Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Global cooling hits Britain again

Treacherous travel conditions were predicted for much of Britain today. Forecasters said that eastern and southern England would see the heaviest snowfalls. Meteorologists described the conditions as an extreme weather event and advised motorists to check the roads before leaving home.

Travellers were left stranded at bus stops in London last night as Transport for London decided to halt all bus services in the capital. A spokesman said that drivers were instructed to return to their garages after several accidents in which cars collided with buses or buses lost their grip on the road. "We aim to restore services as soon as possible once roads have been treated," he said.

There were delays for air and train passengers as snow was cleared. Gatwick cancelled more than 20 flights and diverted others as ground staff scrambled to de-ice runways. London City was closed for a time. Several train services linking London and the South East were cancelled or delayed. A section of the London-bound M20 in Kent was closed. Kent Police said that several minor collisions had been reported after snow froze on the road.

The Met Office said that easterly winds from Russia and Eastern Europe would result in the widest covering of snow since 1991. The greatest depths will be seen in the East and snowfalls up to 15cm (6in) are predicted across southeast England. This winter has already been the coldest for 13 years, with temperatures plunging to lows of -13C (8.6F) during a three-week freeze in January. Temperatures fell below freezing last night, causing treacherous conditions for drivers, particularly in the Pennines and the North York Moors. Biting winds are expected to hit steady speeds of 15 to 20mph today, gusting up to 35mph over the hills and along the east coast.

The Highways Agency's fleet of more than 500 salt spreaders, snow ploughs and snow blowers is on standby and salt spreading began over the weekend. Officials told motorists to check forecasts before setting out. They also recommended packing food, water, a torch and a spade as well as warm clothes. Motorists who fail to ensure that they have warm clothing and extra layers are "flirting with hypothermia", motoring groups said. "People often treat their car like an overcoat," Andy Taylor, of the AA, said. "But when you break down you are suddenly vulnerable to the weather. If you break down on a motorway, the safety advice is to get out of the car and wait behind the barrier. You need extra clothes for this."

The blast of icy weather will bring another bank of snow across Kent, Essex and Surrey this afternoon, moving quickly across the whole of eastern England. Most of Britain can expect sharp frosts and bitterly cold conditions for much of this week. A brief respite is predicted tomorrow before another barrage of snow.

Gardeners are worried that the temperatures will ruin the spring blooms. Experts say that this year's daffodil crop is the worst in a decade. Laura Davies, of the National Botanical Garden of Wales, said: "Now is the time you would expect to see daffodils coming out but we are not expecting them for two or three weeks at best if it warms up. Winter snowdrops were late and other plants you would expect to see have not shown signs of appearing. There will be fewer plants in gardens this year and Mediterranean shrubs will be the worst to suffer."

Helen Chivers, a Met Office forecaster, said: "Northerly winds will be maintaining the cold weather so we can expect some more icy nights and snow showers. It is looking likely that the snow will be coming back on Thursday and Friday, probably hitting southeast England again." The bookmaker William Hill has dropped the odds of 2009 being the coldest year on record from 12-1 to 8-1. It is also offering odds of 100-1 that the Thames will freeze over.

Mervyn Kohler, of Help The Aged, urged the elderly to take care. "Over-seventies can have insulation installed free by energy providers. Obviously it is a bit late to do those things before tonight and tomorrow but now is the time to start the process going because it is going to be cold again and energy prices are probably never going to go down to the level they were at five years ago," he said.


Social work snooping on child carers in Britain

This might make some slight sense if British social workerrs were people of sense and goodwill but the opposite is true so this poses a huge risk to innocent carers of children

Grandparents who bring up their children's children could be wrongly targeted in a campaign against unofficial foster parents, charities warned yesterday. The Government-backed initiative urges neighbours, teachers and doctors to alert social workers if children suddenly turn up next door, in the classroom or at the surgery. It also calls for children to put pressure on their friends to tell teachers if they are living with people who are not their parents.

The Somebody Else's Child campaign has been organised by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, with funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is designed to persuade the public to tell social workers about 'private fostering' arrangements, in which children are given by their parents or carers to other people to look after.

