Monday, December 04, 2006

Who killed the school trip?

The UK government wants children to get out and about - but it was its own suspicious regulation of adults that cast a cloud over such adventures.

Today, the UK government will issue a call to bring back the school trip. It is launching a new independent council, because it wants to reassure teachers (who are apparently afraid of being sued) and parents (afraid that children could come to harm) that school trips are safe, and that they are good for kids, too.

Yet the government has just waved through legislation that makes organising a school trip very difficult, if not impossible. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill – against which I am coordinating a campaign - will make it compulsory for any adult who comes into contact with a child as part of his or her working day to undergo criminal records vetting.

For the average school trip, this will mean bus drivers who drive the kids, workers at the hotel where the children are staying, any parent or adult volunteers, and any foreign exchange families. (Foreign exchange families cannot presently be vetted, which is why one Scottish local authority decided to cancel all overseas trips for its local schoolchildren.)

Vetting is costly and time-consuming – and it is part of the growing official regulation of relationships between adults and children. These regulations call into question the open encounters that kids experience on school trips, whether it’s the cranky geologist telling you about rocks or French or German parents showing you around their town. To go anywhere near a child now, adults require a Criminal Records Bureau certificate and various other certificates showing that they have been on the requisite child protection courses.

Relating to children is becoming a specialised profession, rather than the job of any adult with a bit of common sense and some experience from which children might benefit. Official regulations treat anything that takes kids away from the classroom as a problem. Even university interviews now have special guidelines on how tutors should relate to 17-year-old interviewees (see Just 17? Then forget university, by Josie Appleton).

In the midst of this, how dare the government call for more adventurous school trips? It’s true that officials frequently launch big campaigns against trends that bear their fingerprints – the Health and Safety Commission launches initiatives against safety-first regulations, for example, while the Commission for Racial Equality takes on multicultural politics.

Yet these are all managerial reactions to a problem. Indeed, the government campaign to save the school trip is as dull as can be. There will be a new independent council, which will give teachers special training and provide them with special ‘out and about’ packs. These officials even manage to make the school trip sound boring, by calling it ‘learning outside the classroom’.

Worst of all, the government’s main justification for rescuing school trips is that they can help tackle childhood obesity. Aside from the fact that one of the defining features of school trips is that you eat a lot of unhealthy food (I remember many a happy hour with platefuls of German ‘Spaghetti ice’), this is an extraordinarily narrow-spirited logic.

The point about school trips is that they expand your mind, not that they limit your waistline. You are travelling to new places with your friends and without your parents, and with teachers who are a little less uptight than normal. You always come back a bit more independent, and a bit more inspired by geography or German now that you can see how such subjects might actually be useful. I recall one biology fieldtrip where we counted seaweed species by day and whisky species by night: a liberal education that has left all branches of the fucus family imprinted on my brain.

So three cheers for the school trip, and boo to the Better School Trip Commission! School trips thrive on the spirit of adventure, not on ‘out-and-about’ packs about how ‘learning outside the classroom’ can help meet obesity targets.


Anti-Christmas fanaticism attacked in Britain

A campaign to save the traditions of Christmas from the interference of politically correct town halls was launched by an influential coalition of Christian and Muslim leaders yesterday. Leaders of the two faiths warned that attempts to suppress Christmas bring a backlash and Muslims get the blame. And they said that while Christmas causes no offence to minority faiths, banning it offends almost everybody.

Notorious local authority attempts to stamp out Christmas include Birmingham's decision to name its seasonal celebrations 'Winterval' and Luton's attempt to change Christmas into a Harry Potter festival by renaming its festive lights 'Luminos'.

The angry rebuke came from the Christian Muslim Forum, a body set up earlier this year with the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Tony Blair. The body sent a letter to town halls in the name of Anglican Bishop of Bolton David Gillett and senior Islamic cleric and Government adviser Dr Ataullah Siddiqui. It pleaded for an end to the suppression of Christmas and the restoration of its Christian meaning. Council leaders were told: 'There seems to be a secularising agenda which fails to understand the concerns of religious communities. 'The approach of some is to exclude mention of any specific religious event or celebration in order to avoid offending anyone. The usual result of such a policy ends up offending most of the population.' The letter added: 'Any repetition of public bodies and local authorities renaming Christmas, so as not to offend other faith communities, will tend, as in the past, to backfire badly on the Muslim community in particular. 'Sadly we have seen it is they who get the blame - and for something they are not saying.'

