Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More NHS authoritarianism

SOME NHS hospitals are banning mothers from collecting umbilical cord blood from their babies to use as a possible source for their future medical treatment. Parents seeking to reserve the blood for themselves so that they can derive stems cells from it in the future are being told they must instead donate it to public blood banks.

The alternative is to give birth in private hospitals, which are prepared to reserve it for the child's or family's own use. A family's chance of a successful treatment with the stem cells is much higher if there is a personal match. Doctors have already used such cells to treat children with leukaemia and believe they could cure many common conditions in the future.

The row highlights the growing tension between individuals' desire to pay for advanced treatment for their own families and the state's duty to provide free healthcare for all.

King's College hospital in south London and Watford General in Hertfordshire have banned parents from collecting stem cells from the umbilical cord blood even if they hire a private technician to carry out the procedure. Watford General asks women to give to the NHS cord blood bank and King's College encourages women to give the blood to the Anthony Nolan Trust. Other trusts, such as Wirral University teaching hospital and University College London hospital, ban personal collection of stem cells but do not donate to public banks. If the women donate to the public banks, the stem cells become available for whoever is a suitable match.

Shamshad Ahmed, managing director of Smart Cells, a commercial stem cell bank storing families' personal supplies, said: "It is an injustice that certain hospitals will participate in the collection of umbilical cord blood if parents agree to give it away to a public bank but not for their own use. "It is clear these hospitals believe in the technology but are denying individuals this important opportunity to store their own baby's stem cells."

The NHS cord blood bank website compares the advantages and disadvantages of private versus public cord blood storage but it suggests women have a choice. It says: "A public donation is made as a purely altruistic act, solely for the benefit of others. It has the potential to save the life of any person for whom the unit is a good match, including the person who donated it, if it is still available. Private cord banks store a unit solely for use by the donor or their family."

Sophie Isachen, 37, from southeast London, has a history of illness in her family and her younger sister, Rosalind, died aged 26 from a rare blood disorder. Her parents offered to pay 1,600 pounds to store the umbilical cord blood stem cells from her daughter, Freya, when she was born in December. King's College hospital refused to allow the collection. Isachen said: "We decided to go down the private route because of a family history of illness. My parents were going to pay for this because, tragically, my sister died at an early age. "We are in the fortunate position that we can afford it but the unfortunate position that we have a medical history that would make us think it is something that could help us."

A spokesman for King's College hospital said: "At King's, all donations of cord blood are made on an altruistic basis. We are committed to the scheme and the potential it has to help save the lives of thousands of people in need of stem-cell transplants."


Children's lives put at risk by poor care at specialist British hospital

Children's lives were put at risk by the poor standard of care at a specialist hospital, according to the second damning report into health provision to be published this week.

An investigation by the Healthcare Commission found that there was a shortage of beds at Birmingham Children's Hospital NHS Foundation Trust as managers "struggled" to meet rising demand for treatment. This meant that seriously ill young people were admitted late while others were sent to different hospitals miles away from their families. Surgeons warned that theatre staff were poorly trained, handed them the wrong instruments and even knocked their hands during critical operations.

In addition, managers failed to act when they were warned of the dangers by consultants, the report said. Paul O'Connor, the hospital's chief executive, resigned two weeks ago.

It comes just days after another report by the watchdog found that as many as 1,200 patients may have died needlessly at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, as managers put targets and cost-cutting ahead of care.

Describing the situation in Birmingham, Anna Walker, the chief executive of the Healthcare Commission, said: "While we have no evidence of serious incidents causing harm to patients, the standard of care has not been as good as it should have been in some cases. "The response to safety concerns has been slower than ideal. It is deeply concerning that serious issues were raised but not properly or rapidly addressed over several months. While I would not say there were 'third-world' conditions, there were serious potential risks in the way care was provided."

Birmingham Children's Hospital is one of only four specialist hospitals for young people in England, caring for 140,000 patients in 2007-8. Last year it was rated "excellent" for use of resources by the Healthcare Commission although only "fair" in terms of quality of services.

Senior staff at nearby University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust met managers from the children's hospital last June to discuss their concerns about standards of care. They then wrote a highly critical report that was obtained by a Sunday newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act before it had even been seen by the children's hospital, prompting the Government to order an official investigation in December.

The Healthcare Commission found that because of increasing demand for treatment at the hospital, average bed occupancy was running at more than 98 per cent. This led to 28 per cent of admissions being cancelled on the day and 70 children a month being sent to other hospitals for treatment because there was no room for them in Birmingham. The report said this is a "special concern" for patients with liver problems, who need to be seen urgently.

