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31 January 2024

Letter of the week: Pride and pedagogy

Write to letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

Reading Will Lloyd’s diatribe against the Michaela Community School (Decline and Fall, 26 January) makes me think he has never set foot there, unless with eyes tight shut and fingers in ears. I shared some of his prejudices before I visited, half expecting cowed children and an oppressive atmosphere. The second thoughts started when I asked the man at the Tube ticket barrier (who was black) if he could direct me. “I can,” he said. “My son goes there; it’s the best school in England.”

I had lunch with five children and talked about soundscapes; then one of them spoke to the school about it. The children I met were happy and proud of what they are doing. Lloyd writes of children being “turn[ed] into something they do not want to be”. He seems more annoyed that they do want it: yes, including the national anthem and Shakespeare. The children are being shown the country they live in is theirs. Its culture, history, institutions are theirs to possess. Perhaps Lloyd would prefer them to remain marginalised minorities who know their place.
Professor Robert Tombs, Cambridge

Strictly speaking

I thought Will Lloyd’s column on the Michaela school was elegant and nuanced. However, he makes some wild and false generalisations – for example, “the teaching methods of most British schools [are] group work and discovery-based learning”. He admiringly writes that this is a school where “a quarter of the pupils are on free school meals”. But the national average is 23.8 per cent. He also quotes the school’s A-level results to show “Michaela has succeeded academically”. This is a very unusual sixth form: it is more than four years old, has 90 students, and a generous pupil-teacher ratio of one to about 12 across the whole school.
Dick Brown, Buxted, East Sussex

Will Lloyd’s analysis of Queen Katharine Birbalsingh is fascinating and provocative. But he has been seduced by her “Nightmare Victorian Matriarch” rhetoric and her confrontational “me against the rest of the educational world” approach. It is simply not the case that, unlike Michaela, most UK schools’ teaching methods are “group work and discovery-based learning”. Inspection report after inspection report from my colleagues since 1839 provide the evidence.
Professor Colin Richards, former HM inspector of schools, Spark Bridge, Cumbria

Cultural dividend

Tony Hall writes in his Diary (26 January), in the context of the bankrupt Birmingham City Council, of the difficulties of arguing for spending on culture against spending on social services. It is crucial to make the case for investment in culture as cultural activities, for young and old, can prevent the need for high spending on social services. Singing, dancing, attending the theatre and galleries all foster feelings of belonging and improve mental and physical well-being. It’s always more expensive to deal with issues at crisis point, when they are picked up by social services, than to spend on preventative activities.
Ruth Potter, Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire

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Death by media

Andrew Marr is correct that the Telegraph has begun a smear campaign against Rishi Sunak (Cover Story, 26 January). It is laying the groundwork for a campaign on the next Conservative leader, and it wishes to mould the party to its anti-net-zero ideology, regardless of electability. But a hard-right Tory party under a moderate Labour government will not help the Conservatives come closer to power. Good for Labour, but it doesn’t mean it would be good for Britain.
Sebastian Monblat, Surbiton, Greater London

Andrew Marr paints a depressingly accurate picture of the right-wing media and its impact on the Conservative Party’s ever-rightward drift. The psychodrama the country is experiencing can be traced back 30 years to obsessions with ideological purity, starting with the EU, then Brexit, and latterly immigration. This at a time when national newspapers, and many would say the Tories, are increasingly irrelevant to the country – an irony indeed.
Councillor Richard Kennett, Emsworth Ward, Havant Borough Council

Lyin’ Don?

Part of Donald Trump’s art of cruelty as identified by Jill Filipovic (American Affairs, 26 January) is the adoption of demeaning nicknames for his critics and rivals. Perhaps the Democrats could turn this on him? A suitable nickname might be Pinocchio: an artificial character, lacking conscience, and with an  inability to stop telling lies. I am sure New Statesman readers can devise better names and ideas for Trump.
Dr Colin J Smith, West Kirby, Wirral

Democratic deficit

Tim Waterstone (Diary, 19 January) and Stephen Baister (Correspondence, 26 January) both propose interesting ideas for the composition of the House of Lords. However, perhaps the issues to be resolved first are: what the powers and purpose of a second chamber should be. When should it offer checks and balances to the first chamber, the House of Commons? And what should be its powers of revision? And how should it interact with national and regional assemblies? Answer these and other questions about its role, and determining the Lords’ democratic composition becomes a lot easier.
Stephen Uttley, Sevenoaks, Kent

Special relationship

The UK is clutching on to the coat-tails of the US and being dragged into war with Iran. Other countries are tolerating the Houthi blockade and not rising to the bait. The UK, as the so-called oldest friend of the US, should have the wisdom and experience from previous disasters in the Middle East not to get involved in this way.
Rosanne Bostock, Oxford

Clap for caring

Zuzanna Lachendro’s review of Manon at the Royal Opera House (The Critics, 26 January) cites a standing ovation as evidence of the quality of the final scene’s “heart-wrenching pas de deux between the lovers”. I am in no position to pass judgement on the dancing, but these days a standing ovation is more a knee-jerk reaction than an indication of an exceptional performance.
Peter Barnes, Milton Keynes

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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