Monday, January 29, 2007

British "social workers" put fat children on "abused" list

The Unhinged Kingdom devises a new madness

Social workers are placing obese children on the child protection register alongside victims thought to be at risk of sexual or physical abuse. In extreme cases children have been placed in foster care because their parents have contributed to the health problems of their offspring by failing to respond to medical advice. The intervention of social services in what was previously regarded as a private matter is likely to raise concerns about the emergence of the "fat police".

Some doctors even advocate taking legal action against parents for illtreating their children by feeding them so much that they develop health problems. Dr Russell Viner, a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street and University College London hospitals, said: "In my practice, I can think of about 10 or 15 cases in which child protection action has been taken because of obesity. We now constantly get letters from social workers about child protection due to childhood obesity."

Viner points out that children are not placed on the child protection register simply for being obese but only if parents fail to act on advice and take steps to help their children lose weight. "Obesity in itself is not a child protection concern," he said. "When parents fail to act in their child's best interests with regard to their weight - for example, if they are enrolled on a behavioural treatment session and only get to two out of 10 sessions or if they miss medical appointments - then the obesity becomes a child protection concern."

Dr Alyson Hall, consultant child psychiatrist at the Emmanuel Miller Centre for Families and Children in east London, said that in some cases children were put into foster care to ensure their safety. "I have known instances where local authorities have had to consider placement outside the family. It has been voluntary so far, and has not gone to care proceedings, but that could happen," she said. "These are children suffering from sleep apnoea and serious health complications from diabetes. Initially, social workers try to help the parents but, in some cases, the parents are the problem."

Earlier this month two brothers were convicted of causing unnecessary suffering by letting their dog become obese. The labrador, Rusty, was 11 stone, more than double the weight he should have been, and could hardly stand. "We wonder whether the same charge should be applicable to the parents of dangerously obese children," said Dr Tom Solomon, a neurologist at Royal Liverpool University hospital. "I think it should be considered. It depends on the parents' attitude. If the parents say there is nothing they can do because their child only likes to eat chips and biscuits then perhaps it might be worth the state intervening. "The state intervenes with schooling. Parents who do not send their children to school are prosecuted eventually. To be badly educated is not dangerous but we are making our children diabetic, and even killing our children by our feeding habits."

Tam Fry, chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, a charity that fights childhood obesity, agreed. "It should be a punishable offence," he said. "Very obese children are taking up NHS resources that should be used for legitimate purposes. Parents have got to be held accountable for overfeeding their children or letting their children become fat without taking action."

Other health workers, however, argue that parents should not be punished because social circumstances sometimes prevent them from ensuring their children follow a healthy diet. Last week the government's strategy for tackling childhood obesity was criticised as "confused" and "dithering" by the Commons public accounts committee. MPs warned that ministers are set to miss their target to halt the rise in childhood obesity by 2010. The number of children aged under 11 who are obese leapt from 9.9% in 1995 to 13.4% in 2004


British police refuse to chase 'helmetless' bike thieves

A mother has spoken of her fury after police refused to chase her sons' stolen motorbikes - because the thieves weren't wearing helmets. Pauline Nolan, of Droylsden, Greater Manchester, claims traffic officers told her they could not pursue the pair in case they fell off and sued the police force. She says her sons Bradley, 11, and Ashley, 18, are devastated. They usually spend every weekend travelling to motocross competitions up and down the country, but are now stuck at home.

Mrs Nolan, 44, was on her way home from work at 1.45pm when the thieves raced past her at 60mph on her son's bikes. "I recognised them immediately, but they were gone in a flash," she said. "I arrived home to find the garage door had been forced open. "They had drilled through the locks and cut the chains. They had even pushed our Corsa out of the way to steal Ashley's bike, which was purposefully blocked in.

"I can't believe they had the cheek to do it in broad daylight. I was minutes away from catching them red-handed. I called the police and someone arrived to take a statement." She says the police officer then told her that the bikes had been spotted in Beswick, Manchester. She said: "I thought 'we've got them', until he sheepishly added they couldn't give chase because they weren't wearing helmets. I was speechless. How pathetic is that? "I've never heard such a stupid law. It seems everything is weighed in favour of criminals nowadays."

Inspector Martin O'Connor, of the road policing unit, said: "In situations like this officers need to carefully consider the safety of all road users before deciding whether or not to begin a pursuit. "This means taking into consideration the time of day, weather, traffic conditions, the nature of the original offence and then make a risk assessment based on all these circumstances. "In this case a decision was made that it would not have been safe to pursue the bikes."

