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31 August 2022

Letter of the week: Making the grade

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

By New Statesman

If only Tony Blair had done 20 years ago what his Institute is now proposing. Although new school buildings were built and money for mentors and teaching assistants was made available, New Labour micromanaged the work of teachers, supported a curriculum that was inappropriate for many children, “punished” inner-city schools with an Ofsted led by Chris Woodhead and failed to use much of the research on education produced by universities and their own researchers to improve outcomes.

The secondary school curriculum has long been dominated by the demands of universities (largely the need to write essays in the humanities), weeding out at 16 and 18 those unsuited to academic study by “failing” them, as Philip Collins (Politics, 26 August) rightly points out. While a university education was encouraged, further education was badly treated and underfunded during Blair’s decade in power.
Moira Sykes, Manchester

School’s out

Philip Collins (Politics, 26 August) suggests that it’s time to abolish GCSE exams for 16-year-olds. In the light of the news that this year a 92-year-old achieved a grade five in maths, the highest possible for his paper, could the exams instead be repurposed for the retired? Learning is fun. To study for these exams with other retired people would combat loneliness, boredom and incipient dementia.
Sonia Leach, GCSE exam invigilator, Cambridge

Philip Collins flatters the Tories’ record on education. The 1944 Education Act, for which Rab Butler is credited, was the work of James Chuter Ede, later Clement Attlee’s home secretary. The act aimed to set up a comprehensive schooling system rather than a system of comprehensive schools. Three streams of schools were proposed: grammar, technical and secondary modern, with provision for transfer between the streams if the development of a pupil justified it. With our irredeemable snobbery, in most parts of the country this was perverted into a hierarchy in which academic education was tops and technical education was left to wither away.

Margaret Thatcher scarcely deserves to be praised for closing “more grammar schools than any Labour counterpart” when she did nothing to provide sufficient resources for their replacements.
AM Murray, Kingston upon Thames, Greater London

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National disease

Duncan Weldon’s otherwise excellent article (“The coming storm”, 26 August) ignores a critical cause of the UK’s economic fragility. In the 1960s and 1970s the label “sick man of Europe” summarised a combination of weaknesses – poor industrial relations, low levels of investment and short-term thinking – that led to low productivity. The Thatcher years increased the rewards of short-term financial activity: an explosion in financial services, the marketisation of public services, extension of property ownership, etc. Britain became one of the most open markets imaginable.

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The underlying weakness was never removed. We still invest in property rather than industry, which continues to be key to our low levels of productivity. House prices have continued to rise, sucking in yet more finance that could otherwise strengthen our economic development. We will remain vulnerable until we remove this unhealthy pursuit of a short-term financial return on assets – and replace it with a long-term industrial strategy that raises productivity across all sectors. Without such a policy shift the “coming storm” will keep coming.
Jim Young, Halesworth, Suffolk

The left is not exempt

In his piece on the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie (“A voice that will not be silenced”, 19 August), Anthony Barnett describes the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran as an act of the “far right”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing illustrates better the failure of Western “progressive” thought to understand the power of nationalism, religiously inspired or not.

Barnett’s implied assertion that nationalism is, in essence, “right-wing” is the left’s Achilles heel. It is also inaccurate: from the revolutions of 1848 to the IRA and Sinn Féin, there is a strong association of nationalism with social reform. Nationalism is not, in and of itself, right-wing. That many elements of the left struggle with this is evident in Keir Starmer’s struggle to rebrand Labour as patriotic. Nationalism and patriotism are tricky bedfellows but, if the left is ever going to take power sustainably, it needs to come to terms with them.
Simon Diggins, Rickmansworth

Saul survivor

John Gray is right to suggest that Better Call Saul subverts “our understanding of human identity and agency” (The Critics, 26 August). But there’s more than one flashback in the finale, and he appears to have muddled them. It is Saul, rather than Jimmy, who picks the year he could have invested in Warren Buffett’s fund as his time-travel destination – a suggestion he makes to Mike (not Walter) in the show’s cold opening.

A later flashback, however, is surely the more significant. We’re invited to conclude that Jimmy’s copy of HG Wells’s The Time Machine is the prompt for the question and was inherited from his brother Chuck, whose invitation to stay for a brotherly one-on-one Jimmy declines. Walter was on the money: the question is about regret, and Jimmy’s, we can only assume, is lasting. Deep realism indeed, but it’s all good, man!
Kevin Heaney, London SE17

Tip-top Tapscott

Dave Davies (Q&A, 26 August) shares my first football hero, Derek Tapscott. My mum sewed a number eight on the back of my Arsenal shirt and starched the collar so it could be turned up like Tapscott’s. My dad managed to keep his eventual transfer to Cardiff City from me when it happened; he knew I would be heartbroken. Suffice to say, in case anyone may be concerned for my well-being, I’m over it now.
David How, Manchester

A match made in rentals

Couldn’t the editor encourage Nicholas Lezard and Pippa Bailey (Down and Out and Deleted Scenes, 26 August) to share a flat? They’d be less lonely and their copy might be more cheerful.
Charles Franklyn, Deal, Kent

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[See also: Letter of the week: The real class war]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine