Sir: I often find myself in agreement with Trevor Phillips, and being "Britain's most influential black figure" must be a heavy burden to bear, but he's got so many things so horribly wrong in the comments reported on 28 February that it's hard to believe he really wrote them.
A conversation one evening on what Barack Obama might do, and what his candidacy means, with a group of friends, quickly turned into a reprise of Monty Python's "What did the Romans ever do for us?" scene.
Trevor may turn out to be right about Obama's campaign representing not a radical departure but the "emulation" of the "cynicism"of white predecessors, although attentive readers of the Senator's autobiography would be astonished if that were to be the case.
No, the reason why I'm so sure that Phillips is wrong relates not to Obama's capacity to transform the outer landscape of America and its politics, but to the changes that his candidacy has already wrought in the inner landscape of myself, many of my friends and countless people of many races around the world.
Sitting around the table that night were a group of confident black people, each of whom has achieved success in a variety of fields. Yet almost all of us admitted that we were shocked when Obama won the Iowa caucus, and that – whatever happens from now on – the story of his campaign has torn down some of the limiting assumptions that we have been carrying, often unconsciously, throughout our lives.
Trevor Phillips is entitled to his personal scepticism, but if he allows it to prevent him from thinking seriously about the opportunities for positive change presented by Obama's campaign for black people – and all people – on this side of the Atlantic then he will be making a serious mistake.
Relentless testing destroys education
Sir: I am glad that you published the article "Political interference is damaging children's education" (29 February) as, being a 14-year-old pupil attending a grammar school in Kent, over the past few years I have been appalled at the standard of teaching provided by the state system. Apart from the fact that our school only admits the top 5 per cent of students (as tested by the 11-plus) the main factor that seems to make it better than other schools is the incredible amount of testing we are forced to sit through.
The vast majority of teachers purely teach us the answers to questions that we shall be tested upon, to the extent that, with some, if you try to expand upon what they are saying, they do not seem to be capable of a reply. The few teachers that actually teach us their subject properly are then looked down upon because they might not have included the sections in the National Curriculum in as much depth as other teachers, and so we receive lower test marks, despite the fact that we have had a more useful education.
In my experience, we are taught only a very narrow syllabus, with most of the time and attention focused on maths, English and the three sciences. Once, the point of education was to prepare us for later on in life; now it seems only to get our school up a league table. Practice tests and similar exercises designed to put us under testing conditions comprise up to half of our time in some subjects, with teachers piling on mountains of homework to make up for the loss of time due to these tasks. Soon we students must either spend the majority of our free time doing work, or just give up and as a result go through multiple punishments and detentions. It is no wonder that teenagers in England are more depressed than others in Europe.
I speak not only for myself but for others who have expressed similar concerns.
Ash, Canterbury, Kent
Sir: As a university tutor 20 years on from the 1988 Education Act, I see the fruits described in Sarah Cassidy's article of 29 February. The evidence is clear from the Primary Review to third-year final exams. But the problem is more complex than government meddling. Yes, the constant manipulation of education standards for both political and financial reasons is to blame. However, at least two current trends in education are as damaging as anything Whitehall has achieved.
Most corrosive is the charade that teachers must teach to the weakest students. Accepted even among lecturers, this has instituted a diluted curriculum, where the excellent student is bored and the weaker student is patronised.
Furthermore, the test culture throughout a student's career has fostered a mentality both in student and in school where it is marks and not knowledge that is the primary goal. Learning is no longer the end goal in education. Schools want good results and students want high marks. To achieve this easily, students' comprehension has been replaced with mental regurgitation of whatever the teacher says, creating human memory sticks rather than bright intellects.
Certainly, government must establish standards and keep to them. But until the education system addresses these complex and integral issues, the Government's plans will have no sustained, positive effect.
History Department, University of Exeter
Sir: Ed Balls, the current Children's Secretary, has again demonstrated both supremely muddled thinking and sublime ignorance of the causes of the UK's drift backward in primary and secondary educational attainment ("Balls rejects claims that political interference damages schooling", 1 March)
A quick examination of recent international surveys of educational attainment would tell him that the UK ranks as the second-lowest scoring of all English- speaking nations surveyed, behind Australia, Canada and New Zealand by a huge margin and only a little ahead of the USA.
For more than a decade, educators in the UK have lost count of the number of politicians who have, for a brief time, been given something to do with education and used that moment in the spotlight of national publicity to add to the burden imposed on the teaching profession, the latest load always presented as a stunningly good idea and a self-evident truth. The politician then moves on, leaving behind the negative achievement of adding to the teaching profession's burden without removing anything to make room for it.
Ed Balls's off-hand denigration of the findings of research into the very worrying backward drift of UK schools is but the most recent example of the blinkered and ideologically-driven government mismanagement of primary and secondary education. Only spectacularly muddled thinking and ignorance could come up with Ed Balls's statement that "those who use poverty or deprivation as an excuse for poor performance are letting children down. That is why I am expanding city academies."
Sir: The latest reports about schools do make me wonder if we are in the middle of the worst government ever. Worst, that is, from the perspective of damage to Britain rather than simple incompetence and inability to govern.
Misguided attempts to 'balance' nature
Sir: Christopher Hughes' observations on the trail of "destruction" left behind by elephants (letter, 3 March) raises some interesting comparisons.
