Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Rich pull away from poor in the classroom

In characteristic form, the Labour Party has achieved the opposite of what it claimed to aim at

The colonisation by the middle classes of the best state schools has led to a dramatic widening of the gap in educational performance between rich and poor children in the past year, new figures indicate. An analysis of government data by the Conservative Party shows that the achievement divide between pupils in the 10 per cent richest and poorest areas of England has grown by more than ten percentage points, compared with fractional increases of less than one percentage point in previous years.

The figures also show that the attainment gap between rich and poor continues to widen as pupils progress through school. At age 7, the performance gap between pupils in the 10 per cent richest and poorest areas was 20 percentage points in 2007. At age 16, however, the gap had more than doubled to 43.1 per cent, suggesting that far from being a leveller, school was increasing the disparity.

The figures underscore the massive influence of parental background on school success. More than 65 per cent of children in the wealthiest group achieved at least five good GCSEs, including English and maths, this summer but the figure for children from the poorest backgrounds was less than 26 per cent.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that the system favoured those who were fortunate enough, or rich enough, to live in areas with good schools. "If you have nominal parental choice over school admissions, but an undersupply of good schools, you will find that the sharp-elbowed middle-class parents get access to excellent schools, but those trapped in deprived areas do not," he said.

Mr Gove said that the dramatic widening of the gap this year, after much smaller incremental increases in previous years, was the result of the cumulative effect of this phenomenon. He noted that pupil performance in the richest areas had improved at twice the rate that it had deteriorated in poor areas. An additional explanation of the sudden widening of the gap this year may be the influx of immigrants who do not have English as a first language, he suggested.

Conservative plans to allow good new schools to open in deprived areas, with extra cash for children from more deprived homes, would reverse a growing social class gap, he said.

Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham, said: "Even where you have good schools in poor areas, like some of the academies, they are progressively taken over by ambitious parents."

The figures come after recent concern by Christine Gilbert, the Chief Inspector of Schools, that the school system was dividing children along social and economic lines. They show that in 2005 28.2 per cent of pupils in the 10 per cent most deprived areas gained at least five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A* to C. In the richest 10 per cent of areas, 56.2 per cent of pupils reached this level, giving an attainment gap of 28 percentage points. In 2006 the figures were 29.2 and 57.6 per cent respectively, with a performance gap of 28.4 percentage points. In 2007 the figures were 25.3 and 68.4 per cent respectively, with a performance gap of 43.1 percentage points.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that closing the attainment gap was a priority for the Government. The Government had invested more than 21 billion pounds in childcare and the early years since 1997, so that poor children could get better chances in early life, she said. It was now providing one-to-one tuition and personalised support to help every child to achieve at school, regardless of social background. She added: "We can only tackle deprivation and poverty by changing the aspirations of young people, their parents and the education system."


Schools and class hatred in Britain

Let's make a 2008 resolution, politicians and polemicists together. Let us renounce certain chippy clich‚s when talking about schools and social mobility. Let it become a mockable offence to refer - as Michael Gove MP did yesterday - to "the sharp-elbowed middle classes" who "colonise" the best schools. Let professors of education like Alan Smithers feel a stab of shame when they take an easy pop at academies getting "taken over by ambitious parents". Let columnists beware of jeering at the "stupid spawn of the rich".

Fun though it may be, it is all a wicked distraction from the main task: the improvement of all British schools - yes, all - and an absolute intolerance of the shoddy, the dull, the undisciplined and the woolly. The new figures hauled out by the Conservatives only reinforce a swath of others, which make it clear that, after ten years of Labour government, the gap between rich and poor children's attainment is actually widening.

But jeering at "sharp-elbowed middle classes" is a pure distraction technique, blurring the inconvenient truth that many of our schools are (if not actually chaos) intellectually unambitious and overburdened with irrelevant duties. It leads to such class-war fatalism as the ridiculous theory that places should be allocated by lottery: which implies accepting that some schools will always be rubbish, so let's spread the misery around by ballot.

No: it won't do. How dare a professor of education sneer at "ambitious" parents? Would he prefer it if they didn't give a damn? How dare a Conservative MP criticise conscientious middle-income parents as "colonists", and suggest that their "sharp elbows" deliberately disable the poor?

