Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fewer than half of British teenagers achieve basic set of A to C grades at GCSE (Middle school qualification)

Fewer than half of teenagers finish compulsory schooling with a basic set of GCSE qualifications including English and maths, official figures have revealed. Results for the first pupils to go through an entire education under Labour showed that 345,000 last year failed to meet the Government's benchmark for secondary school achievement. Despite a rise on 2007, only 47.2 per cent of pupils achieved the desired five A* to C-grade GCSEs including English and maths, leaving ministers struggling to hit a 53 per cent Treasury target by 2011. One in six pupils finished 11 years of compulsory schooling without achieving a single C grade in any subject.

The GCSE gender gap widened again with girls pulling further ahead. Teachers' leaders declared the scale of failure shameful but ministers insisted trends over the long term showed 'sustained improvement'. Figures for core subjects such as the three Rs, however, showed that attainment is rising more slowly than for other subjects. The proportion gaining any five GCSEs rose sharply to 64.6 per cent - 3.2 percentage points up on last year.

But the numbers able to count English and maths towards those five qualifications - the Government's preferred measure - went up just 0.9 per cent. Only 50 per cent of teenagers were awarded the Government's desired two Cs in science - up just 0.2 per cent on last year.

While the top-performing teenagers celebrated record numbers of A and A* grades, the figures sparked renewed concern over the fate of those at the other end of the spectrum. They showed that the proportion of pupils gaining five GCSEs including English and maths at any level - A* to G - fell 0.1 per cent to 87 per cent.

There was a mixed picture at A-level. The proportion of candidates achieving at least two A-levels was slightly down from last year's 95.2 per cent to 94.6 per cent. However the average point score per candidate was 733.5, up from 731.2 last year.

The gulf between independent schools and state comprehensives continued, with almost one in three pupils at fee-paying schools - 30.3 per cent - emerging with three As at A-level, against 7.6 per cent at comprehensives.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: 'It is good to see an improvement on last year's results, reflecting the hard work put in by teachers and pupils. 'But there are still far too many pupils leaving school without five A* to C grades including English and maths at GCSE. 'It is truly shameful that half the pupils in England do not achieve this level.'

David Laws, Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: 'It's completely unacceptable that so many children are still not getting a good basic set of qualifications. 'After 11 years of Labour promises, whatever happened to "education, education, education"?'

The Tories said the gap between rich and poor areas had widened. According to the figures, GCSE results will need to improve at twice their current rate if the Government is to meet its 2011 target. Ministers have introduced a new secondary curriculum with increased flexibility for schools to focus on the three Rs. Schools Minister Jim Knight said: 'These are very positive results that build on the improvements of the last decade.'

Only three in ten school-leavers score C grade or above in a languages GCSE The Government published the figure for the first time this year, aiming to shame schools which neglect languages. Only 30.6 per cent of pupils nationally achieved a good grade in a language this summer and school league tables due out next year will show the proportion at individual secondaries. These will allow parents to judge schools on their performance in languages for the first time. The poor showing follows a 2004 Government decision to make language learning optional for 14-year-olds. The slump in entries for language GCSEs has led to fears our school-leavers will be ill-equipped on the job market.

This summer only 382,228 took GCSEs in languages - down from 559,115 in 2002. French and German suffered particularly while Spanish entries rose but from a lower base. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Russian and Polish also rose but only a few thousand pupils took them. Fewer than a quarter of state schools require GCSE students to learn languages, according to a report last year. It found they are fast becoming the preserve of grammar and fee-paying schools as many comprehensives allow them to decline to 'extremely low levels'. Under plans to reduce academic demands on students, teenagers will be able to gain a 'short' course GCSE in a foreign language without having to show they can speak it. A second short course - worth half a GCSE - will focus only on speaking and listening, meaning students can pass it without ever reading or writing the language.


Green light for 'doggers': British police told to ignore homosexual couples having sex in public places

Police chiefs are being urged to turn a blind eye to some of the more extreme forms of public indecency. Guidelines circulated to senior officers encourage them to ignore 'dogging' and 'cottaging' offences unless enough members of the public complain. The draft rules issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers say prosecutions should only be considered as a last resort for fear of having an 'extreme impact' on offenders' lives. But last night family campaigners reacted angrily, insisting that the laws against public indecency were there for a good reason.