Canada, like South Africa, has long had a culture of trying to manage nature to be something other than natural. Anything that appeared destructive was seen as bad. In the Rockies, fires were suppressed with publicity campaigns, and wolves – the big bad predators, killing those handsome deer and elk – poisoned and shot, all in the name of conserving nature.
Too late we have realised that fire not only creates conditions for germination of pine seeds but also provides gaps for lesser plants, and thus food for innumerable species that depend upon them, from bears to hares. Far too late have we realised that without wolves to manage elk, we see overgrazing of aspen and consequent collapses in the beaver population, which in turn supports another wide community. Hugely expensive reintroductions and prescribed burns have only started to undo decades of damage inflicted by those who thought they knew best.
Incalculable harm has been done to this planet in the name of making nature balance. It is more like a see-saw, sometimes tipping in favour of one species and then another. Elephants, like fire and wolves, are part of this. Some species do benefit from them, perhaps more than we realise. It is time humanity started to look at nature through more humble eyes.
What we are doing in Afghanistan
Sir: It is worth reminding ourselves what exactly British forces, among them Harry Windsor, have been trying to do in Afghanistan. Patrick Tuohy (letter, 3 March) claims war is about politicians sending young men to kill strangers who might, in other circumstances, have become friends.
He assumes, as so many do, that everyone is just like him: decent, principled, peace-loving, educated, left-leaning and living in a country with freedom of speech. What UK forces and others are trying to do is restrict the influence of a group of indoctrinated fanatics who, among other things, consider it appropriate to slaughter, in front of their pupils, women found teaching algebra to girls.
When will they put Tariq Aziz on trial?
Sir: Whatever Boris Johnson's spluttering views on Tariq Aziz and the purloining of his cigar case (report, 28 February), there is a less trivial issue. Why is it that the US and Britain have not got round, after five years, to making arrangements for a trial of Tariq Aziz? I think I know. Facts emerging from such a trial about western support in the 1980s and 1990s would be hugely embarrassing to Bush and Blair and indeed to Brown, who, as Chancellor, was in a position to say no to the bombing of Baghdad.
And, incidentally, the word "villa" on the Tigris is used to describe Tariq Aziz's house. In 1998, Albert Reynolds, former Taoiseach, and I were invited to supper at the villa. It was a modest establishment and the meal was cooked by Mrs Aziz – with the help of a teenage Iraqi girl.
Linlithgow, West Lothian
Clash of cultures over the Scottish kilt
Sir: In your report "Scots bid to copyright their national dress" (29 February: ) kilt-maker Howie Nicholsby is quoted as saying: "I grew tired of seeing poor-quality kilts selling in shops on the high street for £20 and calling themselves Scottish kilts."
What tires me is Mr Nicholsby and his like selling overpriced kilts and their increasing popularity in Scotland at formal occasions, such as weddings. To apply the European Commission for "protected designation of origin" status makes me think 1 April has arrived early.
The cheap kilts Mr Nicholsby objects to are available to all, including Scotland's exuberant football fans, and are part of a tribal male culture that still lingers. This culture actually exists, unlike Mr Nicholsby's shortbread-box version of Scottish tradition. Long live cheap kilts.
Sir: Richard Carter (letter, 3 March) fails to appreciate that Van Gogh's "thin smearing of oil-based pigment" is skilfully contrived to look like a vase of sunflowers. What does he claim Beuys' chair with fat on it resembles, other than itself? "Art" which represents nothing but itself is a waste of space.
MICHAEL GROSVENOR MYER
Proportions of terror
Sir: I find the cries of "disproportionate response" to Israel's military action against Palestinian terrorists to be absurd. One can only presume that if the Israelis sent a suicide bomber on to a Palestinian bus in reaction to a Palestinian suicide bomber they would be praised for the "proportionate response". Do people really want Israel to rain down as many bombs as it can randomly on Palestinian populated areas – which is what the Palestinians have been doing on Israeli towns for months.
New Barnet, Hertfordshire
Effluent in the sky
Sir: Dennis Davis, (Letters, 3 March) states that contrails have "nothing to do with engines, or their emissions". Not so. Although wing tips do generate condensation trails under high energy/high humidity conditions, the contrails spewing from airliners at altitude are the product of engine combustion; water vapour condenses and freezes almost immediately and produces the white trails. What cannot be seen is the large amount of CO2 effluent that accompanies the discharge. We need to understand exactly what is happening so that we can make informed choices.
Turbine at the opera
Sir: R Bryan (letter, 1 March) complains that the proposal by Glyndebourne to erect a wind turbine is an "empty gesture". How can it be empty when the letter likens it to insulating 250 homes? The point is that it is a gesture. It is actions, or "gestures", however small, that we need, not excuses and criticism. I prefer the explanation given on Glyndebourne's website, which says the proposed turbine would generate the equivalent of all the electricity the opera house uses each year.
Sir: Stan Hodgkins (letter, 3 March) seems to be making a distinction between aviating, flying, and "sordid air transport". This would seem to imply that Royal Air Force Transport Command personnel are judged as not having "flown" or "aviated". And when a pilot hands over to his co-pilot to snatch a quick bite to eat, he temporarily becomes "sordidly air-transported", presumably. I find such semantic distinctions insane.
Sir: I believe that Richard Ingrams (1 March) can relax; he's not being chased by those saviours from outer space, the Scientologists. The Thetan Brigade are much more likely to be targeting people like me, psychiatric nurses, who – if you read their literature – are personally responsible for the Holocaust, 9/11, Bosnian war crimes and making Brooke Shields take anti-depressants. All in a day's work!