Letters: Only selective schools offer the poor a way out


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The Independent Online

The front page headline in The Independent on 22 May reads "Born poor, stay poor". Well, we can blame Shirley Williams for where we are today as she abolished grammar schools.

The beauty about the 11-plus was that entry to a grammar school was based on ability, not the wealth of one's parents. Many successful people, now middle-aged and older, broke out of the spiral of poverty this way. Comprehensive education offers no escape route for the poor, but the wealthy can buy their way out of the mediocre state education system.

This mediocrity stems not from poor teaching, but from the stupid testing regime where the sole objective is to achieve the highest percentage of mediocrity (5 GCSEs at grade A to C for example) which means that the gifted capable of achieving 10 A*s are ignored.

Unless the gifted from poor backgrounds are encouraged to maximise their potential, then the poor will forever stay poor.

Malcolm Howard

Banstead, Surrey

I would very much like to see the evidence that, according to your leading article of 22 May, directly links selective schooling to the attainment of social mobility. I imagine it worked very well for those who made it into a grammar school, but what happened to everyone else?

Leaving aside the small problem of how people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds attain the skills and confidence to qualify for a place, there is a moral issue at stake. Is it acceptable to say that there are some people who are so special, or gifted, or academic, that they can be allowed to experience "mobility" at the expense of the rest of their society?

I'm baffled by the implication that only the "academically gifted" deserve the best teaching and the best resources. Surely everyone, regardless of ability, has the right to a good education. Teaching mature students at Birkbeck, University of London, suggests to me that many of the ones who benefit most from the educational experience are not gifted A-graders.

"Social mobility" does not just mean taking a handful of bright poor kids and turning them into High Court judges. It means giving everybody the opportunity to seek out a better future for themselves.

Dr Laura A M Stewart

Senior lecturer in history, Birkbeck College, University of London

Perhaps Laurie Penny's parents were well-off enough not to have to think twice about bridging the gap between her scholarship and her private school fees (Opinion, 11 May). However many of the 7 per cent of pupils who attend a public school are there not because their parents are wealthy and privileged, but because they wish to give their children the best education they can afford. This often involves making sacrifices on such things as holidays, a larger car or house.

Yes, these parents choose private schooling because of smaller class sizes, better discipline, more sport and good teachers. These are what all schools should be offering. One of the most shameful acts of the Labour government of Tony Blair was to abolish the Assisted Places Scheme, reducing the social range of pupils educated at private schools.

Ms Penny should be thankful, and she should let Mr Gove get on with the uphill struggle of endeavouring to ensure the improvement of every school in the land, until they reach the excellence of most public schools. This should be the overriding objective.

Adeline Guppy


As a teacher at a private school, who has also taught in a comprehensive, I cannot agree with Ben Warren (letter, 16 May), that private school teachers "have an easier job: smaller classes and cherry-picked pupils".

The pressures are different. Paying fees means that some parents feel that their children should get an A, no matter what the ability of their child. Most private schools do not cherry-pick students, when most parents cannot afford the fees.

Ben Warren will get more teachers from private schools to apply for jobs at his comprehensive school if he can promise the freedom to teach whenever, however, whatever they like.

Kartar Uppal

West Bromwich, West Midlands

Lansley ignores mental health

I was a steering group member for the strategy No Health Without Mental Health, requested by the Coalition Government right after their election in 2010. This was based on the best available research and compiled with an unprecedented level of consensus across stakeholders.

Now when Andrew Lansley (The Monday Interview, 14 May) talks about treating people in "hospital" or "in the community" he means treatment for acute physical problems only. Not only has he ignored implementation of our strategy, his "reformed" NHS is silently plundering the limited funds of mental health services.

He boasts: "I could show you the graphs" – well, as a member of the national Statistics Users Forum, I could show him how the economic recession is steadily generating more mental illness "in the community". He claims to desire "an NHS that everybody has access to", but tell that to mentally ill people among growing groups like the homeless, insecure migrant workers, redundant service personnel and especially the young Neets on society's scrap-heap. I advise parliamentarians on youth suicide, and the "access" to child and adolescent mental health services for our most vulnerable young people is a national disgrace.

This is not "a pretty extreme ideological response" but a human advocacy for so many voiceless people.

Professor Woody Caan

Duxford, Cambridgeshire

Good reason to sell an Olympic torch

Sceptics are criticising the selling of Olympic torches. I know a man who very proudly carried the Olympic torch on one leg of the relay in Cornwall. He was granted this honour because of his continuous generosity to charity. He significantly contributes to the local community.

The local town's junior school swimming pool is in desperate need of funding in order to remain in service, and until a year ago was facing closure. The man I know doesn't really want to get rid of his torch (who would?) but he wants to sell it on eBay and all the money will go to the junior school pool.

Isn't this a fantastic gesture, and a fitting accolade to the Olympic flame; not only might it provide the start needed for a young person's swimming career, it could save a life or two.

Phil Wilkinson

Falmouth, Cornwall

In these austere times, maybe the redundant Olympic torches could be sent out to pensioners in lieu of their winter fuel allowance. All part of the legacy, eh, Dave?

Martin Canning

Newbury, Berkshire

Seeing cancer as the 'enemy'

People survive cancer not because they "defeat" it, but because they get the right treatment at the right time (Jenni Murray, Opinion, 22 May). For some cancers this is just not possible yet.

However, it has been suggested that while a positive state of mind does not ultimately affect prognosis, it can drastically improve quality of life. Maybe for some, considering cancer as the "enemy" helps keep them sane through a very difficult time. For others, doing so implies cancer has some form of consciousness and people's admiration of "bravery" in the face of this is unhelpful.

For me, "battle" analogies are as meaningless as descriptions of cancer patients as "victims"; and a reflection of the superstition that still surrounds this illness. Ultimately, cancer is a malfunction of cell division with potentially fatal results and dealing with it is intensely personal. The cold, hard evidence that it could, and had, happened in my body means that although the cancer has gone, life will never feel quite the same again.

Helen Cartner

Alnwick, Northumberland

When mothers were not alone

Our present practice of leaving mothers completely responsible for all their child's needs for the first five years (letter, 18 May) is very new in the history of Homo sapiens.

In hunter-gatherer societies the whole group shares the care of children and mothers. Until very recently households in western society consisted of extended families, so there were aunts and grannies and elder cousins, men too, to help out.

Even in Victorian times, when the concept of the family as just husband and wife and their children was invented, poor families had to share households and rich families had servants to do some of the tasks.

The present isolation of mother and children is not good for either of them. Whoever said, "It takes a village to bring up a child," was right.

Henrietta Cubitt


Escape from the pensions trap

I am one of those fortune people who grew up in the 1950s when the Government provided all children with free orange juice, cod liver oil and the NHS so that we could grow into healthy adults. Those like me who are hale and hearty will go on and on for ever, our pensions becoming a burden to the national purse.

Could it be that Gove and Co, by giving free rein to the food industry in the new academies, and thus allowing children to eat themselves to death, have found a method of tipping the balance?

Diane Hughes

Sidmouth, Devon

Princes of the playgrounds

Your picture of the Queen's royal lunch guests (19 May) is another argument for republicanism. Can it really be acceptable for our head of state to mark her jubilee by celebrating what she has in common, that is the hereditary principle, with a bunch of rulers which includes oppressors and abusers of their own people, as in Bahrain, and the princes of ludicrous "countries" like Monaco and Liechtenstein whose main function is to provide tax havens and playgrounds for the super- rich. I trust we taxpayers are not paying for this embarrassing insult to democracy.

Anthony Blane


For external use only

In response to comments made by Kate Allen, UK Director, Amnesty International (letter, 23 May), I'd like to point out that the new arms sales agreed between the United States and Bahrain are for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defence capabilities, and would include air-to-air missiles, components for F-16 fighter jets and potentially a naval frigate. They would not include items that could be used for crowd control, such as Humvees, stun grenades or tear gas.

Dr Omar Al-Hassan

London NW8


Ken Clarke is warning the Greeks they will face "real poverty" if they vote "cranky extremists" into power in Athens. Perhaps it has escaped his notice, but the Greeks are already facing real poverty because they were allowed to join the eurozone by a bunch of cranky extremists.

Stephen Nash

Middle Barton, Oxfordshire