Thursday, June 05, 2008

Top British university ditches meaningless government High School diplomas and sets its own entrance exam

One of Britain's leading universities is to introduce an entrance exam for all students applying to study there from 2010 because it believes that A levels no longer provide it with a viable way to select the best students. Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College, London, suggested that grade inflation at A level meant that so many students now got straight As that it had become almost "worthless" as a way of discriminating between the talented and the well drilled. Last year one in four A-level marks was a grade A and 10 per cent of A-level students achieved at least three As.

"We can't rely on A levels any more. Everybody who applies has got three or four As. They [A levels] are not very useful. The International Baccalaureate is useful but again this is just a benchmark," Sir Richard said. He added: "We are doing this not because we don't believe in A levels, but we can't use the A level any more as a discriminator factor." The move will make Imperial, which specialises in science and engineering and ranks third in the UK after Oxford and Cambridge in The Times Good University Guide, the first university to introduce a university-wide entrance exam since Oxford scrapped its own version in 1995.

Some universities, including Imperial, use entrance tests to select students for medical schools and both Oxford and Cambridge use specific subject-based entrance tests for certain degree courses. But there is no other institution in the UK offering a university-wide test.

Sir Richard said that the test would be piloted this summer for use in selecting students for entry in 2010 to Imperial, which has 12,000 full-time students. Apart from candidates for medical degrees, who must sit an entrance test called the BMAT, all Imperial applicants will sit the same exam regardless of which subject they intend to study.

The tests would seek to examine students for their innate ability and problem solving skills rather than subject knowledge. "We are going to have entrance exams that will test ability. We are looking for students who really will benefit from an IC education. The examination will look for IQ, intelligence, creativity and innovation and will not be too dependent on rote learning," Sir Richard said. But he added that students would not be able simply to stop doing A_levels, as the university would still require evidence that they had studied their chosen subjects in depth. Sir Richard said that Imperial had been in talks with other universities about the entrance test and suggested that eventually it may be introduced nationally.

He also told the Independent Schools' Council annual conference in London that many students in state schools were short-changed by the state education system, which educated 93 per cent of pupils. He suggested that the Government should offer scholarships to enable the brightest pupils to attend fee-paying schools. "We have got to do something radical if we are to save the children in our schools who are just not getting the education they deserve. We have in this country one of the best secondary educations in the world, but only a few percentage of people benefit from it," he said.

Imperial's new exam is bound to increase pressure for the introduction into Britain of American-style scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) as the key qualification for university entrance.


Government money failing to get British children to play sport

Can this stupid socialist government do ANYTHING useful? Many schools do not even OFFER the target amount of sport!

Special measures to get children to do two hours of sport each week are failing, Government figures indicate. One in three pupils over the age of 14 does not do the recommended amount of exercise in school each week according to figures released by the Liberal Democrats.

The Government and the National Lottery have dedicated 1.6 billion pounds to combat childhood obesity by boosting PE lessons since 2003 but over half of secondary schools still do not provide time for children to exercise for two hours a week. Gordon Brown recently pledged a further 100 million to get children to exercise for up to five hours during the school week.

Up to 900,000 pupils are missing out on the correct amount of sport causing fears about the future health of the nation the Liberal Democrats say. In 2002 Tony Blair's government recommended that all children should do at least two hours of exercise each week at school.

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport, said: "Billions of pounds of taxpayers money have been pumped into school facilities, so parents are entitled to expect that their children are given a decent opportunity to use them. "With the 2012 Olympics on their way we should be encouraging the next generation of athletes. But these figures suggest the Government is set to squander the sporting legacy it could offer."

The new figures, released in response to a Parliamentary Question posed by the Liberal Democrats suggest that 33 per cent of all school children aged 14-16 do not do two hours of sport a week. Sixty five per cent of secondary schools and 32 per cent of primary schools fail to offer the required amount of sport each week.



