Monday, August 04, 2008

Shock! Some NHS hospitals do allow patients to buy expensive drugs that the NHS is too mean to give them

The government’s ban on NHS patients paying for medicines the health service does not fund is in disarray. Figures obtained under freedom of information legislation show that NHS hospitals were allowing dozens of patients to top up with private drugs before the government warned them it was not allowed under NHS rules in July last year. The evidence that top-up payments have previously been allowed, apparently without difficulties, undermines the government’s claim they are contrary to the fundamental principles of the NHS.

At one trust, the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, 20 patients were allowed to co-pay for cancer drugs that the health service refused to fund before the government ban was introduced.

The figures also provide further evidence that many trusts are allowing patients to top up with additional drugs without removing the remainder of their NHS care. Freedom of information data shows that Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust has allowed patients to pay for drugs their consultant has recommended without losing the rest of their NHS treatment. John Baron, MP for Billericay, who obtained the figures, said: “This undermines the case of those who argue co-payments cannot exist within the NHS.”

Other trusts that have allowed co-payments include the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, ABM University NHS Trust in Bridgend, south Wales, and Weston Area Health NHS Trust in Somerset.


When atheism is "Islamophobic"

LOL. I find this rather amusing: A sort of clash of correctnesses. I do rather wonder why Richard Dawkins finds religion so threatening. Much good science has been done by religious people -- going back at least as far as Isaac Newton. Isaac was actually rather a whizz at Bible interpretation

In addition to overseeing our understanding of science, Dawkins is also the best-known atheist in the country, a man who considers the worship of Christ to be about as relevant as dancing around a totem pole or deifying the Giant Spaghetti Monster. His fans will know all about this from his books, notably The God Delusion – a bestseller that picks apart the inconsistencies in religion with scalpel-like logic.

Dawkins is about to chew up religion again now, in a television series about his hero, Charles Darwin, which holds up to ridicule those who refuse to accept the theory of evolution. Astounding though it may seem, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, there are many people who don’t believe its findings, he says.

Some of these are evangelicals in far-off countries who think that God created everything in six days and that rainy days began with Noah’s Flood. Others, however, are a bit closer to home. British secondary-school science teachers, for example.

“Science is being threatened in our class-rooms,” says Dawkins, citing examples such as the schools funded by the evangelical car dealer Peter Vardy and the private Blue Coat school in Liverpool that employs a creationist science teacher called Nick Cowan. When Dawkins himself met Cowan, he was confidently assured that the Earth is only 6,000 years old (rather than 4.5 billion). Cowan also apparently solved the chicken-and-egg conundrum by explaining: “God created the chicken, and the chicken laid the egg.” “Nick Cowan is a scandal,” fumes Dawkins. “To have him teaching science at a respectable school is about equivalent to having a flat-Earther teaching geography.”

More seriously, Dawkins believes that many science teachers who do believe in evolution are selling our children short by kowtowing to political correctness. At the moment, he points out, Darwinian evolution is taught in British schools at key stages 3 and 4, but under the national curriculum, alternative theories such as “intelligent design” (part of the creationist credo) “could be discussed in schools . . . in the context of being one of a range of views on evolution”, according to a government education minister.

“It’s fine to teach children about scientific controversies,” Dawkins says. “What is not fine is to say, ‘There are these two theories. One is called evolution, the other is called Genesis.’ If you are going to say that, then you should talk about the Nigerian tribe who believe the world was created from the excrement of ants.”

Cowardice is at the root of the problem, he feels. When it comes to presenting the truth of science against the “mythology” of religion, science teachers duck the issue for fear of reprimand. And not only from evangelical Christians. In his view, devout Muslims are a large part of the problem.

“Islam is importing creationism into this country,” he says. “Most devout Muslims are creationists – so when you go to schools, there are a large number of children of Islamic parents who trot out what they have been taught.”

In his TV series, Dawkins faces a class of 15-year-olds at Park High secondary school in London. A few of the pupils readily tell him they don’t believe in evolution because it runs counter to their religious beliefs. It’s only after he bundles them into a coach and shows them fossils at the seaside that one or two admit there might be something in this evolution gig after all.

“I was shocked by how some put up barriers to understanding,” says Dawkins. “I showed them the evidence, and they just said, ‘This is what it says in my holy book.’ And so I asked, ‘If your holy book says one thing, but the evidence says something else, you then go with your holy book?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘It’s the way we’ve been brought up’.”

Even worse, from his point of view, their science teachers are extremely unwilling to oppose anything that smacks of a faith-held belief. And the same applies to their head teachers and the government – even when a belief is contradicted by scientific truth. This infuriates Dawkins.

“Teachers are bending over backwards to ‘respect’ home prejudices that children have been brought up with,” he says . “The government could do more, but it doesn’t want to because it is fanatical about multi-culturalism and the need to ‘respect’ the different ‘traditions’ from which these children come. The government – particularly under Tony Blair – thinks it is wonderful to have children brought up with their traditional religions. I call it brainwashing.”

Dawkins shakes his head with dismay. His large, light Oxford house is filled with books, of which his most precious is a first edition of On the Origin of Species, an imprint that ran to only 1,250 copies and sold out immediately. The book has never been out of print since.

Clearly, the weedy way in which the momentous findings of Darwin’s masterpiece are being taught in some schools pains him. “I would like to see evolution taught a lot earlier. There should be no problem teaching it to eight-year-olds.” What if parents don’t want their children included in the lesson? “For parents to deprive their children of an educational opportunity because of a traditional bigotry is unfair on the child.”

And science teachers, people who should be Darwin’s flag-wavers, are simply looking the other way. “It seems as though teachers are terribly frightened of being thought racist,” says Dawkins. “It’s almost impossible to say anything against Islam in this country, because [if you do] you are accused of being racist or Islamophobic.”


Eminent British educationist says that centralization of education is the evil and school choice is the answer

Chris Woodhead was a champion of the Tory education reforms but now admits they have failed. Here he explains why

Twenty years ago last week the educational landscape changed. Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act, the most comprehensive and controversial piece of education legislation since the second world war, became law. I did not know it at the time but my life was about to move on, too.

Naturally, most teachers were deeply suspicious. They dismissed the idea of a national curriculum to be defined by politicians as an intrusion into their professional domain. They hated the introduction of national curriculum tests to be taken by children at seven, 11 and 14, and they hated the prospect of inspections every six years, with more published reports .

The idea that heads should take greater financial responsibility for their schools was more welcome, and entrepreneurial head teachers could see that the introduction of a new category of grant-main-tained schools could free them from the clutches of local authority bureaucrats. Most, though, were nervous of this new independence. They may not have liked their local education authority, but they liked the idea of standing on their own two feet even less.

My reaction was more positive. The basic logic seemed right to me. Why shouldn't parliament set out what it expected the nation's children to be taught? Given that broad specification, why not devolve as much responsibility as possible to the individual school to take financial and educational decisions that made sense in its particular circum-stance? And why not hold schools accountable, through tests and inspections, for the quality of those decisions and the standards achieved by their pupils?

The devil, as always, would be in the detail, but there was nothing here that was not good management practice. Tell people what you want them to do, give them the resources and space to get on with it and hold them accountable. I hoped, too, that a national curriculum would mean a national entitlement to study a broad range of subjects, ending what can only be called the eccentricity of local provision in many schools.

I thought it would raise expectations in those schools that did not demand enough of their pupils. Likewise the prospect of real accountability and, yes, the danger of public humiliation might focus a few minds that needed focusing. And, working as I was in a local authority, I was only too aware of both bureaucratic waste and the eccentricity of some local politicians.

A couple of years later I found myself in charge of the national curriculum. Then in 1992, when responsibilities for the curriculum were merged with testing, I headed up the new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Later I took over Ofsted, the inspectorate. That is what I mean when I say my life changed. I became responsible at different times for most of the key aspects of the act.

I have therefore to ask myself a difficult question. How much am I to blame for the failure of a series of educational reforms that in principle I continue to believe make basic sense, but which in practice I now consider to have done more harm than good?

If David Cameron and his Conservatives were to ask me what to do about it all, I would tell them to abolish both the national curriculum and Ofsted. The tests at 11 and perhaps at seven should be kept but are in need of radical reform, as is the so-called autonomy of schools. The idea behind the act was that they should be autonomous institutions, free from local authority and central government control, but the tentacles of bureaucratic control are as strong now as they were in 1988 - stronger perhaps.