The warning from the Council came as public organisations appeared to be redoubling efforts to obliterate Christmas from the calendar or at least remove any Christian element from the celebrations. The Royal Mail this year has removed any Christian references from its Christmas stamps. Notorious local authority attempts to stamp out Christmas include Birmingham's 1998 decision to name its seasonal celebrations 'Winterval' and Luton's 2001 attempt to change Christmas into a Harry Potter festival by renaming its festive lights 'Luminos'.

The letter from the Forum to town halls comes at a time of deepening anger over attempts by powerful organisations to ban any public reference to Christianity. Last week British Airways was forced to back down over a ban on employees wearing a Christian cross. Its order to check-in worker Nadia Eweida that she must wear a cross under her uniform met a furious reponse from the public and provoked an outcry from bishops, MPs and Government ministers.

Alarm over attempts by police and other public bodies to force Christians to accept gay rights rules have produced a major political row between churches and Government over the latest laws that, Anglicans fear, would compel priests to bless same-sex partnerships.

The letter to councils from the Forum said: 'We are conscious that all in public life wish to be similarly inclusive, but some seem to believe, for instance, that talk about Christmas is offensive to those of other faith communities. 'This is something which we have looked at together on the national Christian Muslim Forum and all of us, both Muslims and Christians, wish that people in public positions would take another look at how they deal with religious festivals.' The two leaders added: 'It is important for the 77 per cent who claim affiliation to one faith or another that these festivals should be seen and recognised, rather than banished from the public sphere.' They cited a series of festivals which were 'most commonly in evidence across much of the country' and which should not be suppressed: Christmas and Easter; the Muslim Eid, Hindu Diwali, and Jewish Hanukah.

Dr Siddiqui was appointed earlier this year as an adviser to the Government on providing better information on Islam to students. The appointment followed concern among ministers that Jihadist propaganda in universities was leading students into the hands of extremists. The Muslim cleric is head of the Islamic Foundation of Leicester and an Islamic higher education college, the Markfield Institute of Higher Education.


Come off it, folks: how many paedophiles can there be?

Boris Johnson manages to be jolly about a disgraceful situation

Really? I said, not quite able to believe my luck. There we were, waiting for take-off, and I had just been having a quick zizz. It was a long flight ahead, all the way to India, and I had two children on my left. Already they were toughing each other up and sticking their fingers up each other's nose, and now -- salvation! Hovering above me was a silk-clad British Airways stewardess with an angelic smile, and she seemed to want me to move. "Please come with me, sir" said the oriental vision.

At once, I got her drift. She desired to upgrade me. In my mind's eye, I saw the first-class cabin, the spiral staircase to the head massage, the Champagne, the hot towels. "You betcha!" I said, and began to unbuckle. At which point, the children set up a yammering. Oi, they said to me, where do you think you are going? I was explaining that the captain had probably spotted me come on board, don't you know. Doubtless he had decided that it was outrageous for me to fly steerage, sound chap that he was. I'd make sure to come back now and then, hmmm?

At which the stewardess gave a gentle cough. Actually, she said, she was proposing to move me to row 52, and that was because -- she lowered her voice -- "We have very strict rules". Eh? I said, by now baffled. "A man cannot sit with children," she said; and then I finally twigged. "But he's our FATHER", chimed the children. "Oh," said the stewardess, and then eyed me narrowly. "These are your children?" "Yes," I said, a bit testily. "Very sorry," she said, and wafted down the aisle -- and in that single lunatic exchange you will see just about everything you need to know about our dementedly phobic and risk-averse society. In the institutionalised prejudice of that BA stewardess against an adult male, you see one of the prime causes of this country's tragic under-achievement in schools.

I mention all this because the same absurd kerfuffle happened this week. Some child was put next to an ancient journalist and his wife on a flight, and the airline (BA again) went into spasm. As the hoo-ha raged, the press turned to the lobby groups, and someone called Pam Hibbert of Barnardo's obliged with the usual bossyboots quote. The ban on sitting children next to adults was "eminently sensible", said this eminently ridiculous figure.

I mean, come off it, folks. How many paedophiles can there be? Are we really saying that any time an adult male finds himself sitting next to someone under 16, he must expect to be hustled from his seat before the suspicious eyes of the entire cabin? What about adult females? Every week there is some new tale of what a saucy French mistress is deemed to have done with her adolescent charges behind the bicycle sheds; and, disgraceful though these episodes may be, I don't hear anyone saying that children should be shielded from adult women. Do you? Or maybe I'm wrong -- maybe all adults will have to carry personal cardboard partitions with them on every plane or train, just in case they find themselves sitting next to under-16s.

Even as I write, I can imagine the lip-pursing of some of my lovely high-minded readers. How would you like it, they will say, if some weird chap was plonked next to your kids? And they are right that I would worry about some strange adult sitting next to my children, chiefly because I wouldn't want the poor fellow to come to any harm.

To all those who worry about the paedophile plague, I would say that they not only have a very imperfect understanding of probability; but also that they fail to understand the terrible damage that is done by this system of presuming guilt in the entire male population just because of the tendencies of a tiny minority. There are all sorts of reasons why the numbers of male school teachers are down 50 per cent in the period 1981 to 2001, and why the ratio of female to male teachers in primary schools is now seven to one. There are problems of pay, and the catastrophic failure of the state to ensure that they are treated as figures of authority and respect; and what with 'elf 'n' safety and human rights it is very hard to enforce discipline.

But it is also, surely, a huge deterrent to any public-spirited man contemplating a career in education that society apparently regards all adult male contact with young people as being potentially a bit dodgy, a bit rum, a bit you know... It is a total disaster. It is not just that both boys and girls could do with more male role models in the classroom. Worse still, it often used to be men who taught physics, and maths, and chemistry, and it is the current shortage of such teachers that explains why 80 per cent of pupils studying physics are now taught by someone with a degree in biology; and that in turn helps explain why the numbers doing physics A-level have halved, and why physics departments are closing all over the shop, with all the consequent damage to our science base.

It has tended to be male teachers who take contact sports. Even if they can find a playing-field, these days, the poor male sports teachers have to cope with a terrifying six-inch thick manual explaining how they must on no account shout at their charges, and above all, on pain of prosecution, they must NOT BE LEFT ALONE with the kids. No wonder our children are apparently turning into big fat Augustus Gloops. It is insane, and the problem is the general collapse of trust. Almost every human relationship that was sensibly regulated by trust is now governed by law, with cripplingly expensive consequences.

I blame the media, I blame the judges, I blame the lobby groups, and in particular I blame the cowardly capitalist airline companies that give in to this sort of loony hysteria. If you happen to be reading this on a British Airways flight, and have quite rightly sustained a burst blood vessel, then I think you are entitled to an immediate upgrade.


Is it ethical to go Down Under for the Ashes?

Dear Ethan,

I have been a cricket fan for years. I even named my daughters Willow and Maiden. I would dearly love to follow our boys Down Under as they defend the Ashes (or fail to, if early evidence is anything to go by!). However, Australia is an awfully long way away and I'm concerned that my own Ashes tour might turn parts of the planet to ashes.. Is there an ethical way to follow the Tests?

Freddie Shaw-Toulouse

Dear Freddie,

I've never been a big fan of competitive sport. My own experience of cricket was to end up covered in bruises from that horrible, hard red ball they use. Sometimes, I think those bowlers were actually aiming it at me.

But leaving personal feelings aside, as we all must do when the planet is at stake - I'm afraid that flying to Australia simply isn't cricket. You might get to watch your favourite sport but you will also dent the planet's sporting chance for survival. It won't only be the little red ball that is knocked for six (and let's not forget that those balls are made of cork, which is stolen from the beautiful Cork Oak tree, and leather, which is stolen from the hides of peace-loving cows); all our futures will also be knocked for six by your moment of sporting selfishness. Remember the first rule of the ethical life: LBW - Let Biodiversity Win!

