Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What a great idea from Britain

Pupils are to be given a question-by-question breakdown of their GCSE and A-level results over the next fortnight, which could give parents the ammunition to sue schools for poor teaching. Edexcel, one of the country's largest exam boards, will give heads feedback on the performance of all their students and teachers when they publish their results for the examinations, starting on Thursday. Not only will heads and teachers be able to compare results for questions across year groups, but some fear that parents and pupils will be able to do the same.

Teaching unions have expressed concerns that Edexcel's latest move could be exploited by parents to punish underperforming staff and have called for the information to be used solely for in-school improvements. Next week more than 200,000 sixth-formers will receive their A-level results amid expectations that a quarter of entries could achieve an A-grade, thereby putting greater pressure on students aiming for places at the top universities.

Jerry Jarvis, the managing director of Edexcel, admitted that revealing more information could encourage parents to sue schools, but he said that it was crucial that pupils knew whether they had been taught badly. "The last thing we want to do is damage the teaching environment, when we're short of heads and so on," he said. "So we don't want this technology to be used to sue schools, but we know that parents want the best for their children, so the pressure to get the results is going to come."

Last year the examination board piloted the results feedback system of 1,500 pupils at 10 schools. From next week the results of all the 1.2 million pupils taking Edexcel GCSE and A-level examinations will be made available to heads all over Britain. Teachers will also be able to apply to see the results of their pupils. They will be able to compare them across the year group, with the national average and with past years. But they will not be able to look at other schools' results.

The students will also be able to access their own results, module scores and grades online. But they will have to ask their teachers for the school's comparative figures. They will also be able to tell how close they were to a higher grade and gauge whether they should ask for a re-mark. Mr Jarvis is also considering arming students with their test results throughout the year, as well as their classmates' average, the national average in a subject or course and that of neighbouring schools. "If I then see that I'm likely to gain a C and I can see that the class is performing at a much lower level than others, what do I do with that information?" he asks.

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that part of the problem was that parents were not expert at understanding the marking system.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, said most heads would welcome the information, and that they would be concerned only if it allowed parents to make comparisons between classes. "I don't think it will be easy to make comparisons on that basis, but obviously there's a concern that parents will try to and come to erroneous conclusions," he said.


An ex-Jihadi tells what it was like

For almost four years I was on the front line of British Islamism, serving as a regional officer in northeast England for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group committed to the creation of a puritanical caliphate. Since leaving the group in 2005, I've been concerned at just how easy it was for me to join a radical Islamist movement and why there was hardly any support available when I decided to leave. Hizb was a large family in many ways, a group offering social support, comradeship, a sense of purpose and validation.

At 21, it was intoxicating for me. I embraced my new Islamist identity and family with eagerness. Islamism transcends cultural norms, so it not only prompted me to reject my British identity but also my ethnic South Asian background. I was neither Eastern nor Western; I was a Muslim, a part of the global ummah, or community, where identity is defined through the fraternity of faith. Islamists insist this identity is not racist because Islam welcomes people of all colours, ethnicities and backgrounds. That was true, but our world view was still horribly bipolar. We didn't distinguish on the basis of colour but on creed. The world was simply divided into believers and non-believers. It was a reality that came back to haunt me last month when I realised that Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed, the two men linked with the alleged plot to attack London and Glasgow, were among my closest friends when I studied at Cambridge University.

My time in Cambridge was a turning point. I was studying for a doctorate, researching the development of Islamic political thought in late colonial India, which proved to be my saviour. My research caused me to find marked points of rupture in the historical and theological narrative of what the Hizb was having me believe. Previous generations had failed, the Hizb told me, to apply Islam to the reality of a changed and changing world in the early 20th century. What I found could not have been further from this.

Throughout my thesis I was able to survey a wide range of Muslim opinion across the Indian subcontinent, among whom Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a leading figure. He explained how Islam obliged Muslims to create a harmonious society. He was adept at offering lucid explanations from the texts of the Koran to show a secular state was validated through Islam. Failing to accommodate diversity showed a neglect of the Koran's opening chapter, al-Fatiha, which emphasises tolerance and mercy. Focusing on division rather than common humanity violated God's unity, said Azad, who insisted in The Tarjuman al-Qur'an that "the unity of man is the primary aim of religion". When independence came in 1947, Azad resisted the creation of Pakistan. Forming an exclusionary political identity in this way was against the essence of Islam.

My findings suffocated me. Far from being emancipated by my discovery, I fell into a spiral of confusion. I had sacrificed all my friends and family for a cause. Had it all been in vain? I felt overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness. And herein lies the problem. There was nowhere for me to turn. I didn't want to take my concerns to the Hizb because I knew what its response would be. If I weren't bullied back into action, I'd be made to feel guilty for leaving. I knew the protocol. When I embraced Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamist way of life there was an established network offering social support and validation. Shedding my old life was easy because I was absorbed by an alternative and more self-assured culture.

By the start of 2005, I was mentally no longer an Islamist. But there was no denying that emotionally I didn't have the courage to leave the Hizb. Then my nightmare was realised. I watched as London came under attack on July 7, 2005, by four British Muslims who claimed 52 innocent lives. This was the cauldron of Islamist hate boiling over.

When I resigned from Hizb ut-Tahrir, the social network that had once so warmly embraced me turned bitterly cold and confrontational. The inward love was replaced by the external hate. At 24, I had to rebuild my life, almost entirely from scratch. Traditionally, it is at university that you forge your most enduring and meaningful friendships. Overnight, mine disappeared. Then came hope. During recent months I have spoken at length with Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, who was also once in the ranks of the Hizb (and whose book extracts were reprinted in these pages last month). It was the revelation I was waiting for. When I met him, Husain's first words, breaking their way through a beaming smile, were: "It feels like I've known you for years."

Immediately our stories resonated with remarkable familiarity. We had both experienced the same feelings of isolation and desperation before we plucked up the courage to leave. Finally, I was not alone. Like old war veterans we shared stories, discussed what made us leave and what the future held. Having been a senior member in the Hizb, I know there are scores of others with similar concerns. Some of them have also left and are coming together to form a united front against Islamism. They are not irreligious sell-outs, agents or part of some Judeo-Christian cult committed to the downfall of Islam, as groups such as the Hizb would like to suggest. They are simply former Islamists who have rejected a particular political ideology while remaining committed to their Muslim faith.

The significance of this should not be underestimated. When I first left, I emphasised that the challenges of Islamist extremism could never be overcome until the Muslim community formulated its own response. Since meeting Husain and becoming aware of the emerging network of other former members, many of them also holding a senior rank at one time, I was reassured. An influential figure who is still within the movement but close to leaving recently told me and Husain, "Don't worry, your message is being heard."

The landscape in the Muslim community is changing. Just as the divisive message of political Islam has been spread by young men across Britain, there is a growing number of former activists leading the charge against the ideas that we once helped to promote. I only hope that our testimonies will encourage those still within Islamist movements to find the moral courage to leave.


Baby-feeding correctness

Katie Price, also known as Jordan, the British glamour model with big ambitions and even bigger breasts, has long taken pleasure in shocking the more uptight and prissy inhabitants of Britain's cultural landscape. She has inflated her breasts to 34 FF. She's posed topless for the Sun, nude for FHM, and Wow, Really Nude for Playboy. She used to turn up to movie premieres in items of clothing so revealing they made the once-shocking miniskirt look like the fashion equivalent of the burqa. She stood in the 2001 UK General Election, promising voters free breast implants, more nudist beaches and a complete ban on parking tickets (she got 713 votes). And amidst a cacophony of caterwauling about what a thick chav she allegedly is (the Chavscum website calls her `tacky talentless scum' and a `munting annoyance'), she has built a formidable one-woman modelling and promotions business. According to the Daily Mail's list of `Britain's Richest Celebrity Chavs', Price is worth œ30million, making her one of the wealthiest women in Britain.

Now she has done something that is apparently more shocking than anything on that list of nose-thumbing, puritan-baiting activities. This time she's really wound up those who fancy themselves as the guardians of our moral values. She has caused a `furious row', and has been accused of taking part in an `extremely cynical.stunt'. One organisation has denounced her as `appalling' and is planning to make a complaint about Price and others to the Advertising Standards Authority. What did Katie do next, to attract renewed attacks on her character? You had better be sitting down before you read this: She posed for a photograph in which she is shown bottlefeeding her newborn baby.

