With Free Schools opening this week, a fascinating new chapter in the British educational system is beginning.
The verdict on their success or failure will not be known for some years, but there are two potential dangers that are already evident.
The fact that Free Schools control their own curriculum could be enriching, but it could also lead providers with a religious agenda – and 11 out of the 24 schools are faith-based – to indoctrinate children in one particular faith, or limit their knowledge in subjects such as science and human biology.
It is therefore vital that the Government insists on rigorous powers of inspection, lest that freedom is misused – but it has chosen this precise moment to cut back Ofsted's remit: if a school receives a good report, it is exempt from annual inspections for another five years, which is far too long. The current Education Bill also abandons the duty to inspect on community cohesion, which is even more necessary if children are being divided on faith lines.
The ultimate goal must be for children to receive an education that is broad, tolerant and transparent. I would argue that is an important religious value too.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
Chair, Accord Coalition
I am horrified that "faith groups" are being allowed to run autonomous schools with taxpayers' money. They have come about only because some Tories think that they are a good vote-garnering wheeze.
Faith groups by definition and in practice are run on the basis of unprovable prejudices and dogma. Their advocates should read their history books. Just look at the evil that has been wrought and continues to this day in Northern Ireland, where schools have long been divided by faith. Just look at what Muslim children are taught in some countries, and will be here in due course.
Whatever the results of these schools are or are not in terms of academic achievement they will, in the end, increase the divisions in society and we will all suffer for it.
Maresfield, East Sussex
Onward march of Big Tobacco
With tobacco researchers targeted by Big Tobacco as detailed in The Independent (1 September) surely tighter regulation is required: Kent County Council for example has over £24m of public funds invested in tobacco companies.
Having briefly advertised cigarettes I know the ongoing expansion of EU and US tobacco firms into Africa and Asia will be as effective in selling cancer sticks as it is despicable.
Sincerity Agency, London W9
We are moving into a very different world. Power is spreading to the masses themselves. The old media is dying. That's what the Arab Spring is about.
You are trying to use your last remaining bit of power to control 10 million smokers who care nothing for your views on life, me included. How can you so easily dismiss 10 million people? They won't go away.
You think they are children; like the wretched Blair you think you're a smart school prefect who can tell everybody how to live. It won't work in the future, thank goodness.
Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire
Congratulations on splashing the tobacco giants' war on science.
In the Seventies, as a consultant to John Player & Sons and a 40-a-day smoker, I was delighted to be given a generous supply of the firm's special brand for "Directors and Friends".
In my frequent meetings with the MD, I began to notice that not only did he not smoke but he moved back whenever I lit up. Then I realised that not one of the Players directors was a smoker. At local sponsored events, they trotted out a retired director who puffed on small cigars, but obviously did not inhale.
They were making a killing from tobacco addicts. Apparently it mattered not that they were also instrumental in killing a number of them.
Our domestic carbon monoxide alarm recommends that we test it regularly using a stubbed-out cigarette. Maybe there will always be at least a little market for cancer-sticks.
John R G Turner
Labour must fight for NHS
Let us be absolutely clear. The Health and Social Care Bill, if enacted, will fulfil the Tory-led Government's aim to fragment and undermine our National Health Service. The principal provisions of the Bill will push poorly informed patients (the advice of GPs on patient "choice" is expressly forbidden) into the hands of private commercial providers, already hovering to scoop up fees diverted from NHS hospitals and clinics. In consequence these latter will be starved of funds and there will be closures.
We know of course that the process of "marketisation" was begun under the New Labour government. We, the undersigned members of the Anjou Lunch Club, now implore Ed Miliband to recognise that this should never have happened and was utterly hostile to the founding principles of the NHS. We call on him to stand up and to speak out against this iniquitous Bill.
The Liberal Democrats, after early signs of dissension, seem now to have gone suspiciously quiet. It is plainly up to the Labour Party, as the proud begetters of our NHS, to alert the country to this imminent peril, and to lead a massive public campaign to bring down the Bill and to save the NHS from privatisation.