Many members of staff also warned it was "very challenging" to get access to operating theatres for urgent but not life-threatening cases. There are only two days on which neurosurgery sessions take place, meaning that children admitted after Wednesday have to wait until the following Monday for treatment unless they are put on the emergency list. This situation was said to have led to several "near misses" and was a risk to patients.

The watchdog found that "almost all" consultants were worried that they could not use interventional radiology to diagnose patients because demand was so high. Surgeons said theatre staff did not always know what instruments were required for operations, and sometimes consultants brought their own equipment because the hospital did not have it. Leadership of the neurosurgical ward was said to be inadequate, driving nurses to resign.

The watchdog concluded that it was "deeply concerning" that serious concerns had been raised but not dealt with properly, causing "alarm and anxiety" among patients and their families. It made 12 recommendations about how the children's hospital can improve, including monitoring demand better and working on its relationships with consultants.


Should schools tell you what to put in your child's lunchbox?

There seems to have been a lot of backpedalling since this story first broke -- judging from the commenter below. Note that the one thing that is most heavily hated seems to be chocolate but there have been plenty of findings suggesting that chocolate is good for you. I don't assert that it is. I just want to point out the arrogance of people claiming to know what is best in a field beset by controversy and ever-evolving knowledge -- particularly when much conventional thinking does not stand up under objective test

You have to feel for headteacher Deborah Metcalf. Accused by the Daily Mail of running a sandwich box Stasi and the Daily Telegraph of presiding over a mealtime Gestapo, the head of Danegrove Primary School in Barnet, Greater London, is somewhat bemused. "Everyone had been very supportive," she told School Gate today. "At least until one parent went to the papers."

The story is to do with packed lunches, and the drive towards healthy eating. Having worked on healthy school lunches for the last few years, Ms Metcalf felt that it was time to make some suggestions to pupils' packed lunches too. A third of pupils at the school (which is 605 strong) bring packed lunches every day, and Ms Metcalf and her staff were not too thrilled to see that some lunchboxes were filled with fizzy drinks and crisps.

"We wanted the children who bring packed lunches in to try and make them healthy, like the school lunches. We suggested a pot of pasta or rice, sandwiches or pitta pockets, fruit or yoghurt." Plain or fruit cake is also acceptable at Danegrove, although not chocolate cake (which the canteen doesn't serve to the children taking school lunches either), fizzy drinks or "full-fat crisps". The new policy began in September and parents have been told about it repeatedly "It's in our newsletter every week," says Ms Metcalf.

But while the head and her staff thought the whole policy was going well, it seems that some parents were not as thrilled (although it has to be said that only one family went to the press, and they chose not to speak to the head first...). Those who flout the new policy receive a little note in their child's lunchbox, reminding them of the healthy eating policy, and very occasionally (Ms Metcalf can remember just one, yep, one occasion when the mealtime supervisor took away a packet of chocolate biscuits), offending items are removed.

Some parents will complain, in Daily Mail voice about this, but, I'm going to stick my head above the parapet: I think this is a good idea. There, I said it! The school is not being overly prescriptive (it doesn't recommend jam sandwiches, for example, but it hasn't banned them either), is trying to educate adults a little and by doing this, is helping children learn about healthy eating. Many of them won't pick this up at home, but eating more healthily will help them throughout their lives. However, I do have to say that I'm not convinced about the letter-in-the-lunchbox. That does seem a little over-the-top.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with my (generally) positive thoughts about this, and argue that you, as parents, should be allowed to give your child whatever you want to eat. Feel free - at least out of school time. But I do feel that there is an obesity problem in this country, and that suggesting a child doesn't have a can of Coke for lunch can only be a good thing. And the headteacher of this school says that the children's behaviour and concentration in the afternoons is far, far better now, which has to be a good thing... [But she would say that, wouldn't she? Have any objective observations or tests been done?]


Political row as top British grammar school becomes the first to be placed into special measures despite brilliant exam results

British Leftists HATE selective (Grammar) schools because they offend against the "all men are equal" Leftist faith. Below we see that they are trying to destroy one because it is not politically correct enough

A grammar school with a 96 per cent GCSE success rate has been threatened with closure after inspectors criticised its 'outdated' race equality policy. Stretford Grammar was branded 'failing' by Ofsted inspectors who also singled out its sex education programme. They said the school's curriculum was 'inadequate', while admitting academic standards were 'exceptionally and consistently high'.

The Manchester school is the first grammar in Britain to be placed into special measures, putting it at risk of closure if it does not improve. But the decision has caused fury, with school supporters accusing the Government of hostility to grammars. Robert McCartney, of the National Grammar Schools Association, said: 'This report seems ludicrous. 'Here you have a school getting almost 100 per cent five A* to C GCSEs and they are getting caned because they're not allegedly up to the mark in some non-academic subjects. 'This smacks of a plot, another line of attack, to try and undermine grammar schools. Ministers have a skewed idea of what is really valuable to children in education. 'You wonder how many comprehensives are failing on the criteria this school is alleged to have failed.'

Last year, 96 per cent of Stretford pupils achieved five GCSEs at A* to C grade, or vocational equivalent. But Ofsted said achievement, the curriculum and leadership were inadequate. It said of the curriculum: 'Arrangements for sex and relationship education are underdeveloped.' Its report also warned that the school was 'not compliant with statutory requirements in relation to race equality and community cohesion'.

Achievement was judged inadequate despite its headline results because 'girls and higher ability students make very slow progress'. Ofsted found persistent 'significant underachievement' in relation to children's abilities on arrival.

Stretford is in the constituency of Children's Minister Beverley Hughes, who criticised the school and Tory-run local education authority. She added: 'This is the first grammar school in the country to go into special measures. The Conservative council is trying to brush this under the carpet and pretend this is not happening. This is a shocking indictment of the management.'

But parent Kevin Parker, 50, said: 'On one hand Ofsted are saying how excellently they have done in their exams, on the other there is an assertion of out-and-out failure. It's hard to make head or tail of it. 'We have been pleased. My son gets all kinds of great attention.'

Headmaster Peter Cookson was on extended sick leave before resigning soon after Ofsted visited. The head of nearby Sale Grammar has been drafted in to turn the school around.

Rakshanda Ali, 39, whose son is in Year 7, said: 'On the days the school hasn't had a head in place, conditions have been poor and parents were worried. But I'm confident things are going to change for the better.'

Graham Brady, the Conservative MP for nearby Altrincham and Sale West, said: 'Any school can suffer if its management and leadership are not right, and it appears from this Ofsted report there are significant problems in that regard at Stretford Grammar.'

Councillor David Higgins, chairman of Trafford council's children's committee, said: 'Schools depend very heavily on a good head teacher and unfortunately the head has been away through illness for some time.' But he added: 'There must be a lot of teachers doing a good job to have obtained the results Stretford Grammar School has obtained. They stand very well against results across the country. It's hard to argue how much further you can get above excellent.'


Number of students achieving three A-grade A-levels double in a decade

British exam results are becoming increasingly meaningless

The number of sixth-formers gaining three As in their A-levels has doubled in a decade, according to figures published yesterday. Just days after Cambridge University announced that a hat-trick of As was no longer enough to win a place, it emerged that one in eight students are now achieving the feat. Last year, 12.1 per cent of students achieved a trio of As - more than 31,000 - against just 6.1 per cent when Labour took office in 1997, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

As the pass rate soared to 97.2 per cent last summer, exam chiefs heralded the era of 'unfailable' A-levels.

Cambridge said it had opted to raise standard entry requirements to an A* and two As after being forced to turn away record numbers of students with three As - around 5,500. Senior tutors said that in time the standard offer could be raised to two A*s and an A.

Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, said: 'This is about a move towards a system where we are using the public examinations system to do the selection for us, rather than just saying three As, which is easier to get. 'It means students are proving themselves in the public examination system, rather than proving themselves in the interview process.'

Meanwhile Imperial College, Bristol University and University College London have revealed they will make some offers using the A* when the new grade is awarded for the first time in 2010.

While ministers staunchly deny claims of grade inflation, A-levels have been plagued by suspicions that relentlessly rising pass rates cannot be solely down to pupils' and teachers' greater mastery of their subjects. With sixth-formers now passing one in four of all A-levels with a grade A, sceptics fear standards have been eroded over the years. This is said to have been hastened in 2000 by the splitting of A-level courses into bite-sized chunks which are separately examined and can be retaken an unlimited number of times.

A Durham University study recently suggested that A-level standards have fallen at the rate of one grade a decade since the mid-1980s. Sixth-formers now achieve two grades more than students of the same ability in 1988, it was claimed, meaning that a pupil who gained a C two decades ago would now be in line for an A.