Is it wicked for parents to want their children taught well in calm surroundings? Is it wrong to do your best? Most families are beset by worries about mortgages and redundancy and recession; they are not making war on the disadvantaged, but just doing what they can. They may kick off if rowdy children cause distraction and intimidation or sell drugs in the playground, but that is not class war. Any private school head will tell you that disruption and drug dealing occur in every echelon of society, and that parents protest just as fiercely when the Hon Freddie gives their child grief as when Charlie Chav does.

There are many roots of our school problem, and middle-class elbows are the least significant. One - fading now, thank God - is the legacy of the early comprehensive movement, which reacted against the cruel 11-plus by denigrating cleverness, precocity and academic passion in favour of mixed ability and rigid age groups. Then there has been a 25-year mania of central governments to interfere with every detail of the curriculum and keep moving the goalposts, thus de-professionalising and demoralising teachers.

Meanwhile a well-intentioned new sense of children's rights has led, through timidity and confusion, to an absurd erosion of teachers' authority - so now we need actual parliamentary edicts to enable staff to confiscate mobile phones in class. At the same time the mishandling of numerous cases of false sexual accusation, with adults guilty until proven innocent, scared many men out of the profession, creating a feminised, boy-hostile atmosphere. And now we have evidence that unpredicted, unmonitored and unresourced immigration leaves some schools unable even to teach the newcomers English.

On top of all that, there is a terrible fashion for loading on to schools the responsibility for inculcating things that are not facts or skills at all, but social desiderata - citizenship, sex education, diversity. This is largely a waste of time: note that while sex education has "improved", teenage motherhood and abortion have climbed. It is now causing another ruction because of the equally loopy obsession with faith schools. Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Education Select Committee, is at odds with the Bishop of Lancaster who has (surprise, surprise) decreed that Catholic schools must not teach "safe sex" and contraception in a morally neutral manner, nor support Red Nose Day.

Mr Sheerman and assorted secularists are up in arms, asking why the state should fund "indoctrination" (do they think Muslim schools teach free love, then?). But they miss the main point, which is that this is froth. A State that really cared about the core of education, and its ability to raise and inspire poor children, would not faff about making schools teach citizenship and condom technque. If sex education is so important, force every 12-year-old to do a holiday course run by nurses. If citizenship is important, then support local youth groups instead of closing them down because their kitchen isn't up to scratch or they can't afford enough slow-motion criminal records checks. Let schools just teach - properly, to an exam standard that cannot be fiddled, and with a focus on real subjects, whether that means astrophysics or practical woodwork.

I do not have the answer to every educational problem. Nobody does. I just know that one place where the answer certainly does not lie is in sniping at imaginary "middle-class" elbows. Stop doing it. Leave the poor sods alone. If all the schools were good, they'd soon stop manoeuvring, with a sigh of relief. Worried parental behaviour - if indeed there is anything wrong about it - is due to the deficit in the school system. It's a symptom, not a cause.


British prison bosses ban sexist jokes in jail

"It's enough to make that old lag Norman Stanley Fletcher choke on his porridge ... prisoners have been banned from sharing "sexist" jokes.

Jail bosses say such quips could give the impression that women are "overly talkative" and "nagging." There is even a danger it could turn convicts to a life of crime, they say - since some lawbreaking stems from men having a "negative" view of the opposite sex.

The reaction of the country's 81,000 prison inmates remains to be seen as they digest a list of jokes which are now officially off-limits. It means that Fletch, played by Ronnie Barker in the classic television comedy Porridge, would certainly have been in trouble.


Regulation frenzy over milk

The way that milk companies are allowed to market their products is changing today as health chiefs attempt to get people to reduce their intake of fat. Until now, European Commission regulations meant that milk could be marketed only within tightly defined ranges as whole or full-fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed. Strict rules governed the fat content of each.

From today, after lobbying by Britain, dairy products containing 1 per cent fat - above the level of skimmed milk, but below semi-skimmed - can also be marketed as milk. So can products with 2 per cent fat, above semi-skimmed but well below full fat. Health chiefs are convinced that this extra choice will encourage consumers to switch to products that have lower fat than their usual intake.

Currently, semi-skimmed milk - which contains 1.5 to 1.8 per cent fat - accounts for 63.9 per cent of the market. Whole, or full-fat milk, important for children's development, accounts for 24.7 per cent of all milk sales. It contains 3.5 per cent fat. Skimmed milk, which contains less than 0.5 per cent fat, accounts for 11.3 per cent of sales. Dairy industry experts believe that the change could boost milk consumption. Between 1995 and 2005 average consumption per adult fell from four pints per week to three.

In the US "1 per cent milk" is a popular concept. Wiseman's Dairy in Glasgow introduced "The One" three years ago, a product containing 1 per cent fat which until now could not be labelled milk. Sales have increased by 38 per cent in a year. Experts also believe that consumers can easily adapt to the taste if fat content is adjusted only mildly. Many people may switch from semi-skimmed to 1 per cent milk because there is only a little difference in taste. Similarly, adults who prefer full-fat milk could switch to a 2 per cent product. Food manufacturers are also expected to use low-fat milks and cheeses in sauces, ready meals and dairy-based puddings.

A recent scientific report for ministers by the Foresight Programme suggested that without urgent action to tackle diet, almost half of adults and a quarter of all children will be dangerously overweight by 2050. The cost to the country was estimated at 45 billion a year; of this, 6.5 billion would be needed to pay for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease and the rest of the cost would be in absenteeism and benefits.

Judith Bryans, of the Dairy Council, said that introducing 1 per cent and 2 per cent milk would help to open up the market and result in products to suit modern tastes. "Some people like semi-skimmed but won't touch skimmed, but they might like something in between," she said. Rosemary Hignett, director of nutrition at the Food Standards Agency, said: "Using 1 per cent milk could help to reduce saturated fat levels in some foods and would be a positive move for the consumer."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "This provides an opportunity for the dairy sector to satisfy demand for innovative, transparently labelled, lower-fat products, adding further value to the dairy supply chain and helping the consumer to make informed decisions." Reducing the fat content does not lower milk's nutritional value in any way, said Susan Jebb, a nutrition scientist at the Medical Research Council.


Oldsters now kindly permitted to have a drink or three

These clots seem to think that oldsters will be listening to them

The over-65s should not be bullied into abstaining from alcohol by the belief that drink is more harmful to older people than it is to the young or middle-aged. Regular, moderate drinking poses no additional risks to the over-65s and can even bring health benefits, according to two studies from the Peninsula Medical School in the South West of England. For men and women, better brain functioning, a better sense of wellbeing and fewer depressive symptoms are linked to moderate drinking when compared with abstinence.

Researchers led by Iain Lang assessed the drinking levels of more than 13,000 people in England and the US who were aged 65 and over, and looked at the effects on physical disability, mortality, cognitive function, depression and wellbeing. They concluded that moderate drinking is fine for the over-65s - and, in some cases, it is better than not drinking at all.

"We are not advocating that elderly people should go out and get ridiculously drunk," Dr Lang said. "What we are saying is that current guidelines on drinking for the elderly are too conservative. A couple of drinks a day will do no harm and will have a more beneficial affect on cognitive and general health than abstinence. In the UK, the guidelines on alcohol consumption in older people are vague," he said. "Alcohol Concern recommends that older people `cut down' their alcohol consumption and that moderate consumption `might be too much for some older people'.

"In Australia and New Zealand, older people are advised to `consider drinking less'. In the US, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sets limits for the over-65s of one drink a day, which is half of what they recommend for younger men. "These recommendations are based on assumptions about what happens to the body as it ages, and that it becomes less tolerant of alcohol. Our findings show that this isn't supported. There is no evidence to suggest drinking at moderate levels is harmful to older people. It can provide health benefits."

The research showed that 10.8 per cent of the US men, 28.6 per cent of the British men, 2.9 per cent of the US women and 10.3 per cent of the British women drank more than one drink a day. But the research also showed that those drinking on average more than one to two drinks a day achieved similar health results as those drinking up to one drink a day. "The worst results were from those who did not drink at all and from those who were heavy drinkers. The studies also found lower levels of risk of death or disability among English drinkers than Americans, although the authors did not understand why this should be.

Men and women who drank moderately enjoyed better brain functioning, a better sense of wellbeing and fewer depressive symptoms than those who abstained. The shape of the relationship between alcohol consumption and the risk of disability were similar in men and women.

The results were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and Age and Ageing. The research by the team concluded that overrestrictive limits could do harm because people ignore them or because effort is wasted trying to persuade them to give up alcohol when it is doing them no harm. "Because overrestrictive limits risk encouraging nihilistic responses or fruitless clinical effort, a review is needed of the evidence base for the lower hazardous drinking definitions for older adults," they concluded in their report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Dr Lang said: "There is no reason why older people should not enjoy a tipple, as long as they are sensible about it. "Previous research has shown that middle-aged people can benefit from moderate drinking. These findings show the same applies to the over-65s."


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