Letters: Vocational schooling revived

These letters appear in the Thursday 17th October edition of the Independent

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You are right to commend Kenneth Baker’s new Career Colleges (leading article, 15 October) but we should not understate the challenge that they face, or the risk that they will further enshrine, rather than counter, the longstanding divide between academic and vocational education in British, and notably English, schools and colleges. 

The excellence of our academic offer and the poverty of our vocational provision are intrinsically linked. The vocational curriculum is a second-choice track that those unable to succeed in academic terms, or who display a reluctance to do so, fall on to, not one they select, and it is a track that the children of the poor are more likely to find themselves on.

Throwing naughty boys (and occasionally girls) a car engine is no way to create a nation of engineers or to address the skills gaps that are obvious to all, but it is what we do, and what we have done, in one way or another, since 1944.

Will “academic” schools farm-out “difficult” pupils to the new colleges, or will aspirant engineers queue at the door? The need is for the latter; experience suggests the former. Whatever the outcome, we need a broader discussion about what curricular breadth should look like. Students of all abilities and social backgrounds need a curriculum that combines academic study with a strong professional and vocational education and a broader preparation for effective citizenship. We shouldn’t restrict this to Lord Baker’s colleges, welcome as they, and their laudable objectives, may be.

Dr Tony Breslin, Bushey, Hertfordshire

Vocational training for teenagers – a radical new idea?

This is what my father did as a woodwork teacher in a secondary modern school until the mid-Sixties, giving generations of boys a profitable skill for life. Then the idiots in charge of the new comprehensive regime destroyed it all overnight. They timetabled lessons so short that by the time the boys had got their tools out it was time to put them away, and their real masterstroke was the introduction of written woodwork exams for barely literate 12-year-olds. They also managed to destroy my father’s will to carry on. Genius!

It just remains to ask why it has taken nearly 50 years for a glimmer of sense to return.

Alan Thomas, Epsom, Surrey

It is now eight years since the deficiencies in our education system for technical skills was exposed by the influx of Polish plumbers. And still our academia and establishment consider and reward the facility to conjugate Latin verbs more highly than the skills needed to design and install works of an engineering nature.

Laurence Shields, Wingerworth, Derbyshire

Plenty of robust evidence on  poverty crisis

Nigel Morris (16 October) highlights the increasing use of food banks evidenced by the Trussell Trust, Red Cross and Oxfam. In response to these facts, a government spokesperson said: “There is no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks.”

If by “no robust evidence” he means that studies have yet to be carried out, I am sure this will happen in time, but until it has the Government is able to use this as the excuse to deny any responsibility for the hardship imposed upon many thousands of families, many with working adults, by the policies of this Coalition Government.

As a community worker managing a community centre in the South Wales valleys – we are a distributor for food parcels – I can say that the “bedroom tax” and the random and arbitrary sanctioning of claimants by the Jobcentres, leaving  people without income for weeks or months, are major contributors to families having insufficient or no income, which leads to them requiring a food parcel to feed their families.

I suggest the spokesperson conduct his own studies in the hardest-hit communities and hear first-hand how the government austerity measures are impacting on people who were already struggling to manage day-to-day living. I think he will find all the robust evidence he needs.

Roger Wilcox, Ystrad Rhondda, South Wales

Any government that seriously believes that the threefold rise in demand on food banks is caused by an increase in the supply of such facilities is both incompetent at economics and morally bankrupt.

Canon Stuart Currie, Worcester

The loss of sovereignty

Andreas Whittam Smith is obviously right that EU membership has led to a loss of sovereignty (“Our leaders have misled us about the EU”, 16 October); how could anyone imagine a regional integration project would not do so? But why not apply the same analysis to our other vital relationship – with the US?

Successive British governments have ceded swathes of sovereignty to Washington in the crucial areas of national security, defence and foreign policy without even bothering to mislead us: the subject is rarely discussed in the British media.

Snowden has shown us that British intelligence has no compunction about using the American NSA to help it spy on British citizens. Yet there has been minimal debate, the Government says spies are good for us and its media attack-dogs savage the messenger. In a time of austerity and economic crisis, we are apparently willing to spend untold billions of pounds renewing Trident, which is dependent on the US. Again, little debate, few questions.

