Letters: Perspectives on schools

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Chinese passion for knowledge

John Bangs is reported as believing that the Labour government in effect lost its nerve and should have focused on the blueprint for teaching the three Rs ("British schools slump in global league table", 8 December). I think he is missing the point. Teachers need to take back far more responsibility.

I recently was privileged to watch some geography secondary school teaching in China (a country that dominates the OECD table). I dare say the school I visited was "on show" and that the teachers and students were hand-picked. But there are clear differences in the assumptions that shape classroom processes there compared with those that we have grown accustomed to.

Personalisation? Forget it – the teacher operates with a relentless, engaging "whole-class interactive" style that has the class on their toes. No lollipops, no brain gym, just riveting teaching from a teacher who not only knows her stuff, uses technology brilliantly and has students actively engaged but seems to have a passion to make sure they understand what it is she is teaching. In other words, it is knowledge that drives the process: its communication and production.

The result was that I spied a great deal of individual confidence among the students and a lot of successful learning going on. Those students knew more at the end of the lesson, and they liked that.

The trouble with our obsession with "new kinds of smart", that focuses on building learning power and learning to learn, is that it turns teachers attention away from the contents of the curriculum. It mystifies. I sometimes wonder what children believe teachers actually do.

If we want to keep up, we have to do some hard thinking about "knowledge". This is one reason why I support a curriculum review, but we have to be sure we do not just revert back to basics and that we do not confuse knowledge with "dry facts".

Dr David Lambert, Professor of Geography Education, Sheffield

Snow: take this simple test

Mary Dejevsky (Notebook, 8 December) asks the naïve question: why do supermarkets open and schools close when it snows? I can't believe that she is unable to work this one out, but sit up in class, pay attention and I'll ask you to attempt the following:

1. How many skills can be shared by shelf fillers and checkout staff?

2. How many skills can be shared by a chemistry teacher and a language teacher?

3. In Ms Dejevsky's one designated school which has stayed open in the snowy crisis, which of the following benefit the most: a) Children trying to make sense of a hotchpotch of downloaded lessons not suitable for the mixed ages and experience of the pupils present? Or b) Working parents heaving a sigh of relief that someone is minding their children.

4. Supermarket workers on low wages generally live: a) Closer to their workplace. b) Farther from their workplace.

5. Are schools today bigger or smaller than those in the past when we never had a "snow day"?

6. At what point in the history of modern education did it occur to parents to sue the school for injuries to their child in an icy playground?

Answers in black ink. Please write on both sides of the paper.

Mary Cousins

Usk, Monmouthshire

After WikiLeaks, we are in a different world

One of the most disturbing consequences of the WikiLeaks affair is the vulnerability of our international banking payments system, and its susceptibility to centralised control by politically or ideologically motivated entities.

The decision of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal to terminate WikiLeaks' accounts without a judicial decision, highlights the control the US can exercise over the international payments systems, and the lack of any viable alternatives. The situation will only get worse, as the UK Payments Council abolishes cheques, and society moves towards completely cashless payment methods. These are intrinsically traceable, and it seems highly controlled.

These methods have so far been considered as a positive development, in response to the threats of money-laundering, tax-evasion and funding of global terrorism. Yet, despite all the regulations since 9/11, we have yet to see credible proof that these have resulted in decrease of tax-evasion, organised crime or funds available to terrorists.

We seem to be moving into a future in which the same entities that can exercise their control of the international payment system to curtail donations to a cause they disagree with today decide to act against other causes tomorrow.

Igor Gramatikovski, London NW6

Journalists and editors love a good story to get their teeth into and sell papers. Hence the non-stop praise from seemingly every member of the Fourth Estate for Assange and his WikiLeaks. I am not so thrilled. If this was a single story exposing corruption in a particular case, it could be justified. But it is a non-stop bundle of US communications, most of which cause embarrassment rather than backing up any particular cause.

Embarrassment matters. As a former diplomat myself, I know the value of talking between nations. Talking can head off fighting, but negotiators and diplomats need to know they can talk in private: the threat of publicity will stop frank exchanges.