A professor and author at the University of Kent has labelled Gordon Mursell, the Bishop of Stafford, as a 'modern-day demonologist': Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent and author of 'Invitation to Terror', criticises the Bishop of Stafford for comparing climate change sceptics to Josef Fritzl

Gordon Mursell, the Bishop of Stafford in England, is a man of the cloth. He is also a member of a posse of disoriented clerics, who have become so estranged from morally literate theology that they have embraced a new brand of demonology. At a time when moralisers cannot give any real meaning to classical ideas about right and wrong, they try instead to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment. So instead of targeting those traditional demons - Satan, say, or witchcraft - Gordon Mursell attacks climate change deniers.

In a parish newsletter, the bishop said that people who refuse to join the fight against global warming are like Josef Fritzl, the insane criminal in Austria who locked his daughter and her children in a cellar for 24 years. For Mursell, being sceptical about the conventional wisdom on climate change is akin to the monstrous crime committed by Fritzl. He says: `You could argue that, by our refusal to face the truth about climate change, we are as guilty as he is.'

Mursell has not called for climate change deniers to be burned at the stake - yet. But the idea that they should be punished is implicit in his message. For some time now, religious and moral entrepreneurs have been searching zealously for demons. Some have argued that AIDS is God's way of punishing immoral sexual behaviour. Big catastrophes such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina have been portrayed as retribution for people's degenerate and sinful behaviour. One Christian writer described Katrina as `the fist of God'.

However, these religious-tinged fantasies tend not to resonate with the public imagination. In contrast, focusing on the current anxieties about the future of the planet seems to be a far more fruitful way of rediscovering Satan. And the linking of the crime of child abuse with scepticism about today's received green wisdom exemplifies the new demonology.

How demonologists work

Demonologists are moral entrepreneurs. They turn the problems faced by our communities into moral threats. One of the most striking illustrations of such demonology was the plague that is frequently referred to as the Black Death. The transformation of a fast-spreading disease into an epidemic of evil continues to excite people's imagination and fears today. According to one study, it was `only after Europeans had experienced this epidemic' that `they were ready to accept witchcraft as a real threat' (1). The moralisation of what is referred to as the `AIDS epidemic' shows that modern plagues are still used to convey a culturally meaningful message about `evil'.

Demonologists are intensely hostile to anyone who questions the way they interpret and talk about threats. As moral entrepreneurs, they regard their opponents, not only as irresponsible, but also as potentially evil. From this standpoint, dissidence comes to be seen as an act of moral subversion. The moralising of hazards serves to shut down discussion. At the very least, anyone who questions claims about the alleged gravity of a threat facing mankind is depicted as the stooge or accomplice of a malevolent agenda.

The act of raising questions about a `warning' is now discussed as an insidious deed of denial. Increasingly, questioning things is seen as the moral equivalent of Holocaust Denial. In recent years, people who have questioned the warnings about climate change have been labelled `deniers'. The allusion to Holocaust Denial is clear. The implication of this moral condemnation of questioners - the denouncement of critics as `deniers' - is that disbelief itself is a sign of moral bankruptcy.

Believing in a statement of warning is considered to be morally principled; disbelieving the statement, or even just questioning it, is stigmatised as morally corrupt. This transformation of disbelief into a sin was also widespread during the witch-hunts that plagued Europe in earlier centuries. In the era of the witch-hunt, anyone who questioned the existence of demonic forces could be denounced as an `associate of Satan'. Such was the power and influence of demonologists that few were prepared to question the existence of witchcraft.

In the 1980s and 90s, American crusaders against Satanic Ritual Abuse adopted a similar approach. A report published by the California Social Services Committee on Child Abuse Prevention described the widespread `denial of the problem of ritualistic abuse' as one of the main barriers to tackling it. Campaigners frequently argued that such denial was the moral equivalent of the depraved act of abuse itself (2). If you questioned the idea that Satanic Ritual Abuse was a real existing threat, you could be charged with complicity in the crimes of child molestation.

