Monday, September 25, 2006


My family lived near Bristol when that city would have been living high on the hog from the profit of slave trafficking. Yet if we got our hands on any of that cash you have my solemn oath that none of it has trickled down the generations. So I was rather annoyed to learn last week that the government is planning to apologise on the nation's behalf for the slave trade.

A committee headed by John Prescott is considering something called "a statement of regret" to be issued solemnly on March 25 next year, the date that marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This is not technically an apology, but is something that parents will recognise as the next best thing. It is the government looking at its feet and mumbling a few words because it knows that otherwise it will be spending the next half an hour on the naughty step.

I don't know who will be making this apology, but I would be very grateful if they would make it clear that they have no authority to speak on behalf of the White family, late of Westbury-on-Trym in Gloucestershire. Because, like many other families throughout the land, we do not appear to have actually done anything. Not only did we play no part in slavery, but when we had a moment off from ploughing fields and building dry stone walls and sucking up to the Saxe-Coburgs we might even have been swept along in our modest way by the moral outrage that gripped the country in the late 18th century.

Far from being apologetic about slavery this country has much to be proud of. The abolition campaign had government support from an early stage. It was William Pitt, the dominant figure in the politics of the day, who urged his friend William Wilberforce to push the measure through the House of Commons.

Of course, we know that any apology is not really about slavery. It is about a much more modern issue: the uneasy relationship between black people and white people that can partly be blamed on the legacy of slavery in the West Indies and America. But slavery is not entirely what would be referred to these days as a white-on-black crime.

Years ago I watched a documentary about a group of black Americans who were on holiday in Africa, touring the slave sites. Many were in tears, having just discovered what went on at this end of the operation. They had just learnt the awful truth that the main suppliers of African slaves were themselves African. It was common practice for many years for the victors in battle to enslave their opponents. Suddenly, these victors discovered that they could also make a bit of money.

Jolly good business it was, too. King Tegbesu, who ruled what is now Benin, apparently made 250,000 pounds a year from selling slaves in 1750. According to my own rough calculations, this is the modern equivalent of 25 million pounds a year. And he is not the only African who grew fat on the profits of slave trading. The word "slave" is derived from the Slavs who were shipped from central Europe across the Mediterranean to Africa. From a book called The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, I also learn that 30,000 Christian slaves were sent to Damascus when the Moors conquered Spain in the 8th century. According to the Domesday Book there were 25,000 slaves in England in the 11th century.

So let's all enjoy a good knees-up in March. Let's have street parties and debates on Start The Week and we might even sit quietly while Prescott makes a speech about Wilberforce and Hull. But let's not pretend that the British were wholly responsible for the plight of African slaves. Slavery was a long established and widespread evil: the difference is that the British were one of the first to recognise it as evil and to do something about it.


Rebel mothers interviewed

Julie Critchlow, housewife turned Antichrist, is standing outside Chubby's sandwich bar drawing angrily on a cigarette and glaring at the secondary school opposite. Her children - Rachel, 15, and Steven, 11 - are coming home for lunch so she is buying crisps and pop. Although Chubby's is less than 200 yards from her front door, Critchlow has brought the car. Still, it's an improvement of sorts. This time last week she was in the graveyard over the road, with fellow "sinner ladies" Sam Walker and Marie Hamshaw, posting burgers and chips through the school fence to a throng of mutinous sugar-deprived schoolchildren. Pictures of the scene - which looked like some grotesque Little Britain sketch - were splashed across the newspapers and Critchlow was called "the worst mum in Britain".

The trouble began at the start of term when Rawmarsh community school in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, banned pupils from leaving the premises during their lunch break. Even more incendiary, the school then started peddling a Jamie Oliver-inspired school dinner menu of "healthy" fare, such as ratatouille pancakes and salad. Unlike the grateful urchins who feature on Jamie's School Dinners (Oliver's fiercely popular television crusade for better food in schools), the Rawmarsh children came home complaining of overpriced baked potatoes, yucky tomatoes and not enough chips. Some of the mothers began delivering them fast food in the lunch hour, first to their own children, then to 60 or more of their friends. The school freaked out and tried to ban the mums. The mums screamed bloody murder. The police were called and, last Monday, a very uneasy peace was reached.

To an outsider, Rawmarsh sounds like hell; a place where fat stupid mothers fight for the right to raise fat stupid children. Did these women care nothing for St Jamie, terrifying obesity rates or early onset diabetes? Did they not read the daily horror statistics? Only last week it was revealed that children who eat a packet of crisps a day end up drinking more than five litres of cooking oil a year. A first glance at the town suggests that the answer to all that is "nope". Rawmarsh is Jamie's worst nightmare; shop shelves lined with cherry colas, toddlers eating Monster Munch in the street and the locals either bandy-legged twigs or, more often, fat - really, really fat in some cases. Some aren't even ashamed of it: one fat man has taken his shirt off to eat a battered sausage in the afternoon sun.

Surprisingly, Critchlow, 43, having refused all other interview requests, invites me to join Walker, 39, and Hamshaw, 44, in her front room. As the place fills with fag smoke and cackling laughter, it seems impossible to imagine three women more at odds with the current trend for health obsessed parenting. Critchlow's favourite adjective is disgusting. This is how she describes the food that the school is now serving and "totally disgusting" is what she calls John Lambert, the headmaster. "None of this would have happened if he hadn't locked these kids up," she says. "I don't have a problem with the school not selling them fatty food. My problem is that some of these kids are 16 and they're not allowed to choose what they eat for lunch." "Next they'll be going through our cupboards telling us what we can feed them at home," says Hamshaw, who has two children, aged 13 and 16, at the school. "But we know how to give our children a proper meal better than any school."

Er, weren't you taking them chips every day for lunch? "That is such a lie," says Critchlow. "We were taking all sorts - baked potatoes, salads, tuna sandwiches. You try getting teenage girls to eat a hamburger every day. Most of them won't touch the things." "There were a few chips," admits Walker, mother of an 11-year-old and 16-year-old, "but any nutritionist will say that a little bit of fat now and then isn't the end of the world." "But Lambert labelled us junk food pushers," says Hamshaw, "We're not stupid, though. I saw Supersize Me. No one in their right mind would feed their children fast food every day."

In fact, they say, the school's food laws are promoting bad habits. "All kids are fussy eaters," continues Hamshaw. "If they don't like something they won't eat it, so lots of the kids take one look at what's on offer at lunch and then eat crisps. "Every mother knows that it's an art to get your kids to eat good food, like I know my Gary won't eat greens but will eat carrots. This `we know best', one-size-fits-all attitude they've got at the school definitely means he ends up eating more rubbish. "But Jamie Oliver has come in his shiny armour and people think everything he says is right," says Walker, "like calling parents names if they let their kids have a can of Coke. Life isn't that simple though, Jamie. It's always a compromise." "You have to be clever," says Critchlow. "Kids have got their own minds and sometimes all you can do is try and persuade them to do the right thing."

Who could have expected such wisdom? While the mums don't have an A-level between them, when it comes to child rearing they've got more than 60 years' experience. "I don't want to sound hysterical," says Hamshaw, "but Adolf Hitler tried putting kids into summer camps to create perfect children and he faced the same problem this government is going to face - there is no such thing as a perfect child. You can't make carbon-copy kids who all love tomatoes. Schools should stick to educating children, not trying to raise them."

The school is not backing down, saying that for the children's safety they must stay in at lunch (unless collected by parents). The headmaster, uncharacteristically taciturn, declined to speak to me but released a statement to say he has now met the mums and progress was being made.

Sonia Sharp, of Rotherham council, insisted that the food at the school is very nice and cheaper than anything else on offer, and pointed out that uptake of school meals has risen from 350 to 600. She conceded that this might have something to do with the fact that the school has now got a captive audience.

More than food, what grates upon the Rawmarsh mums is the feeling that their choices as parents are being undermined by their government. "This country is turning into big brother," sighs Hamshaw, "and it's not like we need a nanny state. We nanny our kids quite enough on our own." The women nod gravely and light more cigarettes. "This battle," says Critchlow, "has only just begun."


Another regulatory failure seen in British drug trial disaster

A "reckless" mistake apparently overlooked by government regulators lay behind the drug trial disaster that saw six young volunteers badly injured by an experimental medicine. Confidential documents obtained by The Sunday Times and Channel 4's Dispatches programme reveal the drug was administered on average 15 times more quickly to the volunteers than to monkeys in earlier safety studies. The possibility that such a crude error led to the disaster is likely to raise questions over whether the government's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) scrutinises trials adequately and protects the public from the risks of new medicines.

After the "Elephant Man" trials at Northwick Park hospital, London, in March, which left two men fighting for their lives and all six in intensive care, the agency said the reactions resulted from an "unexpected biological effect". However, experts say the drug, TGN1412 - one of a new generation of "magic bullet" treatments targeting the immune system - was infused so quickly into the volunteers that the potential for life-threatening problems was foreseeable. "When you give an antibody . . . the quicker you put it in, the more likely you are to get an infusion reaction," said Professor Terry Hamblin of Southampton University, a leading authority on monoclonal antibodies, the family of drugs to which the trial medicine belonged.

The volunteers were given TGN1412 in only three to six minutes. "To quickly infuse it over three to six minutes in six individuals I think is . . . reckless," said Hamblin. Ryan Wilson, 20, a former apprentice plumber, who suffered total organ failure, was the most seriously injured. He was given the drug in just four minutes. The monkeys, by contrast, received the antibody by a one-hour "slow infusion".

Hamblin's judgment is backed by other experts, including Dr David Glover, formerly chief medical officer of Cambridge Antibody Technology. He concludes: "The drug was given too quickly."