Isabel Nisbet, acting chief executive of Ofqual, said last month that A-levels may need to be 'recalibrated' upwards for the first time in 50 years to counter rising pass rates.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: 'Many universities have to run remedial courses to get the students up to the standards they had been in previous years.' He added: 'Grade inflation has to be halted or the exam system will descend into chaos.'


Illegal jokes in Britain

At last – legislation is about to be passed which will make homophobic jokes illegal. It has been a long time coming. I haven’t found jokes about homosexuals funny for at least two decades, so either way I win...

The other great thing is that jokes about homosexuals will immediately become funny again, because they are now contraband, samizdat and against the law. Those same boring old jokes about not bending down in the shower, being good at interior design, liking Judy Garland and so on, will now make one prick up one’s ears (ooh, get you, dearie! But not the ears, surely). And these days we need more things to laugh at.

For years I found racist jokes extremely boring – but they became funny when it was apparent that the act of telling them could (a) lose you your job and (b) bring the Old Bill down on you with a charge of inciting racial hatred. Now, as a consequence, I find almost all racist jokes hilarious, especially ones about Muslims and particularly if they are cartoons which feature Allah or Muhammad or fat ladies in burqas saying to one another: “Does my bomb look big in this?”

However, I don’t find them quite as funny as I find jokes about physical or mental disabilities – they are the real howlers these days. And that’s because the disability lobby has become so preternaturally sensitive, so disposed towards pouncing on anything which might be construed as disablist. Consequently, these days, all you have to do is say “and guess what . . . he only had one arm!” and I fall about laughing.

When my colleague Jeremy Clarkson described Gordon Brown as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot” I smiled briefly; but when the professional race monkeys and anti-disablist monkeys got on his case I suddenly found it all killingly funny. “How dare he imply that having one eye, or being Scottish, is an insult?” these terrible people ranted, and with every rant Jeremy’s comment became truly funny. Oh, I thought, in the end – strap up my sides, I can’t stand it. Such wonderful pomposity, a real gift to the comedian. Such hilarious hypersensitivity.

Jokes are almost never funny per se, when they are stripped of their social context (if they ever could be). The stuff that makes us laugh is never neutral; it involves poking that part of us which, for most of the time, remains unpoked. The part of us which civilised behaviour insists should remain below the surface. That’s why Ricky Gervais is so funny; he gets this point – he understands the latent humour of social embarrassment, of saying things which you are simply not supposed to say. The mentally handicapped kid in the restaurant, the black actor confronted by a golliwog.

It is the breaching of the social convention which is really funny, not the supposed slighting of black, disabled or homosexual people. It is the potential for naughtiness, which exists in all of us (yeah, okay, except maybe Patricia Hewitt). Bring on the legislation and bring on those queer jokes.


Why does it take a German like me to get the English to celebrate St George's Day?

By John Jungclaussen, London Correspondent, Die Zeit

I confess: I am an Anglophile. It is a condition I first succumbed to when I arrived on these shores some 16 years ago. Back then I spent my first week travelling round chocolate-box villages in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds. A week later I found myself on a teeming campus in the heart of London where I enrolled at university. One couldn't, perhaps, think of two places in Britain that are more different - and yet the tranquil and unspoilt beauty of the 'Heart of England' and London's relentless rhythm of people and politics, commerce and culture are both quintessentially English.

They encapsulate what is great about this nation: the instinct to try to preserve and protect its sublime countryside, including the social structure and cultural heritage that come with it, and the tolerance to absorb people from different cultures who have migrated to London over the centuries to create the most global metropolis in the world. Those are among the many things that I have come to love about this country.

I have now settled down in London in my job as a foreign correspondent and although my view of the English is perhaps not quite as rose-tinted as it was back then, my love for the English has only grown over the years. It is like getting to know a friend. The more you know about them and the more you understand their peculiarities, the dearer they become.

But the one thing that strikes me most about this dear friend is how little the English think of themselves. I can't think of a fellow Anglophile who is English. Those who love England are foreigners like myself. Ask an Englishman about his native land and all you get is a litany of how dreadful things are. This is a nation that seems to revel in a Press that is constantly talking the country down. Life in Britain these days seems to be about nothing else but Asbos, binge drinking and teenage pregnancy, spiced up only by yet another celebrity scandal.

About time then for somebody to do something to change that - and London Mayor Boris Johnson's plan to use April 23, St George's Day, to stage a festival of Englishness in the capital seems to be just the kind of event that is long overdue.

It is not surprising that an unashamed celebration of Englishness has to be organised from the top. The Welsh have been celebrating St David's Day for generations. Children have a day off school and wear daffodils when they attend eisteddfods to celebrate their music and literature. The Scots have Burns Night and St Andrew's Day to remind themselves of their national identity, and on St Patrick's Day the Irish celebrate their nation across the world from London's Trafalgar Square to New York's Times Square.

Were it not for a populist mayor who likes to boast about his Turkish roots [The reference is to Boris Johnson, an old Etonian and Balliol Classics graduate], it wouldn't even occur to London's English population to stage a celebration of their culture and national identity.

If anything, being English has become something to be embarrassed about. In the same vein as the previous Mayor Ken Livingstone, who thought it necessary and appropriate to apologise to the capital's African and Caribbean communities for London's role in the slave trade, 200 years after its abolition, the English would rather apologise for their history as conquerors of the British Isles and creators of the United Kingdom than be proud of their heritage.

The last stage for English national sentiment is on the terraces of the football stadium where - a German might be forgiven for saying this - Englishness does not present itself in its most appealing guise. I have often found myself in the firing line of bellicose football supporters, reduced to the German whose grandparents were beaten on the beaches of Normandy and whose parents were beaten at Wembley.

Although it seems too obvious that the English have achieved a lot more in the past 64 years than winning the war against Nazi Germany and winning the World Cup in 1966, all they are concerned with is debating notions of Englishness versus Britishness instead of celebrating the countless positive aspects and achievements that make up their identity. Let me suggest a few things about the English that are well worth celebrating.

First of all, the sublime beauty of your countryside. Millions of my fellow countrymen flock to England every year on holiday. They love the romantic beauty of the West Country with its quaint villages and the dramatic scenery of the Peak District.

Although the protest march against the Government's fox-hunting Bill in 2004 mobilised one of the largest demonstrations in English history, there is no sense that the celebration of the countryside is part of an English identity. It should be.

Second, William Shakespeare. Every child knows that the Bard is one of the greatest writers of all time and yet the world sees him as a Briton, not as an Englishman. Claim his heritage in the same way that we Germans claim the heritage of Bach and Beethoven and the Austrians have made Mozart their own. And while you are at it, acknowledge and be proud of the fact that English is the lingua franca and one of most important tools in the globalised world.

Third, your history as merchants and inventors. England kick-started the Industrial Revolution and led the way in the introduction of new production techniques which, in turn, revolutionised trade and helped to create in the 19th Century the first wave of globalisation.

Acknowledging these achievements and these aspects of English national heritage should be the norm in the same way that the notion of British cuisine, a focal point of Boris Johnson's London festival of Englishness, needn't be seen in the context of French cuisine. After all, the French don't suffer from an inferiority complex when they talk about gardening.

The English revel in individuality and instinctively question authority, which is why the cradle of modern democracy stands in Westminster. Kings and queens were well advised to hand over power to Parliament before an unruly mob could storm their palaces.

What happens in societies where the collective overrules the individual was amply demonstrated in the 20th Century across Europe when Queen Victoria's descendants lost at least their thrones and mostly their lives as they were sacrificed on the altar of great utopian ideas of revolutionary societies.

Such grand visions didn't appeal much in England where Anglo-Saxon pragmatism helped society to muddle through the upheavals of wars, economic crises and social change.

Whereas her European neighbours created societies according to textbooks, Britain relied on the age-old notion of getting by on a shoestring. Although that way the country avoided bloodshed and revolution and maintained an admirable political stability, over time it also lost a sense of its own identity.

Every now and then people and nation states need an earth-shattering event to remind themselves of who they are. Germany and countries all over Central and Eastern Europe had to redefine their national identities after the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. The US lived through the traumatic events of 9/11 to strengthen her sense of purpose.

England, on the other hand, continued to muddle through. Neither the 7/7 bombings in London nor the recent collapse of Anglo Saxon capitalism seem to have done much to refocus British society on a strong common theme.

So, Boris, organise a festival of Englishness that captures the imagination in the same way that the 1951 Festival of Britain excited previous generations. The Skylon and the South Bank Centre showed postwar Britain a new way into the future. What England needs is a reminder of her greatness to overcome all the current social and economic problems - for they are only going to get worse.


More British government computer bungling: "Security flaws have halted work on the internet database designed to hold the details of 11 million children and teenagers. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) admitted last night that it had uncovered problems in the system for shielding details of an estimated 55,000 vulnerable children. These include children who are victims of domestic violence, those in difficult adoptions or witness protection programmes and the children of the rich and famous, whose