Mrs Nolan has put up a cash reward for the bikes' return - an orange and black KTM 250 and a black and green Kawasaki 65 with distinctive "Monster Energy" graphics. She said: "My kids live for motocross. We can't afford 7,000 pounds to replace them. The 11-year-old said he's going to sell his toys and his X-Box to save up for a new one. It's heartbreaking."


University: Who needs it?

Britain: As more and more pupils go to university – and pay ever more for the privilege – many are questioning whether they are getting a fair return

When Anthony Kluk set off for Leeds University to read physics with two As and two Bs in his pocket he thought it was going to be the first day of the rest of his life: a bright new start in a brave new world. It didn’t quite work out like that. “Once I got to university I found myself repeating the material I had studied for the last two years. I was forced to spend hours in the laboratory doing what can only be described as watching paint dry. It was so tedious that going back to halls and doing homework was the last thing on my mind. “And since Leeds was filled with alcohol-fuelled distractions, as well as my complete lack of motivation, I started every day with a hangover. I decided to cut my losses and start my career.” One year into his course he dropped out. Two years on he is happily employed as a corporate banker.

Similar self-doubt has also crept into the cloistered quads of Oxbridge. By the end of her first year reading English Lucy Tobin found herself sitting on the manicured lawns of Lady Margaret Hall on the banks of the Cherwell and wondering why. A year earlier the main thing on her mind had been not Alfred Lord Tennyson but Tanya from Footballers’ Wives, as she did a gap year on a tabloid newspaper. “The allure of Oxford swung my decision towards academia, but there are still times when I’m sitting in a crowded lecture theatre and wonder if I did the right thing swapping a salary for Malory.”

None of this is what Tony Blair wants to hear with his vision of a country where half the population is university-educated. At first glance the need for a degree is a no-brainer. Professions allow entry only to graduates, and many companies insist on recruits with a degree — or even two. Yet employers also insist that a degree alone is not an accurate measure of employability; indeed 40% of them believe the qualification has become devalued. Some of the most important skills — numeracy, literacy and communication — are supposed to be instilled in school but are still lacking in many students emerging from university.

So does a degree really mean anything any more? At £3,000 a year in most cases is it worth the mock-vellum it is inscribed on? Increasingly students and their parents (who usually have to stump up for the fees) don’t think so.

THE number of students starting university in the current academic year fell by 3.6% from 2005, although because the figures were up on 2004 it is not yet clear if it represents the beginning of a downward trend. What is certain is that it reflects the leap in tuition fees from just over £1,000 a year to £3,000. And with the top universities now lobbying for fees to rise even higher, possibly doubling to £6,000, those who are taking up what was once seen as a prestigious privilege are beginning to see it as a risky business proposition.

Eytan Austin, 20, saw his experience in those terms before pulling out of what he calls a “poor quality” course at Thames Valley University. “I enrolled in events management, but I quickly realised I would be better off learning independently,” he said.

“There was a day and a half of lessons per week, but they were teaching us how to be employees when I want to be an entrepreneur. I’m sure it was helpful for some people; but for me the course fees were not worth it. Now I’m in the real world I’m learning from my mistakes rather than sitting through lectures. Since dropping out I’ve got no regrets at all. I’m just really happy with life.”

Drop-out rates, particularly among the “new universities”, mostly former polytechnics, are disturbingly high and rising. London South Bank and East London universities as well as Bolton University all have projected drop-out rates of more than 27%.

It is not just those who drop out who are challenging the value-added nature of a university education. Those who are eager to stick it through are wondering if they are getting their money’s worth.

When Bristol University cut teaching time in history for third-year undergraduates from six hours a week to two last year, it triggered protests from both the students and their parents. Etan Smallman, 20, a history student, reckoned he was being short-changed. “We expect better services for more money, not reduced ones,” he said.

One Bristol undergraduate told the university’s student newspaper: “I thought I was paying to be educated by leading academics, not for a library membership and a reading list.”

There is evidence now of a student revolt that has more in common with a consumer watchdog campaign than the campus politics of the 1960s. A maverick website called rates universities on student-to-tutor ratios and produces some damning comments. Several universities are rated by their own students as “rubbish” or “shocking”. The academic departments concerned are talking about legal action. But so are some students and parents. Jack Rabinowicz, an education lawyer whose daughter is a student at a northern university, complains that the number of seminars and tutorials seems to be decreasing drastically. Rabinowicz would like to see legally binding contracts spelling out what students are entitled to in return for their fees.