That's right - in the current issue of the celebrity magazine OK!, a postnatal yet glamorous Price can clearly be seen feeding her three-week-old daughter, Princess Tiaamii, from a bottle. What's worse, the bottle says `SMA' on it, SMA being one of the leading manufacturers of formula milk for babies. The breastfeeding lobby is up in arms. As a headline in yesterday's Independent on Sunday put it: `Breastfeeding lobby criticises Jordan for infant formula "stunt".' Groups such as the National Childbirth Trust and Baby Milk Action have slammed OK! as irresponsible for publishing such a photo during World Breastfeeding Week and at a time when `in this country, only 48 per cent of six-week-old babies are breastfed, while a quarter of babies get no breast milk' (1). They believe that Price and OK! may be in cahoots with SMA. There is a ban in Britain on promoting infant formula for babies under the age of six months, and some suspect that Price's photo-shoot - in which a loving mother is shown feeding her lovely newborn baby with a bottle of SMA-branded formula - is an `appalling' cynical attempt to circumvent the ban (2). Elsewhere in the current OK! there is an advert for SMA milk for babies over the age of six months.

So what? It would hardly be shocking to discover that a celebrity had used a photo-shoot or a TV appearance or some other publicity stunt to promote a product. They do it all the time. What is shocking, however, is the furious response to a perfectly pleasant photograph of a mother feeding her child. That an image of bottlefeeding can be greeted with such horror - denounced as `appalling' and `irresponsible' - shows how intolerant and hectoring the breastfeeding lobby has become. The `strong advice' that babies should be exclusively breastfed for at least the first six months of life is now promoted by everyone from the World Health Organisation to the National Health Service (NHS). And it is guilt-tripping mums and limiting their choices. Today's incessant promotion of breastfeeding (and the simultaneous demonisation of bottlefeeding as an activity so abhorrent that it apparently should not be depicted in popular magazines) long ago crossed the line from Health Campaign into the territory of the Moral Crusade.

Anyone who picks up the current issue of OK! probably would not be shocked by the Katie Price photo-shoot (unless you have an aversion to pink and half-naked, permantanned celebrities). It is your average `introducing the latest celeb baby to the world' type of spread. There are 19 bright and at times garish full-colour photos of Price, her husband Peter Andre, the former singer, and their daughter Princess Tiaamii - and only in one photo is Price shown bottlefeeding her daughter. Yet that is one photo too many for to the breastfeeding lobby. Today's breastfeeding moralists - or `militant lactivists' as they call themselves in the States - believe that mums should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months (and longer if possible) and should shun the bottle entirely.

In Britain, from the moment a woman gives birth she is cajoled by the health authorities, under the direction of the central government's Department of Health, to breastfeed her baby. Even though surveys continually show that a majority of women do bottlefeed their babies in the first six months of life, still the authorities promote the message that exclusive breastfeeding is the best, safest and most responsible option. An Infant Feeding Survey from a few years ago found that where 69 per cent of babies are breastfed initially, around a fifth of breastfeeding mothers give up within the first two weeks and over a third give up in the first six weeks. The percentage of mums who exclusively breastfeed falls as their babies get older: mothers seem to breastfeed less and bottlefeed more as their infant reaches four months, six months and especially nine months of age (3). Yet while mums seem to prefer mixing breast with bottle, the NHS dishes out leaflets on why every new mum should only breastfeed, bans are enforced on the promotion of formula milk for babies aged six months and under, and breastfeeding promoters rail against the publication of a photo showing a celebrity bottlefeeding her three-week-old baby.

Breast milk is, in some ways, better for babies than formula milk (though formula is still perfectly safe and nutritious). Scientific studies suggest that breast milk offers some protective effect against certain babyhood illnesses, and breastfeeding also allows mothers to regain their figures quite quickly after giving birth. However, today's militant lactivism is about much more than informing mothers of the fairly limited health benefits of one form of milk over another. It is about laying down the line on what makes a Good Mum and what makes a Bad Mum.

Mothers who exclusively breastfeed are seen as natural and earthy. They're seen as women who are willing to follow the advice of Health Workers Who Know Better and to elevate the interests of their newborn baby above their own. Their use of their breasts for feeding is taken as a sign that they have bought into the current trend for child-centred parenting (4). Mothers who opt for the bottle are looked upon as problematic, possibly even troublesome. After all, if they ignore health workers' advice about breastfeeding, what else will they decide to do their own way? Bottlefeeding mums are judged by some to have snubbed child-centred parenting in favour of adopting methods of feeding and childrearing that grant them the flexibility to continue doing things that they enjoy: socialising, working, returning their breasts to their recreational state for their own and their partner's pleasure. Breastfeeding has effectively become a government-imposed test of good motherhood: those who pass, by obediently breastfeeding baby for six months, are praised and celebrated; those who fail, by turning to apparently evil formula milk, are looked upon as `irresponsible', possibly even `appalling'.

That breastfeeding has become a moral crusade is clear from the language that is used to promote it. The message that `breast is best' is strengthened by stringent bans on the advertising of formula milk for infants under six months of age, and by harsh judgements against those, such as Katie Price, who admit publicly that they bottlefeed. Indeed, it's hard to escape the conclusion that what really upset the militant lactivists about Price's spread in OK! magazine is not just the SMA photo, but also what Price herself says about breastfeeding.

Price tells the OK! interviewer: `I don't care what people say - you don't have to breastfeed.' She goes on: `I don't want a baby drinking from me. The thought of it makes me feel really funny. I think only a certain person could handle my knockers!' She also waxes lyrical about the benefits and ease of instant bottlefeeding. `It's brilliant. I have 20 crates of teats and bottles, and I don't have to sterilise or heat anything. You literally take the teat out of the pack, screw it on, throw it away.. They gave me a tablet that dries your milk up so my boobs haven't hurt or leaked or anything.' In today's quite hysterical pro-breastfeeding climate, saying such things - that you think breastfeeding is weird, that you much prefer to use bottles and that you want only your partner to have oral contact with your breasts - is tantamount to committing a mortal sin. In the past, Price's comments would have been looked upon simply as one woman's expression of her mothering preferences. Today, such is the intensity of the lactivists' crusade that Price has landed herself in hot water for daring to challenge the orthodoxy and conformist campaigning of the breastfeeding lobby.

In many ways, Price, the former glamour model turned businesswoman, is more liberated than the breastfeeding cheerleaders at the Department of Health and in campaign groups such as Baby Milk Action and the National Childbirth Trust. The bottle was once seen as a symbol of women's emancipation. If women so chose, they could disconnect themselves physically from baby and instead buy readymade milk, which either they or, importantly, their partners could feed to their child. It seems Price prefers bottles to breast because she wants to get back to work (and her breasts are an important part of her public image) and because she wants only her partner to `handle her knockers': in other words, she is keen to continue carving out a successful career and enjoying her sex life. Militant lactivists, by contrast, seem to view breasts as semi-sacred expressers of milk, and call on all new mothers to submit themselves fully and physically to the task of childrearing. Who would have thought that big-boobed Jordan would make a better defender of women's liberation than the educated feminists in positions of power?


Viruses that kill bacteria may help with MRSA

A type of “good” virus that infects and kills many types of harmful bacteria is being investigated by scientists in the fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as MRSA. A cream containing the viruses, known as bacteriophages (phages), has been developed to eliminate hospital-acquired infections and could be available within three years. Similar treatments are also being developed for bacterial ear infections and food poisoning, which are triggered by the most stubbornly resistant bugs.

Despite having been used in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to treat infections since the 1920s, the viruses have been neglected in the West for more than 60 years. Scientists are now re-examining whether phage therapies, previously considered to have been superseded by antibiotics, can curb overuse of the drugs. Clinical trials of the proposed cream for MRSA are planned next year after laboratory tests in which phages wiped out more than 15 strains of the superbug.

MRSA is one of a gathering army of microbes that are becoming immune to antibiotic medicines. Others include resistant strains of tuberculosis, the food bug Escherichia coli, and two more causes of hospital infections, Acinetobacter and Pseudomonas.

Contrary to current guidance to eliminate infections, which emphasises the importance of regular hand-washing and use of alcohol gels, the anti-MRSA cream could be applied to the inside of the nose, where bacteria are known to thrive. The cream is likely to contain a “cocktail” of three or four types of virus so that it is difficult for the bugs to build up resistance to it.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is carried in the body of one in three people without any ill effects, but it can cause potentially lethal infections in hospitals, where sick people come into contact with those harbouring the bacteria. Latest figures show that there were 3,517 MRSA infections in British hospitals between October 2005 and March last year. Shedding of the bug from the nose is the main mode of transmission, researchers say. Treating the full range of hospital-acquired infections costs the NHS about 1 billion pounds a year.