The document on 'policing public sex environments' has been sent to all forces in the UK by Michael Cunningham, deputy chief constable of Lancashire and ACPO spokesman on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 those who take part in ' dogging', where couples meet up for exhibitionist outdoor sex, and cottaging, where men meet for sex in public lavatories, face arrest for outraging public decency, voyeurism and exposure. But the guidance cautions officers against 'knee jerk' reactions. Instead police are told to concentrate on dealing with organised outdoor meetings at known hotspots - by researching sex forums on the internet - and only to prosecute as a 'last resort'.

In the report Mr Cunningham writes that current policing methods 'have adversely affected the relationship between the police and communities' and 'have discouraged users of public sex environments from reporting crime'. Where isolated complaints are made, officers are told 'it may be decided that they should take no action'.

Even where there are persistent problems they should 'inform and dissuade' users of the site before arranging for extra lighting or CCTV cameras to be installed. If that fails police can put on extra patrols, but the guidance stresses that this is only a deterrent and is 'not to detect offences'.

Arresting and prosecuting men for cottaging - some of whom may be married, and living a double life - can have a 'severe' impact on them without solving the problems, Mr Cunningham says. He added: 'The impact can be extreme and can include humiliation, breakdown of relationships and the "outing" of men living in an opposite sex relationship being perceived as "gay".' He refers to cases of 'suicide and self-harm by people who may have been arrested or come into contact with the police'.

ACPO stressed yesterday that the document was a draft being circulated for discussion among police chiefs and the proposals had not been officially adopted.

Hugh McKinney of the National Family Campaign said: 'There is a good reason that we have laws against these types of sexual behaviour in public, namely that they are deemed to be beyond what is acceptable to most reasonable people. 'Is it too much for us to expect the police to enforce the law? After all, they're the only ones who can.'

One serving police officer who patrols gay hotspots in Brighton, said: 'Frankly it seems outrageous that we are effectively being told to turn a blind eye to these sorts of activities, which can cause real distress to most right-thinking people.'


The insane British welfare state again

Families of 12 with a difference: One lives on Dad's 15,000 pound wage... their neighbours get 32,000 benefits (yet still complain)

It is a story which crystalises the dubious values encouraged by the British welfare state. While hardworking Sean and Anne Tate scrimp to afford a few little luxuries for their ten children on his 15,000 lorry driver's salary, a family of the same size two miles away take things a little easier. Harry Crompton, 50, has been out of work for 15 years and his wife Tracey, 40, has never had a job. Yet thanks to the generosity of the welfare state they receive 32,656 a year. The Cromptons have been nicknamed 'Britain's Biggest Freeloaders' by their neighbours in Hull.

Mrs Tate, 43, a stay-at-home mother, could barely believe what she was reading when she saw media coverage of the Cromptons' situation earlier this week. 'I am absolutely furious,' she said. 'The Government want shooting for allowing people to get away with scrounging like this. 'We have worked hard all our lives to provide for our kids, and when you see families like this it makes you wonder why you bother. 'But we have pride in ourselves and would never scrounge like this family. It makes me sick. Gas, water, electricity, council tax has all gone up - we don't get any help with that.'

The Tates bought their three-bedroom house from the council four years ago and built an extension with two extra bedrooms. The Cromptons, by contrast, were provided with two semis knocked together by the council at a cost of 20,000. The couple's only income from paid work is 20 pounds a week from eldest son Michael, who has a factory job. They receive a further 628 a week in income support, disability allowance, carer's allowance, child tax credit, plus 120 a week rent on their seven-bedroom house. A working parent would have to earn 46,500 a year to match their income. The only state handouts the Tates receive is child benefit - which is available to all parents regardless of how much they earn.

Life is cramped to say the least in their home in Hull's Bransholme district. Michael, 23, has moved out, but Gary, 20, Leanne, 18, Brandon, 12, Shaunnah, 11, Mercedes Rose, seven, triplets Madison Rae, Porschia Lillie and Poppie Marie, five, and Jayden, three, still live there.

Over at the Cromptons', the walls are dirty and the floor is covered in videos and magazines. Mrs Crompton says she 'doesn't have much time for cleaning'. The Tates' home and garden are immaculate. Mr Tate, 44, recently installed a new kitchen and designed and built a new marble fireplace in the living room. Mrs Tate said: 'You don't have to live like a tramp. People think you do if you have big family. Everything we have got you work hard for and look after. 'There is a lot of love in any house. In our house. because there are more of us, it goes around. 'We have a lot of fun. We always have a house-full and the children bring their friends as well.'

