Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Best school in town and still they want to close it

The envious British Left again: Stoke-on-Trent is failing its pupils badly, so how on earth does it think it will raise standards by shutting its successful grammar school?

There are many reasons why St Joseph's College, a Catholic grammar in Stoke-on-Trent, is a thriving school. Its academic performance at GCSE and A-level puts it in the top 200 in the country. Its pastoral care is sensitive and exhaustive. Its extra-curricular activities are the best the state system has to offer. And its head teacher, Roisin Maguire, is, says Ofsted, an "outstanding leader".

But it's the smell of fresh bread, wafting from a DT laboratory, that gets me. It's the interrupted year 9 French class who wait, in turn, to give different reasons why each and every one of them "loves coming to school". It's the first XV rugby team sheet stuck to the noticeboard in the school reception. And it's the sixth-former, Katie Bailey, who has no fear in asking to plunder my contacts book so that she can "get into journalism".

Astonishingly, this happy, confident establishment - one of 164 grammar schools remaining in the country - is threatened with closure. Under plans drawn up by Serco, the private company enlisted by Stoke-on-Trent council to tackle the authority's educational needs, it is possible that St Joseph's could close in 2010 to be replaced by a nonselective Catholic school on the same site, with a different set of governors and staff. It would be the first grammar school to shut for nearly 20 years.

Stoke-on-Trent, a Labour council, turned to Serco because it was in freefall, having been named the third worst local authority for education in the country. Serco, in turn, has responded by drafting four proposals to restructure the authority's secondary schools. The "favoured" proposal at present is to shut all the secondary schools in the area and reopen 12 new secondary schools - a mixture of trust schools and academies - and four new special schools in the district, with a 200m pound boost in funding.

The restructuring is, says Ged Rowney, director of children and young people's services, a "great opportunity" and one that it is "essential we grasp". This is all well and good. Stoke-on-Trent does need to do something about its secondary schools. But why meddle with its best? The council says that for the process to be "fair" it needs to consider all schools in its restructuring process, not just the failing ones. Part of the problem for Stoke is that its schools are 23% under capacity - which means, for efficiency's sake, some will have to shut. But again, why St Joseph's? "It's something I find very hard to fathom," says Maguire. "Yes, we're selective, but that's not why we're good. There are selective schools in this country who are not doing so well. It's about what you do with the kids once you get them. This school isn't a good school because it's Catholic or it's selective. It's a good school because we know every child and we love them and care for them and we challenge them."

Maguire explains that unlike most grammar schools, St Joseph's does not simply take the brightest pupils. Indeed, Ofsted does not even class St Joseph's as "a grammar". It does have an entrance test, but it is one that 75% of applicants pass. After that, entrance is determined by "faith criteria", whereby the child's parents are asked to fill out a form, co-authored by their relevant "religious leader", on how righteous their 11-year-old is. About 80 students in every year are Catholic and the remaining 30-40 are from a variety of other faiths. In the sixth form, St Joseph's takes another 50-70 pupils from nearby city state schools. "There are many very bright children who do not get into St Joseph's," says Maguire. "We've built strong links in the community - my best English teacher now works two days a week in other city schools. And children from those schools come here for revision classes, too. "Stoke has so many problems. It is right at the top of the league tables for teenage pregnancies and Neets [young people not in education, employment or training], and right at the bottom for education. We are one of the things that Stoke can be really proud of. Why would you want us to go to the wall?"

St Joseph's is not quite at the wall yet. Rowney insists that although the closure of all the schools and the reopening of new secondaries is the "favoured" option, there are three others that would keep St Joseph's open. But if the favoured option does come to pass when the final decision is made in February, you can be sure there will be little noise from Westminster.

Labour's Department for Children says it will keep out of local authority decisions. But it has made it clear that it wishes to make it easier for parents to shut grammar schools. Apart from restructuring plans, such as the one Stoke-on-Trent is proposing, the only way to shut a selective school now is by parental ballot. The ballot requires 10 parents to trigger a petition and then 20% of parents in the affected area to sign it. Since this law was passed in 1998, only one ballot has come to fruition - and it failed to close the selective school.

Labour wishes to make the system simpler by shortening the ballot process and, possibly, by allowing petitioning parents access to the contact details of other parents in the area. "It is absolutely right," said Jim Knight, the schools minister, last month, "that we keep the parental ballot arrangements under review. We are firmly committed to giving local parents the right to abolish selection at existing grammar schools."

The modernising Conservative front bench might now know where it stands on this issue, but the party as a whole continues to twist its knickers on grammar schools. When David Willetts, then shadow education spokesman, said the 11-plus exam "entrenches advantage" he set off a backlash among backbenchers, who consider the maintenance of grammar schools a touchstone Conservative issue. They had, perhaps, forgotten that Margaret Thatcher and John Major failed to use their 18 years to revive the 11-plus.

David Cameron considers the row over grammar schools to be the "shallow end" of the education debate - and has said he admires Labour's academies programme. He has, however, indicated that he will shut no grammar schools. So don't expect a raging debate at next week's prime minister's questions about St Joseph's College.

"The Tories just can't get involved," says Sam Freedman, of the Policy Exchange think tank. "It doesn't work for them politically. I can't see them intervening. As for Labour, that's tricky. There may be some backbenchers who are ideologically opposed to a private company restructuring a local authority's schools and who may feel strongly enough that they wish to fight to save this one school. But then again, it's a grammar school. They're between a rock and a hard place."

The parents and pupils of St Joseph's are already making a noise. The website of the local Sentinel newspaper, which broke the story last Monday, has been bombarded with comments from parents and old pupils. Facebook and MySpace sites have been set up to organise support. A petition on the Downing Street website already has hundreds of names. Why not add your own?


The New Heresies

In today's You Can't Say That culture, it's those with reactionary views on race or religion who are censored. But fighting for free speech still matters

Just last week, David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, won praise for saying that he wants an open `grown-up' debate about immigration and how to control it. Then a Conservative candidate suggested that Enoch Powell was right to warn in 1968 about the impact of mass immigration, and the party leadership (with the other main parties behind it) forced him to resign for his `unwise' and `insensitive' language. In other words: `We want honesty and grown-up politics, but You Can't Say That.'

Last month, Dr James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was supposed to give a talk at the Science Museum. Then he gave an interview to The Sunday Times, in which he suggested that there was a racial basis to intelligence, and the museum cancelled the event. Its statement claimed that the museum `does not shy away from debating controversial topics', but insisted that Watson `has gone beyond the point of reasonable debate'. In other words: `We welcome controversy and scientific debate, but You Can't Say That.'

To some of us - even some of us who support open borders - the consensus within the political class that wants to close down debate on an issue like immigration is far more dangerous than the reactionary views of a wannabe Tory MP. As I have written elsewhere on the Nigel Hastilow controversy this week, `Enoch Powell was not right about immigration. But it is wrong to hound out a Conservative candidate for suggesting that he was.' (See A grown-up debate? Not with childish censorship by Mick Hume.) In a similar vein, some of us - including some of us who have campaigned against racism for years - find the fact that a leading liberal-minded scientific institution can seek to place a limit on `reasonable debate' far more worrying than the crankish views of one 79-year-old scientist.

These are just two recent examples of the You Can't Say That culture today, an increasing tendency to try to circumscribe debate sometimes by formal bans, more often by informal pressure. From immigration to global warming, the attitude from the mainstream appears to be not to question or criticise those with unconventional views, but simply to silence them.

I recently discussed these issues at the Battle of Ideas conference, in a session entitled `The new heresies'. The other panellists were Alexander Cockburn, the US-based left-wing commentator and editor of Counterpunch, and Arthur Versluis, author of The New Inquisitions: Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism. Some might think it a little far-fetched to talk of heresies and inquisitions; after all, there is no torture involved. It is important to be sober about these issues and to leave the shrillness to the hysterical witch-hunters. But the `heresy model' may be useful in understanding how far things have changed.

A heretic is not a self-defined political label, akin to declaring yourself a socialist or a green. Instead, heresy is always defined in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy. The words themselves come from an early Christian leader who defined his own views as orthodox, from the Greek for `right belief', and those of his opponents as heresy, from the Greek for `choice of belief'. The one thing that got you branded a heretic was a desire to choose your own beliefs and dissent from the authoritative dogma. In that sense, it seems fair to talk about new heresies today.

The fact that heresies are defined in this way means that what is deemed heretical changes historically as the orthodoxy alters. We all know that yesterday's heresies can become today's accepted truths, in everything from science to social attitudes. Now, however, we can see another process at work: yesterday's orthodoxies are being redefined as today's heresies. This is obvious, for example, in relation to race, as illustrated above, where attitudes of racial superiority or inferiority that would once have been deemed the norm are now considered completely beyond the pale. Perhaps an even more powerful example is the way that religion itself, particularly Christianity, can now be treated as heretical in British society.

Thus where the church once laid down the law on what was sinful, Christian fundamentalists can now find themselves threatened with prosecution for expressing the opinion that homosexuality is a sin. And where religious authorities once persecuted scientists such as Galileo and fought to keep secular values out of universities, it is now reported that Christian colleges in Oxford have been threatened with the loss of their university status because the education they offer is not `inclusive' enough - that is, they're too Christian.

The flipside of this is that, as previously discussed on spiked, science now often assumes the status of orthodoxy. In one sense it is, of course, good news that science has overcome much of the old superstition and established its credentials as a foundation of a civilised modern society. However, things have now moved beyond that to the point where `The Science' on an issue such as global warming can be used to try to declare the debate closed, and to describe critical views as heretical or even as the lies of `deniers'. You do not need to be a climatologist to see that this deference to The Science as an orthodox dogma has little in common with the scientific traditions of sceptical inquiry, testing and debate.

What particularly angers an old Marxist like me is the leading role played by the left and the liberal establishment in treating ideas as new heresies. As I suggested during the Battle of Ideas debate, some might think we need not worry too much about the silencing of reactionary views. Perhaps we should just say, after Woody Allen in Annie Hall, yes, I'm a bigot, but for the left?

No. I have no time for racial thinking or religion in any form. But we need to remember that freedom is indivisible, and that `free speech' is not the same thing as `me speech'. The precious right to be offensive must involve the right of others to offend our beliefs, too. Free speech and open argument is the way to test and clarify ideas and to get closest to the truth. By contrast, turning ideas of which the mainstream disapproves into heresies means closing down debate and closing minds.

Let's be clear why it is that the left and liberals often want to treat their opponents as heretics to be silenced. The You Can't Say That culture is not a product of their strength and authority, as with the orthodoxies of the past. On the contrary, it reflects the extent to which they have suffered an acute loss of nerve. They do not trust their own arguments. And they do not trust us.

The fact that those preaching today's orthodoxies do not trust their own arguments becomes evident when one looks at what they are up against. To talk of heresies and inquisitions today might give these issues a rather grand, historic image. In reality, however, even relatively feeble opponents can now be damned by the insecure supporters of orthodoxy. The few critics of `The Science' of global warming are generally not Galileo-type geniuses. The reality TV clowns who are made public examples of for daring to use words deemed racist or homophobic represent no movement in society. Yet they have to be stamped upon by the policemen of the You Can't Say That culture.

Why? Above all, it is because the left and the liberal establishment do not trust us. UK government minister David Lammy, considered a rising black star of New Labour, gave the game away when he said that Dr Watson's views on race and intelligence should be suppressed because `they will only succeed in providing oxygen for the BNP'. At first this seemed a strange thing to say; was the minister suggesting there was a British National Party cell operating in the Science Museum? But no, what he meant was that if the public got to hear of a respectable scientist giving a talk about race and intelligence, it could press our (genetically programmed?) racist button and start a pogrom. By the same token, the insecure authorities and their supporters want to declare the debate on global warming closed because they fear that if people were allowed to hear any deviation from the orthodoxy we might be even less willing to do as we are told and change our behaviour.

The problem here is not just government ministers and the state. We are not dealing with jackboot censorship - as indicated by our freedom to publish spiked, and the frequent appearances of spiked's non-conformist writers elsewhere. It is more often a sort of informal inquisition, where a mood of You Can't Say That emerges from below. Indeed, the self-righteous political activists and crusaders - particularly, it seems, the younger ones - are often the most militant wing of the new orthodoxies. Thus it is green activists who have called for `climate change denial' to be made a crime, while black activists demanded that Watson be sacked for expressing his Jurassic opinion on race and intelligence.

The spinelessness of the liberal intelligentsia ensures that, once such a wave of opinion has started to rise, they allow themselves to be swept away. Just a few days before the Battle of Ideas, an event called the Festival of Ideas was held in Bristol (I wonder where they got that idea from?) and James Watson was due to speak. When the Science Museum cancelled his talk, a spokesman for the vice-chancellor of Bristol University (who was chairing, but not organising the festival) said that they still wanted Watson to come to Bristol because the university respected `the right of people to express their views. But we would also expect there to be some robust questioning of Dr Watson on his ideas'. That seemed the right response. Within a couple of days, however, as the pitch of the protests rose, the organisers of the Bristol event had caved in and cancelled the talk. Andrew Kelly of the Festival of Ideas announced that, `While we are a festival that encourages debate, it is clear that James Watson's opinions were unacceptably provocative'. In other words, `We want debate, but You Can't Say That'. Nothing had happened in between times; Watson had said nothing more other than to apologise `unreservedly' for causing offence. But the notion that he was a heretic had simply become accepted, so he had to go.

