Letters: Secondary-modern education

Memories of saintly teachers and a secondary-modern education
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The Independent Online

Sir: Perhaps it is churlish to find fault with Howard Jacobson's splendidly impassioned article (16 February), but I feel obliged to add that it was not just grammar-school masters and mistresses who "taught the arts of civilisation" to their pupils: their less favoured counterparts in the secondary moderns often attempted much the same in more difficult circumstances, with worse buildings, less money, inferior status and sometimes, it has to be said, more challenging children.

Like most of my council-estate contemporaries I did not attend a grammar school. Nor, for that matter, did I go to an Oxbridge college. However, I do remember our saintly English teacher introducing Keats, Jane Austen and Henry IV Part I to us for our O-level; my lifelong love affair with literature was born.

Our headmaster taught us medieval history with enthusiasm and no little learning, as well as the finer points of football and cricket. (Mr Jacobson needs to recognise that sports are not just about muscular endeavour, they are also the opportunity to out-think an opponent). A young art teacher travelled across London to tell us 11-plus failures about the wonders of the Italian Renaissance.

When, years later, I did finally get to a university, a redbrick one, and heard luminaries such as F R Leavis, Isaiah Berlin and E H Carr speak, I felt a debt of gratitude to those who had shown faith in me and helped me to get there.

That said, I would not wish to push too hard my defence of what surely was an inequitable system, where, as the Oxford sociologist A H Habey once stated, 25 per cent of all children went to the wrong school, a fact that I am sure troubles Mr Jacobson rather more than most defenders of grammar schools. Reintroducing one into every town, as John Major once suggested, would, in reality, mean bringing back secondary moderns, where most children went. Many of my contemporaries left school early, with few qualifications. They had a raw deal, and deserved better. The waste of their talent still makes me angry.

Jacobson is right to lament "these new dark ages of ours". Yet I would still argue that the comprehensive school is much as Churchill saw democracy – the worst system imaginable apart from the alternatives. More than that, most teachers, hard pressed and undervalued as they may be, surely continue to see a major part of their role as helping acquaint the young with "the best that has been said and thought".

K G Banks


Cuba's success is what drives US crazy

Sir: I can explain what it is about Cuba that "makes otherwise sane American leaders lose their sense of reason" (Rupert Cornwell, 20 February). What galls all the US administrations that Fidel has battled with since Eisenhower is what he and his revolution have achieved since 1959: a society based on respect and love for all its citizens, profound cultural diversity, equality and human values that reflect the immense integrity of its leader.

Even the CIA World Factbook was forced to admit that if the USA had a health service as good as the Cuban system, 2,000 fewer American babies would die every year. Cuba has one doctor per 190 people, which is more than 10 times the ratio in the UK. It sends hundreds of medical staff to developing countries to fight earthquakes and natural disasters. I was amused to learn recently that Fidel even offered to send 2,000 doctors to help flood victims in New Orleans, but was refused by the Bush regime.

The UN has suggested that Cuban higher education could be a model for the whole world, and almost 50 per cent of Cubans now receive higher education. Cuba's GDP is over 7 per cent this year and its literacy rates and life expectancy rival most western countries. All this has been achieved at a fraction of the economic cost of achieving similar outcomes in western societies.

How can this possibly make Cuba a "fossilised relic", even if its beautiful old cars and buildings are in serious need of renovation and wages and personal standards of living still far too low?

What frightens the USA is that if they loosen their economic stranglehold, Cuba might actually become a model that other developing countries might want to emulate. The data about Cuban life expectancy, infant mortality and education are unassailable, independently verifiable facts and it is this that intimidates the USA. In raging against Cuba, it is forced to confront its own failed model of social policy and with it, its entire ideological edifice.

Howard Parker


Sir: I read with concern your report on US corporate anticipation of the demise of Castro's Cuban time-warp ("US Burger chains will be scouting out the best locations", 20 February). Juxtaposed with the news of the price of oil steaming through $100 a barrel, and the dismal failure of the UK government to plan for the approach of Peak Oil, I find this both ironic and poignant.

As recently witnessed by Monty Don in BBC's Around the World in 80 Gardens, Cubans have developed an amazing resourcefulness in terms of reuse, recycling, energy conservation and, most obviously, local organic food production. The skills, organisation and social engagement they have developed would be immensely valuable in our fractured, obesity-and-debt-ridden society. It may well be that the imminent peak in oil and then gas production will cause us something akin to the period in Cuba immediately following the withdrawal of Soviet support, and we will need all the models we can study in order to learn how to adapt and survive at a personal and community level.

I just hope that the burger bars and identikit corporate chain stores don't obliterate the thousands of organoponicos in Cuba before their environmental, nutritional and social value is fully appreciated.

Colin Keyse

Director, Wales Sustainability Reinvestment Trust, Bangor

Sir: Cuba was recently elected as a founding member of the Human Rights Council with the support of two-thirds of the international community. It is true that human rights abuses are taking place in Cuba – in the US-run torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay. As for the Mariel boat lift of 1980, the exodus would not have been possible if it were not for US attempts to destabilise Cuba by offering US citizenship to any Cuban who can set foot on US soil. The US authorities encourage emigration from Cuba at the same time as building walls to block Latin Americans from crossing the border.

Stephen Hallmark


Sir: How does one assess the legacy of Fidel Castro, a man who has devoted his life to a fight against global injustice? No doubt the western media will make much of Cuba's weak economy, but possibly Castro's greatest triumph, outside Cuba, was the role he played in the movement to end the apartheid regime.

Fidel Castro was a supporter of Nelson Mandela long before it became fashionable for world leaders and rock stars to have their picture taken with the great man. Cuba's support in defending Angola from South African invasion was the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Cuba was one of the first countries Mandela visited after his release from prison, to thank Castro personally for his unwavering support. On a visit to South Africa in 1998 President Mandela gave Castro South Africa's highest civilian award for foreigners, the Order of Good Hope.