Agnes Kaposi FREng
Bernard Marder QC
Dr E M Passes
Rev Canon Julian Reindorp
Hillsborough: the full picture
Like Mr Whitham (letter, 2 September), I was saddened to read the letter from Mr Devonside (31 August) about his experiences at Hillsborough. I was concerned to read Mr Whitham's points about the fans outside the ground. Precisely because of these issues, I decided – now over two years ago – to release South Yorkshire Police's archive on the disaster, and persuaded other local bodies to do likewise, before any government involvement, or political statements about releasing material.
This is important, since it demonstrates our commitment to openness, which would be absent if we were acting under pressure or duress; we are not. The debate about the Freedom of Information request in respect of Cabinet papers should not be confused with our actions.
I urge all those who seek to debate Hillsborough firstly to read – in full – Lord Justice Taylor's report on the disaster. It is comprehensive, and no summary or abstract reflects its all-embracing perspective on the tragic events of that day.
Secondly, I strongly urge commentators to await the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Under the leadership of Bishop James of Liverpool, I am confident it will set the documents in a perspective that is helpful in understanding events, and in a manner that respects the victims.
Chief Constable, South Yorkshire Police,
Educational race with few winners
Now that the annual furore over examination results has abated, congratulations are due to all our wonderful young people. For the most part, they appear to have survived this mad frenzy with their cheerfulness and enthusiasm undiminished. That said, there is general agreement that the English education system is not delivering the goods.
The whole system of applying for university places, before the A-level results are known, is mad. That the schools should have to guess likely grades after three terms of study and then engage in the onerous process of gathering information and writing references for university applications just to enable admissions tutors to cherry-pick students, undermines the whole of our education system.
The requirements of university admissions damage even our primary schools. From the outset, education in England is seen as competitive race with few winners and many losers. It is about promoting failure and slamming the doors of opportunity in too many faces.
Successive governments have believed that testing raises standards. This may be true of reluctant public schoolboys from supportive backgrounds, but what really raises standards is the confident gleam of enthusiasm in the learner's eye. Without this gleam, the learning will be reduced to little more than box-ticking.
Thornton Hough, Wirral,
Homes fit for the slim
Pondering the "obesity timebomb", I thought about my immediate neighbourhood and realised that there is no one living locally I could describe as obese and few who could even be classified as overweight.
Could this be because we live on the side of a hill and many in houses with several storeys? Not many of us are young and if, like me, the others find that they climb the stairs, wonder what they came up for, go down and then remember, we may all be ascending and descending our stairs many times a day.
So, I would like to propose solving several problems in one go by making all new houses terraced, on several floors and preferably built on the side of a hill. This would keep us fit (save on the NHS) and slim (ditto), mean less land being taken up for housing and save carbon emissions because terrace houses are easier to keep warm (and we're being kept warm anyway from all the climbing up and down stairs).
Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
Vocal dissent at the Proms
While I do not for a second condone the disruption of any artistic event for political, or even humanitarian, reasons Thursday night's protests at the Proms highlighted the increasing dissatisfaction of the British public with the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli authorities.
Both the pro-Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and the British-Israeli Coalition demonstrated peacefully outside the hall and it is regrettable that pro-Palestinian elements were vocal inside, resulting in the cancellation of a broadcast which many were anticipating hearing on purely musical grounds.
The literature distributed by both organisations was predictably biased, but anyone who has visited Palestine recently will know where sympathy should lie. Perhaps vocal dissent is the only way to bring home to rank and file Israeli musicians the depth of feeling in this country about the treatment at all levels of a people who once lived peacefully with their Jewish neighbours.
A more subtle way would be to support the inspiring and youthful East West Divan Orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said to foster Palestinian-Israeli relations.
A very young cyclist was merrily weaving in and out among pedestrians on my busy local shopping street yesterday. Deciding that he was unlikely to do more than swear at me, I dared to ask: "Why are you cycling on the pavement?" After regarding me rather superciliously for a moment, he replied in excellent Oxford English: "Because my parents don't allow me to cycle on the road."