We can see these trends in context, as the latest form of the free speech debate. And the British left has long had a terrible record on that issue. Twenty-five years ago, when I was at university, the left championed a policy of `No platform' for fascists - a label which they often extended to include Thatcherite Tories. Now that attitude has advanced from the student union to the centre of public life.

Some of us always opposed those policies and stood up for free speech. Not because we believed in rights for racists and reactionaries - but because we believed in the right of the public to listen and judge for themselves, to make our own `choice of belief', whether considered heretical or not. When I was the editor of Living Marxism magazine, a sort-of forerunner of spiked, our slogan was `Question Everything - Ban Nothing'. That was considered somewhat heretical then, and is more so now. All the more reason to stand up for the principle, to help keep free speech and free thinking alive.

One new problem today is that so few people in the UK are prepared to stand up for free speech unconditionally, even in the world of academia and education. As Professor Frank Furedi pointed out in the heresies debate at the Battle of Ideas, the same academics who will protest loudest about the exclusion of a pro-Palestinian speaker are often the first ones to sign up to a boycott of Israeli academics, seemingly without ever noticing the contradiction in their stance.

What we need instead is to inculcate an attitude of genuine tolerance. That ought to mean broadmindedness, and allowing the expression of opinions that you despise. Today, however, those demanding `tolerance' often seem to mean the opposite: an unwillingness to tolerate any view that impinges on the orthodoxy. Thus, in the name of tolerance, we are told that nobody can express `intolerant' views of, say, Islam or homosexuality. As I have argued before on spiked, ours is an age of `intolerant tolerance'.

Genuine tolerance does not mean allowing views you despise to go unchallenged. It ought to involve fierce debate and a ruthless hammering of reactionary opinions of every stripe. It ought to mean, as Voltaire wrote in his Essay on Tolerance, `Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so, too'. In place of a closed culture of heresies and You Can't Say That, we need an open-minded attitude of You Can Say That - so long as I can then say that you are talking out of your backside.


Endangered jokes in Britain

The right to crack jokes or be rude about homosexuals could fall victim to new government laws to stamp out "homophobic" behaviour, Rowan Atkinson, the Blackadder star warned yesterday. Atkinson, who mounted a successful campaign in 2004 to water down legislation aimed at criminalising expressions of religious hatred, has returned to the fray to defend the art of gay leg-pulling.

His concern is that Labour ministers are so obsessed with creating laws to stop people being rude about each other that they are putting in danger the right to free speech and, equally dear to his heart, the comedian's craft. In a letter to a newspaper he accused ministers of filling their legislative programme with measures that have "serious implications for freedom of speech, humour and creative expression". Atkinson was referring to measures in the Criminal Justice Bill, currently passing through Parliament, which could mean people who stir up hatred against homosexuals being put in prison for up to seven years.

He said the Government measures, which could be expanded to cover hatred against disabled or transgendered people, seemed to be "infinitely extendable". "Witness the fact that the Government has invited two additional groups - the disabled and transsexuals - to 'make the case' for the proposed legislation to be extended to them. "I am sure that they could make a very good case, as indeed could all those who can claim that they cannot help being the way they are. Men, for example, or women. Or people with big ears."

Atkinson added: "The devil, as always, will be in the detail but the casual ease which some people move from finding something offensive to wishing to declare it criminal - and are then able to find factions within government to aid their ambitions - is truly depressing."

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has told MPs that such fears are unfounded because he will shortly introduce an amendment to the Bill ensuring that cases can be pursued only when the offending words are specifically intended to pose a threat and are not merely humorous, mocking or abusive. As with an eventual compromise deal struck over the Religious Hatred Bill, there will also be a specific clause to protect the right to freedom of speech. Ministers have firmly dismissed as unfounded claims that playground insults or jokes about gays could be caught by the new offence.

Last night Chris Bryant, the openly gay Labour MP, said Mr Atkinson should relax because the right to make jokes about gays would remain. "I think it is perfectly possible to create a distinction in law between incitement to hatred and having a laugh," he said. Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer who helped draft the compromise wording on the religious hatred law, said it was clear that "politically incorrect jokes at the expense of gay people" should not be banned.