And governments need to rely on their embassy staff to inform them properly. Confidentiality is vital and should be protected. I find it intolerable that Assange and his band have, for example, told terrorists the USA's top list of targets; that they have sowed hatred and distrust between nations who need to be able to talk to each other; that because experienced diplomats have had their frank confidential views made public they may have to be removed from their posts when we need their expertise more than ever; that relations between North Korea and China may be jeopardised; that more discord may be sown between Muslim nations; that Russia and the US may find it less easy to talk to each other.

As far as I can see, Assange has made the world a lot more dangerous. It is despicable. I have lost count of the numbers of people who say: "He has done us, the people, a great favour." No, he hasn't. He has done the press a great favour. I want to live in a peaceful world and, post WikiLeaks, it has become a whole lot more dangerous.

Alison Willott, Monmouth

Can we expect to see a much closer relationship developing between the US and China? After all, they have much more in common these days.

I am sure China would be happy to offer advice to the US on the best way to pressure businesses into censoring information on the internet, and they are past masters at fabricating criminal trials to keep people quiet.

Is this the US showing its true colours?

Sonia Kehoe, Rochester, Kent

The WikiLeaks process has publicised a lot of data, but so far nothing that we couldn't have guessed. Russia, Nigeria and our Government are not squeaky clean, and diplomats say different things in private – a surprise? Does anyone really think that the Russian, Iranian, Israeli, Chinese or every other government's people aren't saying and doing the same sort of things, or worse?

So why is the US, in particular their right wing, getting so hot under the collar about a little embarrassment? Just because WikiLeaks didn't get any dirt from the other countries doesn't mean that it's not there. And they know it. So let's all calm down about this.

Lee Horwich, London W5

The clamour from some US factions for (literally) Julian Assange's blood proves two things. First, the USA has learned nothing about how to win friends, influence people and deal with criticism. Second, WikiLeaks is doing an important job. It's a fair rule in politics, business and even life, that if you squirm when something you do is reported, you should probably consider not doing it.

Steve Mercer, Ipswich

It seems to me that the whole WikiLeaks fiasco is ample justification of the maxim "Never say in private what you would be ashamed to say in public."

David Bamford, Lanercost, Cumbria

I presume the "hacktivists" of Anonymous are aware of the exquisite irony that their organisation, currently taking direct action in support of free, open access to data on the internet, shrouds itself in a veil of secrecy and anonymity.

Philip Stephenson, Cambridge

WikiLeaks. Anonymous. 4Chan. I feel like I'm living a Kafkaesque novel.

Jan Tate, Hayling Island, Hampshire

The students did try voting

Steve Richards (9 December) may be right when he says that demonstrations rarely have any immediate effect, but he has a touchingly naive belief in the efficacy of our democracy. He claims that they (the students, but no doubt many non-students) "had their opportunity at the election to hold candidates to account".

I am sure many of them did so by voting Lib Dem in the belief that the Lib Dems would honour their pledge not to raise tuition fees. What is the value of voting, if candidates cannot be held to their word? And how is it more corrupt to fiddle one's expenses than to equivocate when you are called to honour your promise?

Tony Bex, Ramsgate, Kent

What seems to have escaped everyone's attention is that student debt is another form of quantitative easing. If 300,000 students per year take on debts of £10,000 per annum for a three-year degree, the cumulative effect is a £36bn boost to the economy over a five-year period. Add to that the £36bn in taxes saved and spent elsewhere, and surely this will contribute towards a set of debt-fuelled GDP numbers that our politicians will bribe us with at the next election.

Dr Neil Lowrie, Sheffield

I keep hearing that the new tuition fee regime means that poorer workers will pay less for their education. What it actually means is that they will pay the same, but at a slower rate, thus in practice probably bearing a heavier burden for longer. A graduate tax levied only on incomes over £35,000 would be fairer, and a return to the regime when I was at university 30 years ago fairer still.

Trevor Whittall, Twickenham, Middlesex

Educational access to all who are qualified, regardless of family wealth, is a worthy goal threatened by high tuition fees. Many functions of university and most university costs and investments have little or nothing to do with undergraduate education. Why should prospective students pay?

