Soham caretaker, Muslim headscarfs and others

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Soham caretaker: selection procedures need examining

Sir: I am dismayed at the scapegoating of the police vetting system for Ian Huntley's appointment as caretaker of Soham Village College. Certainly the errors by the police and the police system played their part, but I believe only a small part. Vetting via police checks is always the last criterion for acceptance or rejection of a candidate who has been deemed suitable for an appointment.

A question that must also be answered in any inquiry as to how Huntley slipped through the police screen is how the school has now twice deemed to be employable caretakers who proved wholly unsuitable and posed a threat to children.

I suspect that part of the answer will lie in the selection and interview procedures used within the school, as indeed has been discovered to be the case in a number of child abuse inquiries in recent years (Choosing with Care, DoH, 1992; Too Serious a Thing, The Carlile Review, 2002). Despite explicit recommendations about the selection and appointment of staff to children's homes (known as the Warner Principles), I and others have found that often lip-service is paid to these recommendations or they are simply not known to exist.

Furthermore, I have found that experienced and mature staff sitting on appointment panels, attempt to follow employment legislation designed to protect interviewees from discrimination, and in so doing have felt steered away from asking the kind of personal questions necessary to form an impression of the personality of the interviewee. They have also felt pressured, fearing accusations of prejudice, into ignoring their intuitive responses to how questions are answered, and relied instead on simply whether the right answer has been given.

One of the essential qualities needed in any member of staff with access to children is a capacity for empathy; that is, to be able to read, understand and reflect on another person's state of mind. While there are a number of ways of formally measuring this, it is best measured in a conversation with a candidate that requires them to talk about their relationships with other people and especially children they know or have known well.

Consultant nurse and child psychotherapist
The Park Hospital for Children

Threat posed by Muslim headscarf

Sir: I am not sure whether to be amused or dismayed by the level of ignorance and Islamophobia displayed by Mr Eduard Zuiderwijk in his letter on Muslim headscarves (16 December).

The difference between the bourka in Kabul and the headscarf in Bradford is the difference in the standard of human rights afforded to the women of Bradford who have the luxury of being able to choose how they wish to express their femininity and religious beliefs.

It is ironic that in the name of democracy and feminism, Mr Zuiderwijk wishes to deny Muslim women in this country the right to express their religious beliefs as they see fit, thereby exhibiting the same level of ignorance, religious intolerance and male chauvinism as that practised by the repressive regimes in Afghanistan, Algeria and elsewhere.

As an independent, young, British, Muslim woman, I'd like to assure Mr Zuiderwijk that in no way do I feel subordinate to men when I don the headscarf in order to fulfil my religious obligations. A central and fundamental tenet of Islam is the command that there is no compulsion in religion.

Thus, it is not the headscarf that symbolises the subordination of Muslim women in any given society, rather, it is the arrogance and temerity of men like Mr Zuiderwijk who presume to judge our religious convictions and tell us what we should or should not wear. I am proud of this country's tradition of racial, cultural and religious diversity.

The fact that our police force can accommodate the religious beliefs symbolised by the Sikh turban, the Jewish skullcap, the Muslim headscarf, the Rastafarian headdress, the Catholic crucifix, and so on, in its uniform is a testament to this country's richness of culture and growing maturity as a multi-dimensional, thriving, practising, democracy. It is we who have got it right Mr Zuiderwijk, not the French and Germans.

London W10

Sir: Robin Cook in "France need not fear schoolgirls in headscarves" (19 December) is equating homage to "organised religious slavery" with liberalism and multiculturalism.

If someone wears tribal or religious clothes as a tourist then it adds to colour, diversity and exotica. However, if such clothes are worn by a group settled in a country then it is not a case of just another fashion but of seperateness. If not overtly, then subconsciously, it adds to non-assimilation, not belonging and non-integration.

Religion is not about what one wears, but how one lives and behaves. Clothes are but a symbol of the hold that organised religion has on people. Liberating Muslims and others from their various quasi-religious yokes can only liberate them in many ways and will most likely accelerate the advancement of their peoples who are being held back primarily by their priesthood, the Taleban being a leading example.

