Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Science comprehension slipping badly among British pupils

Given the way science teaching has been dumbed down almost to vanishing point, this is no surprise. The article below is written as if it were IQ being tested but that is careless. The researcher in fact makes the point that on a task which relies on IQ rather than specific knowledge, there has been no change. It is the teaching that has deteriorated. The kids all know about global warming, the desirability of a low-fat diet and other myths but would they be able to explain the periodic table to you?

Bright teenagers are a disappearing breed, an alarming new study has revealed. The intellectual ability of the country's cleverest youngsters has declined radically, almost certainly due to the rise of TV and computer games and over-testing in schools. The 'high-level thinking' skills of 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976.

The findings contradict national results which have shown a growth in top grades in SATs at 14, GCSEs and A-levels. But Michael Shayer, the professor of applied psychology who led the study, believes that is the result of exam standards 'edging down'. His team of researchers at London's King's College tested 800 13 and 14-year-olds and compared the results with a similar exercise in 1976.

The tests were intended to measure understanding of abstract scientific concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight, which set pupils up for success not only in maths and science but also in English and history. One test asked pupils to study a pendulum swinging on a string and investigate the factors that cause it to change speed. A second involved weights on a beam. In the pendulum test, average achievement was much the same as in 1976.

But the proportion of teenagers reaching top grades, demanding a 'higher level of thinking', slumped dramatically. Just over one in ten were at that level, down from one in four in 1976. In the second test, assessing mathematical thinking skills, just one in 20 pupils were achieving the high grades - down from one in five in 1976.

Professor Shayer said: 'The pendulum test does not require any knowledge of science at all. 'It looks at how people can deal with complex information and sort it out for themselves.' He believes most of the downturn has occurred over the last ten to 15 years. It may have been hastened by the introduction of national curriculum testing and accompanying targets, which have cut the time available for teaching which develops more advanced skills.

Critics say schools concentrate instead on drilling children for the tests. 'The moment you introduce targets, people will find the most economical strategies to achieve them,' said Professor Shayer. 'In the case of education, I'm sure this has had an effect on driving schools away from developing higher levels of understanding.' He added that while the numeracy hour in primary schools appears to have led to some gains, it has 'squeezed out a lot of things teachers might otherwise be doing'.

Professor Shayer believes the decline in brainpower is also linked to changes in children's leisure activities. The advent of multi-channel TV has encouraged passive viewing while computer games, particularly for boys, are feared to have supplanted time spent playing with tools, gadgets and other mechanisms.

Professor Shayer warned that without the development of higher-order thinking skills, the future supply of scientists will be compromised. 'We don't even have enough scientists now,' he said.

Previous research by Professor Shayer has shown that 11-year-olds' grasp of concepts such as volume, density, quantity and weight appears to have declined over the last 30 years. Their mental abilities were up to three years behind youngsters tested in in 1975.

His latest findings, due to appear in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, come in the wake of a report by Dr Aric Sigman which linked the decline in intellectual ability to a shift away from art and craft skills in both schools and the home. Dr Sigman said practical activities such as building models and sandcastles, making dens, using tools, playing with building blocks, knitting, sewing and woodwork were being neglected. Yet they helped develop vital skills such as understanding dimension, volume and density.

Earlier this month the Government bowed to mounting pressure and scrapped SATs for 14-year-olds. Ministers have also created an independent exams watchdog and promised a return to traditional, open-ended questions at A-level plus a new A* grade to mark out the brightest students. A spokesman for the Department for Children said last night: 'Good teachers do not need to teach to the test and there is no evidence that such practice is widespread. 'We have already taken steps to reduce the testing burden, but targets and testing are integral features of any work to drive up standards.'

Last month an Ofsted report said millions of teenagers were finishing compulsory education with a weak grasp of maths because half of the country's schools fail to teach the subject as well as they could. Inspectors said teachers were increasingly drilling pupils to pass exams instead of encouraging them to understand crucial concepts. The report said: 'It is of vital importance to shift from a narrow emphasis towards a focus on pupils' mathematical understanding.'


British prisons boss toughens up

Liberals who push criminal rights drive me nuts, says Justice Secretary Jack Straw

Jack Straw will today launch a withering attack on liberal justice groups who 'drive him nuts' by focusing on the 'needs' of offenders instead of punishment. In a landmark speech, the Justice Secretary will unleash a broadside against the 'prison reform lobby', condemning groups with which Labour has forged close links and accusing them of being 'lost in a fog of platitudes' and overlooking the suffering of victims.

The tough tone of Mr Straw's speech appears to mark a dramatic turning away from the liberal consensus on prison policy. For years this has stressed the need to understand prisoners' problems and 'needs', while playing down the role of jail as a harsh deterrent to force them to mend their ways. It is likely to be seen as a bid to re-establish Labour as the party of law and order at a time when the Conservatives are pledging measures to fix Britain's 'broken society', and public concerns are growing over gun and knife crime and the crisis in the country's overcrowded prisons.

