Letters: Schooling and principles

When parents must put a child's future before their own principles
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The Independent Online

Sir: I am a teacher in a state school and, to my own astonishment I am writing in defence of Ruth Kelly. Many families find that their children go along happily enough on the expected tramlines, be they in the state or private sector; however, for those whose children do not, much soul-searching is often needed.

Two of my own children are lucky enough to be happy in good local state schools. For my eldest, however, his experience of state education was difficult; by the time we had gone through assessments, arguments and circles of blame he was downright miserable. Once we had thought outside our own box, many opportunities opened up, and we took what was, for us, a radical step in sending him to a private boarding school, where his recovery began. He is now at one of the country's top public schools, having gained an academic scholarship there, and is the person I foresaw when he was two or three and feared he would never become when he was seven or eight.

One way in which he is "different" is his unusual and exceptionally high intelligence.

My son has just returned to school for a new term, and the wish that things had been otherwise is threatening to overwhelm me. However, I know that he is benefiting enormously from learning to like himself and from the chance to work out how to lead a useful and fulfilling life. I know that our family is more stable now that we have learned to manage our stress. I know, too, that society will gain hugely - at our cost - from the marvellous person I see developing.

Perhaps Ms Kelly decided that people were more important than principles. Certainly, I concluded that my son would have to live forever with the personality forged by his childhood experiences, and that this had to come ahead of my woolly liberal ideals. My fervent good wishes go to Ms Kelly's family, and to all families struggling with difficult decisions relating to the welfare and happiness of children.


Parties should live within their means

Sir: Andrew Grice (The Week in Politics, 6 January) says that political parties need taxpayers' money because they are living beyond their means. He, and they, should read the article by David Prosser in the same issue, and learn to live within their income.

Their income should come from members' subscriptions, as that of other membership organisations does. If parties lose members, that should tell them something about their appeal; it does not justify them in dipping their hands into the public till.

I cannot be the only taxpayer who would regard it as intolerable for political parties to fund their organisations with public money. If reduced circumstances mean fewer spin doctors and advertising campaigns, I suspect that I would not be alone in welcoming this.



Sir: Andrew Grice's case for the public funding of political parties is founded on two assumptions that politicians would dearly love us to accept as absolute truths. First is the need for parties themselves. Mr Grice's case for their existence is flimsy, but they are not going to go away.

Second, and more important, is the assumption that parties should be permitted to spend large sums of money in their attempt to persuade the electorate of their suitability to govern. It has been reported that senior Labour figures believe that they might not have won the last election without having the cash to spend on their campaign. Thus, it would seem that the right to govern in this country can be purchased.

It would be far fairer if all political advertising were to be banned and all candidates for parliamentary seats prohibited from campaigning outside their target constituencies. Let our prospective representatives spend their time talking to those people who are actually being asked to vote for them. Let us see the return of local public meetings which are not packed with pre-invited supporters and not fixed with prepared questions.

Let us see the return of local campaigning across the country rather than the targeted assault on marginal constituencies, which leaves the majority of voters with little or no opportunity to meet and question those who seek their vote.



Sir: Public money would be better spent on widening access and enhancing diversity within the political process by supporting and levelling the playing field for small parties and independents, rather than propping up the outmoded and discredited elite-oligarchical control structures of the Westminster party duopoly.

Increased public funding should also be linked to indices for improving local democracy such as mandatory, regular reporting back of MPs to constituencies (as suggested by the Kennedy Power Commission).

Any further public funding for the Westminster parties must be accompanied by the breaking down of closed, hierarchical decision making practises within these parties.

In conclusion, public funding of the political process needs to be approached in conjunction with - not separated from - electoral reform if genuine democratic changes are to be made.



BBC ignores the birthplace of TV

Sir: You are right to highlight the possible threat to the historic television studios at Alexandra Palace (report, 30 December), but fail to finger the real culprit: the BBC. At risk is a heritage site of global historical importance: the birthplace of television.

Yet since the BBC moved its Open University operations in the mid-1970s, it has largely ignored what is a key part of its own heritage. When I was chair of the board of trustees of Alexandra Palace in 1996, only a letter to Broadcast embarrassed the corporation into sending a representative - a third-tier executive - to a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the start of transmissions.

A direct approach to Greg Dyke when he was DG did lead to a change of heart, and a plan was developed in conjunction with Middlesex University for a media and education centre at the Palace. But when Dyke was sacked, any real commitment to the plan went with him.

If the BBC - and come to that the Government - are unwilling to acknowledge this important national heritage, why should Haringey council and its residents, or any new developer pay to maintain it?

Alexandra Palace, the People's Palace, belongs to us all (in fact it is owned by a trust of which the beneficiary is the people - not Haringey Council, which is the present trustee). If we want to keep this important part of our heritage, that should be a responsibility of us all, through the BBC, with the support of the Government.



MSF works on in post-conflict Liberia

Sir: In your article of 3 January, you mistakenly report that the medical aid organisation Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) "left Liberia this week". Although MSF is phasing out some projects, we have committed to continue working in the country until at least 2008.

