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6 September 2023

Letter of the week: Wealth and learning

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By New Statesman

As a former chair of governors at two state schools in poor areas, I agree with Michael Pyke (Correspondence, 1 September): all six of his proposals would help narrow the educational gap between rich and poor. However, Harry Lambert (Cover Story, 1 September) shows, with brilliant clarity, why this gap cannot be significantly narrowed until economic inequality is tackled. Aside from buying a place in a private school, money allows parents to give their children cultural capital, to supplement their education with private tutoring, and to provide the necessary facilities for successful learning. Unequal outcomes are built in to the educational system by these sorts of disparities.

The most important measure of outcomes and teaching quality for most secondary schools is a statistic called Progress 8. It measures GCSE results against what “should have” been achieved since a child started secondary school, ignoring the impact of income inequalities. An incoming Labour government should scrap Progress 8 and consider Lambert’s powerful proposals for redistribution. Otherwise, all other educational reform will be pointless in terms of closing the gap.
Dick Brown, Buxted, East Sussex

[See also: Letter of the week: Curriculum for transformation]

Public examination

Nadeine Asbali’s article (“The Eton sixth form scheme misunderstands poverty”, NS online, 30 August) missed the point of our joint initiative to set up new sixth-form colleges in three of the UK’s educational cold spots.

The colleges will be run by Star Academies, which, as the author recognises, is a state school trust that secures “genuinely transformational outcomes”. Eton will support it financially and educationally, focusing on the high-enrichment teaching that it specialises in. We do not claim this initiative can solve all the problems of British education – merely that it does the right thing by bright, disadvantaged children in places that need and want our help. Both partners will be delighted if Eton’s 21st prime minister comes from Eton Star Teesside, Oldham or Dudley.
Lisa Crausby, director of education, Star Academies; Tom Arbuthnott, deputy head (partnerships), Eton College

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My year group was one of the most impacted by Covid-19, having gone into lockdown in our first year of sixth form. I entered the chemistry undergraduate laboratory at York not having used lab equipment for almost two years. In contrast, some private school students knew how to use the rotary evaporators (equipment for use in synthetic chemistry labs), while one student said that their school had ventilated fume hoods and a lab large enough to socially distance, meaning their practical chemistry course was barely affected by the pandemic.
Finlay O’Sullivan, Cambridge

Emotionally taxing

One of the obstacles to implementing what Harry Lambert outlines in his excellent article (Cover Story, 1 September) is not just the complexity of tax descriptions but also the strong emotional response evoked by the term “wealth tax”. Perhaps we should simply adopt two primary descriptions – income taxes and asset taxes. Income taxes would cover income from work and from investments, treating both exactly the same. Asset taxes might have discrete categories – eg, a property asset tax – which could be levied as Lambert describes.
Richard Bentley, Cullompton, Devon

Harry Lambert sets out why wealth has to contribute its fair share to public sector spending. As your editorial (Leader, 1 September) puts it, if the government “wishes to spend an amount equivalent to 40 per cent of GDP on public services [it] will have to tax 40 per cent of economic activity”. IMF data shows that comparable European countries spend more like 50 per cent of GDP on public services – Germany spends 51 per cent. Anyone who has visited Europe recently will know public services are poorer in the UK and professionals’ salaries are lower. Public investment works.
Geoff Skinner, London NW10

Britain’s great tax con” sets out an admirable range of proposals. However, a higher rate of income tax from large earnings should also be on the agenda. Excessive pay for senior executives is a long-standing scandal. Naturally, the threshold would have to be such that no one could reasonably object: I would suggest somewhere north of £1m a year.

The usual criticism of a higher rate of income tax is that it would not provide significant revenue. But revenue should not be the sole objective of tax policy: it should also promote a sense of fairness.
Andrew Lennard, St Andrews, Fife

The Truss deficit

I have enjoyed the columns from Freddie Hayward very much, but I have a problem with him describing the Truss premiership as “less than a blip” (Politics, 1 September). As someone who now relies on his pension fund, I note that the money she managed to wipe off over seven weeks of mayhem has, a year later, still not been recovered.
Niall Pickup, Carmarthenshire

Introducing the Band

I loved Tracey Thorn’s account of discovering The Last Waltz (Off the Record, 1 September). In 1978 I saw it three times in a week on the film’s release. The Band are my favourite artists, and I thought Robbie Robertson was just beautiful. I naturally bought the vinyl, which features some tracks not caught on celluloid.
Sue Lloyd, Bristol

Taking stock

Nicholas Lezard (Down and Out, 1 September) rightly deplores the loss of good-value restaurants and mentions “The Hotpot” as an example. I wonder if he means “The Stockpot” chain in the West End, whose cheerful fare I enjoyed when I arrived in London in 1972. The menu was cheap and filling, including shepherd’s pie, gammon, apple crumble and golden syrup sponge. The tables were close together and the decor featured pine-clad walls.

For many years these were a stubborn oasis of reality in areas of ludicrous excess. The last Stockpot, in Soho, closed in 2015.
Tony Mollett, Hove, East Sussex

Skull and crossbars

Loved Hunter Davies’ update of the old football saw “sick as a parrot” to “sick as a pirate” (The Fan, 1 September). A bottle of rum to whoever transcribed the copy.
Peter Boon, London E11

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[See also: Letter of the week: The wrong kind of growth]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain