Letters: Education

Trying to teach four-year-olds to write does nothing but harm
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The Independent Online

Sir: I agree with Tabitha Gilchrist (letter, 4 September) in her criticism of the custom in this country of subjecting young children, some of them as young as four, to a regime of formal work as soon as they get to school.

Some primary schools begin teaching joined handwriting at once, possibly because they have heard that this is the practice in some European countries. But they fail to realise that pupils there are six years old, or even seven, and have been provided with pre-school education which develops social and practical skills rather than being faced with academic demands for which many lack the maturity.

When learning to write, some children are not only faced with learning a skill for which they are not yet ready but also possibly a lack of expertise on the part of their teachers. In recent research project at the Institute of Education, approximately 50 per cent of newly trained teachers reported that they had been told nothing at all about teaching handwriting in their initial teacher training; so no wonder young children find writing hard.

Suzanne Tiburtius

Information Officer for the National Handwriting Association, Canterbury

Sir: I couldn't agree more with Tabitha Gilchrist. My son started full-time infant school one week after his fourth birthday, such was the education policy in the area at the time. Now, aged 32, his handwriting is still reminiscent of a drunken spider.

Of course he was too young to start in the educational system. Like his more enlightened neighbours in Europe, he should not have started school until seven at the earliest. Fortunately he missed the constant pressure that children are under today to obtain the standards set for the various age groups. When are the political parties going to realise that forcing very young children into the hothouse of education at such an early age is not doing them any favours?

Jean Edwards

Farnborough, Hampshire

Sir: Michael Gove writes: "Nearly half of children leave primary school unable to read and write and add up properly" (Opinion, 6 September). Could some of the problems in British education derive from the unnecessary confusion of parallel metric and imperial measuring systems and non-phonetic spelling, with which our continental neighbours (France excepted) do not have to contend?

Julien Evans

Chesham, Buckinghamshire

A 'range of opinions' on climate change

Sir: At the end of your report (6 September) about the BBC's shameful decision to abandon Planet Relief – a betrayal of the very concept of public service broadcasting, and one that I'm certain will come back to haunt them – you quote the right-wing journalist Andrew Neil as follows: "I'm delighted the BBC has cancelled it. Our job is to cover these things, not to comment on them. There's a great danger that on some issues we're becoming a one-party state in which we're meant to have only one kind of view. You don't have to be a climate-change denier to recognise that there's a great range of opinion on the subject."

He's right: you don't have to be a climate-change denier, just an idiot. There is not in fact "a great range of opinion on the subject". When 99 per cent of the scientific community reckon one thing and a few isolated fruitbats reckon another, we can safely say that there is no range at all.

John Grant

Hewitt, New jersey, USA

Sir: Andrew Neil is right to say that there is a "great range of opinion" on global warming. On the one hand there are the scientists, who make factual measurements and are overwhelmingly convinced that global warming is a man-made phenomenon; on the other hand there are hired scribblers, verbalisers and ExxonMobil's paid lobbyists, for whom opinion is a commodity independent of reality.

Christopher Clayton

Waverton, Cheshire

Sir: Perhaps the BBC can now demonstrate its impartiality on the subjects of whether the Holocaust ever happened, whether the world is only six thousand years old and whether the earth is flat.

Roger Plenty

Stroud, Gloucestershire

Sir: Thank goodness the BBC has cancelled its day-long Planet Relief. Fighting climate change is essential, but discussions about how to solve it are already too often hijacked by those who simply want to attack globalisation and the market economy. Having comedians urge viewers to do a mass turning off of electricity would do nothing to improve the debate.

Instead, we need a more balanced discussion about how to harness technology and enterprise to develop realistic solutions. The sackcloth-and-ashes approach may appeal to campaigners, but to be politically viable, approaches need to be good for the economy, too.

Alex Singleton

President, The Globalisation Institute, Brussels

Sir: David Miliband gave our schools a copy of Al Gore's political video An Inconvenient Truth. How about his now giving the same schools a copy of Channel 4's reply, The Great Global Warming Swindle? Just to back the BBC's stance and sustain the prevailing climate of impartiality, you understand?

Dr David Bellamy, Bishop Aukland. Co Durham Dr John Etherington, Llanhowell, Pembrokeshire

Sir: The editor of Newsnight, Peter Barron, said, "It's absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet." On the contrary, it's all our jobs to save the planet, especially and absolutely the British Broadcasting Corporation, which should speak for us all.

Philip Moran

London N11

Sir: Surely the idea of an individual such as Jonathan Ross or an organisation such as the BBC helping me sort out my carbon footprint, when they derive a considerable proportion of their own income from other people increasing their own carbon footprints by watching TV, is like the old 1970s student canard about having sex to campaign for virginity.

Alan Wesson


Poems in Auden's school magazine

Sir: The three unsigned schoolboy poems that John Walsh describes (5 September) as newly discovered works by W H Auden have been known for more than 40 years to Auden scholars who have studied the British Library's copy of the Gresham's School magazine in search of the poet's earliest writings.

As far as I know, none of these scholars believes that these three poems, which could have been written by almost any literate schoolboy of the period, were written by Auden. Katherine Bucknell, the editor of Auden's juvenilia, has argued plausibly that one of the poems, "Evening and Night on Primrose Hill", was written by Auden's friend Robert Medley.