Health checkups not such a good idea

Britons now spend a staggering 99million pounds a year on DIY diagnostic kits (home-use tests that can 'detect' diseases such as diabetes), a rise of 30 per cent over the past five years. But it's not just the cheap end of the market that's flourishing; more people than ever are now undergoing CT and MRI scans. Once the preserve of patients with serious illnesses such as cancer, these scans can cost up to 3,000 a time, yet companies that offer them report a major surge in demand.

Some experts are worried that these health tests are causing unnecessary anxiety - a health problem in itself. They are also concerned that the tests can lead to people having further investigations they don't need, and that these tests also pose an unnecessary risk. 'It's certainly true that we are more anxious than ever about our health because we feel more vulnerable than we used to,' says Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a London GP and author of a book on public fears about health.

Part of the blame lies with health promotion campaigns - and the growing phenomenon of 'awareness' weeks, he says. 'With last month's breast cancer month, for example, you have girls in their teens and 20s coming to see you, terrified that they have it, when there's more chance of them being struck by lightning.' The availability of information is also fuelling this anxiety, says Professor Michael Hyland, a professor of health psychology at the University of Plymouth. 'We have always been a nation of worried well, but now technology means we have a lot more access to information about disease that only medics had access to previously - and people worry about it.'

Younger patients in particular are becoming 'health obsessed', says Dr Fitzpatrick. 'In the past ten years, the number of fit and healthy 25-year-old men demanding a "full health check-up" has soared - but they need nothing of the sort,' he says. 'They should be enjoying themselves, not testing their cholesterol.'

One issue is the quality of some DIY tests - talk to most specialists and they'd argue it's always better to have a proper medical test than to spend 10 pounds on a home test with questionable results. GPs are seeing an influx of people after self-diagnosis who are worried about their results when there is no need for them to be, says Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association. The other concern is that home testing kits only encourage 'preoccupation with health that isn't conducive to good health,' says Dr Fitzpatrick. 'Personally, I wouldn't do any of this sort of testing or screening - it's unnecessary. These companies are feeding off people's anxieties and making a vast income from something of dubious value.'

However, the greater concern, say some experts, are body scans. Typically these use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), although you can also have CT scans, which involve a powerful beam of X-rays over the body. These scans are used to identify health problems such as heart disease or tumours - sometimes before symptoms have developed.

Dr Sebastian Kalwij, a GP in Central London and doctor at Prescan, a private clinic where body scans are offered, says demand is rising. 'I used to see two or three patients a week at the beginning of this year but it's now around two or three a day,' he says. 'We find life-threatening health abnormalities in around two per cent of patients and, for the rest, the scan puts their mind at rest that there is nothing sinister going on inside.' Prescan's typical customer, he says, is someone who wants to take control of their own health. 'They may not like their GP, or can't face the long NHS waiting lists, or want their results quickly. Either way, they can afford not to have this frustration.'

But while it's important we take an interest in our health, these tests 'very rarely' pick up anything significant, says Dr Vivienne Nathanson. 'More often, people are just left worried by them. We must understand the limitations of these tests - MRI and CT scans are brilliant when you have some idea what is wrong with you and are looking for an abnormality which has caused a symptom. 'But these scans also pick up a lot of abnormalities which we class as unimportant and as posing no danger to your health - such as cysts and blood vessels taking an abnormal route, which would be simply regarded as not relevant. 'The danger then is that people start worrying about things which are just natural variations in how we're made up and looking for diseases and symptoms which aren't there. 'This leaves them open to physical risks - if they have further examinations such as exploratory procedures like a colonoscopy - and higher financial costs, as well as more emotional worries about their future health.'

There are risks with unnecessary exposure to radiation during CT scans, she adds. 'Radiation is like a poison - the level of risk is associated with the dose. When you expose yourself to radiation unnecessarily, you start to reduce the amount you can have safely at other times when you really need it, say, in hospital.'

GPs are often left picking up the pieces. 'Some people are told there could be something wrong with them but are then given no treatment plan or advice.' This, in turn, creates its own anxiety, suggests Professor Paul Salkovskis, the director of the Maudsley Hospital Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma. 'Telling someone they are "probably okay", as these places sometimes do - because there is never any guarantee that you are 100 per cent okay - is not reassuring, so people go on to pursue their potential problem further. This is often counterproductive and makes people anxious.'


No comments: