Steve Richards offers a perceptive analysis of the lack of social mobility afforded by schools in England and Wales ( 13 January). He is right that selective education offers no solution: while a minority of children from the poorest families might have scrambled up the pole via the 11-plus, progress for the majority is not helped. Some families have benefited from assisted places in private schools, but for the excluded these "opportunities" offer nothing, and may induce a lasting sense of failure. Selection, private schools and "choice" collectively explain why education brings enormous stress to all concerned.
The hysteria around schooling divides families, causes others to move house, makes many children miserable, burdens a substantial minority with the cost of school fees and induces a forlorn sense of despair in countless others. There is a pervasive worry about how children are "getting on" and whether or not their "potential" is being achieved.
In most of continental Europe children go to school and that's all there is to it. Private schools are regarded as a religious eccentricity or the folly of the deluded with money to waste. Choice doesn't come into it – children simply attend what is locally provided and the brighter ones go to university.
If the Government really wants to improve the situation, let it abolish selection, private schools and choice, and provide adequately resourced community schools, staffed by well-trained teachers earning a salary that reflects their professional status and responsibility to assist in ensuring a well-educated, cohesive and genuinely meritocratic society.
Social mobility has decreased because some ignoramus closed all the grammar schools. Grammar schools used to take pupils from all backgrounds and propel them into Oxbridge – no matter what their background. That avenue no longer exists, and the lower classes are now often left with nothing better than sink schools on sink estates. What future now for the brighter pupils in the lower stratum of society?
Why does social improvement only seem to relate to enhancing the lot of the working classes? I feel middle England and the ruling classes have been unfairly left out. I believe there is a need for social responsibility classes, condescension awareness programmes, outsider trading tutorials with ethical banking problem-based learning and 4x4 driving skills workshops. I do hope the powers take notice.
Quarriers Village, Renfrewshire
Who is to blame for reckless debt?
In the course of my work as a probation officer I met a family this morning who are in debt to a major British bank. Between 2000 and 2005 the husband spent almost three years in prison, serving several short sentences. The couple have two young children. The wife has just returned to work as a care assistant and her husband is not motivated to find work and probably never will be.
Yet they tell me about five years ago they were "offered" a loan of £7,500 by one of the Big Four banks. Your readers will not be surprised to learn that their indebtedness is now £8,500, including interest charges. The woman twice apologised to me, saying, "I know I shouldn't have, but I took out the loan to help pay the bills while he was in prison."
Who is more deserving of sympathy, the banks or this family, and I suspect, many others like them?
I have just had a letter from the HSBC informing me that they are dropping interest rates for savings accounts to 1 per cent "in line with inflation". It doesn't mention anything though about dropping the APR for their personal loans. Does inflation only affect interest rates depending on who is doing the lending and who is doing the borrowing, or are we all being ripped off?
In reply to Dr Les May (letter, 14 January), the reason that I, as a saver, do not invest in the National Savings index linked bonds is that I don't trust our Government to set the correct inflation rate.
As the impression seems to be that the 2.5 per cent cut in VAT is not achieving its aim of inspiring us to spend more, perhaps it would be sensible to beat a strategic retreat now and reverse this decision. The money saved could be used to help provide loans or guarantees of loans to companies that are losing their credit supply lines because trade credit insurers are acting in an extremely cautious manner.
Fair funding for stem cell research
Stem cell research is seeking to address some of the most debilitating conditions still without a cure. The suggestion that such research is under threat or that funding has halted is erroneous ("Funding halted for stem cell research", 13 January).
Because of the promise held by stem cell research, it is now receiving more funding than ever before from the Medical Research Council (MRC) – over £25.5m – and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) – £11.3m – in 2007/8. We are seeing increasingly promising results from stem cell research and the MRC is encouraging applications through a dedicated new funding committee.
All applications are rated by a number of referees, their scores are reviewed, and boards of experts consider the best applications. Usually the boards review about two-and-a-half times the number of applications they would be able to fund. Overall, the MRC and BBSRC support about one in five applications. The process is extremely rigorous and all funded proposals are of an internationally competitive standard. All applicants, whether successful or not, receive the anonymised referees' comments.
The MRC was instrumental in ensuring that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act allowed for the possibility of using admixed embryos, which contain both animal and human material, in research. Clearly, we believe there may well be great potential for this avenue of research.
