Letter of the week: Why we all need history

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It is easy to say that politicians only refer to history when it suits them, yet Helen Thompson’s article (Politics, 28 June) on the lack of current historical understanding undoubtedly struck a chord.

As a history teacher, I strive to give pupils a sound grasp of British history, with reference along the way to our present political position. It had never struck me that (just like our recent crop of leaders) their parents and grandparents may not have benefited from such an education.

An appetite to remedy this does exist. Upon discovering my profession, people from all walks of life frequently remark that, despite being indifferent to the subject at school, they now devour the history they come across.

This may be the curiosity about the past that age brings, but it also could be an opportunity to produce something that informs the public about the historical currents that have brought us to this point. If this improves our resilience to the vagaries of political rhetoric and helps our electorate make better-informed decisions, then surely it would be a project upon which some relevant body should embark.

Sean Burnside
Newcastle upon Tyne

 

The 7% problem

In his attack on the state education system, Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College Wimbledon (Correspondence, 28 June), seems to show an astonishing ignorance, deliberate or otherwise. There is a major factor in his question “Why not focus on the struggling academic performance of too many schools catering for the statistical rather more important 93 per cent?”

It is money. My nine grandchildren attend excellent schools in three counties. My local grandchildren each have less than £5,000 per annum spent on them. At King’s Wimbledon, children of a similar age enjoy £20,190. Presumably Mr Halls doesn’t have to make classes larger, make teaching assistants redundant, or worry about the fabric of the building or the scandalous underfunding of provision for children with special needs. Despite all these concerns my grandchildren’s schools perform academic and social miracles.

Our four children attended our local comprehensive. They flourished academically and socially and went to good universities. Like most state secondary schools, subject choices have been cut because funding is limited. The school still manages to be a source of pride in its community.

My letter is not an expression of the politics of envy. It is anger and despair that the state system is on its knees financially and, if Boris Johnson gets his way, the rich will become richer still and have even less interest in the well being of that 93 per cent.

Janet Mansfield
Former chair of governors at Cockermouth School, Cumbria

 

As a retired state school teacher I was surprised to find myself agreeing with much of Andrew Halls’s letter about the 7 per cent problem. However, he spoils his argument when he says modern children are less literate than their grandparents. Admittedly it was some time ago but when my father joined the army as a conscript during the war, he (a grammar school lad) had to read and write all the letters home of the other soldiers in his Nissen hut because of
mass illiteracy.

Tim Mann
Waterlooville, Hampshire

 

I read with despair and astonishment the letter regarding state schools from Andrew Halls. He repeats the old cliché, with no supporting evidence, that “competitive games have disappeared from so many state schools”. I shall be retiring shortly after 30 years as a PE teacher in state schools, having spent, along with my colleagues, many thousands of hours teaching, coaching and officiating these sports and have never encountered a school where they are absent.

I wonder if his assertion that “young people are less literate and numerate than their grandparents” is based equally on prejudice and ignorance of the facts?

Kevin Cawser
St Benedict’s Upper School
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

 

Faced with the charge that UK private schools make a major contribution to the preservation of inherited wealth and privilege, Andrew Halls tries to create a smokescreen by attacking the shortcomings of state schooling. It perhaps has not occurred to him that a major reason for the lack of resources and constant political interference that bedevil state schools is that the children of the rich and powerful do not attend them; or that the disappearance of competitive games, modern languages and creative arts from state schools of which he complains has been largely due to education policies made by people who went to schools such as his.

As for British children being overweight, unhappy and bullied, I am not aware of any evidence that these problems are significantly less common in private than in state schools. In any case, who has been running the country during the lifetime of the current generation of children and where did these people go to school?

Michael Pyke
Campaign for State Education

 

Your leader (28 June) on the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission’s new report, Elitist Britain, rightly draws attention to the over-representation of privately educated individuals in prominent positions in British society, including 59 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries.

However, you missed a key finding of the report that “only 9 per cent of local council chief executives attended an independent school, broadly similar to the percentage who have done so in the country’s population overall and one of the lowest rates in this report” (Elitist Britain, page 64).

It follows that one tool towards achieving a fairer and more aspirational country is an ambitious programme of devolution to councils from national government those departments and agencies that are dominated by privately educated people at the most senior levels. This could simultaneously help address the imbalance in the performance of local and regional economies outside London which, after Brexit, is the single biggest challenge facing the country.

Paul Martin
CEO, London boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond-upon-Thames

 

Andrew Halls asks a number of provocative questions about the performance of state schools, with the implication that those in charge of them have – because of incompetence or unhelpful ideologies – failed to provide what 93 per cent of our young people need and deserve.

Judging by its fee levels, Mr Halls’s own school considers that it costs more than £20,000 per annum properly to educate one sixth-former. The government provides less than a quarter of this for each sixth-former in a state-funded school. This figure has gone down by over 20 per cent in the last decade. Does Mr Halls not know this, or does he consider it irrelevant?

Geoff Stanton
London SW14

 

An interesting letter from Andrew Halls, who stares over his privileged playing fields and walls and asks a series of questions, some with merit, others with little relevance, about the state education system. The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission’s evidence-based approach as to the clear inequalities fostered on society by a privileged 7 per cent is far more relevant. Perhaps the most pertinent question Andrew Halls could ask is what exactly he is going to do to remove the instrument of deliberate inequality that he joined when he abandoned the state system? Or is it just too uncomfortable to go there?

Gary Nethercott
Woodbridge, Suffolk

 

Interesting that last week’s leader, criticising “the enduring dominance of British public life by those educated at elite private schools”, took it for granted that New Statesman readers will all know what an “Old Wykehamist” is.

David Griffiths
Huddersfield


Gossip columnists

In an otherwise very fine article (Cover Story, 21 June) Helen Lewis left out two further considerations for political journalism. First, the majority of journalists who address day to day politics such as leadership changes, shifting political alliances, possible coalitions and other speculation are dealing not with politics but with political gossip. Recognition of political gossip as a specialist category within journalism would certainly improve and enhance the status of political journalism.

Second, political journalists need to abandon the notion that the audience is an undifferentiated demos. The reality is that they are addressing only those citizens who wish to participate in public discourse – republican citizens. The last thing that the other camp – passive citizens – want is the bother of public discourse. Addressing the communication needs and desire for simple leadership of this latter group won the US presidency for Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum for the Leave campaign.

Dr Colum McCaffery
Lucan, Dublin, Ireland

 

The missing link

Like Boris Johnson dangling from a wire (Cover Story, 28 June), I think you have left your readership similarly dangling in the air. Would you please publish the missing line inadvertently clipped from Stephen Bush’s article, so we can continue savouring the difficulties (one hopes) that the self-serving Johnson may have to endure.

David Rust
St Albans, Hertfordshire

Following a production error the last line of Stephen Bush’s cover story (“The rebel alliance”, 28 June) was missing. The final paragraph in full should have read: “Are they right? It’s a reminder that even Johnson’s allies think he can only succeed if his freedom to indulge himself is sharply limited. And if he is to flourish as prime minister, it will only be if he holds office while others wield the real power.”

We apologise for the error.

 

Editor exchange

I was a little disappointed to see that Jason Cowley had turned down the offer to write the Spectator Diary (Editor’s Note, 14 June). I think the more dialogue there is between the two journals in these divisive times the better. In return you could ask Fraser Nelson to write a column for Another Voice.

Mathew Buckley
Via email

We reserve the right to edit letters.

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion