Friday, November 07, 2008

A middle-school education in shelf-filling in Britain

I guess it's an improvement on learning how wonderful homosexuality is

Sainsbury's supermarket will offer a qualification in shelf-stacking and stock-taking as well as a GCSE in literacy and numeracy, it will announce today. On-the-job training, open to all staff, will count towards a final NVQ, worth five good (graded A-C) GCSEs, in the retail skills of stock control, merchandising and health and safety.

The company, which has 150,000 employees, is the first retailer to be granted "awarding body" status, allowing it to confer nationally accredited certificates. It is also offering staff the chance to improve their English and maths up to grade D equivalent at GCSE, which they can take without their colleagues' or immediate bosses' knowledge. The first 2,000 will get a $100 voucher.

Rebecca Hales, 25, who works at the branch in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, has already started maths under a pilot version of the scheme. Illness had prevented her doing as well as she would have liked at school, she said. "I've got an online tutor who rings me up to check on me and give me new activities every week," she said. "I know all about fractions and denominators and numerators now. It's a great confidence boost."

The company believes that 25 per cent of its workforce will get one of the new qualifications, endorsed by the awarding body EDI, in the next five years. Justin King, the chief executive, said: "Every one of our colleagues can improve their skills, which not only benefits our customers but also supports our colleagues, to achieve their full potential."

In January McDonald's, Network Rail and Flybe were given powers to award qualifications up to PhD level as part of the Government's drive to improve employer-based training. Critics questioned the worth of "McGCSEs", and said that they could devalue academic qualifications. Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said: "Employees may find they are locked into that business because these awards don't have credibility outside the company." However educational experts believe that it will become increasingly common for private institutions to award qualifications.

John Denham, the Skills Secretary, congratulated Sainsbury's on the move. "We know that those companies that invest in skills are best equipped to weather tough economic times, and are also best placed to capitalise on opportunities for growth," he said. Richard Wainer, head of education and skills at the CBI, said of the initiative: "It shows how employers can play a valuable role creating opportunities for people."


Foreigners over 60 to be banned from moving to UK simply for retirement

One gathers that the existing arrangements have led to many older people with expensive health problems coming to Britain for the "free" healthcare

Foreigners will be banned from moving to Britain to retire, it has emerged. The Home Office is scrapping rules that allow non-EU pensioners who have sufficient money to look after themselves to move to the UK after they have stopped working. Officials said the policy did not fit in with the idea of 'earned citizenship'.

But it will raise concerns that countries whose citizens will lose out could retaliate by imposing similar restrictions of their own. This could see older Britons denied the chance to move overseas to non-EU countries, which could affect thousands every year. Thousands leave every year for New Zealand, Australia and America.

The current route into Britain is known as Retired Persons of Independent Means. It applies to those who are aged 60 or over, have a net disposable income of at least 25,000 pounds a year, can demonstrate a close connection with the UK, intend to make the UK their home and are able to maintain and accommodate themselves and any dependants without needing public funds. They are not required to have worked or paid taxes in the UK but have free access to healthcare on arrival and full access to the benefit system after five years. After five years, they are also entitled to apply for settlement and a British passport.

The Home Office admitted it had received a large number of objections to the idea, but had decided to press ahead. Papers issued by officials say: 'It is difficult to reconcile the existence and entitlements of this route with the Government's conviction that citizenship should be earned and that migrants must demonstrate certain requirements in order to progress on their journey. 'Although the migrants need to be self sufficient, the amount of disposable income that these migrants must demonstrate may not match the demands they may place on public services.'

The rules do not apply to EU citizens, so there is no risk of countries such as Spain - where thousands of Britons retire to every year - putting in place reciprocal arrangements.