Fighting for the right to carry out such research does not mean that it should get priority over other applications which score higher and hold more promise. The MRC and BBSRC must make the best use of taxpayers' money and there is no better way to decide what should be funded than to use tried and tested peer-review systems where scientists thoroughly assess applications on their merits. This system, as operated, rules out the possibility of a personal moral view influencing the outcome of a proposal.
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz
Chief Executive, Medical Research Council
Chief Executive, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
The likelihood that either the MRC or BBSRC turned down funding applications for animal-human hybrid research on moral grounds is fanciful. Both organisations have endorsed this kind of research with great enthusiasm right from the start.
What has probably happened is that having at last realised the totally speculative nature of this research, and with money in very short supply, they have decided that it is no longer justified to waste public funds in this way.
Those of us opposed to the creation of animal-human embryos on moral grounds, a battle which we sadly lost, have always argued that the more pragmatic arguments of feasibility and necessity would eventually win through. It seems that is exactly what is happening.
Comment on Reproductive Ethics
'Liquid cosh' can help patients
Before we get carried away with a knee-jerk reaction against anti-psychotics for all dementia patients ("'Liquid cosh' treatment kills dementia patients", 9 January), let us remember how useful they can be.
My wife has early-onset dementia and has twice developed aggressive delusions of sufficient intensity to require hospital admission and "sectioning" to protect herself and those around her. On both occasions she has been treated with antipsychotics. They were not handed out like Smarties, but after much thought and risk-benefit analysis by caring psychiatrists and support teams. Now, within the limits of her dementia, she is a happy individual, instead of a distressed raving lunatic. I do not believe any amount of "talking therapy" would have had the same effect – goodness knows, we all tried! I believe that she benefited from anti-psychotic agents in an appropriate hospital environment.
The final paragraph of the full research paper reads: "There is still an important but limited place for antipsychotics in the treatment of severe neuropsychiatric manifestations of Alzheimer's disease, particularly aggression". Treatment decisions should be made by experienced clinicians who deal with real-life patients, not by "one size fits all" bureaucrats and politicians in committee rooms.
Just a few insults between friends
I wish it to be understood that when I refer, as I do habitually, to His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, KG, GCB, OM, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland, as "that bloodsucking parasite whose head I should like to see paraded down the Mall on the end of a pole", I do so merely in a spirit of playful banter.
I have red hair and am on the receiving end of such sobriquets as "flame-haired temptress" or "ginger whinger". I don't mind, but should I feel affronted that nobody is offended on my behalf?
Welton le Marsh, Lincolnshire
Am I now supposed to take offence whenever my friends in England call me "sheep-shagger"? I have always found it rather endearing, but then as a white working-class male, I would, wouldn't I?
Rewards of office
Somebody should tell Bruce Anderson (12 January) that people with an annual income of more than £40,000 are the richest 10 per cent. Thus MPs, far from not being in receipt of generous pay, are easily among the wealthiest in the land.
Policing the crowd
It is my experience that both police estimates of crowd numbers (letters, 13, 14 January), and numbers of police in attendance at demonstrations changes according to how much the issue is supported by the Government. Demonstrations the Government agrees with seem to have higher estimates and lower police numbers. If, however, you demonstrate against the Government, crowd numbers are always greatly underestimated and the area is swamped with police. As the police are supposed to be apolitical, surely this is just coincidence?
Not so green
I read your Green Gadgets page (14 January) with mixed feelings. While most of the gadgets are indeed useful and green, a couple are designed to tell you things you really ought to know already: whether you've switched off everything that's not in use, or whether you're taking too long in the shower. While I am in favour of anything that gets people to think about their carbon footprint, these two gadgets are richly symbolic of the thinking that got us into this climate change mess in the first place.
The possible transfer of the Brazilian player Kaka from AC Milan to Manchester City for a record fee of £91m may mark a new order in world football, but if it comes off it will undermine seriously the integrity of the beautiful game. The sums involved are quite obscene and can hardly be justified during a recession. Sepp Blatter, the supremo of world football, should introduce new regulations to curb such excesses.
Professor and Fellow, The Asser International Sports Law Centre
The Hague, Netherlands
Was the "miracle baby" headline placed above the one on "virgin visions" as a joke (13 January)? Jayne Soliman suffered a brain haemorrhage and died. These events are usually the result of a vascular defect, a design fault, in the blood supply to the brain. Her very premature daughter has a hard time ahead of her. What is the supernatural input into this and where is the miracle?