The Cromptons seem to be less happy with their lot. Earlier this week Mrs Crompton said she would have to be 'very well paid' to make it worth her while getting a job. She added: 'I'm not satisfied with the benefits we get - I want more.' Mr Crompton says he is unable to work due to angina and irritable bowel syndrome. The couple have children Michael, 20, Robin, 19, Matthew, 17, Sarah, 16, Samantha, 14, Harry Andrew, 12, Alex, 11, Kristian, nine, Jesse Lee, seven and Joshua, six.


British immigration boss says restrictions are anti-racist

Although a politician of the Left, his ideas about immigration seem to be thoroughly conservative -- ideas with which few Britons outside the political extremes would disagree

When Phil Woolas was growing up in Lancashire his grammar school was entirely white until the Ugandan Asians arrived. "The first Asian boy who joined my school was nicknamed Banana," says the new Minister for Borders and Immigration. "The teachers called him Banana, the boys called him Banana. He even called himself Banana. I thought it was appalling."

It was, he says, fighting racism that got him into politics. At sixth-form college he joined the Labour Party and ran a campaign against "Paki-bashing". He chose to stand for election as an MP in the Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency, which has a high Pakistani and Kashmiri population. "It's had a race riot, it's had a huge BNP [British National Party] presence and it's a marginal seat. It's a complete crucible," he says. "But we've never had a BNP councillor - I hope I've had something to do with that by getting in and getting dirty."

Mr Woolas describes dealing with immigration as "my lifelong purpose" but he is not going to be pandering to what he calls Hampstead liberals. "I've been brought in to be tougher and to change perceptions," he says. The Government must, he insists, face up to voters' concerns about the level of immigration - particularly as a recession looms. The economic downturn changes everything, he says. "Clearly if people are being made unemployed, then the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny."

Employers should, he believes, put British people first, or they will risk fuelling racism. "In times of economic difficulties, racial stereotyping becomes stronger but also if you've got skills shortages you should, as a government, attempt to fill those skills shortages with your indigenous population."

This is not about colour. He uses the example of the high level of unemployment among the Bangladeshi community in Britain, many of whom he believes could be retrained to fill a shortage of chefs. "Britain has to get working again. The easiest thing for an employer to do is to employ an immigrant. We need to help them to change that."

He adds: "We need a tougher immigration policy and we need to stop seeing it as a dilemma. It's not. It's easy. I'm going to do my best to help the British back to work. The message to them is, if you want less immigration you're going to have to respond with helping us get everyone working who can."

Mr Woolas admits that more and more people will want to come to Britain as a result of the global downturn. "We're the fourth-richest country. Even with a recession we're still going to be attractive to people from poorer countries. The urgency [to sort the system out] becomes greater."

It is clear that he wants to reduce the number of immigrants. "It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and it's going to get harder," he says. "As we stand we don't know how many foreign nationals there are. I want to end up in a situation where we know and the public know how many people are coming in and going out of our country."

Although he does not think it is practical to talk about a cap on the number of new arrivals, because the Government cannot predict how many people will be emigrating, he says: "We have to have a population policy and that means at some point we will be able to set a limit on migration. This Government isn't going to allow the population of this country to go up to 70 million. There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving."

Extremists such as the BNP exploit the perception that immigrants receive unfair benefits. Mr Woolas wants to tackle them head on. "I don't believe that we are a country of Alf Garnetts but there's a large element that is discriminatory in its attitude," he says. The problem, according to the minister, is that "the perception that immigrants jump the housing queue is very strong, even though the reality is very different. We must cut back on the few cases of abuse so people see that the system is fair."

He is appalled by stories of immigrants being given million-pound houses at taxpayers' expense. "These are council decisions. They shouldn't do that kind of thing. I just think it's wrong, even if it is rare."

Nor should the NHS accept health tourism. "If you're here legally you should have access to the NHS. If you are here illegally, or - what's the word we use? - clandestinely, you shouldn't. It's a national health service - it's not an international health service."

He opposes an amnesty for people who are already here illegally because he thinks it would encourage more to come. "An amnesty... starts with a discussion among politicians and ends with dead bodies in the back of a truck in Calais."

He believes passionately, however, that those who do become part of the British workforce should be treated with far more respect. "Since Windrush [the Empire Windrush - the ship that carried the first large group of West Indians to Britain in 1948] we have, compared to other rich countries, been liberal in our border controls, but when immigrants get here I think we're cruel to them as a society and I want to turn that around."

