Thursday, January 31, 2008


Below are two responses to a story I covered yesterday

Realistic education priorities

The online forums were afire. "Thought this was an early April Fool... McEducation... lowering standards... glad I have left the UK... how on earth can a qualification in basic shift management at mcdonalds which will involve taking payment, flipping burgers and making children obese be equilavent [sic] to an a level?"

It doesn't take much to rile the education harrumphers, but their barks are directed up the wrong tree this time. They'd do better to join the outcry against the sneaky plan to close village schools. For, of all the educational faffs and fiddles we have suffered, the latest is the most sensible. This is the decision to let companies - starting with Flybe, Network Rail and McDonald's - award nationally accepted qualifications, of GCSE and A-level standard, to those they train.

The harrumphers should calm down. This is about teaching employees: nobody is suggesting that schools will promptly offer their best and brightest a chance to do A2 burger-flipping instead of Further Maths. Given that you can already get national vocational qualifications from a holiday pottery course or a scuba-diving week, it is not so big a jump.

Note also that the body that is ceding this tiny bit of power is the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which some may mischievously argue does not boast an immaculate track record itself. It is responsible for accrediting exams and regulating awarding bodies, and quite apart from the dog's breakfast of AS/A2 levels and the scandals of doctored A-level results, we have had plenty of concerns about its fiefdom. There have been questions about coursework marking, leaked papers, howlers embedded in questions and unqualified teachers working as markers. It is perfectly well known in the education world that large numbers of GCSE and even A-level papers are marked at high speed by people who are not specialists in the subject, and that when schools appeal against grades, one in four GCSEs and one in ten A levels prove to have been wrongly assessed. Some of the multiple-choice questions have also been dumber and more agenda-laden than would be tolerated by anyone struggling for profits in a real marketplace.

I would rather my offspring could name safe cooking temperatures for burgers or maintenance intervals for rails than merely decode questions like this one from a GCSE physics paper. A newspaper cutting is shown saying: "A recent report said that children under the age of 9 should not use mobile phones except in emergencies"; and the question is: "Below which age is it recommended that children use a mobile phone in emergencies only?" Doh!

I am not out to rubbish the QCA and exam boards. Plenty of good work is done and properly marked. I am just pointing out that hard-headed training executives with beady-eyed shareholders may prove more focused than some exam boards. If a failure in your pupils' procedures and understanding causes rails to break or customers to keel over with E.coli, expensive trouble ensues. Whereas if an Eng Lit exam goes dumb and trendy or a history paper is marked by someone who only knows the set answers, it doesn't create real-life chaos. Or not right away.

In other words, a McQualification, Rail-Level or FlybeCertificate might be more respected than some of the subjects and examiners that already have the blessing of the QCA. This might not be exactly the message that Gordon Brown wants us to take from the initiative, but it might cheer up the doubters.

Academically capable children will (if properly guided by their schools, which is another story) always go for more universal and theoretical academic subjects. Meanwhile, the crying need of drifting youth is to learn things that they can associate with real pay, responsibility and results. There have always been young people who longed to get out of the schoolroom's vapouring cloud of formulae and theories and lists. Some became apprentices, some took menial jobs and after looking around with sharp ambitious eyes simply worked their way up. Others hated their first jobs, yet learnt routine and thoroughness from them and carried them into a better field. I was probably classifiable as academic, but when I started my first dream job as a BBC studio manager, I mainly used the skills I had acquired as a barmaid. Not those that got me D in Latin.

The fact is, some thrive better in work than school. We all know children who groaned through A levels - or dropped out - only to find new vigour in a job. I can think of one right now who, to his parents' consternation, abandoned the sixth form after a period of feeling constantly ill and tired, took a counter job in a bank and is now being rigorously trained, forming high ambitions, and feeling physically well.

But workplace training - with allied certificates and grades - does matter. It removes the dead-end quality from a job, proves that the employer believes in you and, incidentally, reduces the likelihood that supervisors' strictures will be wetly interpreted as "bullying" or victimisation. Equally, in an uncertain economic world it matters that workplace qualifications should be portable.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University (itself, ironically, a private company that gives highly valued degrees) has cast doubt on the idea that the new qualifications will be valid outside the company that gives them. He fears that employees might get "locked in" to McFlybeRail. I doubt it. Business people may not be saintly educationists, but they are practical. They'll soon get to know which of their rivals' certificated staff are worth poaching.