Bruce Henry Lambert, Stockholm

Perhaps the tuition fees might be more acceptable if the repayment salary was set to a more realistic level for a professionally qualified person, such as the average pay of doctors. Or even the salary of a job that requires no qualifications, diplomas or experience, such as a Member of Parliament.

Laurence Shields, Chesterfield

No let-up in fight for equal pay

The news that British women in their twenties are helping reverse the stubborn gender pay gap for the first time is a fantastic and welcome development for workplace gender equality ("Women in their twenties smash glass ceiling to reverse pay gap", 9 December).

It's incredibly important that this spurs women of all ages working in UK organisations to argue for their right to equal pay. While the news is good for female graduates at present, we must not lose sight of the fact that, on average, women in management-level roles are still paid £10,031 less than men in equivalent roles.

Now the Government has decided not to force big companies to reveal salary differences, the onus is on companies to open up salary information voluntarily. Developing a culture of transparency, coupled with women fighting for fairness, is the only way this will happen.

The ONS statistics also suggest that the faster rising rate of pay in the public sector compared to the private sector has contributed to a reduction in the gender pay gap. Given the huge number of roles currently occupied by women in the public sector that are likely to be cut in the new year following October's Comprehensive Spending Review, it will be interesting to see how the figures fare this time next year.

Ruth Spellman, chief executive, Chartered Management Institute, London, W1

An effective energy market

Martin Hickman's reading of the latest research by Professor Catherine Waddams into energy pricing is as selective as his assessment of Ofgem's track record for protecting customers. ("Fuel bills have gone up due to Ofgem stupidity", 4 December)

Yes, profit margins for suppliers have risen across the industry, as our own analysis has shown. But there is no evidence that this is the result of Ofgem banning unjustified price differences after its 2008 investigation. Professor Waddams makes this point, but The Independent chose not to report this. Nor does Professor Waddams claim to have evidence that companies have removed differentials by increasing prices for certain tariffs rather than lowering them. Instead she uses theoretical models to suggest this might happen. Such models, and the assumptions behind them, can, of course, be challenged.

The truth is that our action has led to lower bills for some vulnerable customers who are least able to bear the cost of unjustified price differences between tariffs. For example, premiums for pre-pay meters compared with direct debit have fallen by almost 30 per cent.

We remain committed to making the competitive market work better for consumers, which is why we announced earlier this month that we are reviewing the effectiveness of the market to see if more needs to be done.

Andrew Wright, Senior Partner, Markets, Ofgem, London SW1

Radio 3 drives me to apoplexy

I wish to add my voice to the recent chorus of disapproval about Radio 3.

The mateyness of the announcers is profoundly disturbing. There is one who often refers to the music he brings in his rucksack, as if somehow this confers upon him a "personality". Each time he refers to his rucksack I wince. When recently he announced that he'd had a "rucky moment", preparatory to playing an atonal hornpipe by some obscure British composer, my resulting fit of apoplexy almost caused me to drive into a ditch.

Furthermore, the announcers have now started classical chart "rundowns". They all talk as if possessed by the spirit of the late Alan "Fluff" Freeman and say things like "And now a new entry in at Number Two, from nowhere, we have ... etc etc." Please. It's embarrassing.

Perhaps if they were encouraged to don evening dress before they came on to the air things might improve – certainly rucksacks would be out of place. Bring back the days when Radio 3 announcers would barely speak to you.

David Johnstone, Dunster, Somerset

Warm gesture

As fit, healthy people in our sixties we have no need for a winter fuel allowance. However, unlike Peter Stringfellow, we can see a better use for the money than returning it to George Osborne. There are refugees of all ages living destitute in England and Wales, having been refused asylum and denied benefits, many of them unused to cold weather. We have therefore donated our allowances to the Refugee Council and the Welsh Refugee Council, and we urge others in a similar position to do the same.

Nigel Thomas, Natasha de Chroustchoff, Fishguard, Pembrokeshire

Dave's Britain

There is one major question mark hanging over Theresa May's plan for elected police and crime commissioners. Will there be sufficient Old Etonians to fill all the posts?

Anthony Rodriguez, Staines, Middlesex