Rather than being segregated they should be encouraged to join in. "The immigrant community itself is the strongest advocate of fair and firm immigration rules and the strongest advocate of obeying the law - yet the perception is not that. We have allowed people in here and not helped them to help themselves. Translation [of official documents into other languages] ghettoises people. A Bangladeshi friend told me you can't get a good job in Bangladesh if you can't speak English. You don't need to convince them that they need to speak English - of course they do."

The hijab can, in his view, be divisive. "People wear veils for different reasons: some out of religious conviction. some because they're forced to. It should be up to them, but at school you shouldn't wear one. It's harder to get a good education if you wear a veil as you're more cut off." Women in Muslim communities should be encouraged to work, even if that goes against their culture. "My guiding light is that we have to talk about these things. It is important for everyone."

Mr Woolas wants to make it difficult for people to bring in very young girls from abroad for an arranged marriage. "I am about to increase the age limit of entry by a spouse from 18 to 21. The way in which our society treats some of these boys and girls is a crime. If someone so young from a rural area marries and is brought in to an area that is predominantly of one culture and never goes out, that doesn't help them or society."

He is also concerned about the number of marriages between first cousins in Indian and Pakistani families. "Anyone who knows my community knows there are higher proportions of physical disability amongst the children of first-cousin marriages. It's a cultural issue. The morally right thing is to raise awareness of that. The risk of disability is 4.7 per cent - that's double the average. If your grandparents were first cousins, too, it goes up to 52 per cent. I don't say you shouldn't marry your first cousin, I say if you do, be careful and be screened."

He supports the principle of Muslim faith schools, although he insists "you have to use schools to help break down segregation. They should learn about all faiths - there shouldn't be exclusive access. Children from other faiths should be allowed in." But he also warns Christians that they need to be more accepting of other faiths. The Church of England will, in his view, be disestablished in the end. "It will probably take 50 years but a modern society is multifaith."

His last words are inspired by his old classmate. "I think it [the immigration system] has been too lenient and I want to make it harder, but I also want to be nice to people who do come to settle here. That's what I have wanted to do all my life since the boy came to my school and was called Banana."


Drug abuse a 'cause not effect' of social problems

A bold claim in the heading above. But the last sentence below contradicts the heading. The study is an epidemiological one so it is the last sentence that should be heeded. The article is not yet on line at the journal site but a preprint is available here. It is pleasing to see that obvious confounds such as social class and IQ have been controlled for but many other confounding variables are possible -- particularly in the personality realm. That tendency to risk-taking (for instance) could both cause you to take drugs early and also get you into other trouble is fairly obvious but was not measured in the study. It would have been more interesting to present a fuller psychological and sociological profile of those kids who do take up drugs early.

Drug or alcohol abuse among children under the age of 15 is a cause and not an effect of a host of health and social problems, research has suggested. Early drinking and drug-taking raise the future risk of addiction, teenage pregnancy, failure at school, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and crime, independently of other factors that might predispose to these outcomes, scientists have determined.

The findings, from a study that followed people for 30 years, are particularly significant because they indicate that drug and alcohol abuse at a young age probably contributes directly to subsequent problems. While the link is known from previous research, scientists have struggled to tell whether early substance abuse is a cause of later behavioural and health troubles, or a symptom of deprived social or family circumstances that also explain these issues.

The new study, led by Candice Odgers, of the University of California, Irvine, favours the former hypothesis - that "drugs are bad for kids", rather than "bad kids do drugs". Dr Odgers, who conducted the research while at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London, said: "Findings from this study are consistent with the message that early substance use leads to significant problems in adolescents' future lives - that drugs are bad for kids - versus the alternative message that young adolescents with a history of problems are just more likely to use drugs early and experience poor outcomes - that bad kids do drugs.

"Even adolescents with no prior history of behavioural problems or family history of substance use problems were at risk for poor health outcomes if they used substances prior to age 15. Universal interventions are required to ensure that all children - not only those entering early adolescence on an at-risk trajectory - require an adequate dose of prevention." [And what would that be? A hit on the head, perhaps??]

In the study, which is published in the journal Psychological Science, Dr Odgers investigated a set of 1,000 young people who were born in the New Zealand town of Dunedin in 1972 and 1973. She found that those who used drugs or alcohol before the age of 15 were between 2.4 and 5 times more likely than their peers to have experienced health or social problems later in life. The effect applied to dropping out of school, becoming addicted to drugs or an alcoholic, having a criminal convicion, becoming pregnant as a teenager, and testing positive for an STI.

Early use was classified as taking drugs or drinking alcohol on numerous occasions, buying them, or using them at school. This eliminated anyone who drank alcohol at home, or who tried the substances on a one-off basis.

Dr Odgers also compared children deemed at high risk of poor health and social outcomes, such as those with prior behavioural problems or from broken families, with low-risk children.

Low-risk children who used drugs or alcohol early still tended to finish secondary school. However, they remained between 2.7 and 3.8 times more likely to have experienced one of the four other social and health problems.

The results, Dr Odgers suggested, mean that it is important to try to prevent early drinking and drug use among all children, not just those from high-risk backgrounds.

Almost 50 per cent of adolescents who used alcohol or drugs before the age of 15 could not have been identified based on child behaviour problems or family risk factors, she said.

The study is indicative of a causal effect, but does not prove it, because children were not randomly assigned to drug-use and non-drug-use groups.



In view of the uncertainty over the future direction of the British and the world economies, the timing of Ed Miliband's announcement of new "green" targets was odd to say the least. The younger brother of the Foreign Secretary was only recently installed in the new post of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. It might have been imagined that he would take stock of the extraordinary turmoil in the financial world before committing the country to further environmental measures. But Mr Miliband has required just a fortnight to decide that the 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to which the UK had previously signed up was insufficiently ambitious.

There is a lot of ministerial hot air about these targets; new ones are announced long before it is apparent whether existing ones are realistic or achievable. In 1997, the Government said it was going to "reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 20 per cent on 1990 levels by 2010". By 2003 this had become an aspiration to "move towards a 20 per cent reduction..." By 2005, it was saying that "emissions of all greenhouse gases would be around 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010".

In 2006 a target was set for "all new homes to be zero carbon within a decade" but in the first month of 2008, just three zero carbon homes were built. The Government then pledged to reduce carbon dioxide by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050, which Mr Miliband has now said should rise to 80 per cent in line with a recommendation delivered just last week by the Government-appointed Climate Change Committee. When the 60 per cent target was first recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, it implicitly included emissions from aviation. But Mr Miliband now says aviation and shipping will be excluded, though specific proposals for achieving this tougher target have still to be published.

His statement was hailed as "bold and courageous", yet it amounted to nothing beyond the utterance of some words. This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with wanting a cleaner environment, simply that announcing ever higher numbers has become something of a political virility test with no obvious connection with the real world, and one that the Conservatives seem happy to go along with.

Mr Miliband said the price to be paid for doing nothing was greater than the cost of acting, though not if it means investment in clean technology dries up as a result. There are so many economic uncertainties that substituting one random and impractical number for another seems precipitate.


British aspirin study attacked

Generalizing from diabetics to all people certainly is pretty crazy. The belching professor just got carried away with the importance of her own work, it would seem. She may be right but her work does not prove it

A specialist has urged patients to keep taking prescribed aspirin, labelling a UK study questioning its benefits as "potentially dangerous". Australian Medical Association Queensland cardiology spokesman David Colquhoun said the Dundee University study which questioned the benefits of daily aspirin to ward off heart attacks was "too small" to guide medical practice.

The study, led by Jill Belch, of the Institute of Cardiovascular Research, involved more than 1200 patients aged over 40 with diabetes and evidence of artery disease who had not suffered a previous heart attack. It found that after eight years there was no overall benefit from aspirin or antioxidant treatment in preventing heart attacks or death. "If you're taking aspirin for secondary prevention because you've had a heart attack or stroke, or have a circulatory problem, then it works," Professor Belch told the Daily Mail. "But it doesn't work if you have none of these problems."

But Associate Professor Colquhoun said previous research had shown "clear unequivocal benefits" in preventing heart attacks in the middle-aged. "Doesn't this professor . . . read the literature?" he said. "To say we have to reassess the place of aspirin in individuals is silly. "This should not make any difference to the way we treat patients. This type of study, I find, is potentially dangerous in the sense that the wrong message can be sent. "It adds nothing to helping us as clinicians but it can help cause confusion in the community. We don't want people to stop taking aspirin."

Professor Belch said there was widespread prescribing of aspirin in diabetes despite the lack of evidence to support its use. But studies showed it could double the risk of stomach bleeding from an ulcer. "Unfortunately, aspirin has side-effects and it's one of the biggest reasons for admission to hospital for drug-related adverse reactions, mainly gastrointestinal bleeding. "Although the risk is relatively small, the numbers taking aspirin is large so it's a major problem."

However, Professor Colquhoun said the very low dose daily gave patients only an "extremely low" chance of internal bleeding.


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