Friday, August 24, 2007

Speculation as news

It is worth noting that the Sunday Times, it seems, went into hyperventilation mode yesterday, with a front-page article headed, "Britain faces Iraq rout says US." It then picked up the theme in a focus piece, this one headed "Army chiefs fear Iraq exit will be Britain's Saigon moment," telling us that: "British troops will start to pull back from Basra next month, and the withdrawal is predicted to be 'ugly and embarrassing'".

However, not only are both pieces co-authored by Mick Smith, the man who thought RG-31s were "too big for Basra", with Washington input from Sarah Baxter, the pair rely for the substance of their reports on an American called Stephen Biddle. He, it appears, is the "US".

Yet, although he is described as a "military adviser to president George W Bush", he is no such thing. The best he can claim - like many of his ilk - is to have presented "briefings" to the president and senior political and military leaders - as well as "White House staff". This Washington-speak for being one of the numerous denizens of the beltway who is called upon by the White House and the Pentagon to air his views. By no measure can he be considered an "advisor" in the sense that his views are either influential or trusted - or in any way representative of the official US view.

More prosaically, Biddle is a senior fellow in defence policy at the left-leaning Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). According to a 2006 paper, he was a strong critic of Bush's prosecution of the war in Iraq but, in a presentation to the House of Representatives in July, he was edging to qualified support of the surge.

Nothing of the main thesis that the two Sunday Times journalists have to offer, therefore, has any more status than informed (but sometimes partisan) speculation from a minor-league American academic.

More here

Don't get cancer in Britain

Cancer patients in almost all European countries survive longer after diagnosis than those in the UK. Only Eastern Europe does worse. The results are bad news for the NHS Cancer Plan, implemented in 2000. Some of the latest results include patients treated after the plan began, but fail to show significant changes in relative success rates. The Lancet Oncology, in which the new data is published, does not pull its punches. "So has the cancer plan worked?" it asks. "The short answer is seemingly No."

The new information comes from a group called Eurocare, which organises the largest cooperative study across Europe of cancer patients. In The Lancet Oncology, the group publishes two analyses, one covering patients whose disease was diagnosed between 1995 and 1999, and the second covering those between 2000 and 2002. In general, five-year survival (generally a proxy for "cure") is highest in Nordic Countries and Central Europe, intermediate in southern Europe, lower in the UK and Ireland, and lowest of all in Eastern Europe.

Countries that spend more on health generally do better, but Denmark and Britain have lower survival rates than other countries that spend comparable amounts. The study finds that the gaps have narrowed since the last survey but they remain significant.

Europe's survival rates are lower than in the US, where 66.3 per cent of men and 62.9 per cent of women survive for five years, compared with 47.3 per cent of European men and 55.8 per cent of women. These figures may represent earlier diagnosis.


British schools dodging core subjects

The proportion of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs in core subjects is in long-term decline, research suggests. As 600,000 pupils prepare to open their GCSE results tomorrow, a new analysis of the trends in results shows a widening gap between the pass rate for five good GCSEs in any subject and for pass rate when fundamental subjects such as maths and science are included. The proportion of students gaining five good (A*-C) GCSEs including English, maths, science and a language, has fallen from 61 per cent in 1996 to 44 per cent last year. Over the same period the overall pass rate for five good GCSEs in any subject has risen from 44 to 58 per cent. Tomorrow's results are expected to show another rise.

Michael Gove, the Tory education spokesman, who carried out the analysis, said the results suggested that schools were trying to maximise their league table position by moving away from core subjects, the very subjects that universities and employers were looking for most. Heads are accused of entering students for "easier" vocational courses - which can be worth more than four GCSEs each in the league tables. "These figures emphasise the importance of truly robust measurements of achievement. The decline in core subjects marks a worrying trend and underlines the need for teaching to focus on the neglected basics," Mr Gove said.

The Conservative analysis shows that, although the proportion of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs in any subject has increased by 13.6 percentage points in the past decade, the improvement when English and mathematics are taken into account is less than ten points. Figures including English, maths and science have improved by only 5.4 percentage points on the period. Figures including English, mathematics, science and a modern foreign language, have declined since 1996, by 1.5 points.