In our most ill-judged recent foreign adventure, Tony Blair decided to opt for coat-tails imperialism and pick the US over EU allies on Iraq, ignoring the strong body of public opinion that was against the invasion.

Rod Chapman, Sarlat, France


BBC ‘balances’ the facts on climate

Greg Barker (“BBC gives the sceptics too much airtime, says Tory Minister” 10 October) is not the first person to criticise the BBC for its lamentable coverage of climate change.

Trying to provide “balance” is acceptable for political and ethical dilemmas, but science does not allow for compromise. There is a right answer and it is the business of the BBC to state unequivocally the consequences for humanity of a “business as usual” scenario.

Otherwise we have a situation whereby science dictates that 2 plus 2 equals 4, the sceptics say “No it’s not; it’s  five” and the BBC seem to think that the answer must be four and a half.

Everyone is appalled that the BBC dredged up Bob Carter to challenge the findings of the IPCC report on 27 September, but equally indefensible was the BBC’s decision to introduce Bjorn Lomberg the same day on the PM programme as a “middle of the road” scientist.  In other words a four-and-a-halfer.

Bjorn Lomberg has never published a peer-reviewed article on climate change, and his book The Sceptical Environmentalist tells you all you need to know about his position. Maybe it is time the BBC tried employing a few presenters, or even an editor, with a scientific degree.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones, Stoke Poges,  Buckinghamshire


Welcome to the end of your life

In a few days  I will reach my 65th birthday, and having received details of my state pension, I am looking forward to receiving it next month. I already receive my entitlement to three private pensions from my previous employment, so I was interested to receive recently a letter from one of my providers, but when I opened it, the contents were from four different funeral service arrangers.

Then, a couple of days later, a letter arrived from my second pension provider and I was puzzled to find two more leaflets explaining the benefits of funeral insurance! Finally, yesterday, I received a letter from my third provider, enclosing details from two more insurance companies offering cover for funeral costs. Is someone trying to tell me something? And has life expectancy come down considerably?

As it happens, I have already made arrangements to cover funeral costs, and invested some of my retirement income, but I am certainly going to spend some of it now, as someone appears to know my death is imminent.

Nigel Priestnall, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk


Football, the wasteful game

While the England team are to be congratulated on the win against Poland, we should not lose sight of their overall poor showing in the World Cup. Enormous amounts of money are spent on English football, yet, it is nearly 50 years since they delivered us the ultimate prize of the World Cup.

Many other sports which operate on a shoestring compared to football have delivered for the nation. Is the money we spend on football really worth it ?

Vernon J Yarker, Maldon, Essex


NHS spending

Your report “Poorest areas of England ‘will suffer under new NHS spending formula’ ” (16 October) omits the average level of NHS spending for each person in each part of England, or for those who are chronically ill or old. Reporting possible change is one thing; giving no idea of the underlying differences is unhelpful. I expect the underlying picture does justify the rebalancing, though it is impossible to judge from the article.

Sir Peter Bottomley MP, (Worthing W, C), House of Commons


Coronating glory

The verb “coronated” (Letter, 14 October) seems to have come from the USA and obviously is in the best George Bush tradition. The New York Times last August reported Congressman Rush Holt speaking about his election campaign in New Jersey: “I don’t think a campaign where one candidate is coronated before the race even begins helps.” Are there any earlier sightings of “coronated”? No doubt our dictionaries are on the case.

Professor Guy Woolley, Nottingham


Not that bad

Cuba enjoys probably one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the Americas (North and South) and certainly better than the US, so why the scurrilous headline “Why is Birmingham’s infant mortality rate worse than Cuba’s?” (16 October)? Most of the world’s infant mortality rates are worse than Cuba’s.

Ian Lowery, Kensworth, Bedfordshire


Truth game

“Plebgate” faces us with the surreal question, “Who is lying, the politician or the Metropolitan Police?” I think the non-surreal answer, based on statistics, is probably “definitely”.  Expect more humbug.

Peter Fines, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire