What the exam results mean
It is not just self-esteem classes that give underperforming pupils false expectations (Dominic Lawson, 24 August). Those older pupils whose academic efforts or behaviour are sub-standard receive unrealistic levels of forgiveness.
Serial miscreants and the work-shy will undergo several sessions, each with a more senior member of staff, to discuss their problems and to draw up (yet another) scheme to improve. This is useless preparation for employment and independence. No employer would tolerate what teachers withstand every day.
Dominic Lawson talks of self-confident young males; perhaps they should be asked what they expect to be doing in ten years' time, based on their actual achievements so far.
Your figures showing that 17.9 per cent of independent school entries gained the new A* grade at A-level, compared with 5.8 per cent from comprehensives ("Minister's 'segregation' warning as independent schools shine", 20 August), are striking but hardly as significant as your article suggests.
Could it be that comprehensive schools are simply more willing to give less able students a chance to do A-level? I have taught many students who had no expectation of a high grade but simply wanted to benefit from two years of advanced study. Would the leading independent schools or state grammar schools have allowed these students into their sixth forms?
The important question is whether or not students of similar ability stand a greater chance of an A grade if they attend an independent school. The figures that you quote shed no light on this.
For too long now, debate about comprehensive education has been bedevilled by ideological posturing from both sides. We need serious research. Three questions need to be answered: do independent and grammar schools really offer a better chance of higher grades to able pupils; if so, why; and if a gap does exist, how can it best be bridged?
Mary Dejevsky (Opinion, 20 August) is right to be concerned about the low achievement in state schools and to ask what policy-makers and schools (rather than universities) can do to improve the lot of able pupils. However, she does not touch on two characteristics which some independent schools (but by no means all) and the majority of state-funded grammar schools have in common: the selection of pupils by ability and a pool of able, well-qualified and academically-minded teachers.
The disgrace which Mary Dejevsky identifies is not the attainment gap which exists between fee-paying and state schools but the fact that in many parts of the country bright, state-school pupils capable of achieving high grades are not allowed to become the academic elite which this country needs.
In many countries private education plays a much less significant role precisely because the state education system recognises the advantages of providing children with schooling tailored to their ability. This also means running state-funded selective schools for academically gifted pupils or, alternatively, funding places for pupils to attend such selective schools as exist.
Fee-paying schools are not a barrier to social mobility; given the increasing number of bursaries and partnerships with state schools; rather the reverse. The absence of academically selective schools in sufficient numbers is. We need to get over our hang-ups over selecting pupils by ability, and quickly. If the A* has shown up the need to do this, then it will have served a useful, if unintended, purpose.
Head Master, Highgate School, London N6
The story of Gary Lineker's son (24 August) indicates that perhaps the first lesson to take place at Charterhouse each new academic year should teach pupils that purchasing an education cannot purchase you a place on an undergraduate course. Thankfully these still have to be earned.
Why we need high-speed rail
I have been following recent letters regarding the planned HS2 high-speed railway. Many people are concerned about the costs involved to achieve a 30-minute time saving between London and Birmingham. I fear that the true benefits of the scheme are being neglected.
This is not just about trying to copy France. In England there is a desperate need for new capacity on the rail network. The west coast main line is the busiest in the country. By the time HS2 would be completed, it will be desperate for expansion. The best way to supply this new capacity is to build a new route. This can be expanded with ease in the future. The final network would reduce domestic flights, ruling out the need for airport expansion in the near future.
The greatest benefit, however, will come from the new capacity into and out of the major cities. At present, the differing speeds of fast and slow trains mean that many routes are not running at full efficiency. New routes would take many of the faster trains, enabling a better use of capacity on the current routes by commuter trains and freight trains. This would ultimately make commuting by rail much more attractive, and reduce congestion on some roads.
David Simmons' caricature of opponents to the proposed HS2 high-speed rail project as nimbyist (letter, 20 August) is misleading. As with any major infrastructure project, it is those most affected who generally conduct the most research into its impact. While they are obviously concerned to examine the impact on them and their communities, it is patronising in the extreme to suggest that they are incapable of considering the broader impact on the nation.
Opponents are not pointing primarily to the devastation of their local communities or rural environment, real though that is. They are pointing out that the economic case for the line is based on faulty demand projections and it will never return the massive investment being proposed, and that it will be anything but environmentally friendly, given the carbon expended in building it, the power consumption of running trains at 400kph and the admission by HS2 that the line is unlikely to attract traffic away from inter-city air travel.
They therefore believe that the sacrifices that they are being asked to make are not balanced by a benefit to the nation.
The climate is right for HS2. The disruption to aquifers in the Misbourne Valley, quite properly the concern of Marilyn Fletcher (letter, 20 August), is not as significant, even in the Misbourne Valley, as global warming, which will reduce long-term rainfall.
There is no comparably environment-friendly alternative to rail.
Plastic in the oceans
The farcical hyperbole of your leader, "Plastic death on the seas" (20 August), is not justified by the research you cite. While the pollution that Kara Lavender Law and colleagues discovered is genuine cause for concern, your article lurches into a diatribe about the "evil consequences" brought on by our "commercial masters" forcing us into losing "the war against plastic".
The researchers took measurements at 6,000 locations. They retrieved 64,000 bits of plastic, which means that, on average, each location only yielded 10 fragments. Each was roughly the size of a fingernail. As in the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", the bulk of the plastic debris floating in the water takes the form of much smaller particles, which would have slipped through the nets and are invisible to the naked eye.
This sort of stuff is unpleasant and foreign to the environment where it ends up, but there is as yet no evidence that it causes harm; plastics in general are non-toxic. On the other hand, relatively large bits of plastic can and do cause physical harm to marine and bird life through choking and strangulation.
We have complex choices to make as a society. The plastics industry is right to claim that their packaging offers benefits of really high value. The marketing opportunities available from the strength, malleability and printability of modern plastics are of clear benefit to consumers and businesses in an economic sense. Of broader importance, though, levels of food wastage from "farm to fork" are starkly higher in countries where plastics are not commonly used as oxygen-barrier wrapping. Plastic film is thus fundamental in mitigating the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Rather than throwing tantrums combining metropolitan mythology with a partial reading of important science, we should take proper and reflective account of these findings in working out which choices to make.
Dr Liam R. Sutton
Polymer Centre Manager
The University of Sheffield
Cromwell in Ireland
Having admired Robert Fisk's reporting for years, I was saddened to read his outdated comments about Cromwell's campaign in Ireland. To liken the New Model Army to the Taliban might answer the need of the liberal English to imagine that any horrors of the present day committed by other peoples must have been equalled or exceeded by ourselves in past times; but it is hardly good history.
By the standards of his time, Cromwell exercised considerable restraint in Ireland, sparing women and children and, as Fisk concedes, sparing Kilkenny entirely. Context is everything. In 1641, Irish Catholics had massacred Irish and English Protestants. In continental Europe, Protestants and Catholics were slaughtering each other in the appalling atrocities of the Thirty Years War.
Unlike the Taliban, Cromwell, while undoubtedly suppressing domestic opponents, also championed the right of others to speak their minds, even when those views conflicted with his own. In Sussex, the local gentry arrested and imprisoned dozens of Quakers. It was Cromwell who ordered their release from Horsham jail. It was also Cromwell who entered into negotiations for the return of the Jews to England.
Worthing, West Sussex
Condoms and the Pope
Tom Sutcliffe (Social Studies, 24 August) states that "Roman Catholic priests [are] historically a proven hazard to younger members of their congregation". Should I ignore this comment on the grounds that journalists are liars?
Some priests have committed serious crimes and the behaviour of some of the Church hierarchy in covering these up has been unacceptable, but it is equally unacceptable to proclaim that all are guilty, or to imply that the presence of Catholic priests at an event represents a danger to children.
Mr Sutcliffe then describes the Pope as a "threat" because of his teachings on condoms and Aids prevention. I happen to think that the Church has got this one wrong; however, I have never seen any newspaper articles which place this in the context of wider Catholic teaching on sexual morality.
