Letters: Widespread illiteracy

There was widespread illiteracy long before 'trendy teachers'

Tuesday 12 August 2008 00:00

Howard Jacobson falls into the same trap that most educated people fall into when berating teachers about low levels of literacy: he can read, so why can't everyone else; teachers must be at fault; the old ways produced results. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the 1960s I met a retired miner who had been proposed as the chairman of a voluntary organisation, but he declined because, as he told me, he could not read the agenda and minutes. He had desperately wanted to be a shotfirer when at work, but could not take the exams necessary and so remained a miner all his life. He probably left elementary school about 1915, and like so many who emerged from these pre-secondary-modern schools with classes in excess of 50, went into labouring work that did not require literacy.

Today this inadequacy is exposed because even labouring work requires the filling in of forms and reading instructions. In the 1960s and 1970s, when adult literacy provision took off, it was estimated that about 7 per cent of the adult population did not reach a functional level of literacy. The Army had known about this for many years and had established a special unit to deal with the problem.

Today, the best-selling tabloids only require a reading age of between seven and 10 in order to grasp the essentials. Young boys, particularly, spend hours with their computer games. News can be gleaned from the TV. Groceries can be purchased from the illustration on the can. A child from a home in which there is no reading material can lose half a year's reading age during the summer holidays. I can understand why we have so many adults with low literacy skills, and this often is reflected in their children.

Just one final statistic: around 7 per cent of the adult population have a low level of functional literacy; in male prisons it is around 30 per cent. We do well to be concerned.

David Selby


My parents ( born 1910) should have left school at age 12 but this was extended to age 13 at the last minute. They then went to work in the cotton mills. Both were more than competent in the 3 Rs by today's standards. My mother wrote long, legible letters, correct in grammar and spelling, until her death at 89. In their day, failure to put effort into their studies, or bad behaviour, brought swift and painful physical punishment. They were fortunate to be in an educational system that worked, as against today's, which doesn't.

Keith Rothwell

Highburton, West Yorkshire

Nato runs risk of disaster in Georgia

Some commentators have compared the catastrophic situation in Georgia and South Ossetia and the actions of Russia to the expansionism of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This view is misguided and dangerous. The causes of the current conflict are long-term and complex. They have been inflamed by the proposed expansion of Nato, and Western overtures, which have emboldened President Saakashvili to take a gamble that has now terribly backfired.

The consequences for Nato and the world would have been cataclysmic if Georgia had been a Nato member, in which case we would either be embroiled in an Article 5 conflict with Russia, or would be ignoring a collective defence obligation, with the disintegration of Nato as the consequence.

Russia is often fairly blamed for expansionist interference in the affairs of neighbours, but in this case can claim some degree of provocation. The failure of the Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution last week, due to the opposition of the United Kingdom and United States to a clause regarding the renunciation of force by both sides, was a major destabilising factor, and the proposed new resolution criticising Russia will make the situation even worse.

The "deplorable Russian military aggression" comment made by the Minister for Europe demonstrates an ignorance of the strategic principles of warfare, a wilful ignorance of the precedents of Kosovo, Iraq and the Israeli assault on Lebanon and a worrying willingness to escalate this conflict into a confrontation with Russia, presumably at the behest of the United States. Most military commentators view this brinkmanship with despair and there is an urgent requirement for de-escalation.

The situation in South Ossetia is more akin to August 1914 and we can only hope our diplomats and politicians show more restraint and wisdom now than then.

Iain Paton

Kirkcaldy, Fife

Not content with intimidating countries by playing games with their energy supplies, Russia has worked hard to provoke military action in Georgia. In the years to come we may well have reason to thank Gordon Brown for renewing our Trident defence system.

Martin Copsey


Let's hope none of the Soviet nuclear arsenal ended up in Georgia.

Robert Davies

London SE3

Olympic gold won't silence petrolheads

Sadly, it's likely cyclists will have to cope with being marginalised and patronised for some time yet (Editorial, 11 August). Despite cycling triumphs at the Olympics, the Tour de France and the world track championships, Britain's attitude to the world's toughest sport (and our most appealing and eco-friendly mode of transport) remains informed by the infantile bleatings of Jeremy Clarkson and his little chums from Top Gear.

For every Nicole Cooke, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, there are dozens of militantly intolerant petrolheads who take as holy writ Clarkson's perpetual exhortation to abuse cyclists whenever the opportunity presents itself. While I gave up on Clarkson years ago, when supposedly intelligent people such as A S Byatt start ranting about how much they despise cyclists, I can only weep.

Richard Butterworth

London N13

Tories still wedded to ancient savagery

Your series of articles headlined "Preparing for power"' reveals a Conservative Party still in thrall to established Tory values: even if those values have no relevance in this or recent centuries.

Nicholas Boles may well be "a key moderniser" as The Independent (1 August) claims, but modernising the Tories is akin to changing the orbit of the Moon. David Cameron's promise to re-legalise hunting with dogs, with all its inherent cruelty, will surely drag this country back into the 18th century.

Do we want the image of a modern Britain to be one where hares are torn apart by greyhounds, where deer are chased for 30 miles until exhausted, and foxes pursued in a similar manner and dug from their refuge by men with spades and terriers; all for human entertainment? I really don't think so. These truly are the activities of savages and the idea that they should be brought back should fill normal people with revulsion.

