Letters: Grammar schools

Grammar schools are divisive, unjust and ineffective
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The Independent Online

It is difficult to understand how a philosopher of Mary Warnock's distinction could still peddle the myths about grammar schools ("Children need to be taught to think highly of education", 29 July). Far from rescuing "children from disadvantaged homes", the 11-plus examination failed to do just that – despite its pretensions to detect innate intelligence accurately at the age of 10-plus, when most took the tests.

The Crowther report, exactly 50 years ago, expressed its concern that so few of those from the bottom quarter in terms of poverty, who did in fact get to grammar school, actually obtained an O-level; 40 per cent of those from the unskilled working-class who passed their 11-plus left school without a single qualification.

Those who, like Mary Warnock, want to bring back grammar schools, or wish to retain the remaining 165 (which distorts comprehensive provision in about 45 per cent of local authorities) must subscribe to three propositions: first, that it makes sense to distinguish a minority group (about 20 per cent) of intelligent young people (the rest not capable of handling abstract ideas or learning for its own sake, as the Norwood report in 1943 put it); second, that this intelligence is fixed, not to be acquired through subsequent experience or teaching; third, that that innate quality can be accurately measured by IQ tests.

The injustice of such assumptions was demonstrated in the 1950s when Phillip Vernon showed how coaching could shift pupils' IQ scores by as much as 14 points. And that partly explains why the children from more advantaged homes did so much better.

Professor Richard Pring

Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, Oxford

Disgraceful smear of Polish MEPs

I am pleased to have a debate with Denis MacShane (Opinion, 30 July) about the successful formation of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European parliament and how, for the first time, there is a mainstream body in the assembly that will champion a Europe of nation states. I am sorry he has instead chosen to use the time-dishonoured Labour tactics of the Damian McBride-style smear, directed against our Polish allies, the Law and Justice Party.

To deal with Mr MacShane's most salient false allegations: Michal Kaminski was never part of the European National Front. He is in no way an anti-Semite, as I can testify in my work with him as European Chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel. He has used his seat in the European parliament to speak out against the lingering problem of anti-Semitism in Poland. Mr Kaminski is certainly no homophobe.

Mr Kaminski did disagree with the nature of the apology that then President Kwasniewski made for the horrific Jedwabne pogrom, but so did many other Poles in public life, including the then Prime Minister. He did not believe that the whole Polish nation should be held responsible for the terrible and murderous acts of a few. That is entirely different from being anti-Semitic.

To accuse him of having anything in common with the BNP is malicious and baseless. Mr Kaminski is an enormous admirer of the US, President Obama included.

Mr MacShane might also enquire about his own party's alliances in the European Parliament. Labour MEPs are currently allied with a clutch of former Eastern European Communists. Michal Kaminski and Denis MacShane both have honourable records campaigning to bring democracy to Poland in the 1980s. How comfortable is Mr MacShane in the knowledge that his MEPs now sit with those old Communist apparatchiks he campaigned against?

Timothy Kirkhope MEP (Conservative, Yorkshire & The Humber), Brussels

Flaws in report on organic food

The FSA's study on one aspect of organic food ("Organic food 'no healthier than conventional' ", 30 July) fails to see the bigger picture. Aside from the fact that it ignores the most up-to-date research on the nutritional benefits of organic food, a more useful study would have been one which acknowledged the growing body of evidence on the impacts of persistent, bioaccumulative and endocrine- disrupting chemicals, many of which are the mainstay of intensive farming, as well as the climate-change impacts of carbon-intensive farming.

If anyone at the FSA were to walk round an organic farm, or meet those running organic allotments, it would be apparent that the whole point is a holistic, integrated approach which conserves soils, encourages biodiversity, eliminates greenhouse-gas intensive nitrogen inputs, conserves genetic diversity, and brings more income to the grower.

In February 2008, the Sustainable Development Commission's Green Healthy and Fair report found that "conflicting policies from different areas of government are making it impossible to achieve targets" including reducing carbon emissions and promoting the healthy development of children. The FSA's latest report is just such an own goal.

Andrew Lee

Chief Executive, Sustainable Development Commission

London SE5

The FSA-funded study fails to consider in any way the impact of consuming pesticides via the food grown conventionally, and the wider impacts of pesticide use, especially in relation to communities living near fields that are regularly sprayed.

There has now been more than 50 years of scientific and medical evidence in relation to the dangers of pesticides, the risks inherent in their use and the acute and chronic long-term ill-health effects that can result following exposure.

The European Commission has stated: "Long-term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances of the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage."

Georgina Downs FRSA

UK Pesticides Campaign,

Chichester, West Sussex

It was reported on 28 October 2007 that a £12m study at Newcastle University, the largest of its kind, and funded by the EU, had found that organic fruit and vegetables contained up to 40 per cent more antioxidants than non-organic. Organic milk contained 90 per cent more antioxidants and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Man-made chemicals may be a cause of the large increase in certain cancers in recent years. Breast cancer is up from 15,000 cases a year in the 1980s to over 44,000 a year in the UK now. Danish organic farmers were found to have much higher fertility than men exposed to chemicals.

