Single-sex schools, 'Big Brother' state and others

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Girls will do better if they are taught in single-sex schools

Girls will do better if they are taught in single-sex schools

Sir: David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools, chose International Women's Day to call for equal opportunities for girls in schools (report, 6 March). He warned that boys still dominate in the classroom, that their "laddish" behaviour may have a negative effect on girls' learning, and that gender bias still exists in subject options.

I feel his remarks more than answer the question "Is there still a place for single-sex schools?" As the headmistress of an all-girls school I can assert that our students find not only equal opportunity, but every opportunity. Studies have shown that at co-educational schools girls are called upon less, receive less feedback and have lower self-esteem than boys. Research also proves that these girls do not receive equal opportunities to achieve academically in subject areas such as maths, science and IT; despite the best intentions, girls in mixed classes are at a distinct disadvantage that narrows their options for careers.

By contrast, girls in single-sex schools are four times more likely to choose careers in the sciences and maths. In general they are more motivated and have higher aspirations than their counterparts in co-educational schools. Girls are consistently out-performing boys in examinations yet fail to be equally represented in the nation's boardrooms and executive bodies. This has little to do with academic ability and everything to do with self-confidence.

In co-educational classrooms girls may lack encouragement and support in the face of louder demands from boys. While boys are encouraged to be assertive and tough, this behaviour is discouraged in girls. A single-sex school will help a girl to develop her self-assurance as well as the characteristics such as ambition, competitiveness and resilience which will help her take her place in the 21st century society.

Headmistress, Teeside Prep and High School
Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees

Warning: we are living in a 'Big Brother' state

Sir: I too, share the fears eloquently expressed both by Paul Donovan in his excellent article "Fear, terrorism and the erosion of our civil liberties" (28 February) and D Hughes (Letters, 5 March) that the UK's most dangerous enemies can be found in 10 Downing Street and the Home Office. I write as a former government supporter.

As well as the oppressive Terrorism Act 2000, and the TA and Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, we are now offered the innocuous-sounding Civil Contingencies Bill, whereby ministers will be able to assume draconian powers in a declared emergency, without having to seek parliamentary approval. Moreover, the state of emergency can be enforced for at least three weeks before Parliament is even allowed a debate or vote on whether it should be continued.

Blunkett's long term aim of entitlement (eg ID cards) will not stop terrorism, but will mightily increase the powers of a Big Brother state over the individual citizen. More than 50 years ago, George Orwell was asked if his book 1984 was written as a prophecy. "No", Orwell replied, "It's a warning. Don't let it happen!"

That warning echoes today with ever-increasing urgency.


Sir: R A Sellwood (Letters, 8 March) says our unwritten constitution has been imposed on us by "the powerful for the protection of their power" and so fails to protect us from "the authoritarian tendencies of Blair and Blunkett".

He wants a written constitution, but in our unequal society the same rich and powerful will always ensure that the constitution protects their power and privileges. It is a fallacy that a written constitution protects our freedoms more surely than one that is unwritten: the written American constitution allowed slavery notwithstanding all its talk of freedom and equality.

Any constitution is only as good as the determination the people have to uphold it and to mould it to protect their freedoms and rights.


Sir: I find it disturbing that, for example, Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue refuse outright to answer any telephone questions without first checking the postal address of the caller. (And they do check, I experimented with a fake post code just to make certain). When I queried this policy I was told it was so that inaccurate information would not be given out. (How, precisely?). How come NHS Direct are prepared to deal with anonymous callers when "inaccurate information" could have far-reaching consequences? Smacks of an incipient police state to me.

Porlock, Somerset

Sir: I was detained in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship for almost two years. No charges, no tribunal, no recourse to the legal system. Some people were tried by military tribunals, in secret. Many governments around the world have used similar methods and they have been labelled dictatorships. Why do we allow the US and the UK to do the same thing?


Sir: Monday's leading headline "Scientist 'gagged' by No 10" and the Government's response to the recent whistleblowing by Clare Short lead me to ask, do we no longer live in a society with freedom of speech?

Rugby, Warwickshire

MMR study

Sir: Nick Hewes (Letters, 8 March) takes me to task for an assertion which I did not make. I did not say a retrospective study of vaccinated and unvaccinated children would be worthless because it would be impossible to account for other causes of autism; I said it would be worthless unless it took account of potential confounders. Sir Richard Doll did not set out to establish a causal relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer; he was very surprised when the link emerged. It was arguably Sir Richard's care over confounders that led to his discovery.

I repeat, a comparative study is feasible but neither simple nor cheap - to account for confounders one must have data; only obtainable by large-scale, expensive and time-consuming retrospective data collection. Only then could one meaningfully compare the two groups.

Mr Hewes suggests we simply compare the two groups and sound alarms if there is a difference. This sounds harmless but is not. If rates differ because of some independent unknown factor, the effect of publishing raw data would be to further reduce vaccination rates. This would not reduce autism rates but would expose many more infants to the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella. Clinical experts have pointed out that none of these are trivial diseases and measles carries the risk of brain damage or death.

