Letters: Educational bias

The bias in our education
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The pompous response of John Hayes, Minister for Further Education and Skills (Letters, 28 August), fails to engage with the argument set out by Amol Rajan in his piece, “Skills for the poor, schools for the rich” (Viewspaper, 28 August).

Had the minister read with greater care, he would have seen that Rajan does not disparage craft, creative industries or engineering; in fact he does not mention them.

What the minister seems to wish to avoid is why exactly it is that vocational qualifications seem to be so wonderfully suited to working-class children? Rajan’s point, and he makes it strongly, is that such bias in the educational system works against the interests of children from that social group. They do not get the education they deserve.

When the number of pupils taking vocational qualifications at Eton, Winchester or Cheltenham Ladies College match the number from three of the minister’s local comprehensives he may be on surer ground with his argument about their value. When the people see that a proportion of cabinet ministers choose that route for their children he may have factual refutation of Rajan’s argument.

Rather than taking supercilious and snide pops at Rajan, Mr Hayes could better spend his time working toward the elimination of our seemingly unchangeable and deeply divisive two-tier schooling.

Mike Thomas,

Newent, Gloucestershire

Amol Rajan misses an important point. He is right to condemn the present attitude that education is merely a means to a career; he is right to condemn the idea that poor children take only to soft subjects.

But in stressing academic education he forgets that this type of education during the mid-20th century did little for many of our youngsters, except turn them off learning. It is true that many from poor homes benefited, but many others from all kinds of homes (including wealthy and motivated homes) did not.

The essential point he missed is that different children learn in different ways, and the divide between vocational learning and academic learning is a false one. The one ingredient which should exist in all forms of learning at school for all our youngsters is development of critical thinking. For some, that can be done in the context of reading, discussion etc; for others, it needs to be wed to practical activity. The mix of practical activity and theoretical discussion varies from one child to another, as does the mix of rote learning and exploration.

Neither of these points imply a return to the memorising, fact-consuming purely abstract academic education that Rajan suggests in his article. Of course, it should not be assumed that a child from a poorer, intellectually deprived background is “vocational” while one from a wealthy, well-read background is “academic”. One still comes across people from less well motivated homes who entered a job at an early age but then take up adult academic education very well indeed.

Conversely, one comes across young people from well-motivated homes who find university experience totally unsuitable, showing that an academic education is not for everyone.

Nigel Jones,


Where languages are thriving

You ask, “If schools do not introduce pupils to foreign languages, who will?” (leading article, 25 August). The uptake of languages is not in decline in all sectors of our education system. Many universities have thriving and expanding language programmes for non-specialists. These are often called “institution-wide language programmes” (IWLP).

Students take elective modules of language, either one they have studied before or something new. In our institution, the ever increasing number of students, who come from disciplines across the university, find this a rewarding and enriching experience. The provision is under-resourced and under-reported by the media, yet every year there is an increase in student numbers.

Could it become a requirement that every university student in the UK has to study a language at some level? This would be a huge boost to fostering wider cultural understanding and would begin to tackle the problem of the UK population being mono-lingual; there just needs to be the political will.

Alison Nader,

Reading, Berkshire

The primary reason for the failure of British state schools to entice pupils into learning European languages is because the systematic teaching of English grammar was dropped from the state syllabus decades ago. It had clearly not occurred to British educationists of that period that a sound grasp of grammar is essential to learn European languages.

It is impossible to learn a highly inflected language such as German without a thorough knowledge of grammar. Even conversational German requires a good knowledge of grammar.

Some years ago, my eldest daughter joined a London evening class of 15 to learn the Czech language. After three weeks the class was down to three, my daughter included, the only ones who had been to secondary schools on the continent. The others had fallen away because the Czech teacher was using grammatical terms they had never encountered in their English schools.

Moya St Leger,

Berlin, Germany

The different educational concerns of your correspondents Paul Harrison and Oliver Webber (Letters, 26 August) are largely met by the structure of the international baccalaureate diploma. Not only does the diploma require every candidate to study a language, modern or ancient, but also it provides the opportunity for candidates to start a language, such as Italian, a fresh in the sixth form. This commitment of the diploma to this international perspective could be of great value to our educational system.

John Claughton,

Chief Master, King Edward's School,


On behalf of the OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations) board, we feel it is important to highlight that GCSEs are not the only way of measuring language uptake any more, and we would like to draw people’s attention to the growth of alternatives.

John Dunsford, general secretary of the Association of School & College Leaders, mentioned the importance of alternative language accreditation in the GCSE results briefing but so far this has not received coverage and it should be recognised. In OCR’s case, it is called Asset Languages.

Sophie White,

Asset Languages,


Thatcherism fears are back

Thanks to Christina Patterson for pointing out the contradictions and consequences of this government’s policies (Comment, 25 August). She has an unerring way of saying what others fear to articulate and she does it with passion and uncompromising flair.

Who will offer jobs to those in the public sector who find they are unemployed? Large sections of the private sector provide services and technical tools to the public sector so they will be impacted by these cuts. It’s highly unlikely that they will be offering jobs to the now unemployed public sector workers.

We have young people just coming into the job market who will find themselves unemployed with their aspirations denied before they’ve even started on the road to maturity. Then add to those numbers, the people whose benefitsare cut, threatening them with homelessness because they cannot pay their rents, and we have a volatile mix.

This government will slide into draconian actions the like of which will eclipse those of the Thatcher government against the miners’ strike. Is this what we want?

Carole McKenzie, FRSA, PD,

Wollaston, Northamptonshire

Blair and the war in Iraq

By claiming that Tony Blair “did what he thought was right”, Beth Strange (Letters, 20 August) seeks to solve prison overcrowding at a single stroke. How many murderers are being held for simply doing what they thought was right?

Her letter contains one obvious and fundamental error. We did not invade Iraq because “it was our moral duty as a strong nation to help a troubled one”, as she claims. We invaded in response to Iraq’s perceived ability to launch weapons of mass destruction against us within 45 minutes.

It is a peculiar phenomenon that those of us who were against the invasion of Iraq are able to recall exactly why we invaded, while those who supported it are not.

J Samuel,

Reading, Berkshire

After hearing Nick Clegg answer on what grounds he based his judgement of the illegality of the Iraq war, I left feeling rather disappointed, but also slightly pleased. When he said, “I don’t think the legality of that invasion has been proven”, it gives a hint that Clegg realises that he is only posturing.

The position of the last government is that Iraq’s continuing violation of the ceasefire conditions laid down in SC Resolution 687 – the violation and a last chance to comply having been affirmed by Resolution 1441 – reopened the right to force under Resolution 678, which justified the Gulf war.

It’s sound, if a bit underhand: but the use of force provisions were never repealed or repudiated, only a ceasefire was put in place with express consideration that it may need to be rescinded and force used again.

Thomas Byrne,

Sacriston, Co Durham

Julie Burchill does well to highlight the self-righteousness of the anti-war protesters (Comment, 11 August). Tony Blair thought that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction, saw an opportunity of getting rid of a sadistic dictator and hoped that the aftermath of the invasion would bring some stability to the region. It didn’t work out.

The anti-war extremists therefore conclude that he must have lied, whitewashed every inquiry, broken the law and apparently murdered David Kelly.

David Henderson,

London, SW25

Energy prices compared in EU

The article, “Once the election passed, the will to tackle prices dimmed” (19 August) states that Britons enjoy slightly below-average gas prices and average electricity prices when compared to the rest of Europe.

Government figures show we have the lowest gas prices and the fourth-lowest electricity prices in the EU15, with about five million customers switching supplier each year, which Ofgem, the energy regulator, has confirmed several times.

There have been further reductions in energy bills this year, although energy companies are having to invest £200bn over the next decade to keep our lights on and meet stringent new carbon-reduction targets. It is because of these factors that up to 60 per cent of a typical household energy bill is now made up of non-energy costs.

Peter Jenkins,

Head of Communications and Public Affairs,

Energy UK,

London SW1

The truth about housing benefit

The Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the Budget stimulated the progressive / regressive debate which, as you say, must continue (leading article, 26 August). Both the last and the present governments are concerned about the £21bn annual cost of housing benefit to the taxpayer. It is necessary to understand how that arose.

The financial deregulations of the early 1980s allowed house-purchase lending to spiral up out of control, thus driving house prices to unprecedented levels in a market in short supply, and with them rents, which by various mechanisms reflect house price movements and consequentially the annual cost of housing benefit.

Simultaneously, the Housing Act 1988 allowed landlords to charge a market rent, thus allowing rents to spiral up after 15 January 1989. This removed rent controls from the Rent Act 1977 scheme, yet again inevitably increasing housing benefit and the cost to the taxpayer.

None of the rise in the price of houses or rents is the responsibility of housing benefit claimants. But they are being punished for the errors of successive governments by the requirement to pay the balance of rents above arbitrary caps on housing benefit out of means-tested wages or unemployment benefits, or be threatened with eviction and consequent misery.

The Local Housing Allowance, introduced by the last government, began this policy of ignoring the means test when paying housing benefit; the cap continues it. These are the deeply unjust and regressive consequences of bad housing policies introduced by the 1979 Government, allowed to continue by the 1997 Government, then blamed on the most vulnerable members of society.

Peter Ambrose,

Professor in Housing and Health,

University of Brighton

Rev Paul Nicolson,

Chairman, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust,

London, SW1

He capped it

Was it really William Hague’s “fashion faux pas” baseball cap that did him in (report, 25 August)? I’d rather thought that it was photographs showing him enjoying himself in a multi-cultural environment at Notting Hill Carnival. The old guard couldn’t bear it.

Chris Moorhouse,



Great news about decoding the wheat genome (front page, 27 August). Hopefully, my Weetabix can now be genetically engineered to absorb less milk and reduce sogginess.

Stan Labovitch,

Windsor, Berkshire

Perspectives on legalising drugs

The torment of Mexico

With mixed feelings, I read your story, “Mexico: bleeding to death in the war on drugs” (26 August). I returned to Britain last month after having lived in Monterrey, Mexico, for the past three years.

I left as a result of the rapidly increasing insecurity and can write first hand of the psychosis gripping this city and indeed the country, as a result of the “war on drugs”.

Civilians are increasingly among the dead; most infamously (prior to the mass grave being found), the bodies of two post-graduate students were left unrecognisable, the only victims of a gun/grenade battle between the army and a drug cartel, which spread on to university ground. No one was ever held accountable for their deaths, as is the case for most narco deaths in Mexico.

Mexicans are not suffering and dying as a result of their own addictions to, and misuse of, drugs. No, these people are caught up in the incessant thirst for drugs, both recreational and dependent, in the West.

This war will not be won through violence on the streets of Mexico. For every cartel member whose death President Felipe Calderon is lauded for, hundreds more are willing to take their place and continue their horrifically brutal work.

The situation needs to be addressed at the point of use. It is cringe-worthy how countries, including the US and Britain, actively encourage these wars on foreign ground yet shirk their responsibilities on home ground. The zero tolerance attitude is not working. It is unrealistic to think that Western drug consumption can be stopped, just as it is unrealistic that drug smuggling into the US will end.

I was never an advocate of legalisation, rather the opposite, but that was because I never looked past my own backyard. I never asked where the drugs came from and at what cost. And while I now agree with Vicente Fox’s stance for legalisation in Mexico, it would mean nothing unless countries responsible for the consumption also adopted legalisation.

It is now glaringly clear, as countries such as Mexico and Afghanistan suffer the consequences of our demand for drugs, that we need to work together; we all have blood on our hands.

Rebecca Hilton,


Caught by harm of the law

Johann Hari is right on target (Comment, 26 August). Drugs did not spawn Mexico’s crime networks. Just as alcohol prohibition gave rise to Al Capone in the US, drug prohibition created the murderous cartels. And this upsurge in violence began only after an anti-drug crackdown created a power vacuum among the cartels.

The drugs war is perpetuated by the media’s complicity in refusing to put so-called “drug-related” crime in context. US politicians have proven particularly adept at confusing the drug war’s collateral damage with drugs themselves.

Drug prohibition funds organised crime at home and terrorism abroad, which is then used to justify increased drug-war spending. Drugs are here to stay. Changing human nature is not an option. But reforming harmful drug laws is an option.

Robert Sharpe, Policy Analyst,

Common Sense for Drug Policy,

Washington DC, USA


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