Your report (3 February) that the Education Secretary has cut £100m from the sixth-form colleges budget over the past three years, and has at the same time spent over £62m on just nine new free schools, makes disheartening reading.
Does not Michael Gove have any comprehension of the value of sixth-form colleges and the amount of work they put in with their 16- to 19-year-olds studying for their A-levels? The results can be remarkable. Just take Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge: it sends more of its pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than any other establishment in England. One wonders how many students from the free schools will reach such high attainments.
Since he has been in office, Mr Gove has, in my opinion, done more damage to the education system in England than any previous secretary of state that I can remember.
As an aside, Mr Gove never went to school in England, and yet he thinks he has a divine right to tell us how to educate our children.
Emeritus Professor Anthony Milton, Whaddon, Cambridgeshire
My concern is that the proposed admission of two-year-olds to schools might result in a lowering of standards; I think we must know whether these young people will be permitted to attend without proper uniforms. I’m sure we all hope not. It is not beyond the capability of responsible parents to obtain nappies in the appropriate school colours. Will these toddlers be excused the rigorous punishments suggested by our esteemed education leader? Again I am sure there is a consensus that this would be unacceptable.
My aspiration is that this would be a golden opportunity for these youngsters to become trilingual in English, Latin and Greek, which would surely make possible a classical renaissance in Britain. This longed-for achievement would doubtless be the envy of the whole world (with the possible exception of North Korea).
Lee Dalton, Weymouth, Dorset
Seeger, singing for freedom
Terence Blacker misses rather a lot of points in “We can no longer protest like Pete Seeger” (1 February).
In the 1950s and ’60s – certainly the decade from Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, which brought Dr Martin Luther King to international prominence, to the passage by LBJ of the Civil Rights Act – music was what powered the movement.
Blacks sang in church, on marches, in jail, on buses, and they were joined on the “freedom rides” to desegregate the Greyhound buses by their white brothers, many of them students. They sang to keep their spirits up, to keep fear at bay – not because they were so naive as to think songs alone could change the world.
Seeger sang for many causes: the poor and oppressed everywhere, black and white; against Senator McCarthy, to whom he refused to name names; against Vietnam; against Iraq; and for environmentalism. During his McCarthy-enforced exile from the American mainstream, he retreated to summer camps, where he taught a generation of kids the sort of music that would inspire the nationwide folk revival that in turn inspired Bob Dylan.
He was a good man, never complacent, never cynical, unlike many carping journalists.
Liz Thomson, London N10
When world events seemed random and disjointed, I often found in Pete Seeger’s lyrics a clarity which cut to the core.
It even seemed to work in the week of his death, in the unlikely setting of sport, when Andy Flower resigned as coach from the England cricket team and Tim Flowers stood down as coach of my own team, Northampton Town.
Seán O’Donovan, London N18
Lead in petrol: it was a crime
Your article on falling crime rates ranges across a variety of possible explanations without recognising that the evidence linking lead in petrol with violent crime is compelling (“The mysterious case of why crime is falling in Britain”, 24 January).
Crime rates worldwide rose after the Second World War in line with the use of lead in petrol, which peaked at 400,000 tonnes per annum in the early 1970s. Reduction in violent crime has been observed in all developed countries studied since then, and correlates very closely with the removal of lead from petrol with a lag period of approximately 20 years.
Thus in the US lead was removed between 1976 and 1980, and crime reductions occurred during the 1990s. Mayor Giuliani in New York was given credit for this, but in fact violent crime was falling before he took office and continued afterwards. In the UK and other EU countries lead was removed between 1985 and 1995 and we are now seeing the benefits in our own crime statistics two decades later.
Lead is a neurotoxin that exerts its maximum effects in utero and leads to disinhibited behaviour in adolescents and young adults. It explains most of the variance in violent crime since the Second World War.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones (Chair of the Campaign for Lead Free Air, 1984-89), Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
View from the modern Catholic pew
What a bizarre article about Catholicism from John Walsh (4 February). He freely admits that he no longer believes in Catholicism and hasn’t practised for ages, but tries to tell us what will be found in the Catholic pews today. Maybe as a journalist he should ask believers why they are there, rather than guessing.
I go to church because I believe that God loves us and sent Jesus to save us. I am happy because Pope Francis’s appointment allows us to refocus on that eternal truth. Of course any human person or institution has many failings, but with friends and fellow travellers we can attempt to recognise where we are wrong, and move forward together in that love.
If Mr Walsh, as he is always welcome to do, came and visited our parish, I hope he would find a warm community ready to share joys, and to support in times of sorrow. Bells and smells are a matter of taste, rather than a central tenet of belief.
Dr Gemma Stockford, Hassocks, West sussex
HS2 costs the same, but looks better
Your report (5 February) states that the new chairman of HS2 intends to reduce costs by, among other things, “trimming the amount of money set aside for contingency costs”. However, this does not represent a real saving, rather it is a presentational change.
“Contingency costs” are simply a recognition that over the lifetime of this huge project (nearly 20 years to 2033) some unanticipated costs will arise. Reducing the provision for them will simply increase the eventual overspend – but it looks good now.
Keith Robinson, Beckington, Somerset
The winter floods have nearly drowned David Cameron and may have washed up the Conservatives’ prospects at the European elections. The weather disasters of recent weeks have also exposed the flaw in the theory of the “Big Society” on which the Tories launched their 2010 general election manifesto.
In testing times, there is no alternative to decisive centrally driven action by government, not agencies nor an army of part-time volunteers. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister has finally woken up to the catastrophe engulfing the West Country and at last decided to chair a Cobra meeting? Leaving it to society plainly did not work for the people of South-west England.
Anthony Rodriguez, Staines, Middlesex
Steve Richards, in his column of 4 February, finally realises that man-made climate change is real and that something should be done about it. Having had this revelation, he spoils it by suggesting that, instead of trying to do something about the fossil fuel usage which is driving the situation, we attempt to treat the symptoms by dealing with the consequences of extreme weather more effectively.
It won’t do, and if your columnist truly recognises the extent of our peril, he should be calling for far more action on fossil fuel usage. Rome is burning, yet he merely calls for a different song on the violin.
Helen Waldie, Brentwood Essex
Flood defence budgets slashed, roads to be abandoned because of a lack of funding to repair them, and deteriorating care for our elderly folk. Does this have to be the face of 21st-century Britain? I think not.
Although I only work part-time, if it would improve the lives of my fellow countrymen and women, even just a little bit, then I am prepared to pay a couple of pence more in the pound on income tax. Is anybody else?
What is needed urgently is real politics, mature leadership and a pragmatic debate on income tax.
John Leach, Halberton, Devon