Maurice Brett

Marlbrook, Worcestershire

Tories such as Oliver Letwin and George Osborne keep telling us that Brown failed to repair the roof when the sun was shining. I actually have no idea what this statement means.

Rather than telling us, "The roof is leaking badly and we need to repair it" (are we five-year-olds to be spoken to like this?), perhaps the Tories would like to tell us in formal economic terms what measures they are proposing to implement to ensure the end of the wild economic phases known as boom and bust.

Brown proposed a scheme based on certain economic rules. His scheme has now been discredited, but at least he had a scheme. The Tories simply have soundbites.

God help us if the economy is put in their hands. The whole house might blow down, to use the Tories' own infantile vernacular.

Mike Hockney

Newcastle upon Tyne

US loses authority to speak of rights

George W Bush's criticism of the Chinese authorities over human rights is welcome – it's about time a world leader spoke out about their jailing of activists and restrictions on free speech. But the timing of his speech, as a US military commission delivered a guilty verdict to Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, shows the hypocrisy of the US when it now talks about human rights.

The entire military commission system is fundamentally flawed and the tribunals should be abandoned in all cases. They are not independent of the executive and could admit hearsay and torture evidence, some of which the defendant cannot see or challenge.

True, China routinely denies people fair trials and must honour its Olympic promises to improve human rights. But President Bush's words underline how abuses in the "war on terror" have undermined any moral authority that the US may once may claimed.

Kate Allen

UK Director Amnesty International, London EC2

Too many women being sent to jail

The Justice minister Maria Eagle's promise to make a "significant" cut to the number of women in jail and reinvest the savings in community-based rehabilitation (report, 8 August) has been long awaited by women and prisoners' rights campaigners.

The women's prison population has increased by more than 170 per cent over the past 10 years, even though the nature and seriousness of women's offending has not changed. By comparison, the men's prison population has risen by just 50 per cent over the same period.

In the vast majority of cases, prison is an inappropriate and damaging place for female offenders, who pose a much lower level of risk to the public than their male counterparts. Female offenders are also much more likely to be solely responsible for the care of children and running a home. When a mother is imprisoned, it is not just a sentence for her but also for her children, who face years of fostering or local authority care.

Thirteen years on from the Learmont inquiry, which concluded that women should be held in small self-contained units in urban areas, I hope that these reforms to the imprisonment of women will be made now.

Mary Honeyball MEP

Labour Spokesperson in the European Parliament, Women's Rights Committee, London W9

Your article "Action on the scandal of women in jail" (8 August) highlights the inequalities in gender politics.

The jailing of first-time offenders and the increase in the prison population, particularly when this has a disproportionate affect on minority groups and parents of young children, is not an effective way of policing a nation. All of these issues with the prison population are, however, issues affecting both genders.

It is no less heart-wrenching for many fathers to spend children's birthdays in prison than it is for a mother. Similarly, the number of male prisoners with mental problems is as unacceptable as that of women, and both should be tackled with equal force.

The real issue is the ongoing inequality in our government's approach to prisoners, based on gender. It is unacceptable that we should be arguing that mothers being in prison adversely affects children and needs a new approach, without simultaneously considering the extreme, adverse effect of absent fathers, due to imprisonment, on young men.

No part of our prison system can be improved until we stop considering female prisoners as a different class of person (either better or worse) from male prisoners. It is no more a "scandal" that women are in jail than that men are – if they commit the same crimes.

Maddy Jessop

London N4


Restaurant guide

Philip Hensher's guide to selecting good restaurants abroad (11 August) is unnecessarily complicated. The procedure could not be simpler: in any town or village in Europe, check out each restaurant on the basis of noise and nose. If it is crowded with locals and the food smells good, that is your choice.

Nigel Colborn

Haconby, Lincolnshire

Evil genius

Steve Connor suggests that Neanderthal man may have been intelligent with an overall thuggish look (8 August). These attributes tally quite well with the impression given by the splendid illustration of a Neanderthal whose face is reminiscent of both Albert Einstein and of Joseph Stalin – or is it just the moustache that suggests this?

David Hindmarsh


Spy in the sky

Gordon Brown's intention to listen to people has taken a sinister turn with the announcement that the Government is planning to join Israel and the US in spying on its citizens with unmanned aircraft (report, 6 August). This proposal perhaps explains why the Civil Aviation Authority is proposing to require all civil aircraft, including gliders and hang-gliders, to install expensive transponders, so that these drones can move freely all over the country. This will dramatically reduce the freedom of movement of all sports aviation enthusiasts and expose Muslim communities and others to intensive scrutiny.

Geoffrey Payne

London W5

Word games

In Welsh schools, rugby was played more often than football. Football, or soccer (letters, 7 , 9 August), was very rare in the valley schools. I was brought up in South Wales in the 1950s and 60s. We called rugby "football"and football "soccer". There wasn't any confusion. This parlance is still in use today.

G Marks

Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Stepping up

Before we "stepped up to the plate" (letter, 7 August), didn't we "stand up to be counted"?

Eddie Johnson

Long Melford, Suffolk

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