Letters: Early schooling

Accept human nature, and don't force children into school so early
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The Independent Online

Sir: Richard Garner's article (31 August) about the gender disparity in writing standards in seven-year-olds gave me cause for concern, but I expect my solution would be very different from the politicians'.

Just as there is only one conclusion to be drawn from observing the average man and the average woman assembling flat-packed furniture – that in general men are better at it and even appear to like doing it – so there is only one conclusion to be drawn from comparing boys' and girls' writing skills at seven. That is that fine motor control is attained later in boys, so they find hand-writing harder and achieve less good results. Drawing attention to this simple physiological difference will only serve to reinforce boys' sense that school and academic achievement is not for them, which will leave us with more and more disillusioned young men who have not fulfilled their potential.

I would encourage the Government to learn lessons from the education systems in many other European countries. Formal schooling starts much later than it does here and both boys and girls spend their early years playing and developing their skills without having to sit at a desk for far longer than is possible for many of them. Eminent experts in child development even suggest that boys should start a year later than girls.

I plead with the Government to listen to people who really know and care about children, rather than trying to get children into school as young as possible and force their parents back to work at the same time.

Tabitha Gilchrist

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Atheists can wonder at the moon too

Sir: It seems that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Opinion, 3 September) has failed to understand the arguments put forward by Richard Dawkins and other thoughtful atheists. In The God Delusion Dawkins goes out of his way to state that he is not "certain" that there is no god. Rather he argues that the chances of a supernatural being, creator of the universe, existing outside of the laws of physics and biology are so low as to render belief in such a being little different from believing in fairies. This is not faith but rational thought, open to argument.

This is the view of a growing number of atheists who find the superstition of their religious upbringing unsatisfactory. Such people, myself included, do not need the poetic mysticism used by Mrs Alibhai-Brown to wonder at the beauty of a moon reflected in the sea or the grandeur of either earthly things or of the cosmos. The very fact that we have evolved with the capacity to perceive such beauty and to feel the emotions that the writer clearly (and rightly) values is worthy of wonder in itself. Atheists simply believe that there is a rational, biological reason for our ability to feel these emotions, rather than that we feel them because God breathed his essence into a lump of clay and made it man.

It is highly unhelpful to trade in the insults of naming dictators who were atheists. Stalin did not murder for atheism. He murdered for power, unlike Moses, who murdered the Mideanites on orders from God. To state that anyone of any faith (or lack of faith) can commit wrongs is a truism not worthy of a writer with the intellect of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

To fall into the trap of branding atheists as overly rational, unfeeling boffins who fail to see beauty in the world and who somehow are linked through their "faith" to the gulag is to engage in exactly the sort of politicised, blinkered and fundamentalist religious discourse the author is normally at pains to resist.

Rupert Chapman

Thames Ditton, Surrey

Sir: Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins can speak for themselves but, please Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, do not accuse me of not understanding religion. After more than 75 years (since I was about eight) of questioning, self-questioning and, yes, experiencing all the joys and despairs that life offers, as well as using my imagination and creativity and looking out at the world with wonder, I remain an atheist.

I do, however, understand the need some people have for a faith and can, I believe, empathise with them. I have hopes myself of the return of the tooth fairy and regularly leave sixpence under my pillow as payment for some decent teeth.

Ella Hewison


Two peoples, one homeland

Sir: Howard Jacobson equates the "diasporic longing" of the Palestinians for a homeland with that of the Jews (2 September), and is angered that commentators such as Robert Fisk appear to consider the latter less important than the former.

Mr Jacobson appears to be arguing that the Nazi atrocities gave the Zionists an automatic right to move in and create a state within Palestine. But from the beginning of the enterprise to found a Jewish state in Palestine, the Zionists had had to face what they termed "the Arab problem": the fact that the territory was already populated. (When Balfour promised Jews a homeland in Palestine in 1917 the Palestinian Arabs outnumbered the Jewish population by at least 13 to one.)

One of the proposed solutions was the "transfer solution", a euphemism for the organised removal of Palestinians to neighbouring lands. This was embraced at the highest level of leadership, including Ben Gurion. They got their opportunity during the fighting in 1948 when Israeli paramilitary groups made it their business to evict Palestinians from their homes. Yitzhak Rabin, a military commander when the towns of Ramleh and Lydda were taken, recalled that: "I agreed [with Ben Gurion] that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out . . . . The population did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding force in order to make the population march." (New York Times, 23 October 1979).

The Palestinians have lost a homeland, while the Jews have gained one – a fact which Mr Jacobson seems to overlook or to dismiss.

David Simmonds

Epping, Essex

Sir: The letters you have published today (3 September) paint a very one-sided picture of the Arab-Israel conflict.

Israel was not set up with a view to "exiling or marginalising" non-Jews. The Israeli declaration of independence guarantees rights to all its citizens and its Supreme Court has vigorously upheld those rights. While more can no doubt be done, any imperfections have to be viewed in the context of a country that has been threatened by its Arab neighbours and the blight of terrorism. If Israel had lost any of its wars, there can be little doubt that no Jews would have been allowed to remain in what was formerly Palestine.

None were in fact allowed to remain in the areas of Palestine occupied by the Arabs in 1948. Indeed, one little-commented consequence of the Arab-Israel conflict is the equal number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, most of whom now live in Israel. While 20 per cent of Israel's population are non-Jewish Arabs there are now virtually no Jews living in the remainder of the Middle East. The parallels with the creation of Pakistan by partition are striking, but I do not read similar letters questioning Pakistan's legitimacy.

Jeremy Woolf

London WC1

Sir: It is clearly not true, as suggested in your letters column (3 September), that Israeli Jews are treating Palestinians as badly as they were treated themselves. There is a substantial minority of Arabs living in Israel who possess greater civil rights than they themselves – let alone Jews – would experience in many Arab countries.

However badly treated Palestinians feel, the aggression they carry out towards a democratic country whose right to exist is internationally recognised, is illegal under international law. Many people around the world, as groups and as individuals, feel that in some manner they have been unjustly treated. Deliberately targeting bombs and missiles at women and children is not an acceptable form of protest.

Alex Swanson

Milton Keynes

Sir: There is something faintly ridiculous in Howard Jacobson's attempt to equate the Jewish right of return 2,000 years after the Romans expelled them with the Palestinian right of return 60 years after they were expelled by the Jews. There are many Palestinians alive who were expelled and thousands of sons and daughters. Jews could have returned to what is now Israel any time over the 100 generations since the Roman Empire. They were not persecuted by the Ottomans, for example

Keith Tunstall

Bletchingley, Surrey

In defence of 'unfair' bank charges

Sir: I worked in retail banking for 24 years, and, whilst no apologist for the UK clearers, I would like to make a couple of points.

Only a small number of customers break their agreements with their bank. However, this tiny minority of people who generally cannot manage their affairs well (for whatever the reason) generate a large proportion of the daily work in controlling unauthorised overdrafts, much of which requires expensive manual intervention. Your campaign will, unfortunately, result in the elimination of free-if-in-credit banking, meaning that the vast majority of customers who currently pay nothing for their banking may, in future, have to bear the cost of the disorganised few.

While grumbling about banking profits has become a fixture of the national calendar, I am very happy that we have an extremely strong banking sector in this country. The recent shocks in the US sub-prime markets could yet bring down a US bank with concomitant losses for small investors. I haven't heard any such suggestion about a UK bank.

Mike Battersby

Gosport, hampshire

We need a proper debate on Europe

Sir: We would ignore at our peril Keith Vaz's argument that it is high time we had a soul-searching debate on our membership of the EU (report, 1 September).

Given evolution of global entities, it would be foolhardy to opt out for an off-shore island status. Yet a union of 27 nations cannot be viable without common rules which define its character. By all means let's debate the extent and pace at which we merge our sovereignties to secure vital economic and political synergies, but let's do it with clear understanding of the realities of the modern era.

If a referendum on the proposed treaty would offer an opportunity for a national debate, so be it. Surely, this is a matter of monumental importance to our future prosperity and security.

John Romer

London W5

Cut flying – it's not rocket science

Sir: Mike Poole (Letters, 3 September) claims that aviation produces under 5 per cent of UK emissions. As the Government told Parliament in May, aviation causes an estimated 13 per cent of the UK's climate-changing emissions. And as Al Gore told Live Earth, developed countries need to make 90 per cent emissions cuts in good time, so it's hardly rocket science that we should be flying less.

In the same issue, Colin Stanbridge claims that billions of pounds of London's revenue as the world financial capital are threatened unless more runways are built in the south-east. Such nonsense is the last refuge of the desperate. London's financial status reflects its centrality within the longitudinal spread of developed nations, and the universality of English. And each electronic advance should mean fewer financial folk flying.

Jim Roland

London NW11

There's credit among thieves

Sir: On my return from a 16-day holiday in Madrid, I was concerned to find messages on my answer phone from my credit card fraud department requesting that I contact them as soon as possible. My post included letters asking me to contact them as I had not responded to their telephone messages.

Also in my post was my credit card invoice, which showed that over £2,000 had been taken fraudulently from my account at various points in the UK, most of them while I was away.

Even though the fraud department was obviously on the case, my modest credit limit had been increased substantially, presumably to accommodate this sudden increase in my "spending".

Barbara Powell


The vote that counts

Sir: Steven Spurrier (letter, 3 September) seems to suggest that being a subject of the Queen is somehow balanced by the "right to vote". I wish it were true. We do not have the right to vote for and elect a Head of State of our choice.

Peter Evans

Walton on Thames

Gin and tonics

Sir: Those ordering drinks in multiples (letter, 27 August) might find it helpful to ask for gins with tonic and vodkas with coke. Meanwhile, down the chippy, I'll continue to ask for "Haddock and chips twice, please." Bon appetit!

Bill Hammond

Long Itchington, Warwickshire

Dismal legacy in Basra

Sir: Your front page of 3 September asks what four years of British military presence in Basra has achieved. All that has been achieved is that we have lost so many young men, for a lost cause that has destroyed not only their lives, but also their families'. Meanwhile we have wasted billions that could have provided more hospitals and prisons or ended child poverty. This infamous government has blood on its hands, and should be charged with war crimes.



Jump to it

Sir: Here's one Matthew Parris missed ("It shouldn't happen to a diplomat", 1 September). After the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 the 1am news bulletin on the BBC World Service went live to the UN to hear Kofi Annan asking governments to "send cooking stoves, blankets, tents and trampolines"'. The live version didn't feature in the next news broadcast and the newsreader corrected the word to "tarpaulin".

Neil Cooke

London E9

Antlers of plenty

Sir: Pandora seems to be confusing horns and antlers (3 September). Reindeer shed their antlers annually, as all deer do, so Bruce Parry only needed to hang about a bit to get as many as he wanted free. Presumably his schedule did not allow for this.

Graham Parris.

Isfield, East Sussex