Letters: Oxbridge mediocrity

Oxbridge is destined to be dominated by the rich and mediocre
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The Independent Online

Sir: There can surely be nothing so annoying as a self-assured Tory grandee's pompous pronouncements on the subject of access to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, whose educational and social mix continues to defy all reason ("State schools to blame for Oxford 'bias', says Patten", 29 May).

Lord Patten, chancellor of Oxford University, would have us believe that it is state schools and the "low aspirations" of their teachers which are at fault, not the intransigence of privately educated admissions tutors who rejected, among others, Laura Spence, the last time they were shown up as educational snobs.

Oxford would not "lower its standards" to permit the entry of more state-school students, Lord Patten informs us. Presumably he means that offers of places will stay based upon ridiculously high pass rates at A-level, when it is generally accepted that A-levels are a uniquely bad indicator of future educational achievement and where the private and public schools, with their concentration on examination preparation, are hard-wired into a system which will always deliver their students the glittering prizes.

No matter how much money is pumped into Oxbridge, unless there is an equitable extension of access to the British population, it is destined to cater for the rich and the mediocre.

Gerry Murphy


Sir: Richard Garner reports Lord Patten as saying: "It isn't Oxford that's changed in its attempts to attract young people from maintained schools – what's changed is what's happened elsewhere in the education system."

Having taught Oxbridge aspirants for 13 years in an independent school and another 13 in a somewhat atypical comprehensive, I am inclined to agree with Lord Patten. To be more specific, I believe that the ideologically driven imposition of mixed-ability teaching in state schools has been profoundly detrimental.

If setting by subject ability, whereby pupils are taught in the set appropriate to their ability, had been the norm over the past 40 years or so, the level of achievement by state schools would have been considerably greater.

Julian Dare


Sir: I am sure I am not the only teacher from a comprehensive school who would like to take issue with Lord Patten about who is to blame for Oxford's failure to meet targets when it comes to admitting more pupils from non-fee-paying schools. Oxford does not need to, as Lord Patten is quoted, "Meet these problems by lowering standards" – it just needs to meet the students with the high standards who apply.

Last year an outstanding student from my school applied to Oxford and did not even get an interview. As we predicted, she got three "A" grades at A-level. In one of these, she gained full marks in all her papers and in another we had a letter from the examination board to inform us that her marks put her in the top 10 of candidates in the country.

And Lord Patten has the check to accuse state-school teachers of having low aspirations! What I would like Lord Patten to do is to look closely at his University's admissions policy and find out why suitable comprehensive-school students do not even get an interview. While he is at it, he might investigate why, when we wrote to the Admissions Officer asking what else we could do to get Oxford to take our applications more seriously, we did not even receive an acknowledgement.

Peter Wood


Parliament will not reform itself

Sir: Unfortunately the malfunctions of Parliament identified by Nick Clegg ("Westminster isn't working", 20 May) go back a long way. W S Gilbert was obliged to mock the MP with a safe seat who "never thought of thinking for himself at all"; and G K Chesterton identified a class of "front bench men" who, he felt, would be interchangeable between parties; and the reform of the House of Lords has dragged on for about a hundred years.

Our mainly self-perpetuating oligarchy has successfully resisted fundamental change for a century or more and it will not be its intention to give way now.

Turkeys (particularly the cosy and costly Westminster species) will not, we are often told, vote for Christmas. But in the ordinary way turkeys are not given a vote on the matter.

Parliament can't and won't reform itself, so how is the process to be furthered? We have no mechanism such as PR or an initiative law to force change. How is the Convention that Nick Clegg calls for to be established? Do the NGOs have role here? And if not, then who does? In the dotage of our political system there is an urgent need for a moral and psychological challenge to be mounted to the rotten status quo.

B J Fearnley

Debenham, Suffolk

Sir: Steve Richards' courage in declaring his change of heart on electoral reform is commendable (29 May). I agree that supporting it would be the right thing for the Prime Minister to do. But it was the right thing to do a decade or so ago, when Lord Jenkins prepared an admirable document on the subject for Tony Blair's consideration. The Government, of which Gordon Brown was a prominent member, ignored it. He might, therefore, have difficulty now in persuading the electorate that his intentions towards reform are any more honourable than those of his predecessor.