Flipping burgers taught me more than A levels

Anyone who believes that a McDonald's A level is an easy option should come to the Friar Street branch on the third day of the Reading Festival. I worked there for two summers during my sixth form. It was dirty and tiring, at times humiliating, but it taught me more about how to work and how to deal with people than all my A levels combined.

On festival days the first order of battle was to secure the toilets. Two employees were posted at each door where, mustering all the authority of their checked shirt and golden arches hat, they collected receipts before letting people use the lavatory. A third employee policed the cubicles themselves: no alcohol, no sex and no drugs. By evening the latter would be relaxed to just Class A substances. Meanwhile the kitchen was frying a burger a second, struggling to cope with the demands of the nation's rockers. Under those conditions if you slacked off, or decided that a task was beneath you, you were out of a job.

McDonald's should not just be allowed to give out A levels, they should become a full degree-accrediting body. It is not that I do not value my A levels. Intellectually, they were thrilling. It is just that, in contrast to my Saturday job in McDonald's, it would be difficult to argue that they were useful. At sixth form I studied maths, maths and extra maths, with a little bit of English for balance. Such a rigorous grounding in the foundations of calculus prepared me for my degree, an advanced grounding in the foundations of calculus, and then perhaps for a master's. But I didn't do a master's. The ability to shovel s***, whether literally (the day the plumbing broke, my worst McDonald's shift) or metaphorically, is, however, a skill that stays with me to this day.


Don't treat the old and unhealthy, say NHS doctors

You've paid for your health insurance all your life only to be told you can't collect on it when you need it? That's a risk you take with socialism. And it's already happening to some extent in Britain

Doctors are calling for NHS treatment to be withheld from patients who are too old or who lead unhealthy lives. Smokers, heavy drinkers, the obese and the elderly should be barred from receiving some operations, according to doctors, with most saying the health service cannot afford to provide free care to everyone. Fertility treatment and "social" abortions are also on the list of procedures that many doctors say should not be funded by the state.

The findings of a survey conducted by Doctor magazine sparked a fierce row last night, with the British Medical Association and campaign groups describing the recommendations from family and hospital doctors as "out-rageous" and "disgraceful". About one in 10 hospitals already deny some surgery to obese patients and smokers, with restrictions most common in hospitals battling debt. Managers defend the policies because of the higher risk of complications on the operating table for unfit patients. But critics believe that patients are being denied care simply to save money.

The Government announced plans last week to offer fat people cash incentives to diet and exercise as part of a desperate strategy to steer Britain off a course that will otherwise see half the population dangerously overweight by 2050. Obesity costs the British taxpayer 7 billion a year. Overweight people are more likely to contract diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and to require replacement joints or stomach-stapling operations.

Meanwhile, 1.7 billion is spent treating diseases caused by smoking, such as lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema, with a similar sum spent by the NHS on alcohol problems. Cases of cirrhosis have tripled over the past decade.

Among the survey of 870 family and hospital doctors, almost 60 per cent said the NHS could not provide full healthcare to everyone and that some individuals should pay for services. One in three said that elderly patients should not be given free treatment if it were unlikely to do them good for long. Half thought that smokers should be denied a heart bypass, while a quarter believed that the obese should be denied hip replacements. Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA's ethics committee, said it would be "outrageous" to limit care on age grounds. Age Concern called the doctors' views "disgraceful".

Gordon Brown promised this month that a new NHS constitution would set out people's "responsibilities" as well as their rights, a move interpreted as meaning restrictions on patients who bring health problems on themselves. The only sanction threatened so far, however, is to send patients to the bottom of the waiting list if they miss appointments.

The survey found that medical professionals wanted to go much further in denying care to patients who do not look after their bodies. Ninety-four per cent said that an alcoholic who refused to stop drinking should not be allowed a liver transplant, while one in five said taxpayers should not pay for "social abortions" and fertility treatment.

Paul Mason, a GP in Portland, Dorset, said there were good clinical reasons for denying surgery to some patients. "The issue is: how much responsibility do people take for their health?" he said. "If an alcoholic is going to drink themselves to death then that is really sad, but if he gets the liver transplant that is denied to someone else who could have got the chance of life then that is a tragedy." He said the case of George Best, who drank himself to death in 2005, three years after a liver transplant, had damaged the argument that drinkers deserved a second chance.

However, Roger Williams, who carried out the 2002 transplant on the former footballer, said doctors could never be sure if an alcoholic would return to drinking, although most would expect a detailed psychological assessment of patients, who would be required to abstain for six months before surgery. Prof Williams said: "Less than five per cent of alcoholics who have a transplant return to serious drinking. George was one of them. It is actually a pretty successful rate. I think the judgment these doctors are making is nothing to do with the clinical reasons for limiting such operations and purely a moral decision."

Katherine Murphy, from the Patients' Association, said it would be wrong to deny treatment because of a "lifestyle" factor. "The decision taken by the doctor has to be the best clinical one, and it has to be taken individually. It is morally wrong to deny care on any other grounds," she said.

Responding to the survey's findings on the treatment of the elderly, Dr Calland, of the BMA, said: "If a patient of 90 needs a hip operation they should get one. Yes, they might peg out any time, but it's not our job to play God."


Laugh at lard butts - but just remember Fatty Fritz lives longer

Some British satire with a serious point at the end

The government is considering a scheme to pay hideously obese people to lose weight, offering them "vouchers and rewards" for shedding enough pounds to enable them to see their own genitals for the first time in 30 years. This is part of a programme which will cost the rest of us, those of us who are merely "chubby" or "fat", some œ327m. If you take the health advice at face value, almost the entire nation is overweight, encased in blubber, our poor arteries clogged like the straws of a McDonald's vanilla milk shake when you get to the bottom of the carton. We are all afflicted and all to blame, etc.

For years we have been cautioned against stigmatising people for a whole array of unfortunate situations - teenage single mothers, divorcees, fat people. But, of course, stigma is the means by which society expresses its disapproval of people who choose lifestyles which, one way or another, cost the rest of society money. Remove the stigma and people think such behaviour is perfectly fine. As a result we have become a nation of obese, sexually incontinent lunatics.

Perhaps instead of offering fat people money, which they will only spend on pies, we should once again stigmatise them. School children could be encouraged to pelt fat classmates with cakes, exclude them from playground activities and subject them to cruel jibes. And pinch them on their horrible fleshy arms during assembly (if schools still have assemblies). Fat adults could be forced to pay for two seats on public transport, could be given the worst seats in restaurants and scolded over their choice of dessert. "Have the fruit salad, you fat pig," and so on. Most obesity is, after all, a consequence of stupidity and indolence and not of some genetic affliction. It is a lifestyle choice which people would be less inclined to adopt if they knew we all hated them for it.

There is another, better approach, of course, which is to leave people alone to live the lives they wish to lead. I was in Austria recently where everybody is truly, grotesquely fat. All of them are huge, flatulent, pasty-skinned spheres of compacted frankfurter sausage, fried potato, sour cream and stale beer, rolling around their pretty mountains belching and singing in a tuneless, guttural manner.

The average life expectancy in Austria is 79.21 years - one of the highest in the world and a good five or six months longer than we can expect to live - and increasing rapidly. In fact, much though the quacks and government ministers might hector us, there is very little correlation between obesity and early death, according to recent studies. So you might conclude that this is a sort of fashionable meddling for the sake of it by a government which is never happier than when telling us how to conduct our lives.


Can you beat this for media deception? The "Briton" was a Pakistani fanatic! "Briton admits plot to behead Muslim soldier. A man has pleaded guilty to a plot to kidnap and kill a Muslim soldier in the British army by cutting off his head "like a pig", a court was told on Tuesday. Parviz Khan, 37, pleaded guilty this month to a series of charges including the beheading plot, which was foiled by police and the MI5 security service a year ago. A British and Pakistani passport holder, Khan was "a man who has the most violent and extreme Islamist views" and who wanted to get physically involved in acts of terrorism, prosecutor Nigel Rumfitt said. He said Khan was "enraged" by the fact there were Muslims in the British army, which Islamist militants portray as fighting Islam in Afghanistan and Iraq, and formed a plan to kidnap a Muslim soldier in the central city of Birmingham."

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