The speed at which the monkeys received TGN1412 was set out in the application to the MHRA for permission to carry out the trial. This was submitted by Parexel International, a contract research company, on behalf of TeGenero, a tiny German drug developer. But the paperwork did not explicitly detail how quickly the volunteers would be given the drug, although this could be calculated from the information given.

Professor Kent Woods, the agency's chief executive, said this weekend the results of the monkey trial had reassured his staff that the human project should be allowed to go ahead. "They did not show toxicity and the dose was 500 times higher on a weight-for-weight basis than that first used at Northwick Park," said Woods. "That is the key issue."

There was another apparent oversight in the agency's scrutiny. Parexel's paperwork did not include data on test-tube experiments designed to show the drug's effect on human cells. One specialist said she was "pretty astonished" this was left out, although it is unlikely the data could have predicted the disaster. This omission was only revealed after an appeal by The Sunday Times and Dispatches under the Freedom of Information Act for the reinstatement of paragraphs cut from documents released by the MHRA.

While the agency suggests in its assessment of the trial that the problems could not have been foreseen, experts say the reactions to TGN1412 - pain, vomiting and organ failure - have long been linked to first doses of monoclonal antibodies, and in previous incidents infusion time has been a critical factor.

Parexel declined to comment, and in Thursday's Dispatches the company's chairman, Josef von Rickenbach, takes refuge in a hotel lavatory.

Wilson has severe injuries. He has had his toes and sections of his feet amputated. Parts of his fingers have dropped off; others have died and are hard as wood to the touch where the blood supply was cut off as his body reacted to the drug. He is the worst afflicted of the victims from the tests on March 13, but all suffered life-threatening injuries. For development of new medicines, it was the worst calamity since the 1960s Thalidomide disaster.



Bright pupils are being marked down in their A-level exams for giving "too sophisticated" answers, jeopardising their chances of winning places at their chosen universities. Schools complain that candidates who display originality are being let down by inflexible marking schemes and poorly qualified examiners. In one case a state grammar school was so angry when one of its pupils was given a D grade that it asked Cambridge, where he had an offer of a place, to re-mark the paper. The university judged that it should have been at least two grades higher and awarded him a place.

In another case a teacher at an independent school and a former examiner complained when a pupil was marked down to a D after presenting a carefully argued case that the Vietnam war could be partly explained by decolonisation. The exam board claimed the pupil, who was holding an offer from Oxford that he lost as a result, gave "too much context". When he answered a similar question in a similar way in a re-take, he got an A grade.

The cases underline a growing dissatisfaction among schools that "tick-box" marking schemes are failing to give credit to exceptional work. The number of A-level papers where schools have sought re-marks has risen by 20% in two years. In 2003, schools requested re-marks on 36,000 A-level papers because they judged the grades "unfairly low". By 2005 it had risen to 43,500, with 5,273 resulting in higher grades. At GCSE, re-marks have increased by more than half to 55,400, of which 10,848 were upgraded. Eton College returned 500 A-level papers last year. Exam boards gave higher marks to 299, 113 of them enough to raise grades.

John Bald, an education consultant, said: "Boards are trying to get a grip on the expansion in numbers of pupils getting top grades by using rigid mark systems that do not take account of exceptional intellectual ability."

Adam Bracey, then a pupil at Maidstone grammar in Kent, was awarded a D in one paper, dropping him from an overall A to B in history. He needed three As to take up his offer from Cambridge. "I was devastated," said Bracey, "some of my friends had got into university without the grades they had been asked for, but Cambridge was insistent." The Edexcel board refused to accept the D grade had been mismarked. Neil Turrell, his headmaster, sent the script to Cambridge after two staff concluded the grade was too low. Bracey, 20, got the place after a history don at Homerton College, where he is studying, agreed it was worth a higher grade. Garth Collard, a former history teacher who had been part of the team inspecting Maidstone grammar for Ofsted, also read Bracey's returned script. "I was shocked at the quality of the marking," he said. "The mark scheme was very mechanistic . . . there was no recognition this was a high calibre answer."

Other schools are concerned boards are not employing enough high-quality markers. This year Portsmouth grammar had a number of AS-level papers in English upgraded, including one from D to A. It comes as more than 100 independent schools are planning to ditch A-levels in favour a tougher qualification that places less emphasis on "mechanistic" course work and unlimited resits of exams.

Sophie Garrett, 18, who took A-levels this summer at Tormead, an independent girls' school in Guildford, Surrey, had her music coursework regraded from unclassified to B. Her mother Valerie said: "The original mark meant she failed to get an A. It didn't matter for her place at Surrey University, but she had put hours and hours into it."

Exam boards said their marking schemes did not hold back brighter students. Edexcel said: "Candidates will always receive a fair mark for their work. All examiners must meet certain criteria. Markers are trained and tested to ensure they understand and follow the mark scheme."


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