Organic farming would have avoided many recent food disasters, such as mad cow disease and antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused by the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.

A Wills

Ruislip, Middlesex

Pesticides from sprayed food found in breast milk number more than 70. The effect of meat containing oestrogen has had a negative effect on the fertility of males worldwide.

Are such facts deemed unimportant by the scientists who have made this pronouncement?

Rose Moloney

Moray, Morayshire

Don't catch swine-flu hysteria

As I recover from a slight sore throat and runny nose it would have been quite easy to believe that I have had swine flu. We have been regaled with dramatic pronouncements: swine flu is the "biggest challenge in a generation for the NHS" (Sir Liam Donaldson); swine flu "could overwhelm the NHS" (Andy Burnham, health secretary).

Every household been sent a leaflet explaining what to do in the event of a family member contracting the disease. We have huge stocks of Tamiflu, and a vaccine that will be ready in September. The new swine-flu phone line was opened and, unsurprisingly, was overwhelmed on its first day.

Swine flu is real and many will suffer, or even die, from its effects, but I also believe that we are becoming a nation of neurotics. The term iatrogenesis refers to the causation of illness by doctors; perhaps the government could be added as a causatory factor, too.

David Fisher

Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Malign influence of business in politics

Your lead story (29 July), "Windfall for Tories as firms eye £4bn contracts", is a cause for great concern. The amount spent by successive governments on consultancy fees has increased astronomically over the past 25 years or so. The pre-election subventions to the Conservatives from the "Big Four" accountancy cartel is clearly designed to keep up the momentum of this gravy train.

Equally worrying is the call from Mr Peter Slowe, chair of the Labour party's finance and industry group, for Lord Mandelson to take over as Prime Minister because of his better understanding of the needs of the business world. One recalls Lord Mandelson's remark after Labour was returned to office in 1997 to the effect that he was relaxed about how "filthy rich" businessmen became. In the ensuing decade, the wealth gap between rich and poor has continued to widen.

Both of these developments give a new and very sinister ring to the term "corporate governance". The political power and influence of business to dictate so much of the public agenda is too preponderant and must be curtailed. Is it any wonder that the UK's representative democratic institutions falter and only token postures about the need for constitutional renewal are made by the governing elites?

Trevor Smith

House of Lords, London SW1

Lack of welcome at the local pub

Andrew Marsh (letters, 27 July) makes some valid points as to why the British pub is dying. But much of the blame may lie at the door of landlords themselves.

I recently went along to my "local" for only the second time with a large group of Japanese who wanted to experience a British pub at first hand. As we entered the near-deserted pub, we were not greeted by either the customers or staff. When the landlord finally did deign to acknowledge me, I was told in no uncertain terms that food was no longer being served. We also discovered that both alcoholic and soft drinks were being sold at extortionate prices and the place was dirty and unkempt.

We got up walked out and headed to the nearest Wetherspoons where the staff, despite the language barrier and confusion of our party, could not have been more accommodating. We paid a reasonable price for our food and drink and left happy and refreshed. As a result I won't be going back to my "local" again I'm afraid.

John Moore



Weather lore

To join the debate about the weather (letters, 30 July), tradition has it that whatever the weather is like on St Swithin's Day, that is what we can expect for the next 40 days. On 15 July I noted in my diary that we had sunshine and heavy showers, and this has been the case on most days since then. Perhaps we will have some more settled weather after 24 August.

Julie Burrows


Selection of MPs

I was intrigued Mr Hyde-Chambers' comments on the professionalisation of parliament (letters, 28 July). I have long believed that the desire to be a politician should automatically bar an individual from standing.

Failing that, we should enact a law banning anyone from standing as an MP unless they have served a minimum of 10 years in a proper profession. That way we could at least start to populate parliament with MPs with some experience of life, business and the real world.

Gwy Pell

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

Arab backwardness

Robert Fisk (27 July) asks why the Arab world is so backward, but does not even suggest that religion could be an important contributing factor. In all the Arab countries listed by The Independent, it is impossible, for example, to question publicly the presumed divine origin of the Koran and in several of them apostasy can still be punished by death.

A society that forbids debate on questions of religious dogma, that punishes free thinkers, that uses oppressive codes to regulate individual behaviour, and where religiously induced fatalism is pervasive, is doomed to intellectual, cultural and political backwardness.

Robert Olorenshaw

Sevenoaks, Kent

Myths about war

Your correspondents seem intent on rewriting history (letters, 28 July). We should not forget that in 1914, across Europe, ordinary citizens, eager for the adventure of war and a chance to break out of the tedium of life went in search of heroism (Nietszche was found in many a soldier's ruck sack), animated by an unstoppable tide of nationalism. Neither should we forget that all modern nations owe their existence to one simple fact; war. The brotherhood of man is a noble ideal, but the reality is homo homini lupus (man to men is a wolf).

Dominic Kirkham