The things which "we do not know for certain" cannot cause autistic spectrum disorders is boundless. A badly designed, scientifically invalid study would not shorten this list, but would have the potential to do great harm.

MSc Clinical Oncology Student
Institute of Cancer Studies
University of Birmingham

Old and lonely

Sir: Your article "Old people 'being robbed of will to live' by loneliness" (8 March) certainly reflects the findings of a report published by the Royal National Institute of the Blind last week. Hundreds of thousands of older blind or partially sighted people are being left to cope alone when their sight fails, and are at an increased risk of accidents, poverty and social exclusion because of inadequate state support.

Seventy three per cent of people interviewed for the report, "Unseen", are living in or on the margins of poverty and 44 per cent had experienced an accident or fall as a direct result of their sight loss and went without vital and inexpensive equipment that could have prevented accidents.

RNIB believes urgent measures are needed to address the crisis in care for older people. Every person with sight loss should receive an assessment of needs along with rehabilitation and mobility training but this is not happening. RNIB is also calling on the Government to ensure that older people receive the benefits that they are entitled to and that targets be set to increase take-up of pension credit and disability benefits.

Given that the numbers of older people is set to increase dramatically over the next few years and that most people who lose their sight do so as they age, decisive action is needed by the Government to prevent our final years being spent in isolation and poverty

Head of Public Policy, RNIB
London WC1

Praise for the NHS

Sir: Johann Hari's article ("The health service is slowly getting better", 10 March) is in my view the most sensible piece of writing on the NHS by any journalist for the past 20 years. It reflects what I have found to be the case, both as a health authority member for 12 years and as a patient for the past three, that most people using the service are full of praise for the care and treatment they receive and don't want the service "reformed", ie, reorganised, yet again.

In any organisation the size of the NHS it will always be possible to find things that are less than perfect but the politically-motivated sensational coverage of often scandalously exaggerated faults should not blind us to the fact that in this country we are so fortunate to have the NHS and that to dismantle it because of distorted reporting and biassed comment would be an unmitigated disaster for every citizen.

Of course the extra money is improving the service - and of course its effect is not seen overnight. What we should now do is to allow the process to continue, to monitor progress through Parliament and to let the managers achieve service improvements by keeping all procedures under review and making incremental adjustments where necessary.

The last thing that is needed is another wholesale reorganisation.


Sir: Johann Hari (10 March) naively ignores the reality of private finance in the NHS. The PFI scheme is the equivalent of buying expensive new clothes with a credit card.

It all looks very good until the bills start to roll in.

Clara Vale, Tyne and Wear

Racing classes

Sir: James Lawton writes in his column ("Give McCririck credit where credit is due", 9 March) quoting Andrew Balding as saying "As if the champion jockey was going to risk his career for the sake of a Class H regional race". James Lawton goes on to ask what did the class of race have to do with it.

I believe that the class of race has a lot to do with the problem generally. Arena Leisure operate low grade races at all three all-weather tracks, Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton on an almost daily basis.

If the prize money for these races is so low that there is insufficient to pay owner, trainer, jockey, plus costs then there is inevitably going to be a temptation for money to be made on the betting side in various ways. This low-grade racing is not a good thing.

Lingfield, Surrey

Sir: So the jockey, Kieren Fallon, is punished by not being allowed to race for 21 days (report, 9 March). His crime? Er... not racing.

Kidderminster, Worcestershire

Racist apples

Sir: I'm very pleased to see that the Metropolitan Police are taking another much needed step towards removing the rotten and racist apples present in the Met barrel ("All Met recruits will have to pass race attitude tests", 10 March)

For effective crime prevention and detection it is essential that all sections of the community have absolute confidence in the police. Nothing is going to change overnight and I'm in no doubt about how far there is to go, but as a Londoner from a visible ethnic community I'm glad that these steps are being taken.

London N13

GM argument

Sir: Michael McCarthy says (10 March): "The long argument over whether or not genetically-modified crops should be grown in Britain ended yesterday when...". With due respect to Mr McCarthy I say that he is wrong. The long argument over whether or not genetically-modified crops will be grown in Britain has ended. The argument over whether they should is another matter entirely!


Sir: "GM crops are given qualified go-ahead" (10 March). Why should "the primacy of science" and US commercial interests over-rule the clear result of public consultation?

Carnforth, Lancashire

Naive photography

Sir: The kindest thing one can say about Betsy Schneider making an exhibition of photos of her naked child ("I hope these photos of my daughter are provocative", 9 March) is that Ms Schneider is really naive. The child is not old enough to give informed consent and should not be used in this way: it is an abuse of the cosy relationship between mother and daughter.

London SW11

Brown and black

Sir: Dylan Jones is undoubtedly a Very Stylish Man, and entirely right to forbid us from wearing black belts and brown shoes. However, I'd find his advice easier to take if he wasn't sporting a natty brown poloneck under his (impeccably tailored) black suit (26 February).

London NW6