Baker and subsequent Conservative politicians saw the national curriculum as a challenge to progressive, child-centred educational theories. So the English curriculum insisted on the teaching of spelling and grammar and listed the classics of English literature that should be taught to pupils as they moved through school. The history programme of study sought to ensure that children learnt something at least of the nation's story - and geography, in a similar fashion, focused on a fair number of geographical facts.

My own view was that these were much-needed developments but, as the years have gone by, the original knowledge-based core of the curriculum has come under ever greater attack. With hindsight, what has happened is utterly predictable. The national curriculum now enshrines the very educational beliefs it was originally intended to confront. Hence my belief that it has become part of the problem and should be abolished.

Inspections made a contribution when they focused in a rigorously objective way on what matters most in a school: the quality of leadership and teaching. Now they are based on the school's own self-evaluation, teachers are rarely observed and the evidence from inspection seems more often than not to be used to buttress ministerial claims that everything is progressing wonderfully. Once again a good idea has been rendered impotent, if not downright dangerous.

The tests, in particular those sat by 11-year-olds, matter because they give parents some sense of how successful the school their child attends, or might attend, is in teaching basic skills of English and mathematics. But at the moment, as we all know from news reports, the testing system is in chaos, so even here it is hard to say the reform act initiated a change that has survived the years.

I tried in the different jobs I did to insist on what I thought mattered. Many people of course disagreed with what I wanted to achieve, but not many have accused me of failing to fight my corner. I fought and perhaps I should have fought harder. But in the end, whatever I did or anybody else tries to do in the future, my conclusion is that any attempt to reform the nation's 24,000 schools from the centre is doomed to failure.

Our current government is never going to deviate from its centralist path. Cameron could. He could develop a truly Conservative approach to state education that finds ways to empower parents as consumers and relies on the wisdom of their choices. That is the prize. The history of the past 20 years shows there is no alternative.


British Conservative leader wavers on green pledges

David Cameron has shelved his commitment to green taxes because of rising fuel prices and the economic downturn

A range of measures designed to penalise motoring and other polluting activities has been put on hold amid fears that it would alienate working families feeling the pinch as the economy slows. Senior strategists admit privately that initiatives prepared by the Tory leader are unlikely to see the light of day, including raising taxes on short-haul flights and on larger cars. Elaborate plans for widespread micro-generation of energy in homes and offices are also being quietly shelved in favour of a strategy little different from Labour's, based on a new generation of nuclear power stations

Rather than taxing a range of polluting behaviours, the Tories will offer incentives to choose more environmentally-friendly alternatives, insiders say. A senior party source admitted: "We can't possibly sell the idea of green taxes to voters during a downturn."

Last year, Mr Cameron welcomed a Tory policy review that called for Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) on the highest-emitting cars to be up to $1,000 more than for the greenest vehicles and a "showroom tax" of up to 10 per cent on "gas guzzlers". The Tories led calls for a ground-breaking Climate Change Bill to set a target for cutting carbon emissions by 2050 and campaigned under the banner "vote blue, go green" in the local elections. The party's "quality of life" group, led by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith, proposed radical parking charges at out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, a moratorium on airport expansion and increased taxes - including VAT - on short-haul flights. Mr Cameron had pledged to increase the proportion of taxation raised through green levies by rebalancing taxation away from "good" things, such as jobs and investment, towards "bad" things, like pollution and carbon emissions. He also promised that the money raised from green taxes would fund tax cuts for families.

But this summer Mr Cameron dropped his support for higher road tax as he clashed with Gordon Brown over the Government's plans to impose retrospective rises of up to $400 in VED on cars up to seven years old while George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, promised to cut tax on fuel when prices at the pump rose.

Strategists said it was possible the Tory leader could resurrect green taxes, but not for a year or until the economy has rallied. One senior MP said: "The question is whether the party will keep its nerve about doing things that will be uncomfortable for consumers. At the moment the jury is out."

Another issue of concern for some is that the Tories are warming to nuclear power. Last year, it viewed a new generation of nuclear power stations as "a last resort" but would now support the move if there were no taxpayers' subsidy. The about-turn is significant because green issues were once the lynchpin of Mr Cameron's modernising drive. But he has not made a major speech on the environment or hinted at policy in this area for many months.

This week the Tories will open a new offensive on education, promising to address the plight of the poorest children. Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, will claim that the Government has failed to eradicate glaring inequalities between the achievements of the richest and poorest children.


No comments: