Letters: Improving schools

Well-managed local authorities can help improve schools
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The Independent Online

Sir: Your editorial ("Freedom for schools remains paramount", 19 January) pronounces that the most important aspect of the forthcoming Schools Bill is "its removal of the dead hand of inefficient LEAs". How about removing the flood of prescriptive paperwork emanating from the DfES?

I am a member of a shire authority and I sit on a schools monitoring panel. This panel of elected members examines measures being taken in support of underperforming schools. I can assure your readers that the idea that "schools perform best when they are left alone" is, in my experience, both stupid and irresponsible. Good schools have good heads and management teams along with well qualified and motivated staff. Not all schools are so fortunate and they need help.

There is evidence of a 20 per cent shortage of applications for headships and only 7 per cent of teachers aspire to headship. Has anyone asked why? Could it be that, despite financial incentives, headteachers are exposed to frequently ill-informed criticism brought about by a league table culture? They are expected to cope with social problems not of their making which they are expected to solve. How often do we hear "I blame it on the schools"?

There can be no doubt that schools in disadvantaged areas need extra investment to ensure that the management and staff in those schools are able to meet the substantial challenges.

The role of the local authority must be to support by working with schools to ensure improvement. Unsurprisingly the quality of LEAs depends on quality management but can smaller LEAs afford to attract the best managers? How often, in some organisations, is irrelevant reorganisation implemented as an alternative to solving the real problem?



Do not give up the fight for the Earth

Sir: James Lovelock's apocalyptic vision (16 January) of the Earth's future is both defeatist and unproductive. We already have the technology, expertise and financial resources to drastically reduce carbon emissions and limit the extent of climate change. It is, therefore, important that we take from Lovelock's view, not a gloomy fatalism or an abdication of responsibility, but a determination to recognise his warning as a call to arms.

The Government must take a dynamic and committed stance on investing in renewable energy sources. According to the Environment Agency, the UK has the largest resources for wind, wave and tidal energy in Europe, but currently performs badly. Other European countries generate significantly more electricity from renewable sources - Denmark 20 per cent, Sweden 47 per cent, and Spain 16.2 per cent.

Lovelock's dedication to nuclear energy is widely regarded as misguided - nuclear power is dangerous, expensive, has long-term waste implications and, crucially, also produces significant carbon emissions through ore extraction which will increase as ore content declines.

The Government, therefore, needs to stop pandering to the nuclear lobby and work to ensure that the UK no longer lags behind in Europe but is at the fore-front of renewable energy generation.

It is vital that figures such as James Lovelock do not undermine the current proactive mood on the climate change issue. We have everything to lose but this is not the time to give up the fight.




Sir: Changes in the environment do not always result in slow adaptation for affected organisms (Professor R J P Williams, Letters, 17 January). In terms of physiological change it might be true of higher animals, but lower lifeforms can adapt quickly to changes in their environment, and many of these organisms play a major role in the Earth system. If such organisms do not adapt they die, and so evolution has endowed them with the ability to evolve relatively quickly.

We humans are to a degree insulated from the environment, but are still reliant upon it. Major climate change over the next 50-100 years will necessitate a radical change in the way in which many human communities organise themselves, and it is likely to affect us all to some degree. While this may not be the same as Darwinian evolution of the organism, it is still a major system adaptation to changed circumstances.

I share at least some of Professor Williams' optimism at our chances of finding solutions to the problems we face, but at the same time I caution against taking a purely technology-based approach, which to me displays an element of naïveté and wishful thinking.



Sir: It is inconsistent to support measures against global warming but deplore hydroelectric developments such as that in China's Tiger Leaping Gorge ("Valley of the dammed", 17 January). Even if a few tigers and many people have to be moved it's vital to make full use of this huge reserve of clean power.



Unscientific theories about religion

Sir: When Professor Dawkins talks about religion, he isn't being scientific ("Is God the root of all evil?", 6 January). In claiming that it's the root cause of human intolerance, he is implicitly making a prediction that societies where religion is banned or discouraged will be more tolerant. The experiment has been done (by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others) and the results have been negative.

I am not claiming this as an argument in favour of religious belief, but I think it's fairly strong evidence that religious bigotry is only a symptom of a more general human tendency towards tribal violence: get rid of religion and people will simply kill one another over socio-economic theories, or nationality, or race, or culture, or, failing all else, football. They do all of that already.

A scientific approach would be to look at as large as possible a number of societies, determine which are most, and which least, likely to engage in tribal violence, and then see what common patterns emerge. I suspect that prevalence of religious belief would turn out to be a fairly weak predictor for violence compared with the rate of social change, the degree of poverty and its upward or downward trend and so on.

I'd also suspect that the exclusion of women from public life would turn out to be a good predictor for violence - but I haven't done the study. Neither has Professor Dawkins - and neither of us is entitled to pontificate on the basis of gut-feelings and selected anecdotes.



Sir: Christoph Alexander's claim (letter, 13 January) that faith schools "examine all faiths" may well be correct in the same sense that Communist seminars in the old Soviet Union examined the politics of capitalism. At the end, students knew precisely why their system was so good and the others so bad.

Children in faith schools, in most cases, do not have pupils from other faiths among them. The staff, who are there to teach them maths, history, languages and other non-controversial subjects, are at the same time reinforcing their belief in their own particular god and his laws. Other religions, it is strongly implied, have their good points, but are basically wrong.

My grand-daughter, whose mother I brought up as a good atheist and who let me down by marrying a very religious man, attends a faith school. She is an intelligent girl, but at the age of 12 she knows that her religion is the only true one and that the laws of her god have to be obeyed, and would be shocked to have her views challenged.

Her friends are drawn entirely from her own religion and in deference to her parents, I would not dream of encouraging her to question her opinions. Brainwashing? Of course it is.



Rise in heterosexual HIV infections

Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Comment, 9 January) misquotes me as saying in my pamphlet on political correctness that "nearly 1,000 people have caught Aids from infected immigrants since Labour came to power". In fact, I wrote "HIV", a rather crucial difference to those affected.

She attacks this as a "fearful fantasy", but the Health Protection Agency's latest figures show that since 1998, a total of 1,468 people in the UK have caught HIV from heterosexual sex with people who were themselves infected outside of Europe, the vast majority (thought to be over three quarters) of whom are immigrants to the UK. These cases are largely responsible for the fivefold jump in heterosexual HIV infections in the UK, from 88 cases in 1996 to 466 in 2004.



Labour's care plans for the elderly

Sir: I write in response to Johann Hari's article "The real scandal is how we treat the old" (19 January). Improving health and social care for older people is a priority area for this Government - as we have shown with £200m of projects for older people, backed up by £250m of research and development work.

Our National Service Framework for older people, which we published in 2001, is already having a dramatic impact in rooting out age discrimination in the NHS. Older people are at greater risk of under-nutrition, which is precisely why this is included in hospital assessment procedures and in the National Minimum standards against which care homes are inspected.

The Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) has the power to take the strongest action if minimum standards are not met or if they uncover instances of inappropriate medication. I am determined to ensure that all our older people are treated safely, effectively and with respect for their dignity.





Sir: Unusually for us, Johann Hari hit the spot today. We, both in our seventies, have been revelling in our invisibility. Whenever we go shopping, there are hordes of people with clipboards asking other people to answer questionnaires. We sail through, confident that nobody will ask us anything.

This attitude causes us to wonder why it is that we are always being told that we have an ageing population and that we are in the majority, yet the majority is not being canvassed? Presumably we do not have a big enough disposable income, nor are our opinions worth any consideration. Never mind, let us just enjoy the chance to do our shopping in peace.




Guidance for Iran's nuclear programme

Sir: According to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the legitimate right to research and implement a nuclear solution for its energy needs. For countries such as the US, UK, France and Germany to deny Iran this right based on some notion of a hidden agenda is a poor argument. Which countries that have a nuclear capability have not developed it in secrecy?

I predict that Iran will develop a successful nuclear programme for its energy needs. After Iraq, there would be little political will for a military solution. Better to engage with Iran now and let it develop its nuclear programme under the guidance and controls of the IAEA.



UK day

Sir: Most of the suggestions (Letters, 18 January) for a British National Day so far seem to concentrate on celebrating military victories over our European neighbours or subjugating a quarter of the globe to British rule.

What's wrong with commemorating the anniversary of the creation of the United Kingdom? The 300th anniversary of this event falls on 1 May 2007. What better time to inaugurate United Kingdom Day?



French ambivalence

Sir: A franchophile like Miles Kington (19 January) should know better. The French equivalent of "Yeah but no but" is in fact "Mais oui mais non", and has been said for decades by French intellectuals, generally accompanied with a Gallic shrug, as a way of hogging the conversation while they think of what to say next.



Orchid origins

Sir: Your report of the conviction of orchid smuggler Dr Sian Lim was accompanied by a photograph of Paphiopedilum sanderianum, not rothschildianum ("Scientist jailed for smuggling Malaysia's rarest orchids", 18 January).

Both were introduced by my great grandfather, Frederick Sander, in 1885 and 1888 respectively; at that time the importation from the wild of these beautiful species was not only not illegal, but had royal approval!



Hidden faces

Sir: Dr Rashed Akhtar challenges anyone to provide examples of women wearing the veil (burka) being associated with any criminal activity (Letters, 20 January).

The burka has certainly been worn in a post office raid not far from here, the sex of the persons wearing them is unknown, though thought to be male. The effect on the staff was terror. Staff in post offices, banks, etc now ask that headwear (crash helmets, baseball caps, hoods, etc) that conceals the face from security cameras be removed. Why not the veil/burka which has the same effect? The wearer may not be a Muslim woman.



Alcohol abuse

Sir: How long before people realise that alcohol is more of a problem in society than cannabis ever will be (reports, 19 January)? Debating on how the latter should be classified is a waste of everyone's time and effort. As for the argument that cannabis leads on to other drugs, it's a fair bet that it was alcohol that started the downwards spiral .



Equal ancestors

Sir: The unknown Mongolian may have 800,000 times more descendants than the average male ("Giants of the gene pool, 19 January), but (allowing for intermarriage, advances in cloning technology and parthenogenesis) we all have the same number of ancestors. Counting back, that's two from the first generation, four from the second etc.