“Some students have one-sided contracts with the obligations on the student not to break university rules,” he said. “What is needed is a contract that the university has an obligation not to employ crap lecturers. I had a land law lecturer who was usually drunk. These people still exist.” Rabinowicz suggests that “mass actions for compensation — a hundred students getting together and claiming the return of £1,000 each — could be worthwhile”.

THE question is how much of this growing malaise is due to the government’s 50% target for pupils in higher education and how much is the result of a school system that does not teach students how to cope before they are herded into university.

“Now that kids are more force-fed at school and less educated to work independently, they need tutor-time,” said Alex Farquarson, who has one child studying in London and another at Sheffield. “I get cross when my daughter comes home and says she is sick of trying to work out what an essay question means while her tutor reads a book somewhere.”

Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a respected authority on tertiary education, agrees that universities are accepting people who haven’t been prepared well enough at school.

“There is an issue here about whether our system encourages universities to accept people on courses who can’t cope with them,” she said. “Universities are under tremendous pressure to fill places if they don’t want their business model to go down the plughole.”

She disagrees with the target of 50% of young people going to university and challenges the idea that it is necessitated by “the supposed skills needs of the workforce”.

“I think the market should find its own level,” she said. “Graduates are coming out and getting jobs that do not need graduate level skills. I am really opposed to the idea that the government should decide how many people should go to university.”

Wolf’s own son read classics at Oxford but is now “an extremely poor” self-employed musician. “If and when he gives up being a self-employed musician will he be better off with a degree? I don’t know.” The American sociologist Charles Murray argues that only people with an IQ of 115 or better, which he puts at 15% of the population, are equipped to do well at university. According to Murray a good university education should teach “advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people”. Struggling students, he suggests, are like someone “athletically unqualified” trying to cope with top-level sport.

Murray suggests the other problem is social pressure: middle class kids go to university because it is what their parents want rather than what society needs. “Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason — the list goes on and on — is difficult . . . ”This is a lesson that the influx of skilled eastern European craftsmen is rapidly teaching us in Britain. Yet the old class-driven attitudes prevail and can lead to traumatic mistakes.

Philip Kitcher liked his job as a senior nurse earning £28,000 a year, but he thought he might improve himself by training as a lawyer to become a nurse advocate. With no A-levels, he applied as a mature student to six universities.Three accepted him. He chose the University of Greenwich, which in 2001 offered him a place on its LLB course over the phone, saying his nursing qualification was the equivalent of two A-levels. A year later, he felt badly misled, having lost his place through an external exam.

“I am £15,000 in debt, have no job and have just failed my first year exams,” he said at the time. “My confidence has been knocked sideways. So has that of many of the people on the course. The university is being cagey about just how many failed the exams, because some people are now doing resits, but last year one-in-three first years [30%] didn't go on to the second year.

“Since I now know that at the end of the second and third years there are further failures, I feel angry. I was never told that there was such a low probability of actually getting the qualification I need. And I don't think any of the other students who failed were told either.

“If I had been told that the failure rate was so high and the chances of success so questionable I would have thought very hard before turning my life upside down. It is a big con. I feel that I have been duped. Every year Greenwich takes lots of [law] students who will fail. It takes their money and they run up huge debts.”

Kitcher said that some tutors were unacceptably rude. “When I asked how we did in our last piece of coursework, one tutor said, ‘You were all crap’. I said, ‘Could you be more specific?’ and the answer was, ‘No, wait for your marks’.” Since leaving Greenwich, he has gained a vocational degree in emergency nursing and is now back doing what he likes best. Greenwich said it was reviewing the curriculum and support offered to law students.

Readers of Tom Sharpe (sadly not yet on the compulsory list for undergraduates studying English) might hear echoes of “Wilt” syndrome, the brutal apathy acquired by his hapless polytechnic lecturer required to give poetry lessons to “plumbers II and gasfitters III”.

There is a growing dysfunction between the teachers and the taught that reflects flaws in the structure of the higher education system. A prime reason for reduced teaching time is the requirement, set by government, for universities to produce more research. This, rather than time spent on teaching, significantly determines a university’s state funding. When it comes to a university’s income from students, the prime requirement is quantity.

At the same time the conveyor belt is fed by the fact that a degree is increasingly a basic essential for young people looking for almost any sort of job. According to Bah-ram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, “there is not a career left you do not need a degree for. I don’t know about chiropody or massage but physiotherapy you need a degree for, likewise nursing”.

Paradoxically, it is these new degrees that have the most obvious value as proof of a skill. If a “degree” is another name for a vocational diploma, we don’t want to be messed around by unqualified physiotherapists or masseurs.