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, rejected the Tory analysis as "cheap spin". As modern foreign languages were no longer compulsory at GCSE, it made no sense to include them in any new league table of results, he said. "Adding any optional GCSE in and then using this as evidence of failure simply undermines the real achievements of teachers, schools and pupils," he said. "The number of children achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths has risen substantially since 1997, and our new tough measures will show the proportion achieving grade C or above in a modern foreign language as well as science."

At the heart of the disagreement between the Government and the Opposition lies a fundamental disagreement over how best to measure school performance. Last year ministers took the bold step of introducing a new, deliberately tougher benchmark showing how schools were performing in the basics of literacy and numeracy. By this measure, only 45 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSE passes, including English and maths - considerably less than the 58 per cent of pupils achieving five good passes in any subject, the traditional measure. Later this year the Government will add science passes to its basic measure of success. The Tories, however, want an even greater emphasis on core, or traditional subjects.

Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham, agreed that merely measuring how many pupils got five good GCSEs in any subject was no longer satisfactory, as this masked weaknesses in the basics. "You could take an NVQ in ICT [information and communication technology] and this would be worth the equivalent of four GCSEs," he said. But he questioned the Tory analysis: "It is stretching a point to include modern foreign languages, as these are not compulsory." Professor Smithers added, however, that he expected this year's maths results to be disappointing. Last year the pass rate in maths was lower than for all other main subjects, as more than 343,000 pupils (45.7 per cent) failed to gain even a C.


Illegals still pouring into Britain

The Government failed last year to meet its target of deporting more failed asylum-seekers than the number of people who arrived with unfounded claims. A total of 20,700 individuals, including dependants, were recorded as failed asylum-seekers last year but only 18,280 were removed. The Home Office blamed the failure to meet the target on the focus of the Border and Immigration Agency to deport foreign prisoners who had completed their sentences. Almost one third of those who left in the second quarter of this year did so under a voluntary returns scheme in which each was given up to £1,500 to go. Opposition politicans accused ministers of allowing the asylum and immigration system to run “out of control”.

The number of failed asylum-seekers who were deported in the second quarter of this year fell by 7 per cent and was 36 per cent fewer than the same quarter last year. The number of work permit-holders and dependants increased by 6 per cent to 145,000 last year. The numbers of students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) rose by 9 per cent to 309,000 and there was an 8 per cent increase in visitors from outside the EEA to 7.4 million.

The foreign prisoners fiasco of 2005 involved more than a thousand offenders being freed from jail without being considered for deportation, and led to the sacking of Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary. Tony McNulty, a Home Office Minister, defended the Government’s policies and said that there had been a reduction in asylum applications last year and an overall increase in removals of people who were in Britain illegally.

David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that the figures showed that the immigration and asylum system was out of control. He said: “Not only are the Government missing their own, artificially hand-picked target of removing more failed asylum-seekers than arrive, but at the same time they are neglecting to deal with other crises — like the foreign prisoner debacle.”


UK More "Islamophobic" Than US & EU: "Britons are more suspicious of Muslims than Americans and other Europeans, according to a poll for the Financial Times newspaper published on Monday. Just 59 percent believe it is possible to be a Muslim and a citizen of their country, a smaller proportion than in France, Germany, Spain, Italy or the US - the other countries surveyed. The poll findings suggests terrorist plots against the UK, including the deadly 7 July 2005 London bombings, have hardened attitudes towards Muslims living in Britain. [Odd that!]

Brits fleeing crazy Britain: "The number of UK residents leaving the country in search of a better life abroad has soared and migration experts said that this year's non-existent summer [Global cooling?] will only add to the exodus. Figures released today by the Office of National Statistics showed that 385,000 people left Britain in 2005-2006, more than in any year since the current method of counting was introduced in 1991. Of those, around a quarter of a million were British, although there was a sharp increase in those of foreign origin leaving the country. The flow of long-term migrants into the UK hit 574,000 - 25,000 lower than in the previous year - meaning that there was net immigration of around 190,000. Last year, about 3,000 nurses and midwives left Britain to work in Australia - more than double the number making the same trip ten years ago. Around 8,000 nurses emigrated to work abroad last year."

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