Letters: Pernicious effect of the grammar school system



Mary Ann Sieghart ("How to change the shape of the establishment in one generation", 21 May) quotes Michael Gove suggesting that grammar schools are a beacon for our state education system. She asks: "Well, if that's the case, why can't we have many more of them?"

My catchment area has the highest concentration of grammar schools (26) in England and Wales. Many are good but if Mr Gove and Ms Sieghart were to look a little more closely, they would find that the pernicious effect of the grammar system is that every other school in my catchment area is not even "bog-standard comprehensive".

Here, you either go to a grammar school or, if you fail, you go to a sink school or you pay the fees for an independent school. The grammar system, rather than contributing to social mobility, actually exacerbates it.

Kelvin MacKenzie was right: the answer is not the creation of more grammar schools but a free market of all schools, made independent, and funded by a voucher system. Of course, no party would have the stomach to institute such a radical move.

It has to be an unacceptable situation where a non-selective independent school such as mine regularly out-performs virtually all the grammar schools in the catchment area but children still languish in the non-grammar schools which come out with results which are, frankly, risible. I despair.

Dr Ian Walker

Head Master of King's Rochester

Dr Laura Stewart (letters, 24 May) correctly points out the lack of opportunities for those who did not make it into grammar schools. But she and other correspondents accept too easily the argument that social mobility "worked well" for those who passed the 11-plus.

My experience of grammar school contradicts this. At the end of our first year, pupils were placed in sets according to their results in end-of-year exams. In my year, every student from a poorer background was put in one of the lower groups for a distinctly less academic education.

None of them went to university and some left school with no O-level passes, a scandalous result. I suggest that the number of young people who successfully used grammar schools as an escape route has been consistently overstated and that the waste as a result is much greater than has been acknowledged.

Graham Mustin

Barnsley College, South Yorkshire

In the early 1960s, most of the children on my school bus from nearby Nottinghamshire mining villages to their respective boys'/girls' grammar schools, including my two sisters and myself, were working class. Our father, like that of many of the other children, was a coal-miner.

Most of these children went on to higher education, joined the civil service or became nurses. Were we lucky to be children of the aspirational working class?

Mary Evans

Heathfield, East Sussex

I am an ex-grammar school girl from a poor family who did a degree at Oxford. My brother went to the local comprehensive and achieved the necessary grades to go on to college. Both of us are happy; my school gave me the chance to shine and his allowed him to learn at a pace that was right for him.

Madelaine Wood

Slough, Berkshire

Kartar Uppal (letters, 24 May) believes that what prevents teachers in the private sector from working in state schools is the restriction of the freedom "to teach whenever, however, whatever they like". He should read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, wherein he will see the human and political cost of such "freedom".

Roy Mitchell

Brentford, Middlesex

New grammar schools? It was the old grammar-school pupils (including me) who landed Britain in its present mess.

Alison Brackenbury

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Nuclear plants not vital to the future of Britain

It is not true that "New nuclear facilities ... are essential to meeting Britain's future energy needs, because they provide carbon-free, always-on electricity generation to complement the natural intermittency of wind power" (leading article, 23 May). Nuclear power is certainly not "carbon-free".

Peer-reviewed research shows that the nuclear cycle emits between nine and 25 times as much CO2 as wind power. Most renewables provide a much more effective means of cutting emissions.

And nuclear power is certainly not "always on". Like all kinds of equipment, nuclear power plants can and do fail. And failure of a nuclear power station can be very disruptive on the grid because, normally, a largish chunk of power is lost without much warning.

By contrast, the gradual and predictable variations in the output of renewables are much easier to manage. There is now a range of techniques which can ensure reliable, robust and responsive supplies of electricity from entirely renewable sources of power.

If we are worried about this or that "energy gap", we should certainly not try to fill it using nuclear power. In just one year (2010), Germany installed 8.8GW of photovoltaic solar panels, producing about the same amount of electricity each year as a 1GW nuclear power station but up to 8.8 times the peak output of a nuclear power station, because PV generates in daylight hours when demand is high.

Dr Gerry Wolff

Menai Bridge, Anglesey

What makes you so sure the Government is right about electricity demand doubling because of switching to electric vehicles and heating? Germany, which is planning an entirely non-nuclear route, even with a similar 2050 objective of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases, expects electricity demand to be 25 per cent below present levels by implementing an energy-efficiency programme.

