The education gap
Sir: It is disappointing that Toby Young (‘Parents, not schools, are key to the knowledge gap’, 5 August) conforms to the ‘Close the gap’ mentality that obsesses Ofsted and leftish thinking in state schools. Young deplores ‘the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged 16-year-olds in England’. I prefer to get away from the tendentious terms ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘non-disadvantaged’ pupils and stick to the idea of high- and low-attaining pupils.
Left-inclined schools have various ways of closing this gap in attainment. One is to impose limits on how abler pupils can be challenged. Some secondary schools have gone soft on homework, even banning it altogether except for ‘optional’ study, because they think that the performance of more motivated pupils will increase ‘the gap’ between the two extremes of ability if compulsory homework is set to the whole spectrum of students’ ability. These schools realise that those pupils who can’t or won’t do homework — which is so crucial to the development of independent study — will lag further behind their abler peers under a homework-for-all policy. Such cases of ‘levelling down’, which are the enemy of school improvement, help to explain why state education in the UK is so far behind that of the best-performing countries.
A more enlightened view would see this attainment gap widened rather than narrowed. Let there be no limit to the heights to which the ablest can soar. At the same time, let our schools raise the aspirations of less able pupils. An example would be to expect most school leavers to be fluent in another language — something taken for granted in many European countries, but shamefully absent from much of our educational thinking.
The latest Pisa rankings, run by the OECD and published in December 2016, were based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in over 70 countries. The UK came 15th in science, but only 22nd in reading and 27th in maths. Accordingly, the one gap that does need closing is between the UK and top-performing countries such as Singapore, Japan and Finland, in those important and influential assessments.
West Mersea, Essex
Sir: Ralph Dunn says (Letters, 12 August) that my piece ‘A Fighting Chance’ (5 August) is a plea to maintain the size of the army at the expense of the other two services. Not so. I merely point out that without extra cash, the current review will have no option but to squeeze the army. Those who know the MoD will understand how the navy and RAF equipment programmes these past ten years — particularly ‘carrier-strike’, a concept never properly signed up to by the chiefs of staff — have distorted defence strategy.
By no means does the blame lie solely with ministers. However, they do bear ultimate responsibility, and must now accept that if the army is cut any further, the options for effective intervention, already limited, will be significantly fewer. As for Ralph Dunn’s point about the atomic bomb ending the war with Japan, I fail to see the utility of Trident in wars of intervention.
Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire
Sir: I don’t know if Rod Liddle has heard of the late, great Scottish football journalist Bob Crampsey (1965’s Brain of Britain!) but he posed the question of how football can survive in a post-industrial society (‘Football wants the “somewheres” to get lost’, 12 August). Football clubs were the creation of working-class communities and had a specific tie to the community that created them. Like so many other things, football has been stolen from the working class that made it the great game that it once was. The publication of Nick Hornby’s novel Fever Pitch seems to be the point at which the old Arsenal, which I knew and liked, slowly started their transformation into the anonymous Arsenal Globetrotters that they are today. My own team, Glasgow Rangers, helped start this commercialisation and gentrification of football — certainly within the UK — and have been overtaken (overpowered, even) by the forces we helped unleash. It doesn’t stop us being bitter about it. I agree with Rod. Modern football is rubbish.
Sir: In response to Mark Mason’s request for a new word for someone you live with (Diary, 12 August) the OED lists ‘Kickie-wickie’ as ‘a jocular term for a wife’ (it appears in All’s Well That Ends Well). Perhaps now is time to bring the term back into common usage. After you, Mark.
Sir: Simon Barnes quite rightly pointed to the successes of Lucinda Green in eventing, but there are other sports where women can and do compete on equal terms (‘Girl power’, 5 August). What about lady jockeys in both flat and National Hunt racing, such as Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry? In showjumping and eventing, one can point to many women who have excelled in a man’s world: Pat Smythe, Marion Mould, Ann Moore and many more, including the Princess Royal and Zara Phillips.
The double Olympic rowing gold-medal winner Helen Glover is probably the prime example of a woman competing with men on level terms. After the 2012 Games, she won the Superstars event by coming first in 100m, gym tests, swimming, 800m and cycling, winning many of these by a distance, and beating the men’s winning time in the swimming over the same course.
The England women’s rugby team, who have won the Six Nations several times, perhaps deserve a mention.
Pease Pottage, West Sussex