Monday, March 03, 2008

British children wait years for vital dental care

"Who cares if poor children end up going through life with crooked teeth?" seems to be the attitude. But isn't that exactly the sort of attitude the NHS was designed to fix?

More than 10,000 children with severe dental problems including jaw deformities and an inability to bite properly are waiting up to seven years for corrective treatment on the National Health Service. Orthodontists have warned that in many cases the children suffer from much more serious problems by the time they are finally given treatment.

This weekend specialists claimed that in many parts of England the NHS had in effect ceased to provide corrective surgery for children. They also warned that the government’s introduction of an 18-week waiting time target for orthodontics at the end of the year would be so difficult to meet that patients would not be referred at all and treatment would be rationed further.

Evidence of the collapse in orthodontics in parts of the country is revealed in research by the British Orthodontic Society. It found that in at least seven hospital catchment areas in England, children with serious conditions were waiting more than four years for hospital treatment. In one area of the northeast children are waiting for seven years while in another the delay is 5½ years.

James Spencer, consultant orthodontist at Pindersfield hospital in West Yorkshire, said: “This is totally unsatisfactory. If we are not able to get on with the treatment conditions such as impacted teeth may cause damage to other teeth. The children may also suffer psychological damage or sleeping problems.”

Once children reach 18 they are no longer routinely entitled to NHS treatment. Orthodontists report that some children turn 18 while waiting to be assessed for care and thus lose their chance of surgery on the NHS. A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “The department is aware of the variations in provision of orthodontic treatment and has given help to primary care trusts in assessing and reviewing future orthodontic services.”


Royal warrior Prince Harry sees off the sneerers

His frontline duty against `Terry Taliban' has been the making of Harry - even parts of the Arab media have been impressed

Budgie, Ginge, Cornet Wales, Widow Six Seven - whatever you like to call Prince Harry, in less than 48 hours he rocked our world. From the exposure of his presence in Helmand province on Thursday evening to his return to RAF Brize Norton yesterday, he transformed the public image of himself, the army, the royals and the war against the enemy he called "Terry Taliban".

To describe this as a sensational public-relations coup is not to diminish the prince's determination. He wanted to go and, with General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, he made it happen. In doing so, he left the sneerers struggling to find a downside.

Most spectacularly, Jon Snow on Channel 4 News dug a hole for himself on Thursday by questioning the ethics of a press blackout to which his own company had agreed. Viewers e-mailed to accuse him of treason or worse. On Friday, undeterred, Channel 4 News kept on digging by trying to whip up antiHarry feeling among British Muslims. Spotting the racist implication that they were being lumped in with the Taliban, almost all the Muslims backed Harry.

Even the Arab media were impressed by the behaviour of the soldier prince. "It's an extremely important story for us," said Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab paper Al-Quds al-Arabi. "He's the grandson of the Queen on the front line . . . He's endangering his life and he's not scared to fight for his country." Atwan said his newspaper had contrasted "the brother of the future British king fighting discreetly and without publicity" with "Arab royal families who prefer to stay in their palaces and enjoy the oil wealth of their countries".

Only the most rabid extremists remained to provide backing for the sneerers. "I think Prince Harry has been involved in an act of war with Muslims," said Omar Bakri Mohammed from Leba-non. He is banned from Britain.

The Prince flew to the main base at Kandahar in the week before Christmas. So far so normal. His special status was acknowledged when he was taken over by the Special Boat Service - the marine equivalent of the SAS. They took him by helicopter to Helmand, avoiding the Camp Bastion base filled with thousands of allied troops. Then he had special Gurkha protection. But otherwise he shared the life of his men. This was what he wanted, but it also avoided any suggestion that his deployment was purely cosmetic.

Yesterday the full extent of his involvement with the fighting emerged. When the news broke on Thursday, Harry, call sign Widow Six Seven, was acting as mobile forward air controller for a US-led advance. He was directing French aircraft in an attack on Taliban fighters flushed out by US and Afghan troops.

Harry, known to his mates as Ginge, for obvious reasons, or Budgie, because he was seen by colleagues "flapping like a budgie" on his first day, was also involved in questioning civilians. "The great question is `Where's the Taliban?' " he said. "I have asked, `Where's Bin Laden?' in the past. They just laugh. One guy said, `You're too late.' "

What has Harry achieved by putting himself so thoroughly in harm's way? First, he rescued the defence secretary, Des Browne, and his ministry. Early last year, the image of the British armed forces was at a new low after the Iranian capture of 15 British sailors. The Iranians exploited the incident by first humiliating then handing back the sailors. Browne made matters worse by allowing, then disallowing the sailors to sell their stories. Browne also botched the deployment of Harry to Iraq. In February 2007 he announced - to the world and Al-Qaeda - that the prince was going. Inevitably, because of the security risk Browne created, the MoD had to back down and Harry's deployment was cancelled.

Dannatt and Harry were both furious. From their anger sprang the deal that produced a media blackout for 10 weeks while Harry was in theatre. For the army, in need of new recruits, the exploits of Harry were pure publicity gold.

Yesterday, Dannatt spoke of the impact of Harry on the front line. "I think that's good for him, I think that's good for the royal family, certainly good for the army. I think that's good for the nation . . ." Dannatt also spoke of signs that opposition to the Iraq war is giving way to respect for the army's achievements. "You only have to reflect on the large number of homecoming parades and enthusiasm . . . I was just delighted to see the way that many towns and cities and communities welcomed regiments back . . . there is a great degree of appreciation of what our soldiers and servicemen are doing both in Iraq and in Afghanistan." Harry is the jewel in the crown of Dannatt's campaign to save the army from apathy, public distaste for operations in Iraq and political cack-handedness.

Harry also saved himself. The staged photographs, videos and interviews covering his time in Helmand contrast starkly with the shots of him lurching drunkenly out of London nightclubs. Plainly, for him, the army had worked as it should - giving purpose to a drifting existence. Hopeless Harry had become Hero Harry.

A hero is also what the royals needed. The Diana inquest may be making a fool of Mohamed Al Fayed, but it's doing the royals no favours by raking over one of the most terrible episodes in the Queen's reign. Hero Harry is a welcome distraction.

But yesterday Harry seemed to read from the wrong script. "I don't want to sit around in Windsor," he said. "I generally don't like England that much and it's nice to be away from all the press and the papers and all the general shite that they write."

The media - and especially the international paparazzi - won't take this well. They had agreed to the blackout and had taken some flattering pictures in theatre and conducted some equally flattering interviews. Harry's demeanour on leaving his plane at Brize Norton - no smile, no wave, nothing for the cameras - seemed to suggest something more than the feelings of a soldier snatched from his posting. It suggested real disappointment at being back in the royal goldfish bowl. He may have thought it was bad before he left; now it's going to be worse.

Then there's the terrorist threat. As the hate internet sites make clear, he is now the highest-value Al-Qaeda target in Britain and one of the highest in the world. "The rest will be the business of the lions of Al-Qaeda and the eagles of the Taliban," one site said before Harry was extracted. His security is now certain to be beefed up to the point where it is likely his clubbing days are over. Officers from Scotland Yard have met to discuss strategy. A senior Whitehall official said yesterday that MI5 would be monitoring radical Islamic websites to see what further threats were being made against the prince.

A skiing trip to Klosters rumoured to be planned in a month's time will be the first big test of these raised levels of protection. This will be a new experience for Harry, who has been used to living the London high life. Did he, when he fought to be allowed to face the enemy, imagine the price of victory?

The exploits of Hero Harry have been a triumph for Dannatt, the army, the prince and the royals. But now the hard work really begins - of keeping Harry focused on the reality of the new role he has made for himself, of providing him with higher levels of security and of preventing his new celebrity from, once again, destabilising the royals, that most unstable of families. Terry Taliban provides one challenge, but avoiding the fate of his mother - a woman destroyed by fame - may turn out to be the real test.


If you think British food is bad, wait until you see British army food

Prince Harry returned yesterday from Afghanistan clearly unbowed by the threat of serious injury, kidnapping or death from a Taliban attack. But he admitted that sinking, defeated feeling when faced with some of the dismal army food. Harry said: "Rations are miserable. I've been on rations now for, I can't remember how long. The guys here [in Afghanistan] have been on rations even longer than I have. They're fed-up with it."

Responding to the suggestion that Jamie Oliver could be drafted in to help boost morale with some ration recipes, he said: "Yeah, Jamie, please. Bangers and mash with gravy, in a bag, would be brilliant. I don't think you can screw that up. I'm sure someone would manage to, but bangers and mash with gravy in a bag would be awesome." Harry, who typically prefers Big Macs, spent weeks living on rations while operating around Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold. "There are people out in the villages who have got less stuff than us, so I suppose we should be happy with a corned beef hash," he said.

The prince has, however, broadened his culinary experiences in Afghanistan - eating goat curry with a unit of Gurkhas. "Everyone is well looked after here by the Gurkhas, the food is fantastic - goat curries, chicken curries . . . it's good fun." The Gurkhas praised Harry for his good manners, noting how he would visit the camp kitchen after every meal to thank the cook. "We are very lucky to have a prince on our team working with us," said Captain Yambahadur Rana. "He's getting on very well with our boys. He has even started learning a few Gurkha words."

The prince's culinary experiences were broadened further when he join Fijian troops on manoeuvres in the Afghan desert. Their rudimentary breakfast entailed blending butter and jam in a tub and then spreading it on a wholemeal biscuit.


British border force to shut at weekends (!)

Officers in Britain's new border force have been told they should not arrest illegal immigrants and foreign criminals at weekends or on bank holidays. To cut costs, the new Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) has told them only a minimum number of staff should be on weekend duty to answer essential calls. Staff are entitled to extra payments for weekend working but the agency is trying to save 80m-100m pounds to keep its budget in line with Treasury edicts.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said it exposed as a sham Gordon Brown's claims that the new agency would secure Britain's borders. John Tincey, vice-president of the Immigration Service Union, which represents 4,000 immigration staff, said it would make Saturdays and Sundays virtually an "open season" for offenders.

The arrangements, due to take effect on April 1, are detailed in a memo to the agency's 1,500 enforcement staff. It says "no operational visits will be scheduled at weekends or on bank or public holidays" without giving three weeks' notice and obtaining the express written consent ofa senior BIA director. The new arrangements will not affect the manning of immigration desks at ports and air-ports, which is handled by a different division within the BIA. However, it will mean efforts to track down foreign criminals to be deported, failed asylum seekers and others who have slipped past port controls will effectively stop at weekends.


British police will be taught sharia law and the Koran

Police will be trained on the importance of the Koran and Sharia law to Muslims under Government plans to tackle extremism. Lessons in the Islamic faith and culture will become part of the formal training for recruits. Chief constables said officers will build better relationships by understanding the communities they are policing. [How about the "communities" learning about British law?] This could prove crucial in rooting out extremism and preventing a terrorist attack, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers.

But critics expressed concern that the plan could foster division, rather than combat it. It comes after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK "seems unavoidable". He later said his remarks had been misinterpreted.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis added: "Of course it is sensible for the police to have an understanding of the Koran and Sharia law as long as we do not allow the situation to slip so that Sharia law is regarded on an equal basis with British law. "British law is and always must be pre-eminent."

The scheme is part of a wide-ranging strategy to prevent extremist ideas gaining hold in schools, colleges and prisons. Other initiatives in the 40-page strategy include guidance to parents on how to stop children searching for extremist websites, and intervening where convicted terrorists are suspected of spreading hate in prison. Police will not have to learn the "depth and complexity" of Sharia law but would be expected to understand Islamic culture.

But critics have described the plan as "politically correct thinking". Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley, said: "Police officers are not there to implement sharia law. They are there to implement British law. "This idea is misguided. We will only get community cohesion when everybody signs up to being British and following British law."

The so-called Prevent strategy says: "Research last year revealed that the police service would be very low on the list of agencies that the Muslim community would turn to if they had concerns about a member of their community who embraced violent extremism. "The police service has a long way to go in building a relationship of trust around these issues." The Chief Constable in charge of the strategy, West Yorkshire's Norman Bettison, said: "We work closely with communities and the majority of police training at the moment in this area is done in partnership with Muslim organisations. "We are building on this basis of training and emphasising that a basic principle of policing is that officers work with and should understand the communities they are policing.

"The Acpo Prevent strategy recognises this in the context of non-Muslim officers working with Muslim communities. "These issues can be complex and include nationality, community and religious issues, all of which are interwoven. "That is what we are trying to get across to officers in our training. The depth and complexity of sharia law is not part of this training. "The strategy remains in draft form at present and I expect it to be formally adopted by chief officer colleagues after further feedback from partners and communities."


Literature downgraded again in Britain

Brecht and Moliere may have taken their last bow for A-level students. Set texts by classic European authors are to be axed from modern language A-levels offered by English exam boards. Voltaire, Pushkin and Mann are among dozens of established authors who have fallen victim to a shift towards studying the contemporary culture of countries. From September pupils will no longer have the option to study set texts; instead, they will write a short essay on a literary subject of their choosing.

The dumping of the pantheon of foreign literary greats - together with a wider down-grading of literature - has driven some of Britain's leading academic schools, including Eton and Winchester, to abandon foreign language A-levels. It has also sparked accusations that the education authorities are "amputating" Britain from its European cultural heritage. "Where literature is remotely present [in the new A-levels], there are no prescribed texts and its position is optional and marginal," said Josep-Lluis Gonzalez, head of modern languages at Eton, in Berkshire. Eton is one of 16 schools that have dropped modern languages A-levels in favour of a new, more traditional exam, the PreU. "Language teaching has a double nature - oral fluency and sophistication. The sophistication is now being dumbed down," said Gonzalez.

Keith Pusey, director of studies at Winchester, said: "We think the literature basis of these subjects is absolutely crucial. It teaches you to think when you read a piece of great literature. It gives you historical and social context - it gives you so much."

The removal of literary set texts has added to concerns over the devaluing of languages after a decision last month to remove oral exams from GCSEs. It followed a review by Lord Dearing, the government education adviser, who said the test was "too stressful and too short".

Frederic Raphael, author of The Glittering Prizes, a novel that followed the fortunes of a group of 1950s Cambridge graduates, called the removal of the set texts "grotesque". He said: "We are cutting off our own limbs. It is not amputating the foreigners and detaching their fingers from our precious boat; it is chopping off whole areas of what is basically our culture. The lack of nerve on the part of the whole establishment of teaching is just grotesque."

The A-level system removed the obligation to study literature in the 1980s. But it still allows schools the option to concentrate heavily on literary works. Under the syllabus offered by Edexcel, one of the three exam boards in England, pupils can study two works in depth, chosen from prescribed lists of texts. In French, they include Voltaire's Candide and Les Mains Sales, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. Under the new syllabus, students are expected to write an essay of 240-270 words on a research-based topic of their choosing, which does not have to be literary. There are few other opportunities for literature.

St Albans High School for Girls in Hertfordshire has decided to continue offering A-levels. But teachers are so worried about the lack of literature in the new courses - and the effect this could have on pupils' future performance at university - that they are offering extra literary classes alongside A-levels. "The lack of set texts is one of the most serious concerns," said Helen Everett, the school's head of modern languages. "Unfortunately, it seems the way of the world is that not enough people are studying languages so they [the authorities] think `let's make them easier'."

A source at one of the three English boards - AQA, Edexcel and OCR - said the decision to ditch set texts had been made to "ease the burden of assessment". None of the boards commented officially beyond saying it had designed the syllabuses within the framework set by the government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The authority said literature had not been compulsory since the 1980s, adding: "For every new A-level language specification there is an opportunity to study some literature, as is the case at present." It said there was nothing to stop English schools opting for language A-levels offered by exam boards in Northern Ireland and Wales, which have retained lists of set texts.


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