Dr Richard Lanigan

Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

Combat Aids the old-fashioned way

Sir: If the Nobel laureate Professor David Baltimore now concludes that he is "profoundly depressed about the prospects of an HIV vaccine" (report, 15 February) it is with very good reason: thousands of talented and dedicated scientists have been working very hard for decades to find one. I believe one will be found eventually; but as I reminded my optimistic friend and colleague at the University of Surrey 20 years ago, the late Professor Fred Brown FRS, vaccines have yet to rid us of the common cold. While we are waiting for an effective molecular remedy against HIV and its protean influenza cousins, may I resubmit an old-fashioned strategy I proposed in the 1980s?

Aids today is like TB and typhoid around 1930. Let us resort to identification and, where necessary, isolation. Let every person on this planet be tested and placed on a registry for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Let everyone be obliged to disclose their own STD status and to enquire the STD status of prospective sexual partners. If this had been done about 1980 I venture to assert that we might have avoided half of the present infections: those due to ignorance of STD status.

Dr Nicolas George Maroudas

Haifa, Israel

Rising Anglophobia in Scotland

Sir: The Rev Sheilagh Kesting, the Church of Scotland's Moderator, is correct to draw attention to the phenomenon of Anglophobia in Scotland (report, 18 February).

The SNP is busy trying to use its power to create an official Scottish culture that is shaped around nationalism. But, until now, the party has drawn its oxygen from the fact that Scottish identity is defined by not being English and this can spill over into Anglophobia at street level.

Alex Salmond scarcely conceals the fact that he hopes to secure independence through a carefully orchestrated strategy of tension with England which it is hoped will encourage English public opinion to tell the Scots to go out the door marked Union and not come back in a hurry. This is likely to increase bad feeling on both sides of the border.

Mr Salmond has expressed a strong interest in turning Scotland into a global venue for mediation efforts to solve deadlocked conflicts. He has never lacked nerve but this will be a distant dream as long as influential elements in the SNP, led by himself, wish to secure independence through acrimonious gestures that reinforce cultural divisions between the English and the Scots.

Professor Tom Gallagher

Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford

Sir: Like (I hope) a majority of my fellow countrymen and women, I share Rev Sheilagh Kesting's concern about Anglophobic attitudes north of the border, but please let's not pretend we can't imagine where this unpleasantness might stem from.

I have, for example, lost count, over the years, of the number of times English (and especially American) politicians, pundits, writers, TV presenters, actors, pop stars and documentary-makers have used the word "English" when they obviously mean "British" ("Queen of England", "Prime Minister of England", "Nazi bombing of England" and so on).

Together, most Scots could fill a pretty weighty tome with (frequently quite hurtful and offensive) examples, while counting on the fingers of one hand the number of times the mistake has been either pointed out or corrected.

Keith Gilmour


Citizenship lessons for would-be Brits

Sir: Surely the great merit of immigrants is that they do not share the values of 21st-century Britain – binge drinking, knife and gun crime, and the waging of wars. Perhaps would-be citizens should be required to lead a stag/hen party to their old country as a qualification for citizenship.

Derek J Cole

St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex


Meaning of 'stability'

Sir: References to "stability" by the US and UK governments are completely disingenuous ("Don't sack Musharraf, US and UK warn election victors", 21 February). Did the British government seek "stability" when it supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s? Did the British government seek "stability" when it invaded Iraq and disbanded the Iraqi army? "Stability" used in the context of Pakistan is nothing more than a euphemism for maintaining western interests. It is a term of propaganda that should never go unchallenged in the free press.

Tom Mills

London SW12

Diana's death

Sir: Whether Mohamed Fayed showed emotion in court is immaterial (Mary Dejevsky, 21 February): it was the fantastically wide range of his accusations during his testimony that made such impact. Years before her death, Diana expressed a fear of being involved in a staged car accident, yet she failed to wear a seatbelt on the fatal night. She also talked of a helicopter carrying her being sabotaged, yet persisted in flying in them, even taking her sons with her.

Jennifer Miller

London SW15

The price of gas

Sir: Your front page "Boiling point" (21 February) comes as no surprise, following recent price rises. I understand that British Gas will invest this money into future development of the gas supply industry, but can we be sure some of it will not find its way into dividends and bonus payments?

Colin Attwood

Lingfield, Surrey

Taxing sums

Sir: I do hope Mr Wiltshire is not on his way to becoming a repossession statistic (letters, 20 February). Assuming he is a standard-rate taxpayer, the money he uses to repay his loan at 4.99 per cent has already had tax deducted at 22 per cent so the true rate of interest he is paying is not 4.99 per cent but rather 4.99/0.78 (approximately 6.4 per cent). The interest on his "investment" will be taxable at 20 per cent so he will get 6.35 x 0.8, or 5.08 per cent.

Robert Gayton


The nation's luxury car

Sir: Why do you suggest, by means of photos, that the Heath government nationalised the luxury-car manufacturer Rolls-Royce ("The 'N' word", 19 February)? The nationalisation was of the aerospace division making a brand-new jet engine, the RB211, which the company could not afford to develop but which was destined to power a new generation of aircraft and was in competition with an American-built engine. Lord Carrington was the responsible minister as Minister of Aviation Supply.

Michael Davies

London N1

The unknown artist

Sir: The Oxford dictionary defines a work of art as something created (not found lying around) by an artist. If the Duchamp urinal is "a great classic of modern art" as Philip Hensher says ("Grand master flush", 20 February), then surely the artist is the person who made it in the sanitary goods factory. Does anyone know his name, I wonder?

Trevor Roberts

Barking, Suffolk