Letters: Social mobility

It's not a 'leg up' for poor students, just a fair chance
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The Independent Online

It is refreshing to see figures that reflect the progress that has been made around social mobility in UK universities ("Universities finally open their doors to the poor", 15 October). However, Andrew Grant, the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, describes some of the measures that have helped achieve this as a "leg up" which is inaccurate and unfair.

As a specialist medical and healthcare higher-education provider, St George's, University of London, views it as particularly important to take measures to help those from less advantaged backgrounds access HE. Over the past decade we have implemented a number of schemes to encourage social mobility. These have resulted in a dramatic rise in the proportion of students joining us from state school – increasing from 53 per cent nine years ago to over 80 per cent today.

One measure we have undertaken is an adjusted criteria scheme, similar to Durham University's GCSE modifier scheme highlighted by Grant. This considers student applications to study medicine in relation to the peer group within which they studied. It means that state-school pupils achieving grades 60 per cent better than the average for their school are eligible for an interview for a medical course, even if they don't get the standard required straight As.

These schemes are not giving students a "leg up", rather they are levelling the playing field to ensure individuals are recognised for their intelligence, achievements and promise in the context of their background, not simply the advantages they were born into. They also acknowledge attributes beyond academic attainment which make a good doctor including insight, empathy, initiative and resilience.

Students who have gained a place through the adjusted criteria scheme have proved just as successful as those who gained access via standard criteria.

Kenton Lewis

St George's, University of London, sw17

Excessive bonuses must be taxed

Banks are hell-bent on paying excessive bonuses (report, 21 October). It is time to use the tax system. A windfall tax is a blunt weapon aimed at the wrong target. Excessive salary and bonus packages should be the tax target, not profits. The Government should introduce an extra tax (in effect a new category of employers National Insurance contributions) on any remuneration exceeding £500,000. Employees, and companies not paying any employees over this amount, would pay no extra tax.

This tax would apply to all employers, so the banks would not be unfairly penalised. Since it would be an extension of the existing system, it should be simple to implement.

And the rest of us would be able to calm down knowing that all those enormous salary packages would be matched with equal funds flowing into the Treasury.

Excessive salaries and bonuses have created a bubble that needs to be deflated. In view of how close our economy came to catastrophic failure, it would arguably give an additional meaning to the term "national insurance".

Stephen Johnson

Chidham, West Sussex

I work for one of the leading supermarket companies. My rate of pay – frozen since March 2007 – is £6.71 per hour. According to the company's HR director this is "over and above the rate for your role" (by 48p per hour).

The HR director points out that one of the benefits accruing from being paid too much is a higher bonus payment. She's right, too. At the current bonus rate of 3 per cent of pay, this little munificence works out at about £25 per year after tax – 48p a week or enough to buy a Mars bar. Any bankers out there fancy a bite?

Martin Denning

Bristol

According to a recent survey of 135 MPs, 40 were requested by Sir Thomas Legg to repay a total of £35,519. Whereas Fred Goodwin and other banking moguls wouldn't even get out of bed for this total. In fact they are very likely sleeping easily in their beds having inflicted a far heavier economic burden on the country than all MPs combined. Not only that – they have got away with it (and can count on doing so again!) in a way that MPs have not.

Julian Dare

Oxford

The £6bn-worth of bonuses likely to be awarded to City workers in January is surely not all bad as at 40 per cent income tax £2.4bn will go back to the government to help pay off a small part of the £1trn the banks owe the government.

John Killip

Aylesbury Bucks

The US Government has told the seven companies that got the most aid in the financial crash that salaries must be cut. The top 25 people in those companies will have their salaries reduced by 90 per cent and bonuses must be taken in shares that can't be redeemed rapidly.

We should extend this policy in the UK to all financial companies that benefited from taxpayers' money.

Janet Salmon

Richmond, Surrey

As the remaining banks after the "credit crunch" are now recording massive profits, wouldn't it be sensible for them to spend the excess money on buying back the toxic assets the government removed from their balance sheets rather than giving the money to the very people who caused the crisis in the first place?

Granville Stout

Leigh, Lancashire

Solutions for a hungry planet

The Royal Society recognises that consumers and farmers should have a say in the way governments tackle global hunger (report, 21 October). But they get ahead of themselves by demanding £2bn more for science.

That decision should be up for wider debate. The money might be better spent tackling the social and economic problems that affect whether growing more food makes a jot of difference to food security.

Instead of asking: "How can science and technology help secure global food supplies?", we need to ask "What can be done, by scientists and others, to help the world's hungry?"

Liz Barling

Food Ethics Council, Brighton

It was right to fear millennium bug

In Paul Madeley's otherwise excellent letter on being a sceptic on the views of "experts" (15 October), he resurrects the myth that the millennium bug was simply some sort of mass hysteria.

Certainly, there were elements of hype. The stories of planes falling out of the sky and lifts doing strange things were mostly speculative comedy. In one millennium project I was involved in, I proved that one collection of IT applications were in fact okay and needed no "remediation". I was told by a scared and blinkered management to shut up and do what I was being paid to do. So we spent the best part of £1million on unnecessary tasks.

But such excesses mask the fact that there was a very serious problem which required correction. Many of the major back-room systems of the larger financial institutions, typically written as long as 30 or even 40 years ago, would patently cease to work on 1/1/00. To remedy these systems took months, and sometimes years, of effort, at huge cost. What if that money had not been spent?

It is commonly accepted that a financial organisation can only survive for a few days without its IT systems, before it too ceases to function and collapses.

Just think what might have happened on 1/1/00 if the money had not been spent. Many of the world's leading banks and insurance companies would have simply collapsed, triggering a financial crisis that would have made our present financial crisis look trivial.

Kevin Ramsey

Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Mental-health care for the military

Colonel Tootal is right to point out that even the most conservative estimate of the post-traumatic stress disorder rate among returning soldiers means that hundreds will be leaving the forces with PTSD (20 October). Other mental-health problems, such as depression and anxiety, are even more common and can have devastating effects.

UK policy means that there is a sharp division in responsibility between the military and NHS for the mental-health care of serving personnel and veterans respectively. While there may be valid reasons for this, we need to make sure that this system works more effectively for those it is meant to help.

Dr Andrew McCulloch

Mental Health Foundation

London SE1

Flags from the battle of Trafalgar

The battle-scarred Union Jack flown by HMS Spartiate at Trafalgar, and recently auctioned (report, 22 October), is not "the only surviving" such flag. The Spartiate shared with HMS Minotaur the glory of capturing the Spanish 80-gun ship Neptuno. The 20-year-old master's mate of the Minotaur was Stephen Hilton who bore back in triumph to his home village of Selling, in Kent, both the Neptuno's Spanish ensign and the Minotaur's Union Jack.

The two flags hung in the parish church for over 200 years (they have recently been taken down for restoration). Remarkably, two of Stephen's brothers also fought at Trafalgar, George on HMS Africa and Robert on HMS Swiftsure. Their combined prize money paid for a fashionable extension to an old house in the village – still known as Trafalgar House.

Edward Peters

Selling, Kent

Not all vicars are bossy

Not all vicars are as censorious as the one Terence Blacker refers to (21 October). It is quite possible to meet people's wishes over music and poems at funerals without compromising Christ's message.

I remember a funeral service for an ex-fireman who had been the life and soul of the Age Concern group that met at our church. He lived well into his 90s and had an extraordinary memory for poetry and songs of yesteryear. When it came to saying farewell to him at the crematorium, we all filed out to "Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye". Tearful faces broke into smiles, and who is to say that God did not smile too.

Canon Struan H Dunn

Faversham, Kent

Briefly...

Primary report

As a governor of 28 years' standing at an infant and junior school in Bromley, I welcome the Cambridge Education Report as a breath of fresh air and I applaud its headline findings (report, 16 October). I fear though, that we will not be allowed to implement any of them as they are inconvenient, at the very least, to the perceptions of the bureaucrats in government.

Richard Hunt

Bromley, Kent

PO improvements

Why hasn't the Post Office management, years ago, taken a few straightforward steps to make the job of the postman easier? First, by persuading the government to make it mandatory for all letterbox slots to be A4-sized and at a minimum height from the ground; this would save posties from having to fold A4 envelopes and magazines, and from having to bend down frequently. Second, by insisting that any driveway of more than an agreed length, say 50 metres, has to have a secure letter box at the entrance to the drive.

W E Marris

Lymington, Hampshire

See it and weep

Might I nominate a Shepperton tearjerker to add to Rob Sharp's list (21 October)? In Brief Encounter, not only does Celia Johnson shed a tear when Trevor Howard removes the grit from her eye with his handkerchief, but the audience, of whatever age or sex, is always reduced to blubbing by the lovers' almost unbearable parting. Being British, it is, of course, suitably restrained, albeit prolonged.

Michael Ricketts

London W5

Cameron's plans

You report "Cameron to insist on women-only short-lists" (22 October). Politicians should be judged by their habits. Mr Cameron talks well about decentralisation and localism. Phrases such as "setting local councils free" and "letting managers manage" spring freely from his lips. But if he runs the Tory party on the basis of instant edicts without any process of consultation in the party, let alone internal democracy, who thinks he would not act in the same manner if he were Prime Minister? We have all been warned.

Tony Greaves (Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat)

House of Lords, London SW1

Social climber?

I was intrigued to see Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, born His Serene Highness Prince, referred to as "socially ambitious" (report, 21 October). Wasn't he the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle, too? As well as being viceroy of India. Scarcely an upstart, anyway.

Valerie Passmore

London N16

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