Tuesday, April 03, 2007

British schools drop Holocaust lessons to avoid "offence"

A sad day when the truth has become offensive:

"Teachers are dropping controversial subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from history lessons because they do not want to cause offence to children from certain races or religions, a report claims. A lack of factual knowledge among some teachers, particularly in primary schools, is also leading to "shallow" lessons on emotive and difficult subjects, according to the study by the Historical Association.

The report, produced with funding from the Department for Education, said that where teachers and staff avoided emotive and controversial history, their motives were generally well intentioned. "Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship," it concluded. However, it was concerned that this could lead to divisions within school, and that it might also put pupils off history.


Britain: Class bias a reality

SOME of Britain's leading universities are secretly operating selection schemes that can discriminate against applicants from good state or independent schools. Internal documents show that six of the 20 elite Russell Group universities are identifying applicants from schools with poor exam results or from deprived areas based on their postcode. Admissions tutors are then advised to favour them over equally well-qualified candidates from better schools or backgrounds. The schemes, revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, will fuel criticism that universities are attempting to socially engineer their intakes. It follows government pressure to increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds.

There have been previous controversies over ad hoc schemes introduced by universities or departments such as at Bristol University. However, the documents show some universities are now routinely filtering applicants. The trend is expected to accelerate under plans by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). It has already decided universities should be told if applicants' parents went to university, and a working group is currently devising national schemes to identify applicants from weak schools.

The documents show Nottingham University tells all its admissions tutors that they should treat applicants from a socioeconomically deprived postcode or from a poorly performing school more favourably. They are told to drop a grade in their offer to applicants whose predicted A-level scores would mean they would normally be rejected.

Newcastle University has introduced a traffic-light system in which forms have symbols added by the administration office to rate applicants' socioeconomic or educational background. Tutors are told they should make lower offers to students whose predicted grades would normally rule them out. Where tutors want to reject such applicants, the advice states: "Applicants whose forms indicate two or more `contextual factors' should be routinely reconsidered within the faculty to confirm (or otherwise) the reject decision."

Newcastle also runs a scheme for applicants from certain postcodes or schools with poor results that allows tutors to make lower A-level offers. Such applicants have to attend a two-week summer school. In addition, administrators write on Ucas forms the percentage of students at the applicant's school that have gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C grades. The advice to tutors says: "The lower the average performance of the school, the more weight may be given to the candidate whose past examination performance significantly exceeds their school's average performance."

At Warwick, applicants from "low participation backgrounds" are asked to submit extra information that will be considered alongside Ucas forms. Liverpool, Southampton and Bristol all suggest admissions tutors take account of "contextual factors" such as educational opportunities or personal circumstances.

John Marincowitz, headmaster of Queen Elizabeth's grammar school in Barnet, London, said: "Selection should be based on academic results and the extracurricular achievements. You can't assign values to factors such as school exam results."

Nottingham University said it had introduced a "flexible" admissions policy, but that had meant applicants being asked for grades of AAB rather than AAA at A-level. The policy did not appear in the prospectus, but applicants were informed.

Newcastle University insisted its policy was fair. A spokesman said: "Admissions tutors have always taken into account available contextual information when assessing the academic potential of applicants to the university."



A six-million-tonne question mark was placed over Britain's climate change strategy yesterday with the release of figures showing that UK greenhouse gas emissions, which the Government has pledged to cut radically, are actually soaring. Emissions of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from power stations, motor vehicles and homes, amounted to 560.6 million tonnes last year, 6.4 million tonnes higher than the 2005 figure. The increase of 1.15 per cent means that Britain's emissions are now at the highest level since Labour came to power a decade ago, nearly 3 per cent above 1997.

The disclosure, which seems to be a stark illustration that Britain's climate strategy is not working, despite all the pronouncements of Tony Blair and his ministers, was greeted with concern in Whitehall and with anger and scorn by environmentalists and opposition politicians. They said the Government was clearly not on course to meet its targets of cutting CO2 by 30 per cent by 2020 and 60 per cent by the middle of the century. (It has already admitted it will not meet its long-standing target of a 20 per cent cut by 2010.)

It is especially embarrassing for the Government as only a fortnight ago it launched with much fanfare its Climate Change Bill, proposing to make future targets to cut emissions legally binding and thus - in theory - unmissable. British official rhetoric about action on global warming has hit new heights in the past six months, with the Treasury-sponsored Stern Review on the economics of climate change, and the publication of the latest report from UN scientists saying that climate change is now an "unequivocal" fact. Yet Britain's own emissions, as yesterday's figures show, are moving in the opposite direction. "2006 was the year of government green spin, but the numbers don't lie," said Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace climate campaigner. "For all the announcements and reports only one thing really matters, is New Labour reducing Britain's carbon footprint? And the answer is no."