Sad to say, it is probably still the case that our only hope of obtaining a decent, democratic voting system is a hung parliament. And the likeliest way of achieving that is for us to turn out in large numbers to vote for almost any party but Labour or Conservative.

Susan Alexander

Frampton Cotterell, South Gloucestershire

Sir: It was clear from the last general election that the great majority of voters don't bother to vote and that the current system can produce a government with a safe majority from no more than 25 per cent of the votes cast.

But why should people vote when their opinions do not seem to matter and it no longer makes much difference which party they vote for? I want to vote, but not necessarily for any of those on my ballot paper. At the moment my only choices are to abstain from voting, or to spoil the ballot paper.

I would like to see a box on the paper labelled "None of the above". I want the public to be given the choice of a vote of no confidence in any of the political parties on offer. Only then would all the parties take notice.

And what would happen if that vote of no confidence was overwhelming and we had no government? Not a lot. Ireland once managed to go on running without a government. So, very recently, did Belgium. That is what civil servants are for. But it did mean that the politicians had to sort themselves out and become nearer to what they should be – representatives of the people. I wish.

Lesley Docksey

Buckland Newton, Dorset

Mondeo man punished by car tax

Sir: A real, if unintended, consequence is likely to result from the proposal to tax older Mondeo-type family cars at an extra £200-plus per year (letters, 30 May). Most people will probably be able to find the extra £16 or so per month that this will amount to, but they will have much greater difficulty in coming to terms with their car's resale value plunging from thousands of pounds to virtually scrap – because the market for highly taxed vehicles without obvious prestige will be non-existent. There was no indication when they bought their cars that they would suffer this extra financial loss.

David Burton

Telford, Shropshire

Sir: The current cost of petrol and diesel is far higher than it would have been under the "green" fuel duty escalator. To suggest that suspending the 2p tax rise would be "sheer populism" (leading article, 28 May) may be true but sometimes populism is healthy in a democracy.

Standing firm on fuel duty will not speed up the much-needed transformation to a low-carbon economy. Indeed, higher fuel duty and retrospective Vehicle Excise Duty are more likely to backfire and alienate millions of car-dependent motorists who want the green utopia but also need to get about in the real world.

Going green should not mean going backwards. We need to make better use of fossil fuels and speed up alternatives. We do not need to hammer millions of motorists and hauliers who have no alternatives.

Edmund King

AA president, Basingstoke

Sir: Hamish McRae (Opinion, 28 May) shares the common misconception that the Government abandoned the fuel-duty escalator after the fuel protests of autumn 2000. In fact, Gordon Brown had already abandoned it in the previous Budget, which just shows that the buggers are never satisfied and therefore it is no use pandering to them.

Christian Wolmar

London N7

US viewers hungry for BBC news

Sir: Having just returned from a holiday in the USA and Canada, I was not surprised when I read that BBC's Matt Frei "never once has been invited to ask a question of George Bush" (Media, 26 May).

Mr Frei should know that White House press conferences are well-rehearsed affairs where pre-selected questions are often asked by journalists planted by the White House and the State Department, and accredited correspondents like him are ignored.

What I found most shocking was the absence of the BBC World Service in the US, which I was able to watch across the border in Canada. The BBC offers a special version of its World Service, BBC World News in America, only three times a day for American viewers, while in the UK we can watch CNN and Fox News 24 hours.

I spoke to many friends and relations in the US and they all seem to be hungry to watch BBC World Service. It appears that a country with which we claim a special relationship has gagged the BBC.

M Riaz Hasan

Pinner, Middlesex

Unfettered liberty has led to bedlam

Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is so right about Mary Whitehouse (Opinion, 26 May). How could anyone be so "utterly objectionable" on the one hand, and so prophetically correct on the other.

