Letters: Oxbridge places

State school pupils reach Oxbridge – if they apply

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Ellie Levenson's article of 19 January hit the nail on the head. Almost. While the proposals she made regarding Oxbridge places may be impractical, the comment she made about application to Oxbridge not being discussed or encouraged in some communities gets right to the root of the problem.

For example, at King's College, Cambridge, around 75 per cent of the students are state-educated. This is put down to the extraordinarily high number of state-educated applicants to that college and not any deliberate affirmative action policy. By using effective outreach programmes, this could be replicated for the whole of Oxbridge. Ms Levenson dismisses these schemes, saying that some communities still do not discuss application to Oxbridge, but this merely shows that they need more support to reach those communities.

If more state-educated students could be encouraged to apply and were given more information about Oxbridge, then we could have a fairer education system and a fairer society. This is the solution, and demonising the "swaggering" privately educated will not help.

Christopher McKeon

London SW19

Ellie Levenson's proposals are well worth consideration. If each school in the land, regardless of its academic credentials, were capped at two Oxbridge places, what would happen is that other already highly successful universities here and abroad would gain in status as more and more scholarly students with a thirst for knowledge attended them. This would indeed mean the end of Oxbridge elitism.

It would not signal the decline of independent schools though, since parents select them for their children for a wide variety of reasons: the education of the whole person; the excellent academic experience with its lifelong impact; superb pastoral care and that mysterious thing called ethos, all of which mean that young people have the time of their lives with us and that we turn out civilised, ambitious and confident people who go on to be excellent students at university. Ellie Levenson would be very welcome to visit my school to see what I mean, but she wouldn't see any strutting.

Vicky Tuck

Principal, Cheltenham Ladies' College

Vice President, the Girls' Schools Association

At last, a politician we understand

What a breath of fresh air, listening to Barack Obama's inauguration speech, which was simple, clear, well spoken and concise – a contrast to UK politicians, especially Mr Brown, whose main aim is to confuse.

Politicians in the UK could learn many lessons from the Americans and stop treating the general public as incompetent fools who cannot understand the issues confronting the country.

Colin Baillie

Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire

Peter Forster wonders if America will ever elect an atheist as president (letter, 21 January).

Over the past 24 hours we have witnessed endless misty-eyed black Americans proclaiming that the USA has turned a page in its history and the dawn of a new age of equality and opportunity for all has arisen. At no point in this process has anyone mentioned the true Americans, the Native Indians who have been consigned to the backwaters of America's history.

If Barack Obama truly believes that America's time has come again, maybe one of his expansive gestures could include the people that had had their land so shamefully stolen by the very people so keen to promote the concept of freedom. I wonder if they will ever elect a Native American president?

Steve Mackinder

Denver, Norfolk

While the UK government may be premature in suggesting that "green shoots" of recovery are just around the corner, there are many reasons to be optimistic despite the current financial crisis.

The election of Barack Obama is perhaps the most important, because Mr Obama believes that global warming is real and that action is required now – not later. Let us therefore celebrate the "green shoots" of opportunity emerging from the USA, as the prospect of tackling climate change globally is the best for decades.

Flemming Bermann

Chairman, Carbon-info.org

Eastleigh, Hampshire

Barack Obama is truly a great US President. In his inauguration speech, he pronounced the word "nuclear" properly.

Dave Hughes

Orpington, Kent

President Barack Obama is not a black man; neither is he a white man. He is neither and both, and I sincerely hope he succeeds in his wish to unify human beings of all races and creeds.

Tim Lawson

Cheam, Surrey

I was suffering from media overload of the American election as long ago as May 2008. And to think it all starts again in three years.

David Lowton

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

Over here, we too must hope that President Obama succeeds with his inaugural call that "starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America".

A president who quotes the great lyricist Dorothy Fields – in this case, Swing Time with Fred Astaire – has everything going for him. He will dwarf Lincoln if he can find an opportunity to allude to her matchless rhyme (in "A Fine Romance"): "You're calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean, / At least they flap their fins to express emotion."

That very calmness, however, is what the world now needs after the recent fin-flapping on Wall Street and elsewhere.

Christopher Hawtree

Hove, Sussex

Childhood magic bought and sold

I agree with Deborah Orr (3 January) that parents shouldn't waste time obsessing about their children's toys, play or clothes. As she says, little girls have always dreamed of being princesses. Similarly, little boys have always dreamed of being warriors. When adults leave them to play, children can explore these dreams and accommodate them into their own reality.

My comments on the "the tyranny of pink" in girls' lives today, quoted in Ms Orr's column, were intended to point out that adults today interfere in children's play in ways that are deeply damaging. In the last couple of decades, play has been hijacked by market forces and, for many children, has turned into mere "toy consumption".