This decision was taken precisely for the reasons alluded to in your article: although the conflict in Liberia ended in 2003, the health status of the Liberian population remains concerning. Health facilities not supported by NGOs and religious organisations struggle to provide even basic health care.

MSF is an emergency organisation and we constantly have to prioritise resources. We currently work in over 70 countries and need to be able respond to emergencies wherever they occur. With the conflict over in Liberia, national health authorities and longer-term development agencies should begin to take over. This is not yet the reality. We are concerned that, if we leave completely, many of our patients will not be able to find decent-quality healthcare.

Credible alternatives to humanitarian assistance in Liberia need to be identified urgently. Our experience in other African post-conflict settings is that health needs have often been inadequately addressed during the "reconstruction phase".



Festering rubbish encourages rats

Sir: The sharp rise in the rat population (report, 5 January) will come as no surprise to local councils that now fail to empty refuse bins weekly. Their excuse for swapping to fortnightly collections is "environmental" efficiency rather than the more honest "cost-cutting".

For over 20 years I never saw a rat in my village. In the months since household refuse has been allowed to fester for 14 days or more, I have found a large brown rat dead on my lawn - probably killed by my dog, who was very keen to show me - and seen others on five or six occasions. The local nursery school was temporarily closed because of rat problems, and my neighbours have found rats in their compost heaps and chicken runs.

When will local government learn that this cost-cutting measure cannot be sustained long term, and is likely to create health hazards in the short term? A plague on those council officers!



Horrifying results of incitement

Sir: Bruce Anderson is unhappy that Umran Javed was sent to jail for urging people to bomb the USA and Denmark. To constitute a criminal offence it is not enough, he says, for someone to incite others to murder - there must also exist the possibility that "their words would lead to deeds".

At first reading there is an element of truth in this, but at second and subsequent readings it is nonsense. True, it may well be that none of Javed's listeners was in a position to carry out the bombings, but they may well have been encouraged to throw bricks through embassy windows or beat up the odd Danish or American visitor to this country.

If a fascist speaker at a rally advocated building gas chambers in this country to kill Muslims, there would again presumably be no one present in a position to do so, but the general feeling aroused could have horrifying consequences.



Sir: "Even a Liverpudlian knows that he ought to scrub up and steal a tie for his day in the dock," writes Bruce Anderson. Such gratuitously unpleasant stereotyping is not what you'd expect to read in The Independent. Was the editor too busy swanning around expensive cocktail parties in that there London to notice; or was he just too posh and rich, like all London-based journalists?



Threat to plants is a threat to human life

Sir: The big question of 2 January: "How quickly are animals and plants disappearing, and does it matter?", prompts one of my own. Although plants are mentioned in the title and a small image of an African Violet is included, not one statistic appears in the article on disappearing plant species - why not?

Plantlife welcomes any article which raises awareness of rates of extinction and Steve Connor is right to say that the natural world is the planet's life-support system, but it is clearly negligent to miss out the most critical element of that system: plants. One in five of British plants is threatened with extinction and this rises to one in three globally. IUCN figures show that a total of 70 per cent of plant species evaluated worldwide are threatened - way ahead of mammals (23 per cent) or birds (12 per cent).

At the end of the article, Mr Connor notes that "the Earth's biodiversity provides us with clean air, drinking water, food and even new drugs"; it is vital that we are reminded that most of these "services" to mankind are provided by our plants.



Sporting challenge

Sir: John Walsh and other correspondents (Letters, 4 January) suggest thumps for anyone who employs misused or overworked expressions. My thump is for any sports writer who dares to use the term "thud and blunder" in your columns in 2007 or, indeed, ever again.



Staying on at school

Sir: There is nothing new about Educational Maintenance Allowances mentioned in Johann Hari's article (26 December). I helped to administer the EMA scheme in East London over 40 years ago on behalf of the London County Council education department. Poor children staying on at school past the age of 15 were eligible to qualify.



Meritorious service

Sir: Adrian Hamilton's editorial of 4 January could be taken to imply that senior Civil Service appointments are made on political grounds. This is not the case. Since the appointment of Sir Gus O'Donnell as Cabinet Secretary, all appointments to the most senior Civil Service posts have involved the Civil Service Commissioners, whose independent role is to ensure that the candidate recommended for appointment is selected on the basis of merit.



Blair's legacy

Sir: Given the disasters heaped upon us by New Labour, including the Iraq war, the financial melt down of the NHS and the unfit-for-purpose Home Office, I would have thought that it was entirely in Gordon Brown's interest to let the impression persist that New Labour has been nothing more than Tony Blair. ("Brown urged to keep faith with New Labour agenda", 4 January).



No buts

Sir: Margaret Beckett says that the Government is against capital punishment, but that Saddam Hussein has been "held to account". When I did a course in gestalt psychotherapy 15 years ago, there was a large poster on the classroom wall which boldly announced that "Everything before the 'but' is bullshit". Ever since I've very largely tended to agree.