Letters - God only knows

Meditation and guided prayer are not brainwashing, as Nick Cohen ("How church schools brainwash children", 2 August) seems to think. They are well-established methods of exploring the relationship between an individual and the Deity, used by all the great religions of the world. Brainwashing tries to limit imagination. Hypnosis tries to release repressed memories. What Cohen describes is neither of these. Rather it is showing children an alternative way of being in touch with God, using their imaginations. Too often, prayer is described as talking to God. Meditative prayer is a way of listening. In any relationship, it is important to do both.

Moreover, parents at church schools have more rights than Cohen suggests. They are represented on governing bodies, which define and control the content and style of religious education. They have the right to withdraw their children from religious activity in school, even if it is a church school. Above all, they have the right not to send their children to such schools.

David Bowen
Dorchester, Dorset

Nick Cohen asks us to believe that the Church of England is brainwashing children by getting them to imagine they were present at the Last Supper. This is simply not true and is a slur on the thousands of good teachers in Church of England schools, who work hard to open children's minds. He does not mention other focuses for such exercises suggested by the Canterbury Diocesan Board of Education, such as imagining you are a little egg developing from a caterpillar into a butterfly, standing by the seashore or watching the clouds. Nor does he understand that these are not "instructions" but suggestions to add to a school's compendium of resources.

Just as some of these can lead children into thinking and learning about nature or the weather, imagining a story from the Bible can help children to understand something of what Christians believe about Jesus. Far from brainwashing, these are educational techniques that help children to concentrate and encourage them to think creatively, to wonder, to evaluate, to reason and to communicate. These are all among the skills required by the national curriculum, and could apply equally to other subjects.

Stephen Venner
Bishop of Dover Canterbury

Nick Cohen's revelations come as no surprise to those who have observed the C of E in recent years. Peter Bruinvels, a Church commissioner, said (Guardian, 20 July): "Schools are today's and tomorrow's future. It's about front-line evangelism." The Archbishop of Canterbury said last autumn: "The church school is a church. More is needed in terms of religion in schools than clergy visits and choral services in nearby churches." This brings the C of E into line with Catholic schools and with the growing number of Muslim schools. Ibrahim Lawson, headteacher of Nottingham Islamia School, said on Radio 4 last year that he was "quite unashamed" about being "in the business of indoctrination".

David Pollock
London N16

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Why terrorists love Britain

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.