Instead of transforming themselves into princesses using whatever props come to hand (wild flowers, scraps of fabric, mum's shoes), the daughters of consumer culture are brainwashed from their earliest years into "needing" the complete (pink) princess outfit. When the magical transformation arrives ready-made from the shops, children are denied important opportunities for emotional, social and creative development. Instead they absorb from their earliest years the great consumerist lie: that enjoyment and personal fulfilment can be bought and sold.

The commodification and commercialisation of play is one of the most significant factors in what I've called "toxic childhood" – and today's pink plague is an indication of how deeply embedded it's become. But all is not lost. The recession may give parents a chance to rediscover that, for children at least, the best things in life – love, talk, song, stories, play and firm parental guidance – are still free.

Sue Palmer

Edinburgh

Wrong about the Shah, but no fool

Cahal Milmo ("The Shah? He's as safe as houses", 30 December) selects a very small number of quotations from the now declassified Foreign Office telegrams of my late father, Anthony Parsons, which results in a portrayal of him as a buffoonish "Our Man in Tehran" who unequivocally predicted the continued reign of the Shah.

It takes time to paint a nuanced picture. My father tried to do this in his book about the Iranian Revolution, The Pride and the Fall, where he fully admits his mistakes, and analyses precisely how and why he got it wrong. He also held a seminar in the FCO to have an open discussion with his colleagues about what could be learned from his mistakes.

I disagreed with my father on a number of issues, but he was a thoughtful, humane and knowledgeable man who believed in accountability.

Laila Parsons

Associate Professor, History/ Islamic Studies

McGill University, Montreal

Argentine answer to financial crisis

How much more taxpayers' money are the British and American governments going to throw at the banks and car firms? Surely there is one clear example in recent times of how to deal with an economic collapse.

When the Argentine economy collapsed, and it did so on a much greater scale than ours – the value of houses went down 75 per cent overnight – the Bank of Argentina told the provinces to print their own money to be used within their own boundaries only. There were goods and labour locally and myriad small businesses sprung up, thereby solving both the problems of the national economy and of unemployment.

Certainly doing nothing is not an option, but I believe it is a great mistake for central governments to pump money into the large firms and banks, who are responsible for the plight we're in. We should be especially careful with car firms. The world is glutted with cars. If money is given to them, it should only be on condition they do what BMW is wisely doing in Germany: going over to making what is needed for public transport.

There are goods and there will surely be plenty of labour soon in the counties of Britain. Let the county councils create the notes and credit that would get things moving again, in a better way than before; and it might have the added advantage that the public would begin to regain their trust in politicians – local politicians.

John Coleman

Editor, New European, London SW8

Airport lacks room to grow

Those who argue that London must have an airport comparable to those of continental competitor cities with four or more runways (letter, 20 January) should recognise that Heathrow can never be its site. Even after destroying a village to wedge in a short runway between a main road and a motorway, Heathrow would still be a mess, with further expansion impossible.

In addition, the recent incidents of power loss in aircraft at both Heathrow and New York are warnings that bringing in more flights over a densely populated area would increase the risk of a catastrophic accident.

A new airport on a bigger and more suitable site is the only long-term way of providing what the Heathrow expansionists want. The UK has been very bad at strategic planning, but perhaps the perceived need to provide a boost to the economy might be just enough to get something right for once.

D W Budworth

London W4

Briefly...

Favourite sons

In the "minutiae" for John F Kennedy, (The Lives of the Presidents, part 4) you say: "He was the only president whose father attended his inauguration." I think you'll also find that George W Bush's father attended his inauguration.

Brendan Martin

London SW1

Tolerating torture

In "History will vindicate George Bush" (Opinion, 19 January), Bruce Anderson suggests that "anyone who denies that there are some exceedingly dangerous men in Guantanamo should be forced to live among them". If these deniers exist, I am not one of them. However, I would suggest that anyone describing the "legal vacuum" of the torturers of Guantanamo as "tolerable" would gain much credibility by demonstrating in person just how tolerable their methods really are.

Giles Barrett

London E14

Royal Bank of where?

Maths was never my strong point; can anyone help? The Royal Bank of Scotland is 70 per cent owned by the taxpayers of the UK. Eighty per cent of the of the taxpayers of the UK are English. How much of the the Royal Bank of Scotland is now owned by the English taxpayer? Is it enough to get the name changed?

Tom Pattison

London E11

The fun of hunting

It seems to me that the real objection to hunting is not necessarily based upon the morality of gaining pleasure from simply inflicting fear (letter, 21 January). Surely the true objection should be to gaining a buzz from seeing any living creature hopelessly struggling on for its very life. Foxes and hares are ideal for that, but I doubt if a docile animal like a sloth would be much fun to hunt.

Alison Sutherland

St Ola, Orkney

Crowd control

You report that "close to two million ordinary people poured into downtown Washington" for the Obama inauguration. I presume that if representatives of the British police had been there, they would have issued an "official" crowd-estimate of 12,000 or so.

Neil Young

Sunderland

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