The Environment Secretary, David Miliband, acknowledged the concern. "While these figures are provisional, they underline why concerted effort to tackle climate change, both from Government and wider society, is absolutely critical," he said. Mr Miliband's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the rise in emissions last year was "primarily as a result of fuel switching from natural gas to coal for electricity generation". High international gas prices have recently led big power stations to move from gas to cheaper coal, which is much more carbon-intensive.

Environmentalists counterclaimed that the rise in emissions was the result of inadequate government measures. "Ministers get frustrated with us when we give critical reactions to their policies," said Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth (FoE). "But more than any complex piece of analysis, these figures show that we are right - they're not doing enough." Mr Juniper repeated FoE's demand that the Climate Change Bill should include annual targets for cutting CO2 emissions by at least 3 per cent each year (which has been rejected in favour of five-year targets.) "This would force successive governments to put climate change at the core of all their policies and ensure that the UK moves towards a low-carbon economy," he said. "Most of the solutions to climate change already exist. It is the political will that's lacking."

The Green party MEP Caroline Lucas commented: "It isn't setting the right targets alone that matters, it is also enacting the policies to meet them - and the Government has so consistently failed on this front that it gets harder with each passing day to believe a word it utters on the subject." UK transport emissions were the other sector which showed a large rise last year. But the figures show that Britain is still on course to meet its obligations under the Kyoto protocol, the international climate treaty, to reduce emissions of a "basket" of six greenhouse gases by 12 per cent by 2010.



Changing policy without seeming to

Ministers will still be able to hit their proposed statutory carbon dioxide reduction targets without making deep cuts to transport sector emissions because actions by UK bodies to reduce emissions abroad will count towards target achievement. The little-reported proposal to include international action is contained in the draft Climate Change Bill published earlier this month which outlines statutory targets to cut CO2 emissions by 26-32% by 2020 and 60% by 2050 (against a 1990 baseline).

The Bill also proposes that the Government would have to meet statutory five-year C02 budgets set by a new Committee on Climate Change. These would provide a trajectory for the 2050 target to be achieved. A number of research teams have been looking at how transport can contribute to the 60% reduction target. Earlier this month a team from University College London's Environment Institute reported that the Government was off course and that rising transport emissions were a major barrier to progress (LTT 15 Mar). Such assessments, however, overlook the possibility of including emissions reductions from abroad.

Just how significant a contribution this international effort could be is revealed in the Bill's regulatory impact assessment. This cites an analysis for the forthcoming Energy White Paper suggesting that the cost of achieving the targets could be about 25% lower if one-third of the CO2 reductions needed to reach the 2050 target came from international emissions reduction credits. The RIA explains that having to achieve all the emission reductions by domestic effort would make the UK economy less competitive and limit the environmental benefits for any given expenditure. [These effects] would occur if it were necessary to raise the carbon price in markets for heat and transport above that prevailing in the international market, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explains.

The Bill therefore proposes that emissions reductions achieved overseas but paid for by UK bodies should contribute towards progress against targets and budgets. Carbon credits bought by UK bodies through the EU's emissions trading system will count, as will any mechanisms that form part of a post-Kyoto protocol treaty (measures such as upgrading energy inefficient factories in developing countries already count towards countries' Kyoto protocol targets but the protocol ends in 2012).

This does not mean that all (or an unlimited amount of) emissions reduction effort should or would be achieved overseas, says the draft Bill consultation. It is proposed that the Committee on Climate Change should have a duty to advise the Government on the optimal balance between domestic and overseas effort. DEFRA admits that relying on international contributions does have its downsides; it would, for instance, restrict the pace of decarbonisation of the UK economy and potentially reduce the ability of the UK to demonstrate leadership by transforming the carbon intensity of domestic transport and heat markets.

The Committee on Climate Change will comprise five-eight members drawn from a range of areas of expertise including: economic analysis and forecasting; business competitiveness; technology; energy production; climate science; emissions trading; and the social impacts of climate change policy. It will produce annual reports outlining the UK's progress towards its budgets and targets.

Changes to the 2050 and 2018-2022 targets will require parliamentary approval and will only be approved under two circumstances: changing scientific knowledge about climate change; and international law and policy that requires the UK to act differently. Failure to achieve targets or stay within the budgets (allowing for an ability to borrow1% from the subsequent budget period) would leave the Government open to judicial review.


A feelgood germ

FORGET the spring-cleaning. A study has found evidence that bacteria common in soil and dirt could improve people’s spirits. According to the research, the action of Mycobacterium vaccae (M vaccae) on the brain is similar to that of some commonly used antidepressants. The bacterium, which is related to the microbe that causes tuberculosis, appears to work by stimulating the body’s immune system. This, in turn, prompts certain cells in the brain to produce more serotonin, a hormone associated with feelings of wellbeing.

