Wednesday, October 03, 2007


A personal message from Australia

I developed a problem with one of the fillings in my teeth over the weekend so first thing on Monday, I rang a few dentists listed in the phone book and got an appointment NEXT DAY at a dentist less than 15 minutes drive from where I live.

I arrived on time at 2.30pm, was in the chair within 10 minutes, and out of the chair with my filling fixed in another 10 minutes. It cost me $50 (about the price of 4 packets of cigarettes) and I was home again within 45 minutes of setting out.

And a small but pleasant bonus: The dental receptionist was a real stunner -- pushup bra and all.

I even had time for a chat with the dentist about the "evils" of the old amalgam fillings, of which I have several. He pointed out that the dentists who were handling daily the mercury used to make up the amalgam should have been the ones most at risk but that there was no evidence that they were affected.

In Britain, a large part of the population rely on NHS dentistry but just cannot get the service that is supposedly available. Some have even resorted to pulling their own teeth out with pliers etc.

In Australia, people have always seen dentistry as a private expenditure which can be included in your private health insurance (up to a point) if desired. There is a "free" government service but the wait for it stretches into the years and it is therefore seen as only for the very poor.

If Britain had a voucher system for dentistry instead of the present dysfunctional system, all Brits could have the sort of rapid relief from discomfort that I experienced.

The destructive British class system

Which has become more entrenched under Labour, despite their inflated rhetoric. Why? Because the Labour party has done its best to block the best route to upward mobility -- the Grammar (selective) schools. A Grammar School graduate comments:

I recently met a bright 17-year-old from a working-class background who attended his local comprehensive in London. He was funny and articulate. I asked whether he or anyone at his school had considered applying to Oxford or Cambridge. He laughed: "We don't think it's for people like us." It is a reaction I hear often and helps to explain a sad waste of talent in Britain today. Last week a study showed that just 200 elite schools accounted for one third of admissions to the top dozen universities and half of all places at Oxford and Cambridge. The remaining 3,500 schools and colleges account for the other half. It is neither fair nor sensible.

While others are tempted to pin the blame on biased universities, I believe there is something more deep-rooted at work - a culture of low aspirations shared not just by students, but in many cases by their parents and teachers, too. There are many excellent teachers doing their best for the students, but it is a disturbing fact that some bright pupils are actively discouraged from reaching for the top.

I have long taken a personal interest in this question. Last week's university research was carried out by the Sutton Trust, the educational charity that I founded and chair, in an attempt to widen the circle of opportunity. I know first-hand how important aiming high can be. I grew up on a council estate in Yorkshire where I was lucky enough to pass the 11-plus [Grammar School admission]. Until this point nobody had suggested I might go to university. My parents encouraged me to work hard, but university was a world away from their own experiences. My father found a better job and we moved to a detached house in Surrey and I went to Reigate grammar school where, if you did well, you were encouraged to go on to university. Then, in another upwardly mobile shift, we moved again and I ended up at Cheltenham grammar, where bright boys were encouraged to aim for Oxbridge.

If my family had stayed in Yorkshire I would almost certainly not have gone to university. If we had stayed in Surrey I would not have gone to Oxford. Higher aspirations changed my life. Oxford led on to the London Business School, to a career in consulting and private equity. I never looked back. That was decades ago; I would have hoped that things had improved. But they have got worse. Sadly, in Britain today, aspirations are rooted in class. According to our research, parents in professional and managerial occupations believe that their children will go on to take A-levels, to attend good universities and end up in high-paying careers. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those in lower-paid jobs, by contrast, are likely to think that their children will leave school at 16 and go into routine employment.

You might think the classroom would act as a corrective. But all too often low expectations are reinforced by our socially selective school system. The Sutton Trust has surveyed 20% of the teachers in state schools who advise students on university - and more than 80% of them said they thought their pupils would find it difficult to fit into the top universities, particularly Oxbridge. Hard-pressed teachers face many other pressures and in some cases lack the confidence and know-how. Parents, meanwhile, are frustrated. Some even tell of instances where their children have been told not to bother applying to Oxford or Cambridge, despite being qualified.

That is why the Sutton Trust has announced that, together with its partners, it will spend 10 million pounds over the next five years to expand its sponsorship of outreach programmes such as summer schools to dispel the myths around the top universities. Even then it can be an uphill struggle. There is a shortage of applications from boys (less than a third). Many of those who do come hide it from their peers for fear of being branded a "swot".

This could not be more different from the attitudes of young people from independent schools. Their classmates are aiming to be bankers, lawyers and doctors. These children are articulate and confident. They have every reason to be. They have spent summers travelling overseas and undertaking internships at prestigious firms, not stacking shelves. Going to Oxford or Bristol or Durham is the natural next step.

It is no wonder that social mobility has declined in Britain and we languish at the bottom of the international league table. Also, the relationship between children's educational performance and their family background is stronger here than anywhere else in the developed world. If you are born poor, your qualifications will reflect the fact and you will remain poor.

Raising the aspirations of young people - as well as parents and teachers - is half the battle. The Sutton Trust is trying. We work with children in the early years, through school and into further and higher education, to provide the sort of support and encouragement to nonprivileged youngsters that better-off families and high-achieving schools provide as a matter of course. More is needed. Why not open up leading private and state schools to those from nonprivileged backgrounds, as has been done successfully at the Belvedere school in Liverpool and Pate's in Cheltenham? We should learn from successful schools and extend the opportunities they offer to all.

Children's futures should not be down to luck: we must ensure that all young people have access to real educational opportunities. That is a very modest ambition for a country that prides itself on fair play.


Peanut policy 'wrong'

Hmmmm.... The House of Lords is well-known for independent thinking so the conclusions of their expert committees deserve much respect. It seems to me however that societies who expose children to peanut products from an early age might simply be killing off the susceptible ones -- with the outcome misattributed to cot death etc. Peanuts are absolutely pervasive in Southeast Asian cuisine (Thai, Vietnamese etc.) so I supect that any peanut allergies there must have been bred out of the population (by killing off susceptible infants) long ago

PARENTS who shield their children from peanut products may be fuelling the peanut allergy epidemic. Repeated exposure of a child's immune system to peanut allergen at an early age might result in tolerance and prevent the development of a dangerous allergy, research suggests.

Peanut allergy rose 117 per cent between 2001 and 2005 in Britain, despite guidelines advising pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as children up to age two, to avoid nuts. The dramatic rise is echoed in Australia, with one in 200 infants having a peanut allergy.

Commenting on the research, provided to the influential British House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Australian experts are divided about whether avoidance or consumption reduces the risk of an allergy. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy said although avoiding all nuts and shellfish may be recommended until age two in most children, and until age four in children with a family history of allergy or those born premature, there is no evidence to support this. It said avoiding certain foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding has not been shown to cut the risk of allergic disease.

President of Anaphylaxis Australia Maria Said said many mothers without a history of allergy were unnecessarily avoiding nut products because they had been scared by stories of children dying from severe reactions....

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, who chaired the House of Lords committee's investigation, said: "Academics and clinicians have told us that a growing body of evidence has suggested this guidance may not only be failing to prevent peanut allergy, but might possibly even be counterproductive." The committee supported a Learning About Peanut Allergy study, which is investigating a theory that repeatedly exposing a child's immune system to peanut at an early age teaches their body to tolerate peanut proteins.

In parts of Africa, where peanuts are made into soup for weaning babies, and Israel, where they are incorporated into a babies' rusk, allergy levels are low or non-existent. However, University of Sydney clinical immunologist Rob Loblay said "there are big dangers in extrapolating from one community to another".


A new moral panic in Britain

Families endangered by do-gooders again. Note that in one of my more widely-cited papers, I found no relationship between attitude to animals and attitude to people

Does harming an animal suggest that you would harm a child? Many people wouldn’t think that one kind of behaviour would necessarily be linked to the other. Yet, it is claimed that agencies are now taking children away from their parents based on this very thinking, which appears to have become remarkably mainstream in academic and professional thought.

This latest development has echoes of the Satanic abuse moral panic of the late Eighties and early Nineties, when a substantial number of children were removed from their homes on the basis of allegations of ritual abuse - arguably on the basis of panic rather than evidence. Some cases of ritual abuse, then and since, are real, but the frequency of such reports has not been maintained, which suggests that the incidence of Satanic abuse at that time was as much perceived as real. In a BBC documentary broadcast in 2006, Real Story: When Satan Came to Town, the agencies responsible stated that such a sequence of events could ‘not be repeated [as] in the intervening years the whole landscape of child protection has changed’, citing better line-management; improved inter-agency co-operation; and a more professionalized work force.

For all that, it is now claimed that a small number of children have been removed from their families by professional agencies because an ‘abused’ animal is living in the same house. Meanwhile, vets are encouraged to check animals for sex abuse, a practice suggested to be fairly widespread (1). The assumption behind these actions is that violence is linked (and therefore predictable), and an abused animal indicates the likely presence of abused children. This new ‘moral panic’ resembles the earlier one, and the confidence of those claiming ‘it could never happen again’ appears misplaced.

Satanic panic

The concept of a moral panic was developed by Stanley Cohen in 1972. It is understood as a pattern of mass behaviour, based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behaviour or group of people, frequently a subculture, is deviant and a menace to society. Moral panics are fuelled by media coverage, framed in terms of morality, and expressed as outrage rather than fear. They often revolve around issues of sex or violence, and involve elements of legend.

However moral panics are theorised, contemporary ones have a tendency to cluster or ‘stick’ to other panics sharing overarching concerns, which makes it much more difficult to identify them at an early stage and to argue against them coherently. So, the ‘paedophile panic’ (2), and ‘child killer’ panic (3), co-exist with both the Satanic and the ‘links’ panic.

The idea of a highly organised cult of Satanists intent on the sexual abuse and murder of children appeared in the early 1980s. Child sexual abuse is an obvious candidate for contemporary moral panics, being defined not merely as a social ill, but as evil. The Satanic panic, based on the belief that children were being subjected to ritualised sexual abuse, can be traced back to a nursery in California. A psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, was writing a book about a patient (later his wife) who had reported abuse by a Satanic cult earlier in her life. The story of the nursery was reported by the media, which eventually led to Lawrence Pazder being invited to comment. Padzer claimed that the accused nursery worker was central to an international Satanic conspiracy. The Satanic panic was launched, but while there were many twists and tales in this story, the nursery worker was later cleared of all accusations.

At the time, many professionals readily believed that organized networks of Satanists were engaged in brainwashing and abusing victims. Others judged it wise to downplay Satan’s role, but still thought it likely that networks of ritualised abuse were commonplace. While some elements of the story seem bizarre (involving sharks and dragons killing children, babies cooked in ovens etc), over a short period social workers on both sides of the Atlantic took large numbers of children ‘into care’. Specialist teams were formed (with 80-90 such cases across the UK), and within a relatively short time many groups of social workers and others were convinced that children were caught up in a conspiracy involving, among others, freemasons and police officers. Britain’s major child protection charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) published so-called ‘Satanic indicators’, to help case workers identify a likely profile (4).

Eventually, cases in the UK (and elsewhere) died away and few today consider them to have the credibility they were once granted. This is not to deny the fact that children are abused, that abuse in some cases is ritualistic, and that some children remained in care for perfectly good reasons. But it is no accident that the huge majority of the families caught up in this panic lived in relative poverty, leading some to describe it as a ‘penalisation of the poor’. Although the responsible agencies claim to have learned from these mistakes, today in the same countries many now seek a cross-reporting protocol aimed at ensuring children can be removed from their families if an ‘abused’ animal lives in their household.

Links panic

There are similarities between the Satanic panic and this more recent manifestation which is based on the cultural myth that ‘violence breeds violence’. Causal links have been elaborated in the ‘cycles of abuse’ model of family therapeutic literature and, although the hypothesis is highly contested, it has acquired the status of a truism. Many accept uncritically that all violence is linked: thus adults who harm animals also harm children, and such relationships are clear cut, consistent, and predictable.

However, there are a number of difficulties with this approach. There is evidence that people deal with the experience of violence in diverse and unpredictable ways. The language of abuse fails to acknowledge that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ varies between classes, cultures and sometimes sexes. Harming animals is morally complex and culturally ambiguous, yet research and practice tends to treat it as simple and unproblematic. Few studies provide a satisfactory definition of what is to be classified as animal abuse and this is compounded by disputes about what counts as child abuse.

The UK’s main animal welfare organisation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), currently prosecutes up to 1,000 people a year, but the majority of these cases involve neglect not violence. To assume that neglecting an animal can be linked to violence towards a child appears even more spurious. Accounts often report the same few infamous criminals (Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, the Boston Strangler, Jamie Bulger’s killers) who have admitted to harming animals, but such sensationalist ‘evidence’ cannot hide the absence of serious base-line data. The links panic is reliant on the kind of consequential fallacy which would be noticed by most undergraduate philosophy students: all serial killers have mothers but not everyone who has a mother is a serial killer.

The problem is further compounded by whether the kind of people sampled in this research are likely to be telling the truth. Owning up to harming animals is difficult but a criminal sample, with a hard image to maintain, will readily admit to such behaviour. The essentially individualistic approach that characterises most of the links and cycles arguments emphasises individual pathology. As before, the NSPCC have produced guidelines (5). Broader issues concerning the socio-economic context of violence towards animals are disregarded – and again families caught up in this panic tend to be poor.

The links panic also has its origins in the US. A small number of academics have promoted ‘the links’, mainly via conferences, since the mid-1990s. Belief in the argument is now so strong that to publish academic papers to the contrary in most US or UK violence-orientated journals is challenging, as most of the likely referees take links for granted. The missionary zeal stands comparison with those who supported the earlier Satanic panic.

As a participant at the first such conference held in England (Making the Links, NSPCC and RSPCA, February 2001), I attempted to distribute a brief questionnaire asking participants (mainly animal and child welfare workers) to specify their occupation, and to note down the worst thing (if any) they had done to an animal, and to post their anonymous responses in a box at the back of the conference room (a similar exercise with groups of trainee social workers had proved informative). This was prohibited at the last moment, in spite of prior permission having been granted. Given that the links argument relies on the assumption that harming animals is a predictive variable in indicating an individual who is likely to be exceptionally violent towards people in the future, suppressing such information is suspect, and suggests doubts about research funded by organisations with a particular brief. Yet such agencies seek ‘a cross-reporting protocol’ between animal welfare and child protection agencies, an idea and practice based on a presumption of links.


The UK government has recently reviewed the risks of employing sex offenders and has determined that the category of people requiring ‘vetting’ should be extended to cover anybody ‘whose work… places them in a position of trust in relation to children’ (6). This could reasonably be expected to include bus drivers, shop workers, cinema ushers, and even other children’s parents. Some aspects of the UK’s current vetting includes ‘soft’ intelligence (eg, police information on convictions, cautions, reprimands, warnings and even allegations) as if all these are equally significant (7). If cross-reporting procedures are extended to include information of those cautioned and/or prosecuted for neglecting an animal, the potential for major miscarriages of justice is apparent.

As a result of previous research and publication, I have been approached by a number of individuals and representatives of a self-help group for those experiencing difficulties with the RSPCA. They claim: ‘Very often people who come to our help-line say that the RSPCA turn up on their doorstep in the morning and take their animals, and social services arrive in the afternoon to take their children, saying that they have been informed of the studies linking the two abuses. ’ If this is the case, this seems perilously close to similar actions during the Satanic panic. However, these processes go unreported in the UK context, because while reporting animal abuse is widespread, child care proceedings remain sub judice.

While it would be foolish to claim that there is never a ‘link’ between violent behaviours, extreme or exotic cases cannot provide secure foundations for generalised arguments, predictions, or policies that can safely or ethically be applied to the mass of the population. Recent discussions have treated the Satanic panic as a modern day witch-hunt with little foundation, and I suggest that, in retrospect, similar comments will be directed at simplified forms of the links argument and the panic it has induced.

How many under-resourced individuals and families will have their lives disrupted or ruined in the meantime? How many children will have their lives wrecked by those very vetting procedures which it is claimed are in place to protect them? How much collateral damage is acceptable?


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