Letters: Spare our children Gove’s amateurish plans

These letters will be published in the print edition of The Independent, March 23, 2013

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The curriculum proposals criticised by 100 academics (“Gove will bury pupils in facts and rules”, 20 March) are part of a surprisingly coherent, if misguided, package of measures which if fully implemented would radically redesign state primary education in England, and, to a considerable but lesser extent, state secondary education.

In the primary phase they would replace our inevitably imperfect but appropriately ambitious primary education with an imperfect, limiting system of elementary schooling.

Our children deserve better than this botched, amateurish attempt at rewriting the curriculum on the back of a 19th-century envelope embossed with a Penny Black.

Professor Colin Richards, Spark Bridge, Cumbria 

The academics who criticise Michael Gove’s plans may well have something useful to say, but they risk weakening their case by polarising the debate. Gove also has something useful to say, but he is far too heavy-handed and dictatorial.

Rote-learning is important. Moreover, young children are good at it, especially when the material to be learned is rhythmical and terse (eg times tables). It does not need, initially, to be completely understood. When comprehension dawns, there is pleasure too, and great usefulness. Unfortunately, the proposed curriculum is far too heavy and prescriptive, especially in history.

Creative learning is important, but rote-learning does not have to rule it out. A well-organised curriculum can deliver all sorts, provided the teachers are not constantly being told what to do, and are free to use their expertise to devise a programme suitable for their pupils. 

Patricia Atyeo, Oxford

I have written to Mr Gove to ask why, if the new national curriculum is such a wonderful device for raising standards (whatever that means), it is not mandatory in free schools, academies or private schools, which are all at liberty to teach whatever they want (as well as employ unqualified “teachers”). So far no reply has been forthcoming.

Max Fishel, Bromley, Kent

David Cameron tells us that state education and its teachers are a “left-wing establishment that has bargain-basement expectations of millions of children”? 

This incredible statement again shows how out of touch our Prime Minister and his Education Secretary are with the realities of education and how the demonisation of state education is driving policy.

Cameron clearly has no understanding of the realities faced by teachers in our state schools. I would love to see what effect the teachers from his favoured private schools would have if they were sent to work in the most challenging schools in our country.

John Blenkinsopp, Sheffield

Budget is a boon for tobacco smugglers

Thanks to the Government’s high tobacco-tax regime, smugglers can make more money selling their pack of 20 here than pretty much anywhere else in the EU. By increasing the tax on tobacco by inflation plus 2 per cent, the Chancellor is helping to make the UK an even more profitable environment for the smugglers.

Also, in an effort to reduce youth smoking, the Government is considering putting tobacco in plain packaging. This will mean smugglers only have to spend the money getting one tobacco package design right rather than hundreds, which will make the UK an even more appealing location for them to set up shop.

Smugglers do not care about the age of those they sell to and will happily sell tobacco to young people, the very ones the Government is trying to stop smoking.

Shopkeepers like me cannot compete with the half-price deals offered by the smugglers.

Debbie Corris, National Spokeswoman Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance, London SW1

As part of the Budget announcement, the Government made a promise that public-sector procurement from small firms would rise fivefold. I’m the small business owner of a 10-person PR agency that would like nothing  better than to help promote government programmes and projects. We have the track record to compete against the bigger players, but access to tax-funded pounds remains a difficult struggle based on our size. 

First, access to information about tenders often comes at a price. Online services that conveniently collate relevant opportunities require paid-for subscriptions, an expense prohibitive to small businesses.

Second, the time it takes to complete a full-scale tender could engage half a small company’s workforce to research, draft and illustrate.

And finally, the big suppliers in the public sector are able to keep costs so low that they can almost ensure a monopoly. As a reasonably priced agency that has bid for work through formal tendering, we’ve been told our fees can be double the price of other bids – big fish able to use economies of scale on other clients to win high-profile work.

Lucy George, Director, Wordville Limited, London NW8

I realise we’re in a new social age, but to have the Budget leaked to a newspaper, and that newspaper subsequently leak its front page on Twitter before the Chancellor has even had a chance to stand up? The Thick of It continues to be more frighteningly realistic than we previously imagined.

