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Vol. 37 No. 11 · 4 June 2015

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What bin Laden was reading

The allegations in Seymour M. Hersh’s article about the killing of bin Laden have received official denials and journalistic gasps similar to those that greeted his 1974 reporting on the CIA’s MH-CHAOS domestic spying programme and the revelations in his 1983 book The Price of Power about Henry Kissinger’s masterminding of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia and hiding it from the US Congress (LRB, 21 May). I suppose that’s no surprise. I’m curious to see whether the embarrassing admissions that followed and confirmed those stories arrive too. In the meantime the CIA has put out a variety of documents including a list of the books on bin Laden’s shelves. It turns out he preferred Bob Woodward to Seymour Hersh.

Colin Leonard
London NW2

After the Election

David Runciman is, as ever, spot on (LRB, 21 May). Majority governments are not good governments and the electoral system needs reform. In 2015, however, the Tories, Ukip, DUP and UUP together received 50.5 per cent of the popular vote. This is the largest vote for right-wing parties in a general election since Lord Salisbury’s Conservative and Liberal Unionist government was elected in 1900, making the present government less undemocratic than all Conservative governments of the past hundred years.

David Fletcher

Who runs our schools?

Toby Young plays fast and loose with assertions and statistics (Letters, 21 May). The justification for enforced conversion of a local authority-controlled school to academy status (controlled by central government) is that this process of itself will improve a school. To date, there is no evidence that this is the case. Some academy schools fail, some academy chains that run a chain of schools also fail. In the case of academy free schools (loosely equivalent to US charter schools) Young calls for a like for like comparison with local authority schools. It’s of little relevance for Young to make comparisons between the localities in which the schools are set up. The comparison has to be with intakes of pupils. The three key measures are: numbers of pupils entitled to free school meals (a rough poverty check), numbers of pupils who speak English as an additional language, and numbers of pupils who have ‘special educational needs’. The Local Schools Network research gives us reason to suspect that where free schools have been set up and are compared with their nearest local authority schools, their intakes are significantly less on at least one of these three measures. This would suggest that selection has been covertly reinstated in publicly maintained schools in England. If the Tory Party thinks selection is desirable, let’s have that debate.

Michael Rosen
London N10

It’s hardly surprising, given his investment in the cause, that Toby Young ignores the main points in responding to my piece, and cherry-picks the data. As I wrote, only 19 per cent of secondary free schools are opened in areas with a shortage of places: a colossal waste of funds that justifiably drew the attention of the Public Accounts Committee. When free schools do open in deprived areas, the students they enrol are not the poorest; one of the problems people have with free schools is that they make it possible for sharp-elbowed parents to separate their children from the children of their more deprived neighbours. Of the first wave of 24 free schools, all but two have free school meals rates below the local average. An Institute of Education report on free schools in 2014 showed that 13.5 per cent of pupils attending primary free schools were eligible for free meals when the local average was 18.3 per cent; for secondary free schools, the corresponding figures were 17.5 per cent and 22.1 per cent. Creaming off the children of more affluent parents constitutes social segregation; so too does the existence of religious free schools.

Young seems to think he is held in high regard by free school advocates. When I mentioned his name in the course of interviewing a former Department for Education employee for the piece, my interviewee headbutted the restaurant table in exasperation. I have found the sentiment, if not the gesture, to be common among his ideological comrades.

Dawn Foster
London SW2

I work at Stem Academy, Tech City, which Dawn Foster mentioned in her original article because of our recent strike and failed Ofsted inspection (LRB, 7 May). The reason for the strike was the governors’ refusal to recognise our union. We were initially employed without contracts. When the contracts were finally sent out (after a long delay) we found that, without a union, we had no way of negotiating the unusually bad terms we were presented with; many of us would not have taken our jobs had we known these terms at the outset. We were granted union recognition after the strike and have since negotiated slightly better terms.

In my opinion, Stem failed its Ofsted inspection mainly because poor management prevents us from doing our jobs properly. Since the inspection, a ‘school improvement partner’ – an academy chain – has been selected (it isn’t clear to me whether by the DfE or by the governors) which will focus on teachers’ performance. Little is being done about the performance of the governors, which was also seriously criticised by Ofsted: ‘At the time of inspection the college does not have a stable management team, an effective organisation structure, or adequate management capacity in terms of staff and time. This has hampered progress.’ Governors of free schools need no qualifications to be put in charge of a school; a headteacher working for the governors needs years of relevant teaching and management experience. Yet the governors have the final say in most matters because the local authority is cut out of the loop. Is it surprising that free schools aren’t run effectively?

It is depressing to think about the future of the teaching profession. Cameron’s government proposes a change in legislation that will require unions to have a 50 per cent turnout, plus a 40 per cent share of the vote in a secret ballot, to be permitted to strike. This will make it almost impossible for teachers, and other public sector workers, to influence the terms of their employment through union action. When you consider that already around two-fifths of teachers leave the profession within five years, it is hard to imagine many able graduates deciding to become teachers in the future.


Toby Young makes some sound technical points about the role of new school providers following the Academies Act 2010, arguing essentially that the system is not being privatised because ‘for-profit’ provision is outlawed and the new schools are run by charities – which have been running schools for many years. But there is a significant difference in the case of academies. Both the New Labour and post-2010 academies are funded on the basis of an agreement between the secretary of state and the academy provider, which means that the new schools – in whichever category they fall – operate under contract law. Because the funding agreements vary, the rights and responsibilities of those other than the contracting parties vary. Parents are not themselves party to the contract, which can have implications for the recourse they have when things go wrong. It has always been something of a mystery to me why it was necessary to fund academies (from 2002) and free schools (from 2010) on the basis of contracts, since English schools had perfectly reasonable structures when they weren’t run by local authorities: the ‘voluntary-controlled’ and ‘voluntary-aided’ schools of the Church of England and Catholic Church, which coexisted with and complemented local authority schools for a century and a half before 2010.

Chris Husbands
London WC1

‘The edubusinesses, surely, must consider at least the possibility that a future government may allow them to turn a profit in this country,’ Jenny Turner writes (LRB, 7 May). Well, the TUC published a report in March 2014 that found, based on the Department for Education’s own figures, that since 2010 the free school and academy programme has cost taxpayers nearly £80 million in fees to lawyers, head-hunters, accountants, estate agents and management consultants.

Tali Chilson
Blackfriars, Oxford


Owen Hatherley cites Nye Bevan’s speech in which he referred to the Tories as being ‘lower than vermin’ (LRB, 7 May). The speech was given at Belle Vue, Manchester on 4 July 1948 and was captured by Ken Morgan, a superb shorthand writer then working for the Press Association. He was the only reporter who took an accurate note, which he immediately shared with the rest of the press table. I was sitting there at the time, on leave from the RAF, as I had been the youth member of the Lancashire and Cheshire and Peak District Regional Council of the Labour Party. The hall at Belle Vue, which was enormous, was used because Manchester’s Free Trade Hall had been bombed in the war.

Roy Roebuck
London N1

Spiked Helmet

Peter Howarth says that Robert Graves’s ‘Goliath and David’ ‘anticipates [his] many debunkings of history’. Fair enough, but his comment that the poem is ‘a rewriting of the [biblical] story in Goliath’s favour’ is misleading (LRB, 7 May). Goliath wins, but his spiked helmet in the original version of the poem tells us what to think about the ‘cruel back-hand sabre cut’ that finishes off the ‘goodly-faced’ young hero. The poem was written for Graves’s friend Lieutenant David Thomas, killed at Fricourt. Thomas was also a friend of Siegfried Sassoon, who showed his grief by going off every night to no man’s land to kill Germans. ‘Goliath and David’ is a pretty straightforward lament for a doomed (Welsh) youth; the fixing of his death in a reversal of the biblical story is a way of managing emotion with not very searching irony and disillusionment. Though Graves wrote in On English Poetry that mixed parentage was among the sources of the conflicts poems were made from, there is no real ambivalence or ambiguity in the poem, however troubled he may have been in reality about his own half-German parentage, and no approval, however sneaking, for the Philistine who killed David.

David Reid
Castelnau-de-Montmiral, France

Wrong Macfie

Alice Spawls’s review of Richard Mabey’s Life of Flora Thompson repeats what I suspect is a long-standing error perpetuated by Mabey (LRB, 19 February). Thompson’s mentor Ronald Campbell Macfie does not appear to have been an MP – he was a prolific poet, a medic and a eugenicist. A Robert Andrew Macfie was MP for Leith Burghs from 1868 to 1874; he was also an occasional poet, mostly of Christian instructional verse.

Aidan Byrne
University of Wolverhampton


Carlos Fraenkel quotes Luke 19.27 as his proof text for Jesus’s exterminating tendencies (LRB, 21 May). But that verse is part of a parable. Jesus said, ‘As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me’ only in the sense that he told a story in which a character said it. The three-cornered relations of predecessor-hood and successor-hood between the monotheisms are vexed enough without confusing Christ with a Dalek.

Francis Spufford
Goldsmith College, University of London

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