Flying to Australia is never acceptable, as I recently told a friend who was thinking of going to Sydney to visit his dying grandfather. (We eventually organised a video link-up powered by solar energy and wind.) So flying to Australia simply to watch 22 men hit a ball around, while 22,000 more men shout, drink and sweat, is nothing short of morally reprehensible. The flight will produce 3.75 tonnes of CO2 for each passenger, meaning you will have metaphorically chopped down 20 trees even before touching down Down Under.

The journey isn't the only problem. By travelling to see the cricket, and helping to sustain the cricketing industry, you are contributing to environmental genocide! Trees are felled to make bats and balls and ticket stubs; food and drink are transported hundreds of miles to keep the portly fans happily stuffed while they watch the game; and think of all the detergent required to get those red stains off Freddie and Co's whitey whites. In this case, cleanliness is not next to Godliness; instead, their bright white outfits help to leave a big dirty skidmark on the planet.

As we know, tourists suck up valuable resources - and sporting tourists are even worse, an environmental double-whammy. Travellers demand taxis, adding to congestion and pollution; hotels with clean beds and fresh towels and air-conditioning (don't get me started on air-conditioning); guide books, tourist offices and bus tours. That's right - buses that just go round in a circle and end up back where they started! And travellers consume large amounts of food and booze. How much of that will be local and seasonal? Will your hotdog in the stands be made from a soya-based meat replacement and locally sourced bread made in a traditional stove? Being Australia - land of men and meat - I very much doubt it.

Sporting tourists also don ridiculous fancy dress outfits and demand junk food and carbonated drinks. That's right - carbon-ated drinks. Think of how those fizzy drinks damage the planet every time you belch out the excess gas. It is not going too far to say that a beer-bellied thug burps in Australia and a flood kills hundreds in Bangladesh - never forget that we are all intimately bound together on this threatened mortal coil.

All the beer and beef consumed at a cricket match also produces pretty nasty smells. This can make the local environment a less pleasant, less breatheasy place - and worse, it might encourage people to spray air freshener, and I don't need to tell you that `air freshener' is a profound contradiction in terms (these noxious sprays actually damage air in the long run). Personally, I can't imagine why you would want to be couped up with so many other sweating men. I suppose you could offer them some homemade deodorant. I have a fabulous recipe for one based on lavender and beeswax; every time I wear it, intrigued people ask: `What is that smell?'

Sport is not only bad for the environment; it is bad for people too. Have you not read the research produced by reputable Abuse Studies departments in British universities, which shows that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence during a major sporting event? Men get so het up over the game that they end up taking it out on the missus. And how can we be sure that Third World women won't be trafficked to Australia to keep Ashes fans happy, in the same way they were trafficked to Germany during the World Cup? A feminist-environmentalist colleague of mine recently uncovered the shocking, disgusting truth of human trafficking: every woman driven in a truck across borders contributes five tonnes of CO2 to the beleaguered planet! Man, sex slavery sucks.

Freddie, you won't like what I'm about to say: you should even avoid watching the Ashes on TV. That uses electricity, and there's the whole domestic violence thing. Instead, we should deny sport the oxygen of publicity by banning it from TV screens, just as sport seeks literally to deny us actual oxygen with its great balls of carbon. Why not watch local sports instead? Get yourself down to the park and watch the kids working off their junk food. Some might say the cricket is not as `good'. But good is exactly how it will make you feel.


The above is satire, of course. But the England cricket team is in fact playing in Australia at the moment. "The Ashes" is the international cricket trophy. "Tests" are the highest form of cricket and are played between national sides only. A single match can continue for up to five days. Did you get the meaning of the enquirer's name? It encapsulates the usual experience of the English when playing Australia

Give cardiac troubles a rest

A nutty British campaign coaxing men to dial 999 if they feel a pain in the chest will make more 'worried well', and possibly delay treatment for the really ill.

Last week the British Heart Foundation (BHF) launched their ‘Doubt Kills’ campaign. Posters show a middle-aged man with a belt of pain around his chest, bearing the warning: ‘a chest pain is your body telling you to call 999’. Radio advertisements feature bereaved spouses, describing how their loved ones put off calling for an ambulance when experiencing chest pain.

The BHF explain in their campaign literature that every second counts when dealing with a heart attack, and that one of the reasons for delays in getting treatment is the time taken to get to hospital. This is true, and the aim of proving that heart attacks are a ‘treatable disease’ is laudable. Research funding from the BHF has contributed to recent leaps in understanding of heart disease and its treatment. Mortality from coronary heart disease (the disease underlying heart attacks) in those under 65 has dropped by over 40 per cent in the last 10 years. From this perspective it makes sense to target an area where results from treatment could be improved. Also of course raising awareness of heart disease keeps up the BHF’s steady stream of donations.

But the use of a middle-aged man in the poster campaign is interesting. Certainly men are more likely to die of heart attacks. However, the BHF cites research that suggests it is elderly people, particularly women, and those with pre-existing heart disease, who are most reluctant to call for help. So, why not have a female chest pain sufferer on the posters? Or why not target information at those with known heart disease, who are much more likely to suffer from a heart attack?

‘Doubt Kills’ should be seen in the context of an increasing number of health campaigns targeted specifically at men, and their attitudes to health. The BHF explicitly point out that ‘British reserve and stoicism is costing lives’. This pathologising of the traditional stiff upper lip is characteristic of such campaigns. I suspect a survey of accident and emergency (A&E) doctors would find the opinion that a little more stoicism among the British public might not go amiss.

In a YouGov poll commissioned by the BHF, 64 per cent of respondents stated they would first call their partner, friend, relative, GP or NHS Direct when experiencing chest pain - with 42 per cent preferring to ‘wait and see’ if their chest pain gets better.  No information is provided about the age of those polled, but the truth is, for many of us, this is a sensible course of action. After all, heartburn is much more common than a heart attack.

The Ambulance Service are nobly supporting the campaign, but it must have occurred to them that a possible result will be more calls from worried young people with indigestion, and consequentially, longer waits for those who are genuinely ill. As with other ‘worried well’ campaigns in recent years, this latest initiative could make the population at large unnecessarily concerned about their health, while overburdening the health system to the extent that it cannot speedily deal with those who are actually suffering ill-health. It may fill A&E with people who mistakenly believe they are having a heart attack, thus reducing the response time to those who really are having a heart attack.


Still not ‘ethical’ after all these years

A report saying our buying habits are increasingly driven by ethical concerns made some fairly unethical contortions to reach that conclusion.

It was widely reported this week that ethical consumerism has gone mainstream, following revelations that spending in Britain on ‘ethical’ products now outstrips retail sales of alcohol and cigarettes. The facts tell a different story. What is really striking is just how irrelevant ethical consumerism remains, despite ever-increasing media hype and the enthusiasm of retailers.

These days, every newspaper and TV show seems to have someone lecturing us about how to live an ethical lifestyle (including spiked‘s very own Ethan Greenhart). Major retailers have leapt on the bandwagon, too. No self-respecting supermarket can be seen without a wide range of organic foods. Marks and Spencer sell ethical clothing lines and fairtrade coffee in their cafés. Even the much-maligned McDonald’s now uses only organic milk and eggs.

So, it did not seem surprising when a report published by the Co-operative Bank and the Future Foundation revealed that ethical consumerism in Britain was worth £29.3billion in 2005, compared to the £28billion we spend on alcohol and cigarettes over-the-counter. This represents a rise in ethical consumerism of 11 per cent from last year. However, the media reporting of these figures left a lot to be desired. The implication is that we’re all rushing out to buy organic and fairtrade food, and that is simply not the case. The figures are actually an almighty conflation of different categories.

First, what on Earth does ‘ethical’ mean? The report (it’s actually a press release with some attached tables) defines ethical goods to include organic food, free-range eggs, fairtrade products, goods from farmers’ markets, sustainable food, vegetarian food, ‘dolphin-friendly’ tuna, energy-efficient appliances, micro-generation, and eco-friendly cleaning products. That’s not all. Also lumped in with the figures are such spuriously ‘ethical’ choices as buying second-hand goods, using public transport, shopping locally and using charity shops. So getting a bus to work is now lumped alongside buying ethical green tea.