Were this teaching – chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within – to be widely followed, it seems at least probable that the Aids epidemic would be significantly less severe. It will be argued that this is unrealistic and not acceptable to the majority of people; fair enough, but why should someone who does not consider himself or herself bound by this requirement feel unable to use a condom because the Catholic Church does not approve?
Argued criticism of the Church's teaching on condoms is perfectly acceptable; the demonising of Benedict XVI and John Paul II as personally responsible for the spread of Aids is not.
Stockton on Tees
PFI hospitals idea is dead
It comes as no surprise that the Conservatives, who invented PFI (Private Finance Initiative), would defend and support it now ("NHS faces £65bn bill for private finance schemes", 13 August). Everyone you speak to in the health service acknowledges that PFI in its current form is effectively dead, and a new form of procurement needs to be devised.
Most PFI schemes don't count as public debt, which is one of the reasons the Government finds them attractive. Using private finance to build a hospital creates a debt, which must be paid to the private-sector consortium over a 30- to 60-year period. This annual charge is met from the hospital's operating budget, which should be paying for patient care.
PFI schemes have the potential to destroy universal health care. The Coalition Government must find ways to bring the contracts back into public ownership where they belong.
Dr Kailash Chand
I write in response to the obituary for the painter Robert Natkin (16 August). Bob Natkin was not only my father but also my writing partner. Together, we co-authored a number of articles on Klee, Warhol, Johns, Guston, and other painters for the magazine Modern Painters.
I was therefore rather shocked to begin reading Marcus Williamson's piece and see that he mistakenly attributes a quotation from my father and me to the art critic Robert Hughes. This reference to "high concept, low-content ... shock art" and its ultimate inability to sustain the viewer appeared in a piece on Andy Warhol that we co-wrote in the late 1980s.
Leda Natkin Nelis
Urgent memo to Washington DC and the Prime Minister: Now is the best opportunity so far to save face in Afghanistan and maximise PR in the Muslim world. Transfer troops immediately over the border to support Pakistan's army in the flood relief effort and recover some vestiges of credibility for the US and UK overseas. You do not even need to call it a withdrawal, just a shift in international priorities.
Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire
Perspectives on spending cuts
A hard look at the role of the state
It is unfortunate that David Prosser (" 'Deficit deniers' are not the problem", 18 August) continues to make the argument that the Government is too eager in making significant and early public spending reductions. That debate is over. A more productive contribution would be to consider the role of the state in the light of the fiscal crisis.
It is important that the Government, rather than just focusing on achieving 25 per cent reductions across departmental budgets, takes a hard look at what the state should and should not be doing. If the Government follows this approach, and makes the right decisions, there is a strong chance that the UK can have a leaner but much fitter state that delivers top-class public services, while creating more opportunity in the economy for the private sector to create sustainable jobs.
Only with this approach will we embed the private-sector recovery and ensure that a more efficient state emerges from the spending squeeze.
Director-General, Institute of Directors, London SW1
Lib Dems need to wake up
It is not surprising that there is some alarm in the Lib Dem ranks (report, 23 August). Their special relationship with the Tories seems akin to that between Britain and the US – as long as they toe the line and do as they're told they can pretend they have influence.
The main difference is that, without Lib Dem support, the Tories are a busted flush. The kind of cuts they are considering would be inconceivable, even with a small majority. This is why it seems difficult to understand why the Lib Dems have been such a soft touch – unless you assume that the leadership really has ditched any pretensions to social democracy.
The Tories are in a win-win situation: whatever happens to the economy, the welfare state will be crippled beyond repair. Those of us who value social democracy have to hope the rank-and-file wake up from their enchantment with the illusion of power as a centre-right prop for neoliberalism, and seek out a progressive alternative.
An odd sort of defeat for Tories
Steve Richards refers to the Coalition as "the two defeated parties", in his article "Clegg has no room for manoeuvre" (24 August).
It is a remarkable bending of language to describe the Tories as "defeated" when they won far more votes and seats than any other party. Mr Richards risks being indistinguishable from the most rabid Labour blogger.
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