Monday, September 24, 2007

Collapse of basic education in Scotland -- despite the traditional Scottish love of education

Tens of thousands of children are failing to master the basics of numeracy and literacy in primary and secondary schools, an audit of standards has revealed. Data obtained by The Sunday Times shows that levels of attainment among pupils finishing primary school and about to embark on Standard Grade courses fell in about half of local authorities last year.

The picture of chronic failure has angered parents and politicians, who claim that successive administrations have mishandled education policy. Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Tories, described the findings as “shocking”. He called for head teachers to be given greater power to run schools and restore standards. Glasgow and Inverclyde are among the worst performing areas, as is Fife.

In more than half of Glasgow’s secondary schools, most S2 pupils fail to reach basic standards in writing, while in one in three of its schools more than half of its S2 pupils do not achieve required levels in reading. In Aberdeen, a majority of primary seven pupils failed to reach the Scottish government’s recommended level D standard in writing in nearly 40% of schools. In east Ayrshire the figure is nearly a third. Primary school standards fell in at least one subject (reading, writing or maths) in 11 out of 22 education authorities that provided figures for the past two years and 9 out of 22 at S2 level. In a third of Fife schools, most S2 pupils failed to reach level E standard in maths. Many education authorities, however, improved in some subjects. Glasgow’s secondary schools saw noticeable improvements, especially in maths, as did the Highlands and Falkirk.

The analysis of standards uses data obtained under freedom of information legislation. The SNP administration, like the previous Lib/Lab coalition, opposes the publication of national league tables. Equivalent data for England is readily available. It confirms fears that the transition from primary to secondary school damages the prospects of thousands of pupils, with an attainment gap between children aged 12 and 14. In 3% of Glasgow primary schools, 50% of children (or more) fail to meet reading standards. At secondary level this rises to 30%. The disparity in results is not just within schools in the same council area but within different skills in the same classroom. Most Aberdeenshire S2 pupils achieved level E reading standard, but in 47% of the authority’s secondaries less than half of pupils reached the required grade in writing, compared to 35% the previous year. Writing skills are a particular weakness across Scotland. In half of Inverclyde secondary schools the majority failed to meet the required standard.

Notable success stories include Stirling, where the number of schools with half (or more) of S2 pupils failing in writing fell from 43% to 29%. Similar improvements were made in reading attainment.

Nonetheless, Fraser described the statistics as dismal. “Far too many youngsters are being failed by the system. The Scottish government has yet to recognise the seriousness of the problem or come up with anything to tackle it. Teaching methods need to be looked at and school heads need more control in their own environment.”

Victor Topping, of the NAS-UWT teaching union, suggested too many inexperienced probationer teachers had taken the place of experienced staff. He called for a greater focus on teaching children the three Rs. “For children who are struggling, the curriculum is too cluttered,” said Topping. “If children are in difficulty with maths and English skills, is there any point in trying to do other subjects with them?”

Tina Woolnough, chairman of the education campaign group Parents in Partnership, accused ministers of underfunding additional learning support for struggling pupils. She spoke of the human story of lost children behind the statistics. “We should know what their home life is like, what their diet is like and if they are getting adequate sleep and living normal routines,” she said. “Childcare is probably lacking for a hard core of failing families and we are not making any headway. Often schools don’t have the resources to tackle these problems, they only have resources for the extreme cases. The rest have to muddle on through.”

The Scottish government said it was focusing on early intervention in schools, including smaller class sizes, to drive up standards. [A pity that smaller classes do NOT improve standards. But how can we expect the Scottish exceutive to know what has been known elsewhere for decades?]


Binge drinking is good for you

I think that the inimitable Jeremy Clarkson has a good and serious point after the mockery below

Who are they? The people who decide how we should run our lives. The busybodies who say that we can't smoke foxes or smack our children. The nitwits who say that we should have a new bank holiday to celebrate traffic wardens and social workers. Where do they meet? Who pays their wages? And how do they get their harebrained schemes into the statute books? Honestly? I haven't a clue. But I do know this. It's very obvious that their new target is people who drink alcohol - ie, everyone over the age of eight.

Over the years we've been told that we can't drive a car if we've had a wine and that we should avoid alcohol if we're pregnant. But now they seem to be saying that all people must steer clear of all drinks always. Having told young people that they must stop drinking while on a night out, in case they are stabbed or end up having sex with a pretty girl, they now say that older people, who think it's acceptable to enjoy a bottle of wine with their supper, are clogging up hospital wards that could otherwise be used to treat injured foxes. We are told that alcohol rots your liver, makes you impotent, gives you stomach ulcers and turns your skin into something that looks like a used condom's handbag.

Only last week we were shown photographs of a stick-thin man with a massive stomach who had died at the age of 36 because he'd had too many sherry trifles. The BBC says that if you drink too much your brain stem will break and you will die. The British government tells us that if a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine a day he will catch chlamydia from the barmaid in the pub garden after closing time. Rubbish. If a man drinks two small glasses of white wine every day it's the barman he needs to worry about.

Me? Well, what I love most of all is binge drinking. Really getting stuck in. Hosing back the cocktails until the room begins to swim and my legs seem to be on backwards. It's not just the recklessness and freedom that result when massive quantities of alcohol unlock the shackles. It's the promise that in the morning you can share your pain with a bunch of other similarly afflicted friends. Normal pain, such as an eye disease or toothache, is a lonely and solitary pursuit, but a group hangover is a problem shared and that seems to bring out the best in us. Like the blitz. Like when you've just stepped off a terrifying rollercoaster ride. Everyone's in it together. And a problem shared is a problem pared.

Of course, the trouble these days is that the binge drinking that is necessary to produce collective hardship is a complete nono. They say that if you go out and get blasted you'll die in a puddle of blood and vomit down a back alley long before you get the chance to catch chlamydia from the barman, and that no one will come to your funeral.

Happily this is rubbish. I've just done a calculation and on holiday this year I drank 55 units of alcohol a day. I would start at 11 o'clock with a beer which, because it was hot, was like trying to irrigate East Anglia with a syringe. So I would have three more. Then I would guzzle wine and mojitos throughout the afternoon, the evening and the night until I fell over somewhere and slept. Am I now dead? No. In fact, because I drank so much I was more relaxed, which means that I'm back at home now feeling fresher and more rested. So there you have it. Serious binge drinking is not only a nice thing to do and jolly good fun, but also - and here's something that you won't get from the mongers of doom - it's good for you, too.

The point of binge drinking is that you drink and then you stop drinking. And this is the key. The real problem is when you drink - and you keep on drinking. This is known as alcoholism and that, so far as I can tell, is the worst thing in the world. There is nothing quite so pitiable and wretched as an alcoholic. I know plenty of people who take drugs, drive too fast and kill foxes. And they're all good company. But honestly, I would rather do time in a Turkish prison than spend time with a drinker. They ramble, they fall over, they think they are 10 times more interesting than is actually the case - and if they get the slightest inkling that you disapprove or are bored a great many become aggressive. These are the people whom the busybodies should be concentrating on. Not with stern words and dire warnings, neither of which will make the slightest bit of difference, but with help and understanding and patience.

Seriously, by telling me that I'm an alcoholic because I binge drink on holiday and share a bottle of wine with my wife over supper every night is the same as persecuting everyone who breaks the speed limit. We need to make a distinction between someone doing 32mph and someone doing 175mph. And it's the same story with child abuse. By telling me that I'm breaking the law every time I smack my children's bottoms, you are taking the pressure off those who lock their kids in a broom cupboard and only let them out to go thieving. My handy hint this morning, then, is simple. Leave the normal people who do normal things alone. Forget about the people who drink for fun and worry only about those who drink to live.


`Quickie' breast surgery on way

WOMEN undergoing a new type of breast enlargement will be able to go out to dinner on the evening of their operation, British plastic surgeons will be told this week. John Tebbetts, a Texan plastic surgeon, will tell the annual meeting of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons the augmentation can be carried out in 30 minutes and will greatly reduce the damage to skin and breast tissue. Tebbetts, based in Dallas, said: "After the surgery we tell the women to go home, have a little nap then get up after two hours, wash their hair, which helps them stretch their muscles, then to go out to dinner. Between 80 and 85% of our patients go out on the evening of their surgery."

The operation, marketed as the "out to dinner" breast augmentation, involves carrying out exact measurements of the breast skin and tissue in advance so that exactly the right size of implant is inserted. Completing the operation in between 30 to 40 minutes means the woman requires low levels of anaesthetic drugs. Tebbetts avoids bleeding by using an extremely precise cutting device. His patients are promised no tubes, no visible bruising and no need for special bras. They can drive on the day of surgery and resume normal activities the next day.

But Tebbetts says women need to be educated out of thinking they require a period of convalescence. "Women have got to get out of the mindset that they are going to be ill after this operation."

Patrick Mallucci, a British consultant plastic surgeon, will this week unveil his formula for the perfectly proportioned breast to an augmentation symposium at the Royal College of Surgeons. Mallucci said the ideal breast has the nipple sitting about 45% from the top, pointing slightly skyward. "An attractive breast has a balanced proportion between the upper half and lower half. All the models I looked at conformed to those parameters."


Batty Britain again: "A radical Muslim cleric banned from his local mosque was allowed to work as a hospital chaplain, according to a BBC London investigation. Usman Ali has been banned from his local mosque in Woolwich, London, after trustees won a court injunction. But the ex-member of banned group Al Muha-ji-roun led prayers for NHS staff at Woolwich's Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Hospital staff said they had suspended Mr Ali two days ago after concerns were raised by the police. The 30-year-old British born preacher was banned for life from entering his local mosque in Woolwich after trustees won a county court injunction against him in January. It was an unprecedented step and cost the mosque 30,000 pounds. BBC London has seen the judge's order on the case and found that Ali had shown a video to children in the mosque containing clips of planes flying into the world trade centre during which he chanted "God is great". Mosque trustees said they warned hospital officials about Mr Ali months ago but nothing was done".

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