Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Social class bigotry in British education

Good state schools are being barred from choosing pupils from middle-class families by the government's education watchdog on admissions. The schools have been hit by a series of rulings which block them from doing anything that might be seen as giving preferential treatment to middle-class applicants. The policy is being forced through by the government in a drive to use admissions to tackle "segregation" in society. The judgements, which set a precedent extending throughout the state school system, include:

- Banning headteachers from asking parents why they want to come to the school, in case this puts non-English speakers at a disadvantage;

- Barring schools from asking for children's birth certificates in case this identifies the parents' jobs, which might give professional families a competitive edge;

- Forbidding a discussion with parents of the school's Ofsted inspection report as this might discriminate against parents who "do not understand bureaucracy";

- Stopping schools asking parents whether they support its ethos because this might be considered "patronising" to less well-educated or ethnic minority parents.

This weekend the moves were attacked as "social engineering" by opposition politicians who said they were likely to make parents feel guilty for taking a close interest in their children's education. "Schools should not be about social engineering, they should be about providing the best education," said Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary. "The determination of the government to micro-manage the admissions process reflects the fact that they don't have enough places in good schools. They are trying to find more and more interventionist ways of rationing access to good schools."

It follows a government-commissioned report last week which called for the greater use of lotteries to award places at popular schools to stop middle-class parents colonising catchment areas and monopolising entry.

The rulings have been issued by Philip Hunter, the chief schools adjudicator, who decides if councils and schools policies comply with the government's code on admissions. He said: "Parental choice in the market leads to segregation." [An explicit refusal to allow parental choice! What a Fascist!] He is acting in line with demands by Jim Knight, the schools minister, that a new law on admissions be firmly enforced to prevent "pushy" middle-class parents from dominating places at the best schools.

Hunter, who denies that he is pursuing a policy of social engineering, said that local authorities and schools were involved in delicate judgements. "At some stage when the market is travelling in that direction someone has to say that level of segregation is OK but that one is not. That is a very difficult decision to make," he said. "Local heads and admissions forums and local authorities have to make that decision. That is not easy. They have been asked to make it in the code, they have got to address it.

"Everyone has got to understand that it is a very difficult judgement. Even more difficult is if they decide it is an unacceptable level of segregation and they are going to do something about it. At that point you say to parents that their parental choice is being denied." Jim Knight, the schools minister, last month warned councils that they had to work harder to enforce the code which was passed into law last year. "No ifs or buts," he warned them. "There is absolutely no excuse not to comply with the law to stamp out unfair and covert admission practices," he said.

But Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham university, special adviser to the Commons schools select committee, said the code was "untenable" as it tried to stamp out covert selection by intervening in "minor matters", but at the same time still allowed schools to retain catchment areas and faith-based allocation of places, both of which tend to favour middle-class families. "It just encourages game-playing ," said Smithers. "We are stuck with this fudge of a code and the result is these adjudicators dancing around on the head of a pin."


Compulsory cookery: another half-baked idea

Teaching children how to cook should be about taste and pleasure - but the UK government is only interested in obesity, salt intake and telling us how to live

From September 2008, secondary schools with cooking facilities will have to teach practical cookery to every 11- to 14-year-old. The remaining 15 per cent of schools without such facilities will be expected to teach the compulsory classes by 2011. Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, explained the rationale for compulsory cookery lessons: `Teaching kids to cook healthy meals is an important way schools can help produce healthy adults.' (1) Pupils will learn to cook a variety of dishes, including a `top eight' of healthy recipes, officials said. Cookery is undoubtedly a worthwhile activity that should be passed down to the next generation, so why do Balls' proposals sound more like a cause for indigestion than celebration?

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was right when he complained that, `just six months ago, ministers promised heads greater flexibility in the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds. Now they have fallen at the first fence, creating another entitlement and more compulsion for this age group.' (1) Indeed, when it comes to education, no other government has so over-egged their interference in the teaching profession, or turned up the heat so high on what schools should force-feed their pupils. So alongside `citizenship' classes, compulsory key skills, environmental `awareness' initiatives and proposals for `money management skills', educationalists now have to add salad making skills to their `must do' timetable. At this rate, will there be any academic nutrition left on the menu?

As it happens, cookery lessons can be an enriching feature of the school timetable. Where once, as a part of a gendered curriculum, `home economics' might have prepared girls for their domestic role, contemporary cookery lessons serve up rather more universal fare. Aside from the enjoyment of creating dishes from basic ingredients, school students learn, for instance, how to co-operate with others. And through food preparation they learn that life is about giving rather than childishly taking. Cookery lessons also provide a little space where secondary school students can develop social skills. It was always rather apt that in the teen-angst film Gregory's Girl, the romantic plotting and scheming took place in cookery lessons or during lab experiments. When it comes to serving up subtle lessons in independence and social maturity, cookery lessons can play host to all sorts of simmering relationships.

The same, however, cannot be said of Balls' soggy proposals. Only this government could take something so effortlessly enjoyable and beneficial to school students as cooking and bludgeon it to death with a rolling pin. There isn't an ounce of genuine enthusiasm, or even a gram of understanding, for the humanistic qualities involved in cookery. Instead the classes in coercive cookery are another sideshow from the irrational `war on obesity' and the banal sermons on health and healthy eating. No doubt Balls' ideal recipes will be a fixed menu of five fruit and veg a day, small portions and nothing resembling taste and enjoyment. Goodbye toad-in-the-hole and chocolate sponges, and anything that dares to contain salt or fat. Was cookery meant to be as appealing as guzzling cod liver oil?

Indeed, it is striking that the government is so obsessed with food yet shows no real appreciation for it. For Balls and Brown, food is only valued for its nutritional content rather than the sensual pleasure it gives us. Food should be judged on taste, not `health'. Officials' philistine attitude towards food reduces humans to little more than animals, biological entities in need of the right `fuel'.

However, there is more to Balls' coercive cookery lessons than a misguided reading of vegetarian recipes. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick recently observed (see Healthy in mind, body.what about spirit?), healthy eating is now `the highest form of ethical virtue recognised in contemporary society'. In this sense, forcing school pupils to take lessons in healthy eating can be seen as part of an attempt to inculcate the new moral and behavioural codes yet further. Tackling the level of obesity amongst the young may be given as the ostensible justification but the policy impulse here is moral. The measures aim to socialise children into accepting that sanctions could arise against them if they don't follow the government's lifestyle diktat.

By making healthy cookery classes compulsory, the government is explicitly stating that for future generations, when it comes to deciding what to eat, personal choice will be a thing of the past. Already Ken Livingstone has suggested that mothers feeding their children burgers and chips through school railings should be arrested by the police. How long before food inspectors in supermarkets make sure we're following the right `healthy eating' plans?

In the past, subjects and aspects of schooling were made compulsory on the grounds that they allowed the next generation to make a worthwhile contribution to public life. Transforming a subject more associated with the home than the world of work or intellectual development into a compulsory subject simply institutionalises the colonisation of our private sphere by the government and state authorities. Far from cookery lessons enriching young people's experience of the education system, it's yet another recipe for social control and moral conformity. Surely it's time to put a lid on lifestyle diktat?


Vaccine for C.diff?

A vaccine to help stamp out the deadly C diff superbug has been developed by British scientists and could be available within three years. The jab would save thousands of lives a year in the UK alone. It could be used both to treat severely-ill patients and mass-vaccinate pensioners, who are most at risk of the killer bacterium. Tests on more than 200 patients suggest that the jab is safe, causing few side-effects other than the occasional red arm or headache.

In one US trial, a course of injections rapidly cleared up infections which had lingered for up to two years. Larger-scale trials on hundreds of patients in British hospitals are being planned in conjunction with the Department of Health.

Scientists are warning that a new strain of Clostridium difficile has emerged which is resistant to antibiotics developed to treat it. But the vaccine, from the Cambridge biotech firm Acambis, could tackle all forms of the bug because it works in a different way. Like the tetanus jab, the vaccine centres around not the bug itself, but the poisons it produces. C diff creates toxins which irritate the lining of the bowel, causing diarrhoea and, in the worst cases, a potentially fatal infection of the abdomen. Treating the poisons with formaldehyde ensures they no longer harm the body. However, they are still recognised by the immune system, priming it to produce antibodies capable of attacking and destroying the bug.

Dr Michael Watson, of Acambis, said: "The toxins work together to blow up cells. "If you imagine them as a dangerous criminal, the formaldehyde essentially handcuffs it. "It still looks like a dangerous criminal but it can no longer use the knife or shoot the gun." C diff, which thrives in filthy conditions, infects more than 1,000 pensioners a week and contributes to almost 4,000 deaths a year. Although antibiotic treatment does have some success, many patients relapse, with successive bouts of diarrhoea making them weaker and weaker.

It is hoped that like the tetanus vaccine, a course of three or so injections will provide long-lasting protection which can be topped up every ten years or so with a booster shot. One of the trials showed the jab could be used to treat and clear up recurrent diarrhoea. The most severely ill of the patients studied, a 71-year-old woman, had been taking antibiotics almost continuously for nearly two years to try to combat more than ten bouts of diarrhoea. The other two patients - a man and a woman - had been battling the bug for up to nine months. Four shots of the vaccine over two months prevented the diarrhoea returning in all three cases.

In a strategy similar to flu vaccination, everyone over the age of 65 or so could be offered the chance to have the jab. Dr Watson said: "Clostridium difficile costs Europe o1billion a year in healthcare costs. You could view that as saved money or saved beds." Dr Marina Morgan, a consultant medical microbiologist at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, said: "There is a desperate need for something to tackle this problem. It is a nightmare. "Norovirus (the winter vomiting bug) is dreadful but it is shortlived and people get better on their own. "C diff kills people and the more we have to fight C diff the better. This sounds amazing."

Professor Mark Enright, of Imperial College London, said the jab seemed promising, despite the small number of patients studied so far. "I don't really see a downside to it. Vaccination is much better than treatment - it is better not to get something than get it and try to kill it off later."

Clostridium difficile exists naturally in the stomach of many healthy adults, where it is kept under control by 'friendly' bacteria. The problems start if the balance of bacteria is disturbed, perhaps as a result of taking antibiotics for another infection. Once the "friendly" bacteria are killed off, the C diff can multiply and produce the harmful toxins. Spread, via hardy spores, is swift. But simple soap and water can keep hands from transmitting the bug while powerful disinfectants can be used to clean floors.

While it is unclear why pensioners are most a risk, they tend to be in hospital more often and for longer than younger people. In addition, immunity tends to decline with age. In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, C diff was blamed for 2,247 deaths and implicated in another 1,560.

The large-scale testing needed to ensure the jab is both safe and effective means it is three to five years away from the market. Professor Mark Wilcox, a C diff expert from Leeds University, cautioned that the weakening of the immune system with age might mean that the vaccine works less well in the elderly. He added: "This will be an expensive vaccine to develop. "Having said that, the cost of C diff is considerable, so even if it does turn out to be a rather expensive vaccine, if it is efficacious it could be money well spent."

The latest mutation of C diff has been found to be resistant to the drug metronidazole. It means that only one medicine, vancomycin, is now left to treat the bug. Health experts have warned hospital bosses and staff to be extra vigilant for signs of the new strain and report any patients not responding to treatment.


British hospital porter fired in crucifix row

A hospital porter has been sacked after a row over a crucifix being covered up in a prayer room. Joseph Protano, 54, was suspended four days after the incident last month at Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, Pendlebury. He has now been dismissed for gross misconduct, but intends to appeal.

Police quizzed him for four hours last month, on suspicion of religiously aggravated assault, but he was released without charge. He denies the allegations and must wait to see if police take any action.

The row centres on a prayer room available to staff and visitors of all faiths at the hospital, which contains a Virgin Mary statue and a crucifix. Mr Protano, a Roman Catholic who has worked two years at the hospital, entered the room when three Muslims were using it - two patients and a doctor.

An argument broke out after he asked them to remove a cloth covering the crucifix and statue and to turn a picture of the Virgin Mary face up. He said he was unable to comment on his sacking as the police probe and his plans to appeal were ongoing. But a friend said: "He was very shocked at the decision. "He thinks he has been treated terribly. "He loves his job and doesn't do it for the money - until recently, his employers were paying just 5.88 pounds an hour.

"They are saying he should not have gone into the prayer room and it is alleged he used racist language, which he totally refutes. "His pay has been stopped, even though he intends to appeal, and he has had to sign on for benefits."

The friend said Mr Protano went into the prayer room about six times a day to check the statue and crucifix were not left covered. He said as a Christian, he felt it could be upsetting for visiting parents to find them covered up. The case has angered many hospital staff, who think he has been treated unfairly. Police said a file had been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service to decide on any further action.

Source. As GOV comments:

"It seems that this miscreant, who was interrogated by the police for four hours on suspicion of the crime of "religiously aggravated assault" [I kid you not] had the audacity to request that the Christian icons in an interfaith chapel be uncovered while he prayed....

So that's where the time, money, and productivity of Britain's public servants go: harassing whomever the Muslims complain about. And the Manchester Children's Hospital? They're just trying to avoid a costly lawsuit.

Female Muslim medics 'disobey hygiene rules'

Muslim medical students are refusing to obey hygiene rules brought in to stop the spread of deadly superbugs, because they say it is against their religion. Women training in several hospitals in England have raised objections to removing their arm coverings in theatre and to rolling up their sleeves when washing their hands, because it is regarded as immodest in Islam

Universities and NHS trusts fear many more will refuse to co-operate with new Department of Health guidance, introduced this month, which stipulates that all doctors must be "bare below the elbow". The measure is deemed necessary to stop the spread of infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile, which have killed hundreds.

Minutes of a clinical academics' meeting at Liverpool University revealed that female Muslim students at Alder Hey children's hospital had objected to rolling up their sleeves to wear gowns. Similar concerns have been raised at Leicester University. Minutes from a medical school committee said that "a number of Muslim females had difficulty in complying with the procedures to roll up sleeves to the elbow for appropriate handwashing". Sheffield University also reported a case of a Muslim medic who refused to "scrub" as this left her forearms exposed. Documents from Birmingham University reveal that some students would prefer to quit the course rather than expose their arms, and warn that it could leave trusts open to legal action.

Hygiene experts said last night that no exceptions should be made on religious grounds. Dr Mark Enright, professor of microbiology at Imperial College London, said: "To wash your hands properly, and reduce the risks of MRSA and C.difficile, you have to be able to wash the whole area around the wrist. "I don't think it would be right to make an exemption for people on any grounds. The policy of bare below the elbows has to be applied universally."

Dr Charles Tannock, a Conservative MEP and former hospital consultant, said: "These students are being trained using taxpayers' money and they have a duty of care to their patients not to put their health at risk. "Perhaps these women should not be choosing medicine as a career if they feel unable to abide by the guidelines that everyone else has to follow."

But the Islamic Medical Association insisted that covering all the body in public, except the face and hands, was a basic tenet of Islam. "No practising Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow," it said. Dr Majid Katme, the association spokesman, said: "Exposed arms can pick up germs and there is a lot of evidence to suggest skin is safer to the patient if covered. One idea might be to produce long, sterile, disposable gloves which go up to the elbows."



Ambitious plans to meet up to a third of Britain's energy needs from offshore wind farms are in jeopardy because the Ministry of Defence objects that the turbines interfere with its radar.

The MoD has lodged last-minute objections to at least four onshore wind farms in the line of sight of its stations on the east coast because they make it impossible to spot aircraft, The Times has learnt. The same objections are likely to apply to wind turbines in the North Sea, part of the massive renewable energy project announced by John Hutton, the Energy Secretary, barely two months ago. They would be directly in line with the three principal radar defence stations, Brizlee Wood, Saxton Wold and Trimingham on the Northumberland, Yorkshire and Norfolk coasts.

Giving evidence to a planning inquiry last October, a senior MoD expert said that the turbines create a hole in radar coverage so that aircraft flying overhead are not detectable. In written evidence, Squadron Leader Chris Breedon said: "This obscuration occurs regardless of the height of the aircraft, of the radar and of the turbine." He described the discovery as alarming.

The findings were the result of trials carried out in 2004 and 2005 but the MoD appears to have toughened its stance more recently. It now objects to almost all wind farms in the line of sight of its radar stations.

The change of policy has prompted fury among developers, who had previously been told that there were no defence implications. They have now written a letter of protest to Mr Hutton and Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, pointing out that millions of pounds of investment are at risk.


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