Do such skills have to be taught in a “university”, however? Traditionally they were learnt through apprenticeships and day-release courses at technical colleges. They still are in Germany, France and Switzerland, where the proportions of young people at university are between 30% and 40%, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And then there are the unskilled degrees, which equip students for nothing in particular except passing the first barrier in getting some sort of job. As Murray puts it, a university degree today, particularly in the arts, is simply “a screening device for employers”. Without one, your application is simply binned.

The second screening device is quality. Since the rebranding of polytechnics in 1992, employers put stock not only on how good a degree is but on the subject and the university at which it was earned. Under those circumstances it might be reasonable to expect higher student satisfaction and better job prospects from the members of the Russell Group, the 20-strong self-appointed “premier league” of British universities. Yet they are keen to call themselves “research-in-tensive” — which, as the Bristol experience has shown, does not automatically result in the best teaching.

Many academics, perhaps particularly those at Oxford and Cambridge and other top-flight universities, regard general degree-level teaching even to bright undergraduates as “a bore”. Nurturing the young is far less important to their own careers than publications on South African tort law or Renaissance theatre techniques. This is a world in which John Reid’s epithet “not fit for purpose” comes to mind. WHAT about the value of a university education in assuring future personal prosperity? The government would like us to believe that a degree buys a higher salary. Yes, this is valid as a rule of thumb, but it depends on whose thumb. As Wolf points out, the degrees with a high return are the quantitative ones: “Maths, physics, chemistry, the hard sciences, law, medicine. They earn you money . . . An arts degree is not the thing to do if you want to make a fortune.”

According to the government’s 2003 white paper, The Future of Higher Education, a degree can bring an additional 50% to 64% in salary. Even today, however, 41% of members of the Institute of Directors do not have a university degree. Furthermore, the government’s determination to push more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the best universities does not always pay off. The Council for Industry and Higher Education has found that graduates from poorer backgrounds go on to earn less than graduates from professional families with identical qualifications — by as much as 16% in the case of Oxbridge graduates.

Increasingly, large numbers of graduates emerging even from the Russell Group universities are finding themselves just one of the crowd and are drifting before they sort out what they can do for a living.

Hannah Fletcher signed up for a degree in Chinese at Cambridge but dropped out because her course “bore little relevance to the real world”. Part of her disillusion set in with seeing the finals-year girl in the next room spend months dressed in grubby tracksuit pants eating pasta in her room, swotting away and winning a first — only to end up burnt out and taking a job as a cleaner while she waited for decent offers.

Fletcher has seen “one bright, articulate graduate after another wave their devalued degree in front of indifferent employers”. Of her contemporaries, “one friend is working in a cider factory. Another has gone to teach English in Japan on a second gap year, while a third, with nothing better to do, has gone to visit her”. The most steady job any of them has is as an NHS administrator, taken to pay off debts.

So was it all a waste of time, effort and money? Wolf thinks it is still rational to go to university as “having a degree still pushes you up the potential shortlist for jobs”. She added: “In a society where lots of people have got degrees it is likely to go on being rational.”

The tipping point will be when so many people are going to university that “just having a degree does not earn you very much. Then the question will be — is it worth it? Will I be just as likely to do well getting three years’ work experience?” THE old idea of university education was to broaden the mind and to build independence and character; but it was also absolutely and unashamedly elitist. Evelyn Waugh defined this dream in Brideshead Revisited: “The truth is that Oxford is simply a very beautiful city in which it is convenient to segregate a certain number of the young of the nation while they are growing up.”

Students continue to find university rewarding and fun, a place for social and sexual adventure. But the dream was over long before Waugh wrote it. The real truth was glimpsed decades ago in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Brad-bury’s The History Man, both the products of bitter experience.

Universities today are driven by government targets, employers’ requirements, high fees and financially pressed students looking for a return on investment.

The Blairite concept of educational democratisation has turned the ivory towers into degree factories, turning out a product that has lost its niche status in a flooded market. Ironic when a factory was what the gifted young once went to university to escape.


Immigration Benefit 'Equivalent to a Mars bar a Month': "New figures out today reveal that, on the Government's own figures, the benefit to each member of the native population of the UK from immigration is worth about 4p a week - or less than the equivalent of a small Mars bar a month. In an analysis of a series of reports on the economic impact of immigration on the UK think-tank Migrationwatch has found that overall the much vaunted contribution of immigrants to the economy is very slight indeed - a finding that coincides with the results of major studies around the world."

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