Horrible British social workers lose for once

But only after a very expensive appeal to the High Court

A couple prevented from adopting a baby girl because they once slapped another child for swearing won a court's backing today when a judge branded the ban 'bizarre'. The 'caring and sensitive' couple had been told by a council they could not take in the half-sister of a little boy they adopted five years ago. Social workers cited the adoptive father's 'attitude to corporal punishment' after he revealed in adoption interviews he had once smacked the boy, now seven, for swearing.

But the couple, named only as Mr and Mrs A, today succeeded in their High Court bid to force Newham Council, in East London, to reconsider. It means they could yet be allowed to adopt the girl, known as K, and unite the siblings.

Outside the court, the couple said: 'We are absolutely delighted by today's outcome. 'We will continue our fight to adopt K but this was an important hurdle to overcome. 'For us, this case is not about smacking but people being treated in the correct way by their local authorities.'

Mr and Mrs A, aged 48 and 49, returned to their smart semi-detached Victorian house. They said they were unable to elaborate on their feelings as the adoption decision was still in Newham Council's hands.

The Mail Online understands the couple became foster parents, taking in a dozen children over the years, after failing to conceive using IVF treatment. In 2003 they decided to adopt a young boy - and despite a lack of support from Newham Council, eventually won permission. Because they ensured the youngster maintained contact with his natural family, Mr and Mrs A learned in 2006 his real mother had given birth to a girl, now two, who was put in care. They felt it would be ideal if she could be raised with her brother.

An initial report by an independent social worker approved the couple's application - but this was rejected after the father told of the smacking incident. A review panel then backed the parents, calling them 'strong, caring, sensitive, supportive and resourceful'. But Newham Council's senior social services executive, Jenny Dibsdall, simply dismissed the panel's findings. She said: 'Mr A does not appear to accept that corporal punishment should not be used. Such indications would normally mean an adoption application would be refused.' But ordering a re-hearing today, Mr Justice Bennett said this reasoning was 'unreasonable', 'bordering on the bizarre' and 'in dangerous territory'.

The couple's solicitor Katy Rensten said: 'The court quashed the decision of the local authority that they were not suitable to adopt - and now it goes back to the local authority to have another look at it.'

A neighbour of the couple described the boy and his foster siblings. She said: 'They are extremely polite. It's obvious they come from a very good family who go to great lengths to love them and raise them correctly. 'They are very good parents and I do not think there is anything wrong with disciplining children reasonably. 'They have very thin walls and I would hear very clearly if anything had gone too far.'

Newham Council director Kim Bromley-Derry said: 'As a result of today's decision we will be making a fresh decision as to whether Mr and Mrs A are suitable to adopt, and if so whether a further assessment is needed. We will do this as quickly as possible.


Sign of the times - we're turning into robots

Take a look around: our overmanaged, system-crazy, authoritarian society is destroying common sense and initiative

By Libby Purves in Britain

I must apologise to fellow passengers on the 0731 from Newton Abbot. I may have snorted. I know I laughed, out loud and suddenly, in the dozing carriage. This outburst of joy was occasioned by the report of a Welsh road sign near an Asda. It said: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only."

At least, that is what it says in English. The compulsory Welsh translation underneath, following an e-mail query to the local authority's in-house translation service, actually says: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated." Which is "Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith l'w gyfieithu". Obviously, it should have said "Na chofnodiad achos 'n drwm da vehicles. residential safle ond".

Or should it? I got that translation of the correct message from an internet translation service, but when I fed it back in the other way round, it emerged as "I do entry because heartburn drum good vehicles. residential position except". So I then reversed the translation of the actual Welsh out-of-office message, and that returned "Bit I am being crookedly in the office at this time..." You can see why the council needs in-house translators. Even if they are so piously, humourlessly Welsh-speaking that they don't put their out-of-office responses into both languages.

But it was not the mere Hoffnung phrasebook joke which slew me. I saw with beautiful clarity the implications of what happened. Plainly, nobody in the traffic department that commissioned the sign spoke any Welsh (or they would have wondered why the second sentence was an incongruous length and lacked familiar words). Nor did anybody, at any stage of the proofing and manufacturing process involving non-retroreflective glass bead technology, aluminium sheeting and BS 873 standard lettering compliant with Highways Sector Scheme 9A, raise a query. Nobody: not a word of Welsh between them. And more importantly, not a flicker of curiosity.

