Thursday, August 30, 2007

British pre-school scheme fails

Start out with wrong assumptions (e.g. that "privilege" is responsible for educational success) and you will not get the results you expect. The Grammar (selective) schools showed how to help bright children from poor families but that offends against the "equality" religion. It is however sad that such a large and expensive series of programs did absolutely NO good at all. It shows how important it is to get your basic assumptions right

A 3 billion pound series of policies designed to boost the achievements of pre-school children has had no effect on the development levels of those entering primary school, a study suggests. Although there have been big changes in early years education, children's vocabulary and their ability to count and to recognise letters, shapes and rhymes are no different now than they were six years ago.

The results of the study from the University of Durham will come as a huge blow to the Government after a string of initiatives that have cost more than 3 billion since 2001 and that include the early childhood curriculum, the Sure Start programme, free nursery education for all three-year-olds and the Every Child Matters initiative. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made much of the drive to improve pre-school education, which was promoted heavily in Labour's last general election manifesto.

The findings follow the results of an assessment of the Sure Start programme in 2005, which also found no overall improvement in the areas targeted by the scheme. Sure Start, which was influenced by the Head Start programme in the US, is targeted at children aged up to 5 and their families in deprived areas. It is intended to offer a range of early years services, including health advice, childcare, parenting classes and training to help mothers into work.

Christine Merrell, of the University of Durham's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre and co-author of the study, said that she had no idea why the investment of so much public money had produced so few results. "One would have expected that the major government programmes would have resulted in some measurable changes in our sample of almost 35,000 children. It is possible, however, that it is just still too early to measure the effects of these programmes, particularly those of the Children Act and Every Child Matters, which were only introduced in the past few years," she said.

Dr Merrell and her team studied 6,000 children a year aged 4 and 5 at 124 primary schools. The children were asked to complete a 15-minute series of fun activities on a computer and were not aware that they were being tested. The tests were designed to measure the children's vocabulary acquisition and whether they could recognise rhyming words and repeat certain sounds. The children were also tested on their ability to count and to recognise shapes, letters and words.

No clear progress was detected on these measures among the 35,000 children from a range of backgrounds who were studied over the course of the six-year study, to be presented today at the biennial European Association for Learning and Instruction conference in Budapest. Dr Merrell admitted that the study was limited because it failed to identify which children, if any, had been subject to contact with Sure Start or any other of the Government's recent pre-school initiatives. However, given that 35,000 children in 124 schools were assessed, she said it was likely that many had taken part in the initiatives. She said that the research highlighted the importance of subjecting education policies to continuous scientific monitoring to see if they were working before introducing them nationally. "Even then, high-quality data needs to be used to track the impact of the evolving intervention. Only then can the Government really measure what does and doesn't work in education," she said.

The research used the Centre's performance indicators in primary schools (Pips) assessment to measure the cognitive development of the children. The Pips baseline assessment is one of a range of assessments that enable schools to monitor children's progress. Pips is used by more than 3,000 primary schools in Britain, 800 schools in Australia and others worldwide including New Zealand, the Netherlands and South Africa.


Desperate Brits going to Malta instead of the NHS

Medical tourism is a new and rapidly growing development where prospective patients from rich Western countries go overseas to combine treatment and recovery in a holiday setting. This can also be done at a fraction of the cost they would incur for treatment at home.

A number of health service agencies have realised the market potential and more and more countries are jumping on the bandwagon to offer people competitively-priced elective surgery, cosmetic surgery and dentistry abroad. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Malta Tourism Authority is eager to tap this new market. It seems to be employing the expertise of an Indian-based company, Sahara Medical Tourism, that facilitates overseas surgery for patients from the UK, Europe and the USA and is now promoting Malta as a destination for medical tourism.

Due to lengthy NHS waits and concerns about the high risk of MRSA infections in NHS hospitals, a growing number of Britons are taking advantage of affordable, high-quality private healthcare abroad, combining it with a relaxing holiday. They save thousands of pounds compared with having the treatment done privately in the UK. Already, many British patients travel to Belgium, Hungary and Poland and even further afield to countries such as India and Brazil.

Malta offers obvious advantages. It is a close, traditional tourist destination, boasts a high standard of medical and dental care and has well-run private hospitals. With the prospective commissioning of Mater Dei Hospital, the government will have an impressive array of services on offer in a first-class environment. Added to that, Maltese medical professionals have a well-deserved high reputation and very often have post-graduate qualifications from the UK. The fact that English is easily spoken is another advantage.

To cope with their intractable waiting lists, the NHS of the UK is also seriously considering Malta as a location for its patients to travel for surgery. It seems a winning formula for all concerned. Not least, it will provide an incentive for Malta's medical, dental and paramedical professionals to remain in their own country.

It is of paramount importance that the MTA does its homework properly and gets things right from the outset. No amount of marketing will compensate for a botched or inadequate scheme. Lost reputations are not easily regained. The government has to make sure standards are rigorously upheld and only allow hospitals, clinics and operators that fulfill stringent requirements to participate. Meanwhile, it still has to be seen what impact such schemes will have on the services offered to the local population. This applies particularly if the government is an active participant in health tourism.

It is imperative that the Maltese people will not become second-class patients in their own country as paying cases from overseas are given priority. There is nothing to suggest this will happen, but as St Luke's Hospital waiting lists amply illustrate, the government-run medical service is already finding difficulty meeting the needs of its own, especially where elective surgery is involved. Will the adequate funding of the new hospital service depend to a critical extent on health tourism? As has been repeated so often, there is more to a medical service than a state-of-the-art building and equipment. Health tourism can be a godsend but mismanaging it will lead to a dual and unequal service that will prove socially and politically unacceptable.


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