Nick Housby, chief executive of the Coventry-based biotech company Novolytics, which is carrying out the research, said that the aim was to use the phage cream as a preventative measure that could be given to staff and patients a day or two before they go into hospital. But he added that it could also eliminate infections in affected patients within 24 hours. “We’re extremely optimistic,” he said. We know we can kill, in the laboratory, clinically relevant strains. It’s a question now of putting it into the right cream, in terms of the formulation, to make sure that it works.”

The cream would be applied with a stick inserted into the nose. The viruses could then target MRSA bacteria, injecting them with their own genetic material. The bugs are reprogrammed to produce more viruses, which then break out of their host, destroying it in the process. Since the viruses reproduce themselves, repeat treatments would not be needed as frequently as with antibiotics.

The viruses are now starting to make a comeback in the West, where more than 12 companies are now developing phage products. Geoff Hanlon, an expert in the viruses at the University of Brighton, said: “We’re now finding antibiotics are becoming less useful. The climate is probably right to revisit bacteriophage therapy.”



Government officials have secretly briefed ministers that Britain has no hope of getting remotely near the new European Union renewable energy target that Tony Blair signed up to in the spring - and have suggested that they find ways of wriggling out of it. In contrast to the government's claims to be leading the world on climate change, officials within the former Department of Trade and Industry have admitted that under current policies Britain would miss the EU's 2020 target of 20% energy from renewables by a long way. And their suggestion that "statistical interpretations of the target" be used rather than new ways to reach it has infuriated environmentalists.

An internal briefing paper for ministers, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, reveals that officials at the department, now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, think the best the UK could hope for is 9% of energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro by 2020. It says the UK "has achieved little so far on renewables" and that getting to 9%, from the current level of about 2%, would be "challenging".

The paper was produced in the early summer, around the time the government published its energy white paper. Under current policies renewables would account for only 5% of Britain's energy mix by 2020, the document says. The EU average is 7%; Germany is at 13%. It acknowledges that Germany, unlike Britain, has built a "strong and growing renewables industry".

EU leaders agreed the 20% target for the bloc in spring. The European Commission is working out how to reach this . DBERR officials fear that Britain may end up being told to get to 16%, which it describes as "very challenging". The paper suggests a number of ways ministers could wriggle out of specific commitments. It also suggests ministers lobby certain EU commissioners and countries such as France, Germany, Poland and Italy to agree to a more flexible interpretation of the target, by including nuclear power, for example, or investment in solar farms in Africa.

Officials ask ministers to examine "what options there are for statistical interpretations of the target that would make it easier to achieve". They suggest the target lacks credibility because it is so ambitious, while acknowledging that the Germans will be difficult to persuade because the Chancellor Angela Merkel is the champion of the 20% target and wants to commit Germany to 27%. "These flexible options are ones that may be difficult to negotiate with some member states such as Germany, who we expect to resist approaches that may be seen to water down the renewables target," the briefing says.

Environmentalists were shocked. "This briefing reads like a 'wriggle and squirm' paper," said Andrew Simms, director of the New Economics Foundation. "It combines almost comic desperation from civil servants suddenly realising that they actually have to do something to promote renewable energy, with a breathtaking cynicism as they explore every conceivable get-out clause to escape the UK's international commitments."


Rare realism from a British charity: "One of Britain's leading charities has warned students not to take part in gap-year aid projects overseas which cost thousands of pounds and do nothing to help developing countries. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) said that gap-year volunteering, highlighted by Princes William and Harry, has spawned a new industry in which students pay thousands of pounds for prepackaged schemes to teach English or help to build wells in developing countries with little evidence that it benefits local communities. It said that "voluntourism" was often badly planned and spurious projects were springing up across Africa, Asia and Latin America to satisfy the demands of the students rather than the needs of locals. Young people would be better off simply travelling the world and enjoying themselves, it added."

BBC presenter was NOT drunk! Oh no!: "Normal service will be resumed, the BBC has promised, after Radio 2 listeners raised concerns over another baffling early-morning performance by Sarah Kennedy. The broadcaster mispronounced words and let sentences tail off in a rambling show that prompted a number of listeners to voice fears for her health on the station's website. Kennedy, 57, referred to Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a "pink polka blot" dress and described the victim in the Phil Spector murder trial as having a "gunshot to her month". She offered to send some "panties" to soldiers in Afghanistan and also appeared to have difficulty reading the newspaper review."

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