“These studies help us to understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health,” said Dr Chris Lowry, a neuroscientist at Bristol University who carried out the research. “They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all spend more time playing in the dirt.”

The finding follows separate research by other scientists into the impact of bringing children up in “overhygienic” conditions. They found evidence that exposure to a wide range of common microbes in early life helped to promote healthy development of the immune system. Without such exposure, the immune system seems more likely to mistake the body’s own cells as invaders and launch attacks on them. This could be one of the mechanisms underlying the surge in conditions such as asthma and eczema.

The research by Lowry and a team of 12 scientists at Bristol and University College London (UCL) takes this “hygiene hypothesis” a step further by linking exposure to the microbes found in dirt with good mental, as well as physical, health. Interest in the project arose after human cancer patients being treated with M vaccae unexpectedly reported increases in their quality of life. This could have been caused by the microbe having indirectly activated the brain cells that produce serotonin.

The researchers injected some mice with the bacteria while others were made to inhale it. They then analysed the blood and brains of the infected mice to see what effect the microbes might have had on their immune systems and on serotonin levels. Details will be published in Neuroscience, an academic journal, this week.

The study is highly unlikely to lead to new therapies for depression in the near future but it does build on the growing body of research showing the importance of the human immune system in regulating even the subtlest aspects of health. There are a range of studies supporting the hygiene hypothesis and the idea that exposure to microbes is good for long-term health. In families with several children, the youngest often has the least allergies, most likely because it picks up the elder siblings’ infections so activating the child’s immune system.

Graham Rook, a professor of immunology at UCL who worked with Lowry, has already published research into the link between exposure to microbes and subsequent development of allergies. Rook and two of his co-researchers are also working with S R Pharma, a company looking into whether M vaccae could become the basis of treatments for conditions such as asthma. Rook believes that improved cleanliness may be a contributory factor in diseases such as asthma, eczema and hay fever, along with autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disorders such as Crohn’s disease. He said: “We’ve known for a couple of decades now that a whole group of chronic inflammatory disorders are becoming much commoner in the rich developed world.”

The body’s response to such inflammatory diseases is regulated by immune cells which, said Rook, need to encounter harmless bacteria early in life in order to work out how to respond effectively to real threats. Without these encounters, he said, the regulatory cells can malfunction, leading to health problems.

Mark Pepys, professor of medicine at UCL, said that there was “quite a lot of evidence” to support the hygiene hypothesis but said he would be cautious about extending the theory to mental wellbeing.


More superbug deaths in Britain

A virulent strain of the Clostridium difficile superbug has been linked to the recent deaths of 17 elderly patients at a hospital. A further eleven who have the bug are being treated and five more sufferers have had bowel surgery at the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston, Norfolk. Health experts at the hospital said yesterday that they had not identified the source of the 027 strain of Clostridium difficile, commonly known as C.diff, and could not say whether patients contracted it in the hospital or in the outside community.

The bug was a contributory factor in the deaths of the patients between December 1 and March 28 and not the actual cause of death, experts said. Of the 17 patients who died, the majority were over 65 and some in their 80s. Of the five who had surgery to alleviate the worst symptoms, several are said to have recovered and left the hospital.

Medics said that the fit and healthy had little to fear from the bug but those patients in hospital or outside who had been taking antibiotics were at risk because of imbalances in the gut brought on by taking the drugs. To prevent more cases developing, different antibiotics were being given to patients in the hospital and the outside community. The hospital has also spent 400,000 pounds on new health precautions.

A statement from the James Paget University Hospitals NHS Trust said: “At the beginning of December 2006 we became increasingly concerned about a rise in our normally low background rate of C.diff. “Our concerns were heightened by the increasing severity of illness which led us to believe that a new strain was present in the hospital. “We immediately responded to these changes in the patterns of patients’ illness by putting in place a wide range of additional infection-control measures.” [Hooray! Asepsis rediscovered] Precautions include putting patients suspected of having the bug in isolation rooms, revising antibiotic prescribing policy, upgrading cleaning procedures and introducing new deep-cleaning techniques, involving the recruitment of 15 new staff. Visitors to the hospital are being asked to wash their hands with soap and water as an extra precaution as the usual alcohol gel is not a protection against the bug.

Mr Nick Coveney, director of nursing and patient services at the hospital, said: “This strain of C.diff is much more virulent than any strain we have experienced previously.” It was not yet possible to say whether all the patients who died had the 027 strain of the bug as more tests were being carried out. In the two years prior to December 2006 the hospital had 11 patients who had experienced C.diff complications that had contributed to their deaths.


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