Mr Straw served as Home Secretary from 1997 to 2001, and resumed responsibility for prisons when he became Justice Secretary in June 2007. He will tell his audience at the Royal Society of Arts in London today that the Government is not returning to 'Victorian notions' of crime and punishment but must be 'crystal clear about what the public expect the justice system to do on their behalf: to punish those who have broken the law'.

He will lament the way concepts of 'punishment and reform' have become 'unfashionable', adding: 'We should not shy away from the fact that the sentences of the court are first and foremost for the punishment of those who have broken the law, broken society's rules.' He will go on to say: 'The criminal justice lobby today is full of people . . . who do a very good job. 'However, I am concerned that it has retreated into language that doesn't chime with the public. 'When I hear phrases like "criminogenic needs of offenders" it drives me nuts . . . I profoundly disagree that we should describe someone's amoral desire to go thieving as a "need" equivalent to that of victims or the law-abiding public.'

The Justice Secretary's focus on the central role of punishment in prisons is likely to infuriate groups such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which have enjoyed close ties with the Government since Labour took office in 1997. Such reforming groups have enjoyed years of Home Office funding while senior ministers - including Mr Straw himself - have been frequent speakers at their conferences. By contrast, groups espousing much tougher approaches to law and order, such as the Victims of Crime Trust, have mostly been sidelined under Labour.

Mr Straw also risks a backlash from opposition critics demanding to know why he is adopting a tougher tone now, more than 11 years after Labour took office, and having personally overseen the Government's criminal justice policy for much of that time. He is currently under fire over his department's policy of releasing thousands of convicted prisoners before they complete their sentences, as an emergency measure to cope with the lack of prison capacity in England and Wales. Hundreds have gone on to commit further offences when they should have been behind bars.


Widow, 71, died after uncaring NHS doctors ignored penicillin warning

A grandmother died after hospital doctors gave her penicillin even though her medical notes and drug chart made clear she was allergic to it. June Cutmore was even wearing a red wristband to draw attention to the allergy. The 71-year-old widow went into anaphylactic shock and died after being injected with Augmentin - a form of the drug.

St Bartholomew's Hospital in London admitted that 'human error' caused the death. Her family believe a catalogue of mistakes by medical staff led to the tragedy in May 2007. The grandmother of three from Basildon, Essex, was admitted to St Bartholomew's to have a heart valve replaced, and undergo a double bypass.

Shortly before this Mrs Cutmore had some teeth removed at a hospital in Basildon. While there she was given penicillin and went into anaphylactic shock. She recovered from that reaction but it was written on her medical notes that she should never be given the drug again. Daughter Denise Hajduga, 48, and her husband Peter, 50, say they repeatedly told staff at St Bartholomew's about the allergy. Mrs Hajduga said: 'We told a nurse about it when we went into hospital with my mother for her pre-operation tests, then we told another nurse about it when my mother was actually admitted a few days later. They gave her a red band to wear on her wrist which said she was allergic to penicillin. 'It was also written on her medical notes after they discovered it in Basildon, and on her drug chart.' In a copy of Mrs Cutmore's drug chart seen by the Daily Mail the word penicillin is written in big capital letters with stars next to it in a box labelled 'drug allergies'.

Mrs Cutmore's heart operation was deemed a success, and after two days in intensive care the retired cook was transferred on to a ward. But the pensioner, who lived alone after the death of her husband Cliff, suffered complications. Mrs Hajduga, from Romford, Essex said: 'When she had the heart operation they had to break her sternum bone to reach her heart, and it became infected. The doctors had a meeting about what to do, and prescribed the antibiotic Augmentin - which contains penicillin.'

Mrs Hajduga's husband was there when the nurses gave her the drug. She said: 'He could see my mother was distressed immediately - within seconds of it being given to her she started getting short of breath and was pointing to her arm.' She says that her husband told the nurse three times to stop injecting it. 'But the nurse said she was just panicking a bit and carried on injecting it. She died shortly after.'

Mrs Cutmore had been in hospital for three weeks before she died. Mrs Hajduga said: 'They just didn't follow procedures. A number of health professionals failed to pick up that allergy.' She claims staff failed to even check her mother's wristband. 'They killed somebody and I think people should know about it. We have waited 18 months and now we just want answers to why it happened.' Her husband added: 'June worked hard all her life. She was loved by everyone. It is unbelievable what happened.'

A spokesman for the hospital said: 'Barts and The London NHS Trust is deeply sorry for the failure of the safeguards that should have protected Mrs Cutmore. The Trust's medical director and chief nurse met Mr and Mrs Hajduga soon after their mother's death to apologise unreservedly for the medication error. 'The staff members involved in this tragic incident are very upset and the Trust is committed to ensuring that the whole organisation learns the lessons from the tragedy.' [Bullsh*t, Bullsh*t, Bullsh*t]


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