The dogmatic demand to `believe' has become a kind of moral imperative. Moral entrepreneurs argue that victims have a `right to be believed'. So crusaders against Satanic Ritual Abuse attempt to disarm sceptics by insisting that the worst thing that can happen to victims of abuse is not to be believed. Patrick Casement, author of Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse, tries to guilt-trip sceptics:

`It may be that some accounts which are reputed to be of "satanic" abuse are delusional, and the narrators may indeed be psychotic in some cases. But we must still face the awful fact that if some of these accounts are true, if we do not have the courage to see the truth that may be there. we may tacitly be allowing these practices to continue under the cover of secrecy, supported also by the almost universal refusal to believe that they could exist.' (3)

In other words, those who refuse to believe accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse are themselves complicit in the act of victimisation. During the outbreak of the satanic abuse panic in Britain in the 1980s and 90s, zealous witch-hunters claimed that an `insidious and dangerous' disease was sweeping the country: that is, incredulity about the existence of ritual abuse. According to one account, `this contagion takes the comforting form of sceptical and rational inquiry, and its message is comforting, too: it is designed to protect "innocent family life" against a new urban myth of the satanic abuse of children.' (4)

Shutting down debate

Through vilifying their opponents, demonologists attempt to close down discussion and debate. Such intolerance towards alternative and dissident opinions betrays the powerful anti-democratic impulse underpinning contemporary demonology, best expressed most recently by the Bishop of Stafford.

This censorious attitude has all the worst features of religious zealotary, and it is strikingly similar to traditional demonology. Demonologists in pre-modern times argued that scepticism about witchcraft was a form of heresy that had to be punished. The Malleus Maleficarum, one of the most influential manuals for witch-hunters, noted that `the question arises whether people who hold that witches do not exist are to be regarded as notorious heretics, or whether they are to be regarded as gravely suspect of holding heretical opinions'. It then says: `The first opinion is the correct one' (5). This depiction of scepticism as a form of moral transgression is still around today.

Scepticism towards the received wisdom on global warming, or public health issues such as AIDS, is described as `denial' - and today, `denial' has been transformed into a generic evil. The denial phenomenon has become a kind of free-floating blasphemy, which can attach itself to a variety of issues and problems. One environmentalist writer argues that the `language of "climate change", "global warming", "human impacts" and "adaptation" are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse' (6).

The charge of denial has become a secular form of blasphemy. Recently, a book written by someone who is sceptical of today's prevailing environmentalist wisdom was dismissed with the following words: `The text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren't dying of AIDS, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.' (7) This forced association of three highly charged issues - pollution, AIDS and the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews - shows how denial has become an all-purpose form of blasphemy.

Once denial has been stigmatised, there are demands for it to be censored. Consider the current attempts to stifle anyone who questions the predictions of catastrophic climate change. Some advocate a policy of zero tolerance towards climate change deniers. `I have very limited patience with those who deny human responsibility for upper-atmosphere pollution and ozone depletion', says one moral crusader, then declaring: `There is no intellectual difference between the Lomborgians [those who adhere to the arguments of the `skeptical environmentalist', Bjorn Lomborg] who steadfastly refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming from scientists of unquestioned reputation, and the neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers.' (8)

Increasingly, the heretic is condemned because he has dared to question an authority that must never be questioned. Here, `overwhelming evidence' serves as the equivalent of revealed religious truth, and those who question `scientists of unquestioned reputation' - that is, the new priestly caste - are guilty of blasphemy.

Heresy-hunters who charge their opponents with `ecological denial' also warn that the `time for reason and reasonableness is running short' (9). Crusaders against denial don't only wish to silence their opponents. In the true tradition of heresy-hunting they also want to inflict punishment on those who deny the true faith. David Roberts, a journalist for the online magazine Grist, would like to see global warming deniers prosecuted like Nazi war criminals. In a vitriolic tone characteristic of dogmatic inquisitors, he argued: `We should have war crimes trials for these bastards. some sort of climate Nuremberg.' (10) At the very least, it seems, these `criminals' should be castigated as the moral equivalents of Josef Fritzl.

