Wednesday, September 20, 2006


A headmaster said yesterday that there could be "no compromise" with the rebel mothers who have been making daily deliveries of junk food to his pupils. Rawmarsh School, in South Yorkshire, has become a reluctant focal point for the national debate on healthy eating since it emerged that two mothers were passing chips, burgers and fizzy drinks to children through the school railings.

For the past two weeks, Julie Critchlow and Sam Walker have been taking orders for up to 60 meals in defiance of the school's decision to ban pupils from leaving the premises during the lunch break. A temporary truce was called yesterday after the mothers visited the school, near Rotherham, spoke briefly to senior staff and agreed to return for a meeting to discuss their concerns later in the week. On each side, the battle lines are firmly drawn. Mrs Critchlow and Mrs Walker have cast themselves as standard-bearers for freedom of choice in an age of food fascism. Their bˆte noire is Jamie Oliver, whose high-profile television campaign to improve the quality of food served in school canteens has resulted, they claim, in their children being forced to eat "disgusting, over-priced, low-fat rubbish".

John Lambert, the school's headmaster, yesterday issued a strong defence of its healthy-eating policy and insisted that there would be no going back on a strategy designed "to improve the wellbeing of our young people". The controversy has aroused strong emotions in the community. Petitions have been circulating and Neil Beaumont, the owner of Chubby's, a local sandwich shop that has been supplying the rebel mums, disclosed yesterday that one of his staff had been verbally abused. Mr Beaumont, 34, charges 1.10 pounds for a bacon sandwich and has no regrets about his decision to take orders from Mrs Critchlow and Mrs Walker. "If they don't want their children to eat school dinners, that's up to them," he said, before claiming that one supermarket had lost up to œ1,000 a week since the school barred pupils from eating outside.

Mr Beaumont said he could accept that some local residents were unimpressed by the mothers' decision to stand each day in the grounds of the cemetery which adjoins the school to take and deliver orders for pupils. But he added that this did not justify the actions of one woman who pulled her car alongside a female member of his staff before accusing her of "taking blood money" and "demanding to know how she could sleep at night". He said: "It's all got out of hand. There's people dying on the front line in Iraq, yet people are going crazy because of two ladies passing sandwiches through the school railings."

Mr Lambert, whose 1,100-strong school has specialist status as a sports college, chose his words carefully yesterday when he was asked for his views on the mothers' determination to continue their junk food service. "I think the parents have stated a case, although I would have preferred it if they had stated it in a different way. There is no room for compromise here. The stance they have taken is not one the school can accept," he said. "We know from evidence nationally that eating proper food at lunchtime makes a difference to learning and success. It is my belief that, whatever their intentions, they are potentially undermining the success of their own children and also undermining the success of other parents' children."

At 12.50pm yesterday, the school canteen, its carpet and walls decorated in pastel shades of green and lilac, was packed with hungry 11-year-olds who seemed to have no problem with the fare on offer. For 1.70 pounds, children were able to choose from a range of "meal deal" items, including ratatouille pancakes, jacket potatoes, pizza slices with salad and wholemeal sandwiches. Enticing posters promoted different food sections. There was "classic cuisine", "chef's choice" and "4NRG". Drinks ranged from fruit juice and milk to bottled water and among the puddings were fresh fruit salad, melon and yoghurt. Health-obsessed to the point of puritanism it was not. One option was a mixed grill - bacon, sausage, burger, poached egg and baked beans - which would not have looked out of place on the menu at Chubby's.

Carl Mason, 11, was sitting with three friends at one of the tables. The quartet said that they ate in the canteen every day - packed lunches are the official alternative - and declared the food was "very nice". "It keeps you healthy and helps your brain," explained one of the boys, before Carl gave his verdict on the mothers' school railings deliveries. "I think it's silly. The lunches here are perfectly fine. If they don't like them, the pupils can always just bring in a sandwich. They're just making a big fuss."



Teachers and campaigners clashed yesterday over government plans for schools to offer "wraparound" childcare that would have pupils spending 50 hours a week in school. All schools will have to open from 8am to 6pm within the next four years in an attempt to give state school pupils the same opportunities as those in the private sector. Beverley Hughes, the Children's Minister, told The Times yesterday that the initiative was so popular that 2,500 schools had signed up ahead of target.

But as the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed concern about the growing pressures on children at school, head teachers, staff, unions and campaigners questioned whether it was good for children to spend so long in school. Dr Rowan Williams said that children faced too much "pressure to achieve" and had to take too many tests. Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education,said: "This will destroy childhood and deprive children of the chance to enjoy other people or things outside the school environment." The longer school day is designed to help working parents and to give children access to activities that they might not otherwise have.

But on the day that the Church launched an inquiry into the state of childhood, education campaigners claimed that sending pupils to school for so long would deprive them of the chance to learn from other situations, and deny them the space to think about and absorb the lessons of the day. "In many ways it is an abuse of children to stick them for that many hours of the day in school. Children need to get out and see the world," Mr Seaton said.

The Children's Society inquiry has been set up because of concerns about the rising levels of depression among children, and Dr Williams said that early research had suggested that pressure in school was a factor. He highlighted "relentless testing" as well as advertisements aimed at children and "family-unfriendly" incentives for working mothers. "Allowing families to work more flexibly ought to work for the good of a family. The trouble is that very often it is presented or understood primarily just in terms of getting women back to the workplace."

The Government's Extended Schools programme is designed to offer children a range of extracurricular activities out of normal school hours, It is intended to enable youngsters to develop new skills and talents and discover activities at which children shine. "Independent schools have always done this," Ms Hughes said. "They have given children opportunities to excel by offering them a wide range of activities. "In the long run it helps build children's confidence and self-esteem. Their academic results improve as a result."

Ms Hughes's remarks coincide with the publication of a new report today, led by Alan Dyson, of the University of Manchester, which has found that extending school hours by offering breakfast clubs and after-school activities can help boost academic performance, attendance and behaviour.

But Richard Thornhill, head teacher of Loughborough Primary School in Brixton, South London, one of the government's flagship Extended Schools, gave warning that it would not be good for children to spend 50 hours a week at school. "We strongly encourage parents not to leave any child full-time five days a week," he said. "It removes the opportunity for parents to get really involved with their own children. We cannot replace parents at school. We cannot replace the love and care and nurture they should get from their parents. Giving a child the freedom to have down time does not work very well at school because we have to have rules and regulations."

David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, agreed that children might suffer from being kept at school for so long. "It's bad for children who are unhappy at school to keep them there," he said. Others welcomed the move. Frank Gulley, headteacher of Temple Sutton Primary School in Southend-on-Sea, which provides ten hours of services each day for children aged as young as six weeks, said: "It would be great if all children went home and had a smashing experience and sat down for a meal with their parents, but they don't. Many of them just go to a childminder or are sat down in from of the television. "If we were providing all lessons and no play it would be bad for them. But we provide many opportunities for play, do sport or learn an instrument."


NHS patients left waiting on operating tables by computer failures

Hospital operations and consultations are being delayed across England because the new NHS computer system suffers almost one “major incident” failure every day. Patients have been left waiting on operating tables and others have had appointments cancelled because of problems with the £12.4 billion system. The scale of the failures has prompted calls for the Government to rethink the future of the world’s largest non-military computer system amid fears about the impact on patient safety.

More than 110 major incidents have been reported by hospitals and GPs over the past four months, Computer Weekly magazine reports today. The scale of the problems at such an early stage will come as a blow to the National Programme for IT, which is at the heart of Tony Blair’s efforts to modernise the NHS. Over the next ten years the system is due to link more than 30,000 GPs in England to almost 300 hospitals. Connecting for Health, the body that oversees the programme, said, however, that the new computer system was much more reliable than those that it is replacing.

Reported problems include failures of the system used by surgeons to see X-ray pictures on a computer screen in wards and operating theatres. On some occasions the system has crashed during an operation, forcing the surgeon to suspend the procedure while a hard copy of the X-ray is found. Hospitals have also lost access to their patient administration systems, which hold records on appointments and planned treatments, so that they do not know who is due to have consultations or treatments.

Experts are concerned at the level of failures so early in the use of the system. Patients will be at even greater risk if the failures continue when the system is expanded across the country to prescribe drugs, order test results and store 50 million medical records. More than 20 of the major incidents reported over the past four months have affected multiple NHS sites. In July a data centre in Maidstone, Kent, crashed, causing the loss of central services and systems to 80 NHS trusts.

The Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust in Oxford said this year that it had identified “major issues of patient safety” when patients were lost in the system after being dropped from waiting lists or were not being called for important treatment.

Richard Bacon, a Tory member of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said that the Government needed to reconsider the scheme. “This is the latest evidence that there are serious and growing problems with the whole National Programme for IT in the health service,” he said. “In many respects the NHS IT programme is making things worse, not better, while sowing distrust and disillusionment across the health service.”

Richard Vautrey, a member of the GPs’ joint IT committee of the British Medial Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “Any system in healthcare has to be available to clinicians and any downtime, however short, can have significant implications. If it is not possible to access the information during the consultation that can make the consultation particularly difficult.”

A Connecting for Health spokesman said that what constituted a major incident was open to interpretation and often problems were reported when systems were simply running slowly. “Connecting for Health is operating systems 24 hours a day, seven days a week in hundreds of locations across England,” he said. “In that context, what is being quoted represents a very small service interruption and we expect performance to compare favourably with any large-scale organisation that uses IT, especially in the first year of operations.”


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