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Wednesday 4 June 2008
Letters: State schools
Why state school students fail to apply for Oxbridge
Sir: My son is certainly not rich and, as a father, you'll forgive me for not thinking him mediocre ("Oxbridge is destined to be dominated by the rich and mediocre", 31 May). I recall asking his chemistry teacher at the state school he attended what, bearing in mind he was predicted to get three "A"s, would be a good university to apply to. She replied "Nottingham".
Fortunately, a friend of my son's was keen to apply to Oxford and the two of them, at their own instigation, went along to a roadshow held by the much-maligned "Oxbridge". A year later, my son got his three "A"s and is now studying at Brasenose College with friends, most of whom are state-educated.
Thames Ditton, Surrey
Sir: As one of many comprehensive-educated Oxbridge graduates, I find myself constantly defending its admissions policies. It is hardly surprising that those with encouraging parents and expensive private educations gain most places, and also unsurprising that applicants with straight "A"s at A-level are rejected. Who would bother applying without straight "A"s? The fact that interviews and often entrance exams are used in addition to predicted grades demonstrates that efforts are made not to judge on results alone.
The only area where I think Oxbridge could do more is in tackling its intimidating aura. My interview was the most terrifying event of my life, not helped by the fact that I was actively discouraged from applying by my (single-parent, cleaner) mother, who thought I should just get a job, "like normal people".
I didn't know anyone who had a professional job, let alone had been to university. No one came to speak at my school about it. The sad fact is that many children grow up with no expectation of university or a successful career, let alone Oxbridge. This is what must change.
Sir: I carry no particular brief for our admissions system; we get the top and bottom right, but with four times as many straight-A students applying as there are places, I doubt we are very good at distinguishing among indistinguishable applicants in the middle of the range.
To put things in perspective, in accepting 120 new students for this October, New College turned down some 435 others. Those 435 will get around 30 "B" grades and 10 "C" grades between them. All their other grades – 1,400 or so – will be "A"s.
I feel for Peter Woods (letter, 3 June) and his outstanding student, and I am sorry he was apparently treated rudely; but admissions is about trying to choose students who will thrive in a non-school environment, and one of its annual miseries is explaining to teachers why students with perfect scores do not look good bets for what they want to do.
New College, Oxford
Paranoia about a Muslim 'threat'
Sir: Why is Bruce Anderson so eager for confrontation (Opinion, 2 June)? Not everyone who rejects his "Onward, Christian Soldiers" stance towards the Islamic world is an embittered victim of a failed society. Many of us simply believe in the end of colonialism and colonial attitudes in the Middle East, and see the people there who were victims of European mandate-imperialism 80 years ago to be ordinary human beings just like ourselves.
It is possible to argue that the peoples of the Middle East need not containment or crisis management – the West's paranoid solutions – but partnership, based on common humanity, and sharing of knowledge and resources.
Nor has there always been a conflict between Europe and the Islamic world – the misconceived granite axiom of the post-9/11 world. Europe's first scientific revolution, of the 12th-13th centuries, was based on Arab science. Two of our most successful monarchs – Elizabeth I and Victoria – favoured the Ottoman Empire above other (Christian) empires, respectively of Spain and Russia. Queen Victoria even threatened to abdicate in 1876 unless her government took a more pronounced pro-Turkish stance. The legend of implacable confrontation is just that – a legend.
Sir: Reading Bruce Anderson's column can sometimes be refreshing because of his independent conservative viewpoint. However, he ought to be ashamed of himself for writing a bigoted diatribe on 2 June. From his use of phrases like, "the average Muslim", his conflation of "Islam" with extremism and his references to Mark Steyn's irrational and propagandistic work, it seems that, like Martin Amis (whose book, The Second Plane, I reviewed for this newspaper), Anderson has become infatuated with an ahistorical blood-and-soil philosophy.
References to barbarians and the Roman Empire, the Frankish leader Charles Martel and the Ottoman sieges of Vienna represent an attempt to generate fear and peddle the myth of perpetual war and absolute evil.
Given the precarious economic, military and political situation, rather than yet more rabid polemic we urgently require lucid thinking. What Bruce Anderson and his like need is a well-polished Viennese looking-glass.
Sir: Bruce Anderson's inflammatory article is completely devoid of the reason, logic and cultural intelligence he praises Western Europe for having developed. He develops the idea of a regressive and insidious Islam threatening a rich and once-great western Christian civilisation. Not only are we led to believe we are facing a "decline from Europe into Eurabia", but it is our fault for having forsaken our great Christian familial traditions.
To buy into absolutist notions of Islam vs the West has the potential to be hugely counterproductive and damaging. Having spent years living in both "the Christian West" and "the Islamic East" I know there is much more common ground between us, in terms of both our history and our aspirations for the future, than the likes of Anderson are able to admit.
Sir: Bruce Anderson should remember that in the Europe of the early to mid 20th century, his article could have been written by men such as him, in newspapers such as The Independent, but the article would have been about the "Jewish threat" that Europe faced. History has a funny way of repeating itself. Shame on you all.
TV snoopers knew about my shopping
Sir: I had a somewhat unnerving and alarming experience recently when I went out and bought a new DVD/video recorder. I paid and was about to leave when I was asked for my postcode, for "marketing purposes". I at first declined to give it, which prompted the assistant to get quite insistent. Being British, and aware a "scene" was developing, I gave the information and left the shop.
Imagine my surprise when I subsequently received a letter from TV Licensing, informing me that, after my recent purchase of TV receiving equipment, I must contact them to supply details of my licence. Whether this arose through use of my credit card or the shop's "marketing", I do not know, but there is no question that information is being shared left, right and centre.
The incident has convinced me that we should never allow ID cards, or national databases of any sort – the "owners" of the system can simply never be trusted.
Sir: I see we have another spate of letters about heavy-handed tactics on the part of TV Licensing. In my 37-odd years as a no-TV householder, I have never had this experience.
True, every few years I get an inquiry as to whether I am still without a television, with a reminder of the penalties for use of a set without a licence, but that seems to me entirely reasonable. The truthfulness of my reply has never been queried. Indeed, on the one occasion when an investigator turned up on my doorstep he declined my invitation to come in and look round.
Sir: TV Licensing has several freephone numbers which they do not publicise (Letters, 30 May), one of which is 0800 0850 133. Unfortunately, informing TV Licensing that one does not have a television set is unlikely to stop its harassment, as it regards anyone who chooses not to have TV as a licence evader.
Different kinds of EU democracy
Sir: It's a bit rich for my fellow MEP Andrew Duff to talk about democratic legitimacy in relation to the Lisbon treaty (letters, 3 June). He forgets that his own party, the Liberal Democrats, campaigned for a referendum on the treaty's alter ego, the European constitution, at the last general election. He also ignores the democratic legitimacy of the French and Dutch referendums that comprehensively rejected the constitution.
I have an unpleasant feeling that if Ireland stops the treaty in its tracks, Mr Duff will – with a straight face – tell us that the result lacks democratic legitimacy.
Martin Callanan MEP (Conservative, N-E England), Brussels
Dubious ethics of the buy-to-let market
Sir: Modern buy-to-let is premised upon continuing house-price inflation (letter, 3 June) . Given that house-price inflation is recognised as a transfer of wealth from young to old and from poor to rich, could we have a debate about the ethics and morality of the industry? For example, should ethical investment funds refuse to invest?
And, if we want to develop a modern and truly entrepreneurial economy, why do we choose to celebrate a mechanism (house-price inflation) and an industry (buy-to-let) that generate social inequality, produce unearned profits for the few at the expense of the many, and reduce the ability of the majority to take risk in, for example, building a business (because their housing costs are so high).
Eugenics practised within abortion law
Sir: Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 27 May) is right to highlight the presence of eugenics within UK abortion laws and the failure of MPs to see the importance of a balanced view when parents make the decision to keep or abort their unborn disabled child.
Finding out that your unborn child is likely to have a disability is often a frightening and disorienting time for parents. Information is often biased, inconsistent and in some cases, absent.
This is confirmed by anecdotal evidence that mothers-to-be are put under great pressure to abort by medical professionals following tests which show their baby could have a disability.
People with disabilities do lead valuable lives and can make a great contribution to society. Surely offering mothers-to-be information and support that enables them to make an informed choice is the right thing to do.
Head of campaigns and policy, Mencap, London EC1
Mary Whitehouse's polarising effect
Sir: Her article about Mary Whitehouse (26 May), suggests that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's view on freedom of speech is that we should have it, but that there should be limits. Few would disagree.
However, we don't live, as she says, under a regime of "extreme libertarianism". Our Government's approach to our personal freedoms is hardly "hands off", as exemplified by the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.
Far from thanking Mrs Whitehouse, we should bemoan the way she helped to polarise the politics of culture, leaving many rational people feeling stranded between the rock of her reactionary dogma and the hard place of accepting more or less anything, no matter how morally or socially corrosive.
Sir: When Tony Blair talks about his belief in God, and how his decisions may thereby be jointly made with God, it is hard not to forget the God-like arrogance with which he took away the lives and limbs of Iraqi children, and the "blood sacrifice" he offered on behalf of others ("Blair reveals philosophy at launch of faith foundation", 31 May).
Bush is criminal, not mad
Sir: As a Section 12 "approved doctor" who regularly assesses many mentally ill people (and sections a proportion of them), I find the No Confidence Campaign's call for President Bush to be sectioned an insult to my patients (Pandora, 2 June). It also trivialises Bush's crimes against humanity. Bush (and his sidekick Blair) deserve prison; their victims are the ones who need treatment (both physical and psychological) in hospital.
Dr Aroup Chatterjee
Whither the waste?
Sir: Might I, through your columns, be allowed to ask Mr Bill Hyde (letters, 26 May) the question which environmentalists have been asking the proponents of nuclear power from its inception? How do you propose to dispose of the high-activity waste which all nuclear-generating systems produce? There has never been a satisfactory response to our question and, given the nature of the material in question, there probably never will be. People who think like Mr Hyde propose to leave a terrible legacy to future generations.
Dr R E Dawson
Scandal of Iraqi deportee
Sir: The case of Mr Al-Saadon, the Iraqi who has lived in the UK for 35 years and is now about to be deported (report, 2 June), is a disgrace. Given the Home Office view that there is "no internal armed conflict" in Iraq at the present time, will the Home Secretary set an example and fly to Baghdad? I suggest she hires a car at the airport and spends a few days driving around the region.
Sir: Can Cyril Mitchell (letters, 2 June) tell us how many duds such as Gordon Brown the superior Scottish education and social system produces? And can he tell us if, after their equal schooling, the laird's son decided to become a laird and the crofter's son decided to be a crofter, or to emigrate after being cleared off his former schoolmate's land?
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