But it has been condemned as misleading and dangerous by grandparents' groups. Charities say the campaign's posters and advertisements could mean persecution for grandparents and other relatives, who by law are fully entitled to look after their children's children. The fears come in the wake of controversy over the case of two young children in Edinburgh who have been taken from the care of their grandparents for adoption by a gay couple. Lyn Chesterman of the Grandparents' Association said: 'I am absolutely flabbergasted. You have to ask, is this using a sledgehammer to crack a nut? I hope there are no repercussions for those families who are just doing their best.'

Since the murder in 2000 of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, killed by the couple to whom she had been given by her parents, laws and guidelines have encouraged local councils to publicise their anxiety about private fostering and redouble efforts to ensure social workers intervene in all cases. Under the 1989 Children Act, however, private fostering by close relatives need not be reported to social workers. Close relatives include step-parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts and grandparents.

Posters in the campaign, which was launched last month, ask baldly: 'Do you know someone who is caring for somebody else's child? If it's for more than 28 days they must notify their local council. Failure to do so is a criminal offence.' They do not mention that there is no legal bar to relatives bringing up children.

Miss Chesterman said: 'You don't know if the person living next door to you is a child's aunt or whatever. This is making people make assumptions as to what the family next door is doing.' A spokesman for the BAAF said that grandparents should clear up any misunderstanding by contacting social workers themselves.


Ugly slug advocates sending excreta to British anti-immigrant group -- but that's OK, apparently

Substitute "Muslim" for "BNP" in her remarks and guess what the response would be:
"The offending remarks by Brand have been posted online on YouTube. She is seen telling the audience: `Let's start with some important political news. Did you hear this, right, that BNP members and supporters have had their names and addresses published on the internet, hurrah! Now we know who to send the poo to!' ...

But a senior police source said: `It is an absurd case and very unlikely to get to court.


Is it offensive of me to call her an ugly slug? Probably. But if she can make offensive remarks about other people, surely others are entitled to make offensive comments about her.

You can get prosecuted for all sorts of innocent remarks in Britain but if the target-group is disliked by the Left, you can do no wrong.

Children 'suffering from lack of two-parent family', British study finds

There are some difficult "chicken and egg" issues in this type of research but departing from nature's arrangements is inherently risky. There is a substantial body of opinion which says that an extended family is best of all. It is certainly the most common family form in human societies

Children do best when brought up by two parents with a `longterm commitment' to each other, a major new study found yesterday. The report, produced after a two-year inquiry for leading charity the Children's Society, highlighted the trend towards mothers of young children choosing to work as instrumental in the breakdown of traditional family life. The report - A Good Childhood - also declared that the presence of a father was vital and that children suffer from a missing father long into their adulthood.

One in three 16-year-olds now lives apart from their father, the authors of the study said, warning that children of separated parents are 50 per cent more likely to do poorly at school, be unpopular with other children and suffer from behavioural difficulties, anxiety and depression.

The report produced a series of recommendations, among them that mothers should have the right to three years away from work after a birth, unpaid, with a guarantee that they can have their old job back at the end of the period. It also called for a new state-recognised birth ceremony similar to a christening so that non-Christian parents could affirm their commitment to the family after the birth of a child. It recommended the introduction of emotional report cards for children at the ages of five, 11 and 14, as a check on their development and wellbeing.

Another suggestion was that parents-to-be should get classes from the NHS on the demands of bringing up a child, while schools should give pupils lessons on parenting and relationship skills. The inquiry also pointed to the rise of `rampant individualism' in society, which it said has eaten away at personal responsibility and any sense of the common good. It called for `a radical shift away from the excessively individualistic ethos which now prevails, to an ethos where the constant question is, "What would we do if our aim was a world based on love?" '

The study also highlighted a trend towards materialism in children, instilled by increased exposure to advertising targeted at them, and noted that social networking sites such as Facebook encouraged children simply to try to accumulate as many friends as they could, rather than focusing on the strength and depth of those friendships.

The study named the most important changes which have troubled the lives of children over recent decades as the movement of women into work and the explosion in numbers of family break-ups. It found: `Compared with a century ago two changes stand out. First most women now work outside the home and have careers as well as being mothers. `In Britain 70 per cent of mothers of 9-12 month-old babies now do some paid work. This compares with only 25 per cent 25 years ago - a massive change in our way of life. Their children are cared for by someone other than their parents.'

The report added: `The second change is the rise in family breakup. Women's new economic independence contributes to this rise: it has made women much less dependent on their male partners, as has the advent of the welfare state. `As a result of family break-up a third of our 16-year-olds now live apart from their biological father.'

The damage done to children by family separation can be seen when they are as young as three, the report's authors said. They are less likely to be depressed or aggressive if their parents get on, and the more they see their father the better off they are. It added that 28 per cent of children whose parents have broken up have no contact with their father three years later, calling the absence of a father from so many families `a real worry'. The report added that the number of children without fathers is going to rise, citing `robust' evidence that children of divorce and separation are more likely to divorce or separate themselves. `More parents are cohabiting rather than marrying, and cohabiting parents are more likely to split up,' it said.

On the importance of fathers, it added: `Fathers are no less important than mothers in a child's life. The closeness of fathers to their children influences the children's well-being, even after allowing for the mother's influence. `If fathers are more closely involved, children develop better friendships, more empathy and higher self-esteem, are more satisfied with life and achieve more educationally.'

The report added that grandparents and other close relatives are the best help for children when their parents break up, and should be the first choice for help with childcare rather than nurseries. `Children in separated families fare best when they have close contact with each of their parents and all the important adults in their lives, including the grandparents,' it said.

The report by the Children's Society, which runs social work projects with runaways and other deprived children, comes against a background of growing political debate over the direction of the family. The findings throw a fresh question mark over Labour's family and benefit policies, which support and reward single parents at the expense of couples, and which have sidelined marriage as a lifestyle choice with no value for children. Tory leader David Cameron has pledged to end this `couple penalty' in the benefit system.

More here

Brightest British children 'failed by state school teachers who fear promoting elitism'

Bright children in state schools are being failed by teachers who refuse to give them extra help for fear of promoting "elitism", a Government-backed report has found. A significant number of schools have failed to enter their most talented pupils in an official programme designed to push the very best children, it concluded.

Labour's so-called Gifted and Talented scheme - launched in 1999 - was set up amid concerns that middle-class parents were abandoning the state sector for private schools. It was designed to answer critics' claims that bright children struggle in the comprehensive system because they are dragged down by classmates. Under the scheme, covering all pupils under 19, primary and secondary schools are asked to nominate the best pupils for extra support to make sure they fulfilled their potential. This was originally defined as the top five per cent of pupils but has since been changed to ten per cent. Those nominated are provided with after-school classes and weekend tuition in order to ensure they are sufficiently challenged.

But a study by ACL Consulting, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, found fundamental opposition to the scheme among schools. The findings suggest that many pupils may have been held back from achieving their potential as a result of a reluctance on the part of teachers to give them the opportunities the Government intended for them.

The report come just days after figures published by the Conservatives showed one-in-seven pupils named among the brightest failed to get five good GCSEs at 16. "Many schools were initially unwilling to provide... details of their pupils who were within the 'top five per cent'," said the report. "Although this resistance was gradually eroded over time, there was doubtless still a substantial core of schools unwilling to play their role in the process."

The Conservatives said the findings showed that Labour policies to get the best out of the brightest children in state schools were failing "It's vital that the brightest children are properly stretched," said Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister: "Ministers told us that the gifted and talented programme would ensure that this happens but the evidence suggests it isn't working."

Nick Seaton, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "The Government is clearly failing the brightest pupils. "When you have teachers who for ideological reasons are unwilling to put forward the brightest youngsters for special treatment, it's obvious that a scheme like this can't do anything but fail. "Research shows that many thousands of children who are shown to be very bright by their key stage two tests do not go on to achieve the top A-Levels they should do. The reason is that they are simply not stretched between 11 and 16. All this is bound to lead to a decline in our capability as a nation and will damage us economically."

ACL Consulting is a consultancy group which works for public sector organisations involved in education, training and economic development. Warwick University initially won the contract to run the Government's Gifted and Talented Scheme, set up to nurture the ability of England's most able children. The contract came to an end in 2007 and the scheme is now run by an education charity called CfBT.

In the latest report, consultants tracked the impact of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, established by Warwick in 2002 to spearhead the scheme. It said 4.75m pounds was spent on the academy every year by the Government - the "same amount of money as a 1,100 pupil secondary school would receive annually". The unit received around 2m more in donations by the final year of its contact. But the study said it failed to establish itself "as the key point of reference" for schools promoting the needs of talented children. "It is interesting to speculate on the cause of this unwillingness," it said. "If it is because of a misunderstanding of the place of special support for gifted and talented young people - perhaps a confusion of 'elitism' with 'special needs' - then that is arguably not NAGTY's fault, however it would then indicate an important development need that many schools and their senior managers should look to address." The report added that the academy offered little for youngsters who had great potential, but were performing below what they were capable of.