And don't tell me the sign was made by ignorant English people, because there are at least three Welsh firms that make road signs. I cannot believe that a Welsh council would send work elsewhere. Basically, nobody gave a damn, including the workmen who put it up. The first to spot it were readers of a Welsh-language magazine, the editor of which sorrowfully says it is not a first. Cyclists between Cardiff and Penarth were baffled by a sign, the Welsh text of which warned of "an inflamed bladder". A pedestrian sign in Cardiff briefly said "look right" in English and "look left" in Welsh. A school in Wrexham had "staff" translated as "wooden staves". In all these cases, great chains of personnel must have let it all through.

Look, I have nothing against efforts to preserve the Welsh language. It is beautiful, heartstoppingly so when spoken mellifluously by my friend Mari, or recited as poetry. I applaud its being taught in Welsh schools (though the results seem dubious, given this debacle). And if the Welsh Assembly feels strongly that signs should be in both languages, even if nobody actually needs them to be, I defend their democratically endorsed decision to the last bewildering consonant. Anyway, as a visitor I rather like having the Service area beyond the Severn Bridge announce itself as a Gwasanaethau, and often make spirited attempts to pronounce it. It adds exoticism to a long journey.

No: the real hilarity of the road sign affair is that it is so beautifully typical of modern life in an overmanaged, system-crazy, authoritarian society where regulation and routine either deaden common sense and initiative, or frighten it into silence. On the same train where I spluttered helplessly over the Welsh sign, the usual announcement kept telling passengers not to leave any luggage unattended "at any time". Passengers heading for the lavatory or the buffet, however, were not hefting giant half-term suitcases and rucksacks, nor did anyone expect them to. Another safety-conscious announcement warned us to remain in our seats until the train came to a complete halt at Paddington. But if passengers getting off at Slough took this "safety" advice they would never all make it to the door with their baggage before the train shot off again. [So true!]

Look wider: it is all around you, this robotic senselessness. A village playgroup may not employ a granny well known to everybody these 50 years until she has waited weeks for a formulaic, expensive vetting certificate from the lumbering machinery of Capita's Criminal Records Bureau. Even so, if she then wants to help the Sea Scouts with their dinghies she'll need a whole new check. A small-town bank manager who has known a pensioner for 30 years still has to put him through cumbersome "anti-money-laundering" procedures to open an ISA. Doorkeepers in office buildings who have seen staff members a hundred times must make them wait for an escort if their ID card fails to bleep.

Elsewhere, a Marks & Spencer staff member refuses to speak to a small child's mother about a faulty Superman outfit because "data protection law" insists they deal with the owner. A pair of evangelists get warned off by a Community Support Officer because Christianity constitutes "hate crime in a Muslim area". A builder gets fined 30 pounds for smoking in his own private van. In those last three cases, jobsworths actually got the law wrong. But so cowed and confused do you get when you work in a huge unwieldy system, so used to not being trusted to blow your own nose without "guidelines", that these things are bound to happen. Thus somebody in a Welsh transport department thinks: "It has to be in Welsh, that stuff looks like Welsh, OK, it doesn't look as if it's about lorries, but better not query it."

It is all about the fear of stepping out of the groove, making an independent decision or asking an intelligent question. People are not naturally like that. It is fiddly systems and unimaginative management that make them that way. So employees, strike out! Ask questions beginning with "why?" at least once a day. Point out that, even if the emperor does have clothes, they're on inside out.

Incidentally, the Welsh for "the emperor has no clothes" is "r hymerawdwr has na ddillad". Only, when I reversed that again, it came out as "Group emperor ace I do garments". See? You can't trust everything that comes out of your computer. Or your rule book.


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