Thankfully, a demonologist like the Bishop of Strafford lacks the power to impose the kind of punishments that were dished out by earlier generations of heresy-hunters. But if it is not challenged, his denunciation of `deniers' will contribute to the consolidation of a censorious mood and climate of anxiety. History shows that crusades against heretics and demons have a nasty habit of disorienting society, and undermining civilised and humanist behaviour.



It now says that we should tackle climate change through research and adaptation instead of trying to transform human behaviour:

Remember that global warming thingy? The idea was that we're wrecking the climate by pumping out greenhouse gases, and that we've jolly well got to change our wicked ways. Virtually the entire political, academic and media establishment threw its might behind this notion. Huge quantities of hot air were pumped out in its name, and many tonnes of pollutants expelled by planes carrying concerned dignitaries to global conferences.

There was, however, a problem: people didn't seem too keen to abandon driving, flying, meat eating, patio heating or even buying tungsten lightbulbs. Governments were understandably wary of trying to force them. Then, hey presto! Magically, the market seemed to have solved the problem, simply by pushing up the price of fuel. Yet what's been the response of our rulers? A panicky drive to keep the carbon bonfire fuelled by digging out yet more oil and abandoning proposed taxes on emissions.

We should hardly be surprised. We live in a democracy (sort of), and those seeking to retain or attain power must take some note of the will of the people. It turns out that, although we of course care about future generations and the people of low-lying Pacific islands, most of us don't care all that much. We're prepared to make sanctimonious gestures and attend the occasional concert of clapped-out superstars' appalling music. But we're not apparently prepared to sacrifice our welfare or our lifestyles, and we've been letting our rulers know.

Our commitment to other great altruistic causes has proved similar in character. Poverty has not been made history, and the aged remain pretty much unhelped. Of course, there have always been those among us, from Roundheads and Spanish inquisitors to the Khmer Rouge and Mary Whitehouse, whose commitment to social transformation in the name of virtue has been rather more serious.

Often, as now, their programmes have depended on the co-option of an unwilling majority. Unfortunately, gulags, purges and the rack remain out of reach of our current climate puritans, though some of them seem to regret this. George Monbiot, to be sure, happily beseeches a brutal despot for assistance in this dark hour for him and his ilk.

Perhaps, it's time to get real. Climate change activists should come to appreciate what religious reformers, communist revolutionaries and other utopian visionaries have learned before them. You can't change human behaviour in the interests of the supposed greater good.

Nonetheless, warming hasn't gone away, even if its character is less clear-cut than has been suggested by those urging us to make obeisance to it. What should we do about it?

The answer is surely to switch our efforts away from trying to change human behaviour towards other approaches to the problem. The most obvious is technological research into methods of alleviating warming. Up until now, mentioning this route has been considered a sinful attempt to divert attention from the hairshirt remedies on which the prophets of doom have insisted. Perhaps partly as a result, such research is proving surprisingly skimpy.

The sun can provide us with far more energy than fossil fuels, yet efforts to crack the technological problems involved in turning the Sahara into the world's power station are less intense than you might imagine. Or, to take the opposite approach, we know that seeding the atmosphere with particles could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth, since our own particulate pollution used to achieve just this effect. Yet little attempt is being made to find out if efforts in this direction could ever be economic.

Perhaps such ideas will prove fanciful. Since they may, we should be taking proper steps to adapt to future climate change, as well as trying to prevent it. Warming may devastate some parts of the world, but it will enhance the prospects of others. Russia and Canada would benefit by populating their currently frozen expanses with eager would-be farmers displaced from the tropics. Preparing for such transfers would be a long and delicate process. We could be starting it now. Yet, we're hardly even trying to develop new kinds of flood defence or drought-resistant crops. Why should we, while policy-makers assume that we're going to head-off warming by reducing our consumption of energy?