Leaks aside, this budget was primarily a propaganda tool for the next election, promising changes and investment in 2015 to encourage people to vote Tory again.

Daniel Torado, London EC1

Typists’ tales hit the right note

Lisa Markwell’s article on typing (21 March) took me back to the 1960s when I was 13 years old and learning how to touch type at my secondary modern school.

We had a lovely teacher who tried to make it more interesting by playing music that we could type along to. I particularly remember doing exercises to the William Tell overture, which the teacher would gradually speed up until even the fastest typist couldn’t keep up.

We also learnt shorthand, so by the time we left school we were all ready for work, maybe not the most interesting or exciting work, but I am sure that many young unemployed people today would willingly swap places with us. 

Jackie Bartram, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

Lisa Markwell makes a good case for the teaching of keyboard skills, but she fails to mention the essential part that music played in this exercise. Many hundreds of National Service recruits – civilian learners, too – will recall pounding out a repetitive “a s d f g SPACE” to the strict tempo of a 78rpm recording of Victor Sylvester and his orchestra, a specially cut record which could be gradually speeded up over the eight-week course. Had the enemy ever set foot on these shores, he would surely have quickly been put to flight by the unison crashing of our heavy Imperial, Royal and Bar-Lock ordnance.

Chris Sladen, Woodstock,  Oxfordshire

‘He’ and ‘she’ under threat  

Guy Keleny (Errors and Omissions, 16 March) discusses the use of “they” when a person might be male or female and implies that this is a modern development. This usage has never stopped being common in speech, and it has a long history in writing. William Caxton used it around 1470 (“Each of them should ... make themself ready”); Shakespeare used it (“God send everyone their heart’s desire”, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 4). Prescriptive grammarians since John Kirkly (1746) have been trying to stamp it out, but they haven’t succeeded. Language will find a way of saying what needs to be said.

Using “they” to refer to a (necessarily male) cardinal is an unusual step, but who knows, you might be right to predict that it is the beginning of a language change. Many years hence, English speakers may get on without bothering about gender of pronouns – as Chinese speakers have for millennia.

Catherine Walter, Oxford

Hacked off by these celebs

It seems that the celebs have taken over the world. The people who were hacked by the tabloids who most deserved sympathy were the Dowlers. Many of the remaining adherents to Hacked Off were celebs who were constantly  chasing press publicity. 

Now they’ve neutered the newspapers, what self-respecting editor will publish even the most innocuous lines about them? Where will they go for their daily fix now?

Alan Carcas, Liversedge, West Yorkshire

Iraq war a crime, not a ‘mistake’

If we accept the whine of those (like Prescott) who supported the Iraq war that they made “a mistake” (Mark Steel, 22 March), we collude in their horrendous act. The Iraq war was not a mistake; it was a crime – the Crime of Aggression, perhaps the most appalling crime it was possible to commit. Criminals need to be prosecuted. The murderer does not get off because he now thinks his murder was a mistake.

Jim McCluskey, Twickenham,  Middlesex

Economy woes

What is the point of the Office of Budget Responsibility? Its growth forecast for 2013, announced last December, is now halved. Every growth prediction it has made since its inception has been significantly wrong. Yet its forecasts for future years are as Panglossian as ever. When he is cutting just about everything else, how can George Osborne justify its continued existence?

Paul Clifford, Oxford

Chancellors of the Exchequer come and go but one thing that the weight of historical evidence shows is that successive occupants of No 11 Downing Street have consistently overestimated their ability to do economic good, while simultaneously underestimating their ability to do harm.

George Osborne has taken this misconception to a whole new level by failing to recognise the intrinsic fragility of both consumer and business confidence. As even Boris Johnson recognises, endless austerity rhetoric has a net negative influence upon the confidence of both consumers and producers alike.

David Sapsford, Sir Edward Gonner Professor of Applied Economics (Emeritus), University of Liverpool