Edward Mendelson

Literary Executor of the Estate of W H Auden, New York

Sir: I enjoyed John Walsh's article on W H Auden. John regrets that Auden's centenary is not widely commemorated. On 30 September the King's Lynn, Norfolk, Poetry Festival afternoon event is a discussion of the centenary of W H Auden and Louis MacNeice, illustrated with readings.

David Smith

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

How Orwell fooled the thought police

Sir: You report on the security services' investigation of George Orwell's supposed communist sympathies ("Big Brother: how MI5 kept watch on Orwell", 4 September)

George Orwell employed my father, Motilal Kothari, in 1943 to translate English broadcasts into Marathi. It was apparently very hard to get Marathi translators at that time, and Orwell knew that my father had been active in the Indian independence movement, and thought he was probably a communist. However, he regarded him as reliable because he was anti-Nazi and pro-Allied.

Unfortunately M15 got wind of the fact that my father had been in prison for nationalist activities in India, and he was banned from the air. Another young man was recruited to do the translations.

It eventually transpired that this man was in fact my father's flatmate and my father was still doing the translations.

Orwell wrote in his diary: "I felt it was my duty to tell my superior, Dr Rushbrook-Williams, about this. As it would be very difficult, if possible at all, to find another Marathi broadcaster, he decided that we must wink an eye at what was happening. So the arrangement continued and we did not know anything about it."

A deliciously English and innocent arrangement.

Raj Kothari

Bridport, Dorset

Misty-eyed about a people's wrongs

Sir: The Independent's letter writers come over all misty-eyed when lamenting the Palestinians' right of return to Israel, yet western liberals consistently fail to put history into any kind of context.

What about the right of return of 800,000 Jews kicked out of their Arab homelands in 1948, from lands they had lived in for centuries. Their communal assets were frozen and their property confiscated. The majority of these Jews from Arab lands were absorbed, mainly into Israel.

This was a few years after six million Jewish men women and children were incinerated in the crematoria of Europe. The Arab world's contribution to humanity was none too misty-eyed.

Sara Cohen

Hove, East Sussex

Sir: Dr Jacob Amir declares that, "Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, exists at no expense of others" (letter, 5 September). Perhaps it is when the "expense of others"' is acknowledged that peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians will be possible.

Janet Green

London NW5

A sparrowhawk's kill on the garden lawn

Sir: I share the disappointment of David Cocks (letter, 3 September) at the ill-informed comments on the effects of raptors on bird populations by Richard Ingrams. He might have added that the increase in numbers of birds of prey is actually a sign of the abundance of the smaller birds on which they feed, not a cause of the smaller birds' decline. Sparrowhawks that can find plenty of food for their broods will raise more young; and correspondingly, scarcity of prey leads to a depletion in the population of all species of raptor.

David Cocks is not quite right, however, in implying that sparrowhawks are less interested in small than in larger prey. They, especially the much smaller male, are limited by their own size, as I have observed in my own garden.

Last February, a female sparrowhawk drove a feral pigeon into our patio window (with a frightful thud), then began a leisurely meal a few yards away on the lawn. She had no choice if she wanted to enjoy her catch, because she could not lift it and carry it to a safer and more private spot, away from my amazed stare. Only after she had plucked and eaten half of it could she half-drag it away, but then flew off leaving the remains.

In his book, The Sparrowhawk (1986), Ian Newton writes, of his findings (p 118): "In general, various thrushes predominated near the start of the season; chaffinches in mid-season, and hirundines, wagtails and starlings near the end." Sparrowhawks need favourable conditions to bring down birds the size of a pigeon. For most of the breeding season they take the commonest small birds that are available and transportable to their nests.

Stephen Usher

Englefield Green, Surrey

Reasons not to believe in atheism

Sir: Rupert Chapman supports Richard Dawkins's argument 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" (letter, 4 September). While I tend to agree with the sentiment, I can't help but wonder how these low chances are calculated, given the rather obvious absence of – indeed the impossibility of – any scientific data.

David Woods


Sir: As a lifelong atheist, and a strong advocate of pretty much all Richard Dawkins has ever said, the only time I have ever doubted the non-existence of God is when hearing Luciano Pavarotti's voice on Miss Sarajevo.

Mark Piggott

London N19


Pay differentials

Sir: Alexander Armstrong (5 Minute Interview, 4 September) honourably states that he would like teachers, vicars and other community workers to be paid as much as lawyers. How about if they were all paid as much as comedians, presenters and other media personalities?

Rachael Donnelly

Bolton, greater manchester.

Green escalators

Sir: Fascinating stats in Donnachadh McCarthy's piece ("The Green Provocateur", 4 September). Germany is not alone in employing escalators which run only when needed. I was stunned by the logic of these on a recent trip to Brussels. Even more nifty were the individual solar panels powering the parking meters; almost made the things lovable.

Stan Brennan

London N8

The age of youth

Sir: Peter Calviou (letter, 6 September) says that many people call young males "boy" up to about 14 and then "youth" for those who are "older but have not reached manhood". How interesting. My observation is that females of the species are called "girl" until somewhere near retiring age.

Phyllis Nye


Brown's sporran

Sir: Barry Tigh (letter, 5 September) reckons Gordon is "girding up his sporran" for a snap election. What this lazy national stereotyping has to do with the Prime Minister's policies escapes me. Presumably Mr Tigh wrote his letter dressed as a morris dancer?

Stephen Gallacher


Multiple chips

Sir: With regard to the digression into chip suppers, if you ask for "fish and chips twice" in our neck of the woods, you will get the answer, "I heard you the first time!"

Pat Ruaune

Stockport, Greater Manchester