More than a decade ago, I appeared on a BBC radio programme about prostate cancer and the inhibitions of men towards male cancers (I was then, and still am, suffering from prostate cancer). I recall lambasting Mrs Whitehouse who, earlier that week, had contacted the BBC to complain about the portrayal of a full-frontal male model, on the Kilroy programme, examining himself for signs of testicular cancer. I suggested she was stupid – and she was.

But, as I look at the world around me, a decade later, I realise that her predictions of unfettered liberty leading to the unbridled licence of anything goes, were depressingly accurate. The bedlam and chaos have indeed come to pass. And it is all too, too, late to stop it.

Fred Phipps

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Sir: Can anything be done to stem the tide of the increasingly offensive nature of many greetings cards on sale today?

I find it wholly unacceptable that invective and profanity of a type that is under strict control in the broader entertainment industry (by censorship, watersheds or simple common decency) is permitted to be printed, let alone displayed in open view to customers of all ages and sensibilities. It is bad enough that the creators of cards rely so heavily on exploiting sex and other natural bodily functions to provide an element of "humour" in the cards' messages; the unashamed and wanton use of the F- and C-word on the front of cards is surely a step too far, and does nothing to slow down the moral decay of our society.

Mrs Whitehouse, where are you now?

Keith Edwards

Sidcup, Kent

Sir: Mixture of fact and fiction can be fascinating, but it can also lead to distortion and a travesty of the truth (Last Night's TV, 29 May). Julie Walters gave a compelling performance on BBC1 as Mary Whitehouse, Alun Armstrong, as Mr Ernest Whitehouse, her husband, equally so. But the portrayal of the BBC Director General, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, simply did not chime with the man whom I often met, in company with his close friend R H S Crossman whose Parliamentary Private Secretary I was. Greene was not a bully, nor was he foul-mouthed in public.

Should not the BBC feel morally bound to give us a TV profile of Greene, one of their great Director Generals, looking at the real man?


Linlithgow, East Lothian

Dangerous gas

Sir: Professor Carl Ross observes that the world will not run short of fossil-fuel energy, as there are vast, untapped reserves of methane hydrate frozen beneath the ocean floors (letters, 29 May). He is surprised that politicians are not taking more notice of this resource. Almost as an afterthought, he mentions that burning this gas would increase atmospheric carbon-dioxide by over 1,500 per cent. Could this be the reason why politicians are showing little interest, I wonder?

Keith O'Neill


The European project

Sir: I share Adrian Hamilton's sentiments about the union of European nations (Opinion, 29 May). In the era of global entities, the countries of our continent must secure political and economic synergies of shared sovereignty – if we don't hang together we shall be hung separately.

If Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty were to stir us up to action resulting in an agreement defining the character of the Union – so be it.

John Romer

London W5

Biblical phone etiquette

Sir: Your correspondent, Simon Usborne ("The mobile phone refuseniks: It's good not to talk", 26 May), labels his selected mobile-phone "rebels" luddites, dinosaurs and stick-in-the-muds but, as a rare breed of gifted, independent and intelligent beings, they have the backing of St Paul, who said: "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners" (1 Corinthians 15.33). That was one prescient saint!

Jane Bolger


Bad karma

Sir: Sharon Stone believes that the vile treatment of the Tibetans by the Chinese has been an instrumental cause of the earthquake in Sichuan province (report, 30 May).

I hope, however, that she will concede that the miserable state of the Tibetans must in turn be due to some enormous wrong they have committed in the past. Possibly heavenly revenge for the catastrophic effects of Buddhist doctrine on rational thought?

Alan Thomson

London N8

Cheers to Boris

Go, Boris, go! London Underground habits are appalling and would benefit from some more legal reformation (Katy Guest, 30 May).

No drinking (of any kind), no eating, and no more of those crappy freebie newspapers that are left everywhere, thus promoting additional littering.

Bob Jacobson

London N20

Perchance to dream

Sir: Having been alerted to the Idle Working Men's Club, Loose Women's Institute and Yelling Mothers and Toddlers Group (letters, 30 May), don't you just wish Little Snoring in Norfolk was home to a sleep-disorder clinic?

Steve Mackinder

Downham Market, Norfolk