It's surely time for a change of tack. Or should we just wring our hands?


Private healthcare managers could be sent to turn round failing NHS hospitals

Private managers could be brought in to run failing hospitals under measures to tackle poor performance in the health service. Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, is to announce rigorous standards of quality, safety, cleanliness and financial management for all hospital trusts, making it easier for inadequate managers or chairmen to be dismissed without large payoffs, The Times has learnt. Under the controversial plan, which has strong backing from Gordon Brown, managers could be brought in from the private sector or from elsewhere in the NHS.

Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, told Channel 4 News last night: “What we’ve never done before is to allow the private sector to take over the running of a whole hospital in the form of a franchise, which is one of the options that would be included in this performance regime. What we know from our experience of involvement in other parts of the health service is that the private sector can bring different skills, different management skills, different techniques.”

Doctors, politicians and unions gave warning last night that the measures risked undermining the fundamental principles of the NHS. Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and former chairman of the Commons’ Science committee, said: “The privatisation of the NHS is becoming less than subtle. This is a blatant snub to the health service.” A spokesman for the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, said it would have “grave concerns if the private sector took over [NHS] management”. “There is already an immense amount of talent within the NHS – in leadership and management – and this should be nurtured to ensure NHS trusts do not find themselves in a position of failure in the first place.”

A key new performance measure will be levels of Clostridium difficile or MRSA infections. There are 20 trusts that are classified as “weak” in the Government’s ratings and they will come under early and tough scrutiny.

The plan has been adopted enthusiastically by the Prime Minister, who hopes to show that he will be as radical on public service reform as Tony Blair. During the Blair years Mr Brown was often accused of being an obstacle to change, and prevented Alan Milburn giving independence on borrowing to foundation hospitals.

Government sources said last night that Mr Johnson’s move would be the first of a series from Cabinet ministers aimed at improving public services. They promised stringent minimum standards “and real consequences for those who fail to meet them”. Managers and trust chairmen will have their contracts drawn to relate to their performance against the new standards. They face dismissal – without payoffs – if they are placed on a performance improvement plan and then fail to meet the deadlines set within it.

At the moment 30 trusts, out of 290, including mental health trusts, are responsible for 46 per cent of the cases of MRSA infection and 57 per cent of patients having to wait more than 18 weeks for their operation. A total of 20 trusts were rated as “weak” for both quality of services and use of resources in October, while there are also 16 trusts that are considered “financially challenged” because of long-term budget deficits.

A government source said last night: “We can proceed with the next stage of public sector reform only if we have tackled the failing hospitals and eliminated unfair variations in local services. But we can only do that if we have a stringent set of minimum standards and enforce them.”


More brilliant British bureaucracy: "The Ministry of Defence has spent more than 500 million pounds [a billion dollars] on eight Chinook helicopters that have never been flown as a result of "one of the most incompetent procurements of all time", an audit has concluded. The helicopters have been sitting in a special air-conditioned shelter for the past seven years because of a "gold-standard cockup" that meant the machines' software could not be accessed. While commanders in Afghanistan have been crying out for extra helicopters, the Chinooks - which were supposed to fly missions for Special Forces - have been lying idle in hangars in the Wiltshire countryside".

Another privileged class in Britain -- cyclists: "A traffic-dodging dash the wrong way up a one-way street may be the tempting risk for many a frustrated cyclist. But it will no longer be against the law under an experiment designed to encourage more people to switch from four wheels to two. The change - which will simply legitimise what many cyclists, including David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, do already - will be welcomed by thousands of law-abiding riders who have to take long diversions around one-way systems. Motorists, however, might be taken by surprise after failing to spot new signs at entry points and could find themselves being held liable for a collision with a bicycle." [And a homosexual Muslim cyclist can do no wrong at all, of course]

No comments: