Peter Hyman’s prescription for the future of schooling after the pandemic has much to commend it (“Our schools system is broken. Let’s grab this opportunity to remake it”, Comment). Returning to normal – the crude labelling of schools by Ofsted and, as Hyman wrote, “high-stakes exams, the crowding out of creativity” – would be wrong. But straight after I read his article I went to Andrew Rawnsley’s account of the political context (“The civil service is right to be paranoid about Boris Johnson’s Gang of Three”, Comment). A country that was already exceptionally centralised is, he says, now ruled by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. Rawnsley “can think of no previous regime… that was more determined to concentrate power in its own hands”. And he says they are succeeding because most cabinet ministers acquired their seats “for their devotion to a hard Brexit and obeisance to Number 10”.
Why is this relevant to Hyman’s article? Because two of the trio – Gove and Cummings – were the architects of what was probably the most reactionary and destructive set of reforms to the school system in the western world in the period 2010 to 2014. The entire infrastructure was fragmented via the huge growth of the academies programme, and what Hyman rightly calls the “toxic” exams and inspection system was made the overwhelming priority for schools to try to navigate successfully. Hyman puts his faith in the teaching profession finding “a new voice and new priorities”. The political realities are not encouraging. I wish him luck.
Boxmoor, Hemel Hempstead
Lessons in dying
Your article very properly emphasises the importance of having a do not resuscitate order and a lasting power of attorney (LPA) (“Is there a better way to die?”, the New Review). But readers should be aware of two things. The first is that both documents should be properly worded to provide guidance to medical staff (eg “no artificial feeding”, rather than “treat with dignity”). The second is that it can be difficult to get NHS hospital staff to abide by these.
My father, a retired clinical pharmacologist, had all these documents in order and had made his wishes abundantly clear to his family. His LPA specifically said that he did not want to be kept in hospital. In his 90s, with dementia, his three adult, competent children, one of whom was a doctor, had great difficulty extricating him from hospital after minor falls, even though it was clear that he had adequate care to return home to. The risk-aversion and inexperience of junior doctors does not serve the elderly and frail well.
Go green on the high street
Converting unprofitable shops into homes is a cost-effective opportunity to create zero- or low-carbon homes (“Wouldn’t it be great for British town centres if people could just move into closed shops?”, Comment). Boris Johnson must be held to his 30 June commitment to “build back greener” with “low-carbon homes”. In their 2019 manifesto, the Conservatives undertook to invest £9.2bn in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals. Tackling climate breakdown requires that they honour this commitment. This will boost employment, save vast amounts and reduce fuel poverty.
How to regulate Facebook
Facebook et al rely on section 230 of the US 1996 Communications Decency Act for their “non-publisher” status (“The man who took on Mark Zuckerberg”, Focus). That act was passed when websites were passive display boards, and it was appropriate for the host of the board not to be held liable for what was put on it. But Facebook is not a passive display board – far from it: it decides what content is given prominence, and to whom. By manipulating the display of content, it has taken on some of the task of a publisher, and should be regulated as such.
Stockport, Greater Manchester
Faced with the Facebook advertising boycott, the company mouthpiece, Nick Clegg, is reported as stating that the policy was to “err on the side of free expression because the best way to counter... offensive speech is more speech”. He is paraphrasing US supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, who stated in a 1927 case (Whitney v California) that when faced with the “evil of speech... the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”. What Clegg conveniently forgets is that Brandeis added that this principle could only apply “if there be time”. The defendant, Charlotte Whitney, had been charged with criminal syndicalism for advocating the establishment of an American communist party. No time to deal with that so they locked her up. Clegg should perhaps be careful of reminding us of this. He might start giving people ideas.
Prof Brian Winston
University of Lincoln
Our very own mill town hero
Everton Weekes not only “inspired a generation of West Indians” (Comment) but also a generation of English schoolboys, including myself, who were fortunate enough to watch him play cricket for Bacup in the Lancashire League in the 1950s. As the club’s professional, he would open the batting and regularly destroy bowling attacks with brutal strokeplay. He patiently coached junior season ticket holders in the nets midweek and willingly signed autograph books and cricket bats for supporters around the pavilion steps on match days. He was a truly inspirational West Indian Test cricketer who also became a Lancashire mill town legend.
Garden cities’ malign legacy
The lessons to learn from garden cities go far beyond the failure to implement Ebenezer Howard’s communitarian ideals (“The rocky road to utopia: why not everything in the garden city is rosy”, Focus). The UK may have built only two garden cities, but their malign legacy is the vast areas of garden suburbs they spawned worldwide.
Howard and his disciples demanded ultra-low-density developments on greenfield sites, preferably far from existing towns. The result has been a century of sprawl, utterly car-dependent, squandering land on the grand scale.
The irony is that the garden cities didn’t replace slums. They came to replace the functional and sustainable medium-density housing, ideally suited to communitarian, car-free living, that we were building by the Edwardian era. We need to rediscover those traditional ways of building and consign garden cities and their many spin-offs to the history books.