationally agreed controls. Whether the IMF, WTO and others are up to the challenge is another matter.

Geoffrey Payne

London W5

Supermac, master of political disguise

Sir: Claire Allfree's interview with Howard Brenton ("The untold Tory", 20 March) was hardly accurate or fair in describing Harold Macmillan as "one who stood so emphatically for the old England of empire". Supermac's "winds of change" speech in Cape Town in 1959 announced the speedy end of what remained of Britain's Empire

In domestic affairs, too, Macmillan was a radical. He was committed to full employment and a welfare state, his Keynesianism leading to the resignation of his Treasury team, including Enoch Powell. Macmillan had served in the First World War and afterwards as an MP in the depressed North-east, witnessing what unemployment did to men who had helped defeat the Kaiser. He never lost what friends and foes called his "Stockton-on-Tees complex". All of this kept Macmillan out of office during the 1930s.

Compared with what we have seen since the late 1970s, Macmillan now seems positively left-wing, certainly further to the left than New Labour, while David Cameron's attempt to distance himself from Thatcherism looks more like a shallow, opportunistic move than the genuine article.

It was really only in his attitude to Suez that Macmillan came across as "a hangover from empire". Here he was justifiably criticised for his "first in, first out" attitude, when, as Chancellor, he belatedly feared what damage American opposition to Eden's policy would do to sterling. At least Macmillan realised that Britain was no longer an imperial power

It was Macmillan's carefully cultivated, old-fashioned, urbane image – top hat and tails at Ascot races – which suggested that he was a relic of history. But this was more of a pose to placate the Tory right. He was the last of the actor-manager politicians, a master of political disguise. Today's politicians seem dull, indeed, beside Supermac.

K G Banks

Maidstone, Kent

What the Nato planners forgot

Sir: Julian Sutton's calculations (letter, 26 March) on spare toilet capacity ahead of the Nato summit in Romania at first seemed to be fairly accurate. However I fear that he may have made a critical error.

In what might be described as the ultimate "time and motion" study, he concludes from his own lavatorial habits that one toilet for every five delegates will lead to an unnecessary excess of such facilities. He has neglected to take into account one factor: crosswords. As a young boy, I remember my father disappearing into the toilet for most of the weekend's waking hours with a newspaper and a pen.

Gary Clark

London, WC2


The point of the war

Sir: Keith Gilmour (letter, 21 March) needs to understand that the Iraq war was not about Saddam Hussein but about oil. That is why Robert Mugabe is still in power and Hussein has gone. As for "anti-war bores", there is nothing boring about being right.

E R Thwaites

Cockermouth, Cumbria

Bags of nonsense

Sir: Your reader's experience with Primark refusing the use of the customer's own cotton bag reminded me of the recent experience I had buying a pair of swimming goggles from a branch of a high street sports equipment shop. I was handed a plastic bag of the dimensions similar to a bin bag. When I declined, I was told it was company policy so I accepted it, put the goggles in my handbag with the till receipt and handed the plastic bag to the astonished security guard as I left.

Jennifer Matterface

Broadstairs, Kent

North from Antarctica

Sir: It is incorrect to state that all the coast of Antarctica is northern (letter, 25 March). The continent is irregular, with many indentations, resulting in coasts with a wide range of aspects. For example, the coasts around the Ross Ice Shelf are mainly easterly or westerly, with a portion even being west-south-westerly. The Antarctic peninsula has both easterly and westerly coasts. Nevertheless, it is imprecise to speak of the northern Antarctic coast; there is an awful lot of it.

Michael K Baldwin

Sittingbourne, Kent

Solar payback

Sir: Unless the aptly named David Winter (letter, 25 March) were to have a particularly large roof area, entirely covered in many thousands of pounds' worth of solar panels, he would never be likely to sell any meaningful quantity of surplus power to his electricity provider. In addition, the payback time on his investment would most likely be measured in decades. While I applaud his sentiments, should he go down this route I hope that he is a very young man with plenty of cash to spare.

John Mogan

Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear

Corrupting the young

Sir: The NUT proposal to stop Army school visits on the grounds of subversive recruitment falls short. They could have included preventing visits from the police on the basis that this is probably intimidating to children, and of course lollipop ladies, who so wilfully remove the children's sense of self-worth and ability to exercise their own risk assessments when travelling to and from school.

Christopher Shillinglaw

Harleston, Norfolk