Not only is energy demand reduction compelling from an economic point of view, because it is far cheaper than building new generating capacity, but it is also key to reducing CO2 emissions without driving thousands more householders into fuel poverty.

In fact, the overall level of electricity demand may only have to increase moderately, given the potential for achieving significant energy demand efficiencies across all sectors of the economy, including those that are to be electrified.

Pete Roche


Whether we continue with nuclear power should be decided by an informed public. Nuclear power stations are subject to catastrophic failure; they are extremely expensive and likely to require subsidy; they produce dangerous waste with no agreed means of disposal and they have the same enrichment technology as for nuclear weapons manufacture.

The power stations and temporary waste deposit storage are vulnerable to terrorist attack; they centralise "power" in the hands of elites; the fuel, uranium, will become increasingly scarce; they make poor countries dependent on rich ones and they draw funds from development of renewable energy. After the mega-disaster of Fukushima, we know that they can result in a virtually impenetrable state of denial.

Jim McCluskey

Twickenham, Middlesex

Our rich wildlife is just a sad memory

Michael McCarthy ("The love that dare not speak its name – butterflies", 24 May) should not feel embarrassed about his enthusiasm for these fabulous creatures or, indeed, for natural beauty.

For many who remain deeply mystified by the apparent willingness of contemporary society to sacrifice biodiversity at the altar of agricultural systems for which ecocide has become a way of life, the sight of these extraordinarily fragile and beautiful insects is a welcome reminder that, despite the unrelenting chemical onslaught, pockets of the natural world still survive, if not intact then at least with some of their more emblematic species still in evidence.

In the Fifties and Sixties, all insect life, including in particular moths and butterflies, could be found in abundance. Much less frequent sightings nowadays bring back memories of just how joyfully rich this country's wildlife once was.

Nigel Tuersley

Tisbury, Wiltshire

Blood donors save lives every day

I was disappointed to read (letters, 14 May) that Roy Wright had found it difficult to give blood without an appointment. But appointments do not need to be made "at least three months in advance". We are reviewing our approach to appointment allocation.

Approximately 80 per cent of our donors book an appointment, so we still need extra donors to fill appointment gaps or to cover for missed ones. And I thank Mr Wright and our other loyal donors who save lives. Every day, 7,000 donations are needed for life-saving operations and treatments across England and North Wales.

Paddy Nugent

Assistant Director, Blood Collection Services, NHS Blood and Transplant

In brief...

They're givingus the bird

A government department, Defra, is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to try to protect pheasants from predators on shooting estates. Andrew Gamble's analysis of "free markets and strong state" is too narrow. It should be "free markets and strong shooting estates". This is at a time when millions are threatened with losing employment rights and millions more are suffering from injuries and diseases in deregulated and poorly inspected workplaces. Who says the arrogant posh boys are in charge?

Professor Andrew Watterson

University of Stirling

Roll on disaster

"The world's wealthiest people must urgently reduce their consumption to save the Earth from a 'vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills' " reports a Royal Society panel (26 April). Terri Jackson (letters, 4 May) disagrees: there are "massive oil finds ... huge shale-gas finds ... plenty of energy" ... "those conversant with the mathematics of exponential curves will know they follow a fast-escalating shape that will flatten out and even fall". So let's have unfettered consumption and pollution. With famine, flooding and wars, plus natural disasters, the world's population will, indeed, "flatten out and even fall".

David Ridge

London N19

We farm fairly

I was astounded to see the RSPCA's farm assurance scheme, Freedom Food described as "factory farming" (report, 2 May). This term is used to describe intensive practices which cause welfare problems and prevent animals behaving naturally. Our standards are specifically focused on ensuring higher welfare conditions. We strictly prohibit intensive farming.

Dr Julia Wrathall

Head, RSPCA farm animals department, Southwater, West Sussex

Handy idea

I am hoping that The Independent will consider a handy pull-out Olympic supplement. This could contain all the news, such as special treatment to VIPs, and reports of transport problems, hold-ups, drugs, ticketing headaches and so on. When the Games start, it would have details of performances and events and detailed score-cards. This means I could chuck the lot straight in the bin, and not have to waste my time.

Pete Barrett

Colchester, Essex

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