The yokes of organised religions (ie priesthoods) do not assist integration, but accentuate the differences and hates between communities as witnessed most vividly in Northern Ireland.

President Chirac is right.

London SW17

Sir: Robin Cook rightly points to the advantages of large-scale immigration and a multicultural society. However, he neglects to point out some of the advantages of a lay system of education. Successive French governments maintained the principle of laicité, partly to avoid Roman Catholic hegemony, but also to avoid perpetuating the sectarian divisions responsible for the horrors of the wars of religion of previous generations.

In the mid-19th century the British government sought to do the same by establishing "national schools", free of religious bias, throughout Ireland. The government abandoned this attempt in the face of fierce opposition from the church, but had it been more resolute, the sectarian divisions that continue to bedevil Northern Irish politics to this day might have been avoided. Today, by endorsing "faith-based" schools, our present Prime Minister risks perpetuating the tensions that already exist between Christian and Muslim communities.

London SW15

Sir: According to Robin Cook, "[Muslim] fundamentalists must find the tolerance of British multiculturalism deeply frustrating". Au contraire, many Islamic fundamentalists see our failure to defend liberal and secular values as weakness. That is why they preach hatred against "Jews and crusaders" and turn petty criminals like the shoe bomber Richard Reid into potential mass murderers.

The ban on veils in French schools may be ham-fisted, but at least the French recognise the nature of the threat.

London NW1

Air consultation

Sir: Regarding the publication of the Government's White Paper on the future of air transport, it is not the case, as you say in your article (17 December), that "the CAA will be consulting shortly on changes to the regulatory framework which will enable passengers at Heathrow and Gatwick to share the costs of a second runway at Stansted". The policy of regulating each airport on an individual - or "stand-alone" - basis was introduced earlier this year to underpin commercial disciplines for airport development, and after widespread consultation. The CAA has no plans to consult again.

Civil Aviation Authority
London WC2

Working statistics

Sir: Stephen King suggests there is a problem with the UK's official statistics of unemployment (column, 15 December). In fact, unemployment is measured on the basis of an internationally agreed definition, via the Labour Force Survey. It is because this survey gives not only employment and unemployment totals, but also details of those who are not looking for work or who are not available for work, that Mr King is able to carry out the analysis he presents. Our labour market statistics cover a wide range of issues precisely to give users a detailed understanding of a complex situation.

National Statistician
Office for National Statistics
London SW1

Steam powered flight  

Sir: The first heavier-than-air, powered flight was in fact made by an aircraft built by John Stringfellow in 1848 ("Wright flight celebration fails to find lift", 18 December). The aircraft was an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) which eventually became the UAVs used in the recent Iraq war. Stringfellow's aircraft was steam powered and flew inside a disused lace mill in Chard, Somerset.


English Parliament

Sir: The euphoria generated by the Rugby Union World Cup has created a climate in which England might at long last escape the clutches of the Scottish mafia. So where is the campaign to kick the regional assemblies into touch and to try to establish an English Parliament for the first time in almost 300 years?

Keighley, West Yorkshire

Prison for tyrant

Sir: George Bush has exposed his own folly in opposing the very body before which Saddam Hussein should be tried, the International Criminal Court.

If Saddam is found guilty and executed, there will be an increase in terrorism. He should be in prison for the rest of his life, to serve as a reminder to other tyrants.

Lyme Regis, Dorset

Festive fare

Sir: And there was I thinking we'd finally seen sanity in this country. On Sunday morning, due at work midday, I thought I'd just got time to nip into town at 10.30am to finish off my Christmas shopping. The streets were full of people, the shop doors open wide; I sauntered into HMV to select a gift for my son and went to pay. "Sorry, sir, we can't take your money until eleven o'clock. Sunday trading laws."


Sir: I have a simple way of avoiding all problems with the neighbours and Christmas cards (letters, 19 December, etc). I don't send them any.

Flackwell Heath, Buckinghamshire

Blair's pledge

Sir: In Friday's paper, there is a headline: "Blair abandons key pledge " How is that news?

Felliscliffe, North Yorkshire