Ministers no longer set a quota of five per cent of pupils to take part in the scheme. But they do recommend that as many as 10 per cent of "gifted" pupils - usually defined as the elite in terms of academic subjects - and 10 per cent of the most "talented" with potential in other areas, such as sport or the arts, are given extra help.

The report concluded that the NAGTY had done much to raise the national profile of education for gifted and talented pupils but said its legacy was "thin, and value for money therefore limited". Margaret Morrissey, of the campaign group Parents Out Loud, said: "Parents tell me that they are very concerned the brightest children do not get enough attention and subsequently go backwards in ability. "Many brighter children are also used by teachers to help the less able pupils, and in some are even being used to take the lessons themselves. "The only minority group the Government is interested in helping are the underachievers. They don't ever give the brightest kids the help they need. "The best pupils then get bored and switch off. And if an 11-year-old switches off, they don't come back. You've lost them and they will be mediocre for the rest of their school lives."

A DCSF spokesman said: "This is an evaluation of a historic institution which no longer exists - the Gifted and Talented programme has progressed significantly. The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth was designed only for the top 5 percent of learners aged 11-19. Since September 2007, the new Young Gifted and Talented Learner Academy (YG&T) has been available for all learners identified as gifted and talented by their schools and colleges. "Schools are resoundingly on board. Our latest data shows that 95 percent of secondary schools and 78 percent of primary schools are identifying over 800,000 gifted and talented pupils. "This is not elitism. It is about ensuring that all learners receive the challenge and support they need to reach their potential."


Voucher scheme for Scottish schools howled down

A radical proposal to overhaul Scotland's education system and give disadvantaged youngsters priority access to top independent schools was unveiled yesterday. Reform Scotland, an independent think tank that believes parents should have more choice in their children's school, claims Scottish government statistics show almost half of second year pupils are not able to read and write to the expected standard. It wants to stimulate more competition between schools to improve standards.

It is proposing an "entitlement" scheme whereby parents would be given a credit equivalent to the cost of educating their child in their local authority area. They could use this at any school where a place was available. If a private school charged more than the entitlement, parents could not "top up" the difference. However, children who receive free school meals - a key indicator of disadvantage - would be given a supplement from central government, on top of their entitlement. This would give children in some local authority areas, such as Shetland, an entitlement to an education of at least 10,000 pounds.

Geoff Mawdsley, director of Reform Scotland and one of the authors of the Parent Power report, said the scheme should not necessitate any additional cost for mainstream pupils. However, he admitted that the think tank had not assessed how much extra cash would be needed from Holyrood to provide for the deprived children. He said the new system would "extend opportunity and promote social mobility" and warned that, without it, "countless numbers of children ... will be failed by an education system that does not meet their needs." The group wants to pilot its scheme with deprived youngsters and then extend it further. This willwould mean that, initially, the disadvantaged pupils willwould be given priority over mainstream pupils.

According to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), such children have lower exam results and are more likely to drop out or truant. Reform Scotland claims that, despite the cash invested in state schools, they are "failing those who need them most." The OECD, in its 2007 Programme for International Student Assessment, found that countries where schools compete for pupils have better results.

The report drew criticism from teachers' leaders who accused the group of failing to understand the education system. Jim Docherty, acting general secretary of the Secondary School Teachers Association, said the plans were "drivel from beginning to end. This idea has been floating around for years", he said. "It betrays a total, utter, complete lack of understanding of how the public education system operates. It is nothing more than the Thatcherite `parents should have the right to choose' writ large." He said the vast majority of schools were at capacity so the proposals would not work - and the idea that some schools were better than others was "completely erroneous" anyway.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of the School Leaders Scotland union said an entitlement scheme was "hugely complex" and would be very difficult to implement. He also said that there were numerous underlying issues which determined whether children succeeded or not, rather than simply the school they attended.

However, Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative schools spokeswoman and former private school teacher, said the proposals were "giving families much more freedom of choice on which school to send their children to". "They are talking about a radically different approach from what exists just now," she said. "It praises some of the aspects of the state sector but to get rid of the monolithic state they are trying to build in much more flexibility."