Dr Les May (letter, 2 September) is quite wrong in saying that "a diet high in vegetables and fruit ... takes time to prepare and cook". Writing as a lover of both who hates cooking, I can assure him that fresh fruit and salad take less time to prepare than opening a packet.
Lewes, East Sussex
David Warbis, a teacher of languages, writes to say that while he has read Madame Bovary in the original (which is good), he "would never recommend it to anyone" (letter, 1 September). I can't help wondering whether things aren't even worse than we thought.
Perspectives on 10 years since 9/11
Clinging to the narrative of a Hollywood blockbuster
For the next week, wherever we turn, we are going to be confronted with endless documentaries, commentaries, interviews and reflections leading up the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
There is no doubt that this was an important news story, but if you were a Martian that happened to be visiting Earth this week you would think that that terrorism started and ended on 11 September 2001. Whilst we can and should learn from some of the stories that emerged from the day, notably the selfless bravery of the New York fire-fighters, much will simply be a superficial narrative suited to a Hollywood blockbuster. We were simply sitting around minding our own business when these Muslim fanatics suddenly decided to crash a couple of planes into a couple of our biggest skyscrapers, after which we had no choice but to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan, where their leaders were hiding in caves. Yes, we kicked ass. God bless America.
Here is a sample of what you will not be watching or reading about. Why the planes crashed into buildings in New York and not Singapore, Tokyo or Dubai. Why no action was taken against Saudi Arabia, considering most of the hijackers were Saudi. The refusal of the US authorities to accept an offer by the Taliban to extradite Bin Laden to a neutral country. An analysis of how 9/11 and al-Qa'ida were linked to Saddam Hussein by the US politicians and how this conditioned Americans into accepting the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Unfortunately an analysis of the above would demand that people actually thought about this event in a critical way. In its world-political context, it should be seen in the light of US foreign policy before 2001, and of course the invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, it appears that to do so would not be appropriate and would spoil the narrative that many people would rather choose to cling on to.
Dr Shazad Amin
Sale, Greater Manchester
War veteran struggles to make sense of that day
Thank the Good Lord for Robert Fisk ("For 10 years we've lied to ourselves", 3 September). How unusual it is to hear a voice of sober sanity at the time of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
As the mainstream media hypes the sickly-sweet patriotism of the USA and the BBC feeds us with misleading documentaries which only seem to try to discredit anyone who doesn't swallow the official story, Mr Fisk takes a deep breath and strips away the Neocon myths.
As a former Territorial Army soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have many questions about that day in September 2001, not to mention anger and shame for my part in those invasions and occupations that ensued. Anger at our government for lying to me, and shame that I was ignorant enough to buy the lies that Blair and Co were peddling.
As a mere ex-grunt, I am having great difficulty sifting through the moraine of information available from the internet and the mass media, to find answers to the troublesome questions around 9/11. So once again thank you, Robert Fisk, for your succinct reporting of the legacy of our involvement in the "war on terror" and helping a confused veteran make some sense of a very murky subject.
They really were Muslims
I was disappointed to read Robert Fisk describing the people who flew planes into the World Trade Centre as people "who claimed they were Muslims". Please don't sugarcoat the issue. To be a Muslim, one must only accept the credo that "There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his prophet". The men who killed those 3,000 people accepted that.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims, like the vast majority of people everywhere, consider mass murder to be a crime. But to suggest that those who commit murder are not Muslims is as false as to assert that they were not human.
Victims will strike back
Someone telephoned me on 11 September 2001 and told me to watch television; she rang off quickly. When I saw and digested what was going on my very first thought was that at last the Palestinians were hitting back. That seems callous, but after years of humiliation and barbaric treatment by Israel fully backed by the American government, it seemed so obvious.
Yet in all the documentaries by the BBC and other channels, all very respectful and all very unoriginal, this link is not mentioned.
Long Melford, Suffolk