A whole set of different motivations are mixed up. It’s true that many people see little distinction between these various categories, often assuming that fairtrade food is organic, or that organic food is fairtrade, and that both will probably be environmentally friendly. In fact, fairtrade is inevitably shipped in from countries far away – after all, that’s where the poor farmers live. The same goes for 70 per cent of Britain’s organic food. Is such long-distance shipping good for the environment? And there’s no reason why a poor farmer would grow organically except out of necessity; that is, he can’t actually afford to buy the fertilisers and pesticides to increase his yields. As has been argued on spiked before, fairtrade products might make consumers in the West feel good when they’re shopping, but they offer few real benefits to the Africa or Asian farmers who produce them (see Shop till global injustice drops, by Nathalie Rothschild).

Not only does one kind of ethical purchase often conflict with another, but the assumption that purchases of organic food or free-range eggs are always motivated by ethical concerns is misplaced. These days, consumers may find that their local supermarket only stocks organic or free-range (particularly in the evenings, when all the cheaper, non-ethical produce has already gone). Many people simply prefer the taste of free-range eggs to those from battery hens.

While ‘buying for re-use’ might practically be better for the environment than buying something new – at least in theory – the second-hand market has always been motivated by money: one owner trying to re-coup money on something he no longer needs, and a new owner trying to get something on the cheap. Even something as green as micro-generation and energy efficiency must be motivated in part by saving money – especially given the huge government handouts available for some of these projects.

More strikingly still, the Co-op and Future Foundation figures include not only spending but boycotts, too. So of the £4.5billion under the category ‘ethical food’, nearly £2billion was food boycotts; well over half the figure for ethical transport related to travel boycotts. So even not purchasing something can be added to an ethical consumerism breakdown…. What does this mean? Presumably, people were asked what they might have spent on a product if they’d been able to obtain an ethical version of it. But there is a huge difference between an opinion poll statement of intent, and the hard economic facts of handing cash over the counter.

The biggest item in this ethical consumerism basket is not a type of good at all. ‘Ethical finance’ accounted for £11.5billion of the figures. This may or may not be motivated by altruism. For example, it includes credit unions, which are usually an attempt by groups of less well-off people to get access to credit without paying punitive rates – in other words, understandable and mutual self-interest. But investments are clearly a very different thing from purchasing goods (it’s also not clear whether this was £11.5billion of new investment or the total amount invested as of 2005).

Going back to the figures, if we add up what was actually spent on ethical goods of all kinds and for all purposes in 2005, the figures are, roughly:

Ethical food:£2.6billion
Green home:£3.8billion
Ethical transport:£0.6billion
Personal products:£1.0billion
Local shopping:£2.1billion

Even setting aside the problematic nature of lumping together so many ethical concerns, and purchases that are probably not motivated by ethical concerns at all, the comparison with cigarette and alcohol sales doesn’t hold up.

A proper reading of the Co-op’s press release (which many journalists seemed not to have bothered doing) shows that even the Co-op knows that you cannot simply say that ethical consumerism is exploding: ‘[T]otal ethical spending is spread over a wide range of products and services, and in very few markets has it become the market norm.’ The Co-op wants increasing use of regulation, labelling and subsidy to promote ‘ethical’ products, particularly in relation to climate change. But should the government be doing more at the consumer level when there is so little spontaneous demand for these things?

And can you really change society for the better by changing people’s shopping habits? I was always unconvinced by the self-flattering notion among some Western liberals that their boycotts of South African goods toppled apartheid in South Africa (the role of the black masses in South Africa was somewhat more important than the decisions made by individuals at Waitrose in Hampstead on a Saturday afternoon). I remain unconvinced that shopping styles are an effective way to transform things in the real world outside of the supermarket.

The embracing of this new report seems to be about making the apparently unethical masses feel like they should play ball: ‘Look, loads of people are buying ethical – why aren’t you?’ But the statistical contortions required to compare ethical consumerism with real mainstream spending only distort reality. And that isn’t very ethical, is it?


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