The report also suggests that local authorities could relinquish the power to run some schools, making them independent. And it wants to give local authorities complete control over pay and conditions for teachers, effectively ending plea-bargaining. Mr Docherty said such a scheme would result in 32 disputes every year, as opposed to one. Mr Cunningham also dismissed the idea, warning: "Anyone who tries to muck around with the pay and conditions within that frame in Scotland does not understand workforce planning."

A Scottish Government spokesman said the administration agreed with Reform Scotland that recent steady progress had to be accelerated, which was why it was working on the Curriculum for Excellence. He added: "While we remain unconvinced regarding some of the more radical elements of their proposals, Reform Scotland's report is thought-provoking and we welcome all contributions that promote real debate on the best way to ensure every school becomes a good school."


A quite remarkable good news story

For almost 100 years, the ascent of Mount Everest has been a powerful symbol of human endeavour. But for Andrew Hodgkinson, trekking 18,000ft to its base camp was an exquisite expression of how a disabling disease could be conquered - thanks to a remarkable new treatment.

For more than 20 years Andrew has suffered with AS, ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable form of arthritis. It affects the spine, especially the lower back. No one knows what triggers the disease, but as in all arthritis, the soft joint tissues - in this case, those of the spine - become inflamed. This results in the vertebrae being worn down, prompting new bone to be formed. But the growth causes the bones to fuse together, leading to pain and immobility. There are 110,000 sufferers in the UK. 'On some days I couldn't get out of my chair,' says Andrew, who runs a garage business in Gnosall, near Stafford, where he lives with wife Sharn and children Megan, 15, and Joe, 11.

Dr Karl Gaffney, a consultant rheumatologist at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, says: 'Eventually, the vertebrae in the spine, which are normally separated by spongy discs, become fused, causing rigidity, and the sufferer can lose mobility.'

In the past, the main treatment has been with NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and paracetamol, which provide relief from the symptoms but do not halt the progression of the disease. But now the drug entanercept is giving sufferers the chance to lead a normal life. The cause of AS is unknown, though it tends to affect men and to strike first in their early 20s. Due to non-specific symptoms, such as back pain and fatigue, diagnosis is often delayed.

Andrew began suffering with pains in his back and a tightness in his chest as a teenager, but it took several years for doctors to detect the problem. Signs of the disease cannot be seen on X-rays until later stages, once significant damage has already been done. When there was no sign of relief, he was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon. By his mid-20s, he had become so stiff he struggled to get out of bed in the morning. A combination of X-rays and a full assessment of his symptoms confirmed it was AS.

Andrew signed up for a two-week intensive physiotherapy course which taught him stretching exercises. Once the course ended, he swam and walked as much as he could every week, all of which helped alleviate his symptoms. But by his mid-30s, he began to suffer with overwhelming fatigue. 'I was like an old man, stumbling around with a walking stick,' he says.

NSAIDs were the only available treatment at that time, but they had little or no effect. So when Andrew was offered the chance to take part in clinical trials for injectable drug entanercept - also known under the brand name Enbrel - at Cannock Chase Hospital in Staffordshire, he didn't hesitate. Entanercept is one of a group of drugs known as anti-TNFs, which work by blocking the action of a naturally-occurring protein in the body called tumour necrosis factor, the cause of the inflammation that hallmarks AS.

'I had my first injection in October 2007 and the effects were instant,' says Andrew. 'The following morning I got out of bed without any trouble. I started having injections once a week and within two sessions it had made the most dramatic difference. I had no pain and I could move freely.'

Prescription is determined by the severity of symptoms. The drug costs 10,000 pounds per patient per year and at the moment only the severely affected are eligible. Dr Neil Hopkinson, a consultant rheumatologist at Christchurch Hospital, Dorset, estimates that 80 to 90 per cent of patients using anti-TNFs see significant improvement.

Andrew was able to play football with his son and even went on a skiing holiday. He began to set himself challenges, including a 60-mile bike ride last May. Galvanised by this new lease of energy, he and three friends planned a trekking holiday to Mount Everest's base at Gorak Shep, Nepal, last November. On reaching the base he says: 'I really was - and felt - on top of the world. After two decades of struggle, I had my mobility back.'


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