Sir: Janet Street-Porter ("Why do we neglect the young?", 10 November) has fallen headlong into the same trap as the erstwhile National Literacy Strategy in believing that the sooner children are started on reading and writing the more likely they are to succeed in school. As an independent literacy specialist, I worked for several years for the NLS (including writing their grammar training course for teachers) before realising that our very early emphasis on formal skills was actually causing many children's problems, not solving them.
A visit to Finland, the country which consistently tops the international literacy league, convinced me. There the education of three-to seven-year-old schoolchildren focuses on the structured development of spoken language and listening, along with attention and social skills. When formal teaching of the three Rs begins, at the age of seven, Finnish children learn to read and write easily and quickly.
In contemporary Britain, children increasingly arrive in nursery or primary school with poorly developed speech, burgeoning attention deficit and non-existent social skills. Many have had few life experiences beyond watching TV, and there's much groundwork to be done before they'll be able to read books or wield pencils. Yet we now start them on these activities at the age of four - Ms Street-Porter seems to want them to start at three.
I agree heartily that improving literacy standards is one of the most important social projects of our age. But starting sooner is not the way to do it. Early years education should be about laying sound foundations for literacy, not about asking children to read and write before they can talk.
Sir: When children fail at school and become disaffected or disruptive, parents are told that they should be taking responsibility for their children's education and behaviour. But since the early Eighties there has been a monumental shift from home-based care and education of the young child by a parent, to parents being expected to leave their little ones in the care of a childminder, nursery school or infant school and to have a government-prescribed national curriculum imposed on their developing minds from birth.
I might not mind so much if I could see lots of evidence that all these state-controlled children turn into well-educated, well-adjusted, happy people, but I cannot. All the research points to children turning out best when they have the love, time and attention of caring parents. So can anyone tell me why the Government isn't formulating policies to support parents to do that rather than apparently telling them that their only role in their child's life is economic?
BINLEY WOODS, WARWICKSHIRE
Sir: In introducing a state curriculum for under-fives, Mr Blair is failing to live up to his declared regret that he did not go further with each previous reform. He is neglecting the possibility of pre-natal suggestion and early post-natal conditioning. Surprising, given his evident impatience to realise his Brave New World.
DR IAN ROBERT EAST
Blair left floundering after 90-days defeat
Sir Your front-page headline on the Government's defeat over detention of terrorism suspects - "The moment Tony Blair lost his authority" - rightly points to a severe weakening of the Prime Minister's leadership. However, his authority was already lost once his arguments for the war in Iraq were shown to be bogus.
Ever since becoming Labour Party leader in 1994 Mr Blair sought to link his authority to his personal integrity. Over Iraq, we were told that only he had sufficient knowledge of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD. Many people - including MPs on both sides of the House who authorised the invasion - were swung by the passion with which he made his case. We now know that case to have been over-stated and misleading.
Faced with the anti-terrorism Bill put before them this week, involving a similar balance of complex "expert" arguments, MPs were again asked to accept Mr Blair's conviction that locking people up for 90 days without charge was "in the best interests of the country". His opponents, he argued, simply didn't understand the gravity of the problem.
New Labour has always been less about a set of ideas than a Labour Party that could be trusted because Tony Blair could be trusted. Yet after Iraq MPs are no longer willing to back the Prime Minister in causes that he "genuinely believes to be right", and opinion polls show the public has lost faith in him.
In the absence of an ideology on which to fall back, his loss of personal command leaves him - and therefore his "project" - floundering.
ST JOHN'S COLLEGE, OXFORD
Sir: Hubris made Mr Blair think he could renege on his promised consultation over how long terrorist suspects should be held without being charged and tried to impose his will for 90 days. It's been a good day for democracy when the Commons told an over-mighty executive that their will could not be ignored.
To have detained people for 90 days without charge would only have increased the risks of terrorist attacks as it could have caused further alienation in the Muslim community and made their young men more vulnerable to be persuaded to become suicide bombers.
It is time for Mr Blair to realise that his continuation as Prime Minister and the good of the country are not identical. The Labour government could continue under a new leader without threat of defeat. Indeed the longer the new leader, whoever he or she may be, has to settle in to being PM before the next election the better.
Sir: Blair is consoling himself with the thought that at least he had the population behind him. What a shame that he had not yet stumbled upon this little pearl of wisdom when a million or so assembled in Hyde Park a while back.
MINSTED, WEST SUSSEX
Sir: The defeat for Tony Blair is both unsurprising and very welcome. By pretending to be the sole champion of the nation's security and overruling his own more liberal-minded Home Secretary, Blair has once again shown scant regard for parliamentary democracy.
He should be reminded that the job of MPs is not to defer to the police or the intelligence services but to balance the demands of security and liberty.
Perhaps the Government will take note that of the 357 people arrested by the police under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, only 11 have been held for 14 days, all of whom were charged. This hardly provides an intellectual case for such a draconian extension of police powers.
Sir: The vote on the Terrorism Bill has provided a good example of the power of parliamentary democracy over an authoritarian and populist prime minister and government. A good signal to the world?
Sir: Am I letting the burglars win if I put a stronger lock on my door following a burglary? No, I'm standing up to the burglars, and showing them that they can't push me around.
