Letters: Schools aren't failing children – parents are

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The Independent Online

You report that children from the poorest homes are doing worse in basic literacy tests than they did three years ago (11 July), and your leading article focuses on the education system, which, as always, is blamed for "failing" children. But one word conspicuous by its absence is "parents".

The people who are really culpable are parents themselves. If a child cannot read or write by the time he or she leaves primary school, that is a "failing" of its socially inadequate or irresponsible parents, not the education system. Why are these parents not reading to their children at bedtime, or making them read books instead of watching trashy TV or sitting in front of a computer?

Too many parents seem to abdicate all responsibility for teaching their children anything, be it how to read or do simple sums, good manners, how to behave, or right from wrong, because of the lazy assumption that these are solely the responsibility of schools and teachers.

Sadly, your editorial seems to make the same assumption.

Dr Pete Dorey

Cardiff University

You report that poor white children are doing the worst in our schools, being outperformed by Bangladeshi children. Your leading article contained the usual dig at the teaching profession and the already-tried idea of putting more money into schools in deprived areas, but did not ask the question "Why are Bangladeshi children doing better?"

The missing factor is simple: aspiration. Bangladeshi families have moved to the UK to get a better life for their children and believe that education is a vital part of this. As a teacher in a deprived area which when I started was predominantly white, but over the years became progressively multi-cultural, it became increasingly obvious that our results were improving as our culture became more diverse. Parents of immigrant children were generally more supportive and their children worked harder.

Why then don't we make this vital link between home and school? The Home-School Agreement of a few years ago was voluntary, thus missing the parents we needed to target. Instead of pumping money into schools, start making these links. Only give maternity benefits, for example, if expectant parents attend parenting classes.

Taking an interest in your child's education is free. Education is a joint responsibility between home and school and children will not succeed without this partnership. Stop blaming schools and start blaming irresponsible parents.

But my guess is that this will never happen because politicians want votes and don't want to offend anyone.

Len Kedge


It is not just Michael Gove who thinks synthetic phonics are the answer to all reading problems in children ("MPs: Gove's obsession with phonics will turn children off reading", 7 July). Ruth Kelly, in the previous government, started that obsession back in 2007.

I have seen lots of children who are able to "sound out" words – the aim of phonics – but who have no idea what they are reading or what reading is for. This is not because synthetic phonics don't work, but because on their own they don't work.

A generation ago, when the "whole word method" was supposed to be the answer to all reading problems, I encountered children who understood the story but had no way into difficult words.

Experience shows that despite the silly swinging pendulum from one single-minded method to another, most children learn to read anyway. About 20 per cent of them need extra help – a figure that seems constant whatever method is used.

As a teacher specialising in reading problems, I use a common-sense mixture of approaches and this is nearly always successful.

I was disappointed that the all-party group of MPs criticised synthetic phonics but did not recommend how to practically use phonics to its best advantage, which is not as an ideology, but as a tool in the tool-box. And their conclusion that "children should enjoy reading more" leaves teachers as confused as ever.

Rayna West

Reading Recovery teacher

Royston, Hertfordshire

After 30 years teaching in a state school in Birmingham I'm bewildered at the contempt successive Governments have for the office of Secretary of State for Education.

With few exceptions they arrive from nowhere with an ignorance of state education that is both profound and prodigious. Michael Gove is only the latest. They can offer no enlightenment drawn from experience. You listen to their pronouncements and weep as they deliver them with a brand of sanctimonious fervour that only those ignorant of the timeless realities of education possess.

Devoid of any personal perspective, and reliant on briefings from those who only proffer what they assume their minister wants to hear, they stun and bemuse us with statements that draw upon clichés and recently acquired jargon. Deathless platitudes stalk through their speeches like zombies. And then, Lord help us, are the endless stage-managed photo opportunities in school science labs, where we find them staring witless and Gollum-like – through plastic goggles at racks of test tubes.

And so it goes on. Valid and compelling evidence from teaching practitioners that challenges their ideological impulses are subverted. They don't want to hear from teachers about the tyranny of Ofsted, league tables, Sats, the employment of unqualified teachers, DIY curriculums, streaming, undermining of pay, pensions and conditions for teachers, and how it all impacts upon our children as they sit benignly and trusting at their desks. No – they don't need to know all that.

What they want is instant initiatives. They want their version of an educational philosophy enacted tomorrow. And if you keep telling them that their educational theories are both cheap and third-hand, and worthless compared to the collective wisdom of tens of thousands of teachers, they stare elsewhere.

Why don't they listen? Is it because their ascendancy to ministerial high office produces within them some overwhelming conceit? Because of this institutionalised reluctance of education secretaries to listen to teachers, generations of schoolkids have silently suffered.

Chris Flanagan

Solihull, west midlands

As the owner of a centre specialising in residential visits for primary-school children I was delighted to hear Michael Gove and the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive encouraging teachers to take their pupils on school trips, be they days out or residential journeys (2 July).

We have had several instances in the past few years of teachers being overburdened by local council junior "jobsworths" demanding ridiculous levels of paperwork before approving a visit.

In 2010 a school made two identical three-night visits to us, a month apart. For the first visit, no fewer than 36 pages of paperwork were demanded. For the second it was not sufficient to present the same paperwork again, with different dates, not least because the demand had risen to 42 pages. Let us hope that these daft days are over.

Richard Welch

Nantglyn, Denbigh

British jobs for the best workers

If, as an employer, I were to take up Iain Duncan-Smith's suggestion that I should choose a British job applicant over one from overseas (2 July), I would not only be putting aside my commercial judgement, I would also be laying myself open to possible prosecution. Is this the new, vacuous level to which a government floundering beneath the weight of a sometimes semi-literate and under-motivated young generation has sunk?

His exhortations should be directed elsewhere. The employers of the UK are not going to risk the viability of their businesses, nor indeed compromise their own regard for the law, by taking any notice whatever of a cheap piece of populist kite-flying by someone who should know better.

Barry Butler


Tempt us to go green, minister

Your excellent survey about the effects of global warming (1 July) does not mention the other salient fact: governments have swept this problem under the carpet. Without incentives, householders will not lay out several thousand pounds to install solar panels.

This house is one of 80 detached ones in an affluent area, yet ours is the only one to have solar panels to heat the hot water (for only about half the year do we have to switch on gas to boost the temperature).

New houses and flats are still being constructed with their hot water reliant upon fossil fuels, because the Building Regulations are silent on this point.

Which? magazine estimated that the output of one large power plant could be saved if the main room of each dwelling in Britain had just one energy-saving bulb. How much more savings, then, would solar panels for hot water bring? Ministers for Power and Energy come and go and talk; where is the action?

WR Haines


The drugs aren't working

The prescription of anti-depressant medication outstrips the availability of psychological and other therapies ("One in three women takes antidepressants in their lifetime", 6 July). Waiting lists for therapy on the NHS are appallingly long. Lack of adequate funding has led to chronic staffing shortages. A good deal of research suggests that the combination of medication and psychological therapy is best for people suffering from mental illness.

Other interventions, such as writing, art and other creative therapies (that are offered mostly by charities) can also have a significant impact on well-being.

This is a scandal that has long-term consequences for individuals, their families, employers and society at large.

Geraldine Perriam


Water mustn't be commodified

The interest of Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka Shing in acquiring control of Northumbria Water (Business, 2 July) should cause alarm bells to ring. It represents a further stage in the commodification of water and marks open season for speculators in what is becoming a lucrative market.

Ecologists have long pointed out that disputes over access to this scarce resource will become a cause of war in the 21st century. They claim that, as the world population heads towards 9bn, two-thirds of us will live under water-stressed or drought situations.

The commercialisation of water supply by the rich and powerful may be good news for investors but rarely benefits the poor and the marginalised whose needs and welfare do not appear on the balance sheets of the Li Ka Shings of this world.

Frank Campbell


Curtail some pensioner perks

Another way of helping to fund care for the elderly (Letters, 11 July) is to ensure that all pensioner benefits (free bus fares, heating allowances) only go to those who are actually retired – they are perks certainly not intended for those still in full-time work.

I hope the debate moves away from talking simply about money. What really matters is that people of all ages are treated with dignity. And if this means the wealthy have less of an inheritance to leave, then tough.

Tim Mickleburgh


A cliché's useful beginnings

I must disagree with Mr Kavanagh about the usefulness of the word proactive (Letters, 6 July). The word has its origin in the psychology of learning. The term "proactive inhibition" was coined to explain the phenomenon whereby prior learning can interfere with future learning.

Subsequently the word has been adapted in common parlance to denote action taken in the present that will influence future events, as opposed to delaying action until the event has occurred. A useful distinction I think. But Mr Kavanagh and I probably agree that the term is over-used and is now a cliché.

Chris Elshaw

Headley Down, Hampshire

I am glad the recent correspondence over the use of clichés and meaningless phrases is now coming to an end. That will allow those of us involved in serious management to get back to pushing the envelope, picking the low-hanging fruit, identifying the tall poppies to build our mission on, engaging users in an over-arching partnership paradigm for a fully-scoped direction of travel, having invoked the improvement levers in a cross-cutting benchmark of a rebaselined menu of options, using a situational horizon scanning process going forward to champion a systematic fulcrum of empowerment which mainstreams cascading best practice and core values.

John McInerney


Perspectives on phone hacking

Ignorance is no defence

The head of a company is responsible for setting the moral tone and ethical values that define the limits within which their employees work, just as they are ultimately responsible for the bottom line of the business result.

Communicating these values, by personal example adhering to them, and ensuring they are met throughout the company cannot be delegated. Conforming to the law is a necessary but not sufficient condition of such an ethos.

Corporate ethical values cannot be delegated because they will often conflict with competitive advantage and achievement of business results. Preserving ethical deniability is not an ethical or ultimately practical business option. "The buck stops here" is an implacable statement of fact; it is called leadership. Therefore "I didn't know" or "I wasn't told" are no defence or excuse.

Keith Farman

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Yvette's selective memory

How exquisite that Yvette Cooper asks in Parliament (report, 7 July): "Why were these allegations not investigated sufficiently at an earlier stage?"

As though she had just turned up from somewhere. As though she had not held two Cabinet posts and other ministerial roles in the last administration, during this "earlier stage". Was she not aware that there was every appearance of synergy among the Met Police, the PM who politicised the top job there and News International? I could not see then, nor imagine now, either Blair or the top cop turning over too many stones where Mr Murdoch's interests were concerned.

Colin Standfield

London W7

Shakespeare got there first

Since we're quoting the Bard in relation to the phone-hacking debacle (Letters, 11 July) how about Cardinal Wolsey's lament in Henry VIII: "There was the weight that pull'd me down... All my glories in that one woman I have lost for ever."

Donald Zec

London W14

Staff may been unfairly dismissed

Redundant News of the World staff may have a case for unfair dismissal against News International. If an equivalent paper is launched, such as the much predicted Sun on Sunday, it will show that the News International board believes that there is a market for this sort of product and thus that staff are not being made redundant because their jobs have disappeared or become unviable.

Peter Slessenger


Potter's prescience

A timely reminder of the ever astute words of Dennis Potter in 1993: "I'm going to get down there in the gutter where so many journalists crawl... what I'm about to do is to make a provenly vindictive and extremely powerful enemy... the enemy in question is that drivel-merchant, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath, Rupert Murdoch... Hannibal the Cannibal."

Pepi Barrington

Forest of Dean

Cable was correct

Recent events show that, once again, Vince Cable was spot on – and ahead of the game – in his estimation of News International and its fitness to expand its role in Britain's media.

Chris Evans

Teddington, Middlesex