Equally, increasing detention without trial for terror suspects to up to 90 days would have made life more difficult for would-be terrorists. It would not, as has been said in this newspaper and elsewhere, have been a question of giving into terrorism, but rather a question of using the law to help challenge it.
Admittedly if the 90 days' detention - albeit with weekly judicial review - had been approved by Parliament there would have been a price to pay, just as in any fight involving more conventional weapons on a more conventional battlefield. But the temporary loss of liberty, resulting from the detention of a minority, would have been a price worth paying, had it meant upholding a law that would have helped protect the security of the majority.
After all, we can appreciate liberty for a lifetime, but only if we protect our security first.
JAMES C BUCKLEY
THORPE HESLEY, SOUTH YORKSHIRE
Sir: Given that Blair is so ready to defer to the "professional" judgement of the police, will he now pay more attention to the informed opinions of other professionals such as doctors, teachers, lecturers and lawyers?
BEVERLEY, EAST RIDING OF YORKSHIRE
Sir: Who would have imagined that Government MPs including Peter Hain would troop into the Yes lobby to vote for 90-day detention without trial. Such an act was one of the favourite instruments of repression employed by the South African apartheid regime in those not so far-off days when Britain had a Labour Party.
H G K PRICE
Sir: Ninety-day detention yesterday. Trident tomorrow?
Sir: It's The Sun wot lost it!
Officials terrified of negligence claims
Sir: You argue that there is no need for legislation to curb the "compensation culture" (leading article, 4 November). The real world of "little people" who keep our public services going is paranoid about being accused of negligence.
Last week in Seaford a packed and angry public meeting attacked a plan (denied in part) by the county highways department to fell 74 mature trees in the town - to forestall claims by pedestrians who might trip over a root. This Bill may have come just in time to save the character of our town.
SEAFORD, EAST SUSSEX
Sir: The Government is at last tackling the problem of clinical negligence litigation through the NHS Redress Bill, which is going through Parliament now.
Patients who have suffered medical mishaps want an explanation, an apology where appropriate and some mechanism to ensure that similar mistakes are avoided in future. Compensation does not rank high.
Unfortunately, the Bill focuses on monetary compensation so that the importance of factual investigation and lessons learnt risks being relegated. There is a real danger that the Bill will simply recreate the adversarial tort-based culture of the courts which the Government sought to avoid.
The Conservative proposal is that the Bill should be limited to an independent robust, fact-finding investigation with the power to make recommendations to avoid the recurrence of similar events. The factual explanation can be used as the basis for a legal claim which may have a better and fairer outcome for the patient outside the Redress scheme.
JOHN BARON MP
SHADOW HEALTH MINISTER HOUSE OF COMMONS
A better class of scum in France
Sir: A young French hooded gang member calls for Nicholas Sarkozy to resign, presumably for calling the rioters "scum". All French should take pride in that youth's articulacy, and awareness of those in power. I suspect that an equivalent youth in the UK would (a) be unaware of any remarks addressed to him by those in power (b) be unaware of who was in power, (c) revel in the description "scum".
Sir: Mr Sarkozy undoubtedly fuelled discontent when he used the term racaille to describe the unruly youths causing trouble in Paris, but your newspaper and the British media in general made matters worse by inaccurately translating racaille as "scum". Collins French-English Dictionary gives "rabble" or "riff-raff", which is much milder.
A quick kill
Sir: Ray Racy (letter, 9 November) is wrong to equate bear-baiting and cock-fighting with hunting. The spectators of bear-baiting and cock-fighting get their pleasure and entertainment from watching pain being inflicted on the animals. In hunting the pleasure is in the chase; the kill is very quick. Also of course, the fox may get away.
Defence of coursework
Sir: An examination is intended to be a measure of the learning achieved over a period of study, but can a single three-hour examination realistically test a whole two-year course? It can only be a partial test, whereas continuous assessment (Johann Hari, 4 November) can be designed to cover the whole of the taught syllabus.
Sir: Coursework and examinations are separately assessed. It should be possible for the grades achieved to be reported separately too. This would allow any interested party to make a deduction as to the value of each component in the final grade awarded.
SCAWBY, NORTH LINCOLNSHIRE
Sir: Julia Anderson writes (letter, 8 November), "Atheists and agnostics have no agenda to convert or make life difficult for religious believers." A lot of religious believers would be grateful to her if she could find an opportunity to remind the Communist Party of China that this is the case.
Sir: In paying tribute to the pioneers of anti-racism in Britain (leading article, 8 November) we should surely remember Fenner Brockway, who, as Labour MP for Slough, introduced Bills into Parliament to outlaw racism nine years in succession. The anti-discrimination law brought in by Harold Wilson's Labour Government was designed to fulfil his objective.
PRESIDENT, LIBERATION, FORMERLY THE MOVEMENT FOR COLONIAL FREEDOM HARLOW, ESSEX
Sir: Tony Blair appears to be losing control of his party. The Conservatives are already rudderless and Charles Kennedy is looking ever more ineffectual. If this continues more and more MPs will recklessly vote according to what they think rather than what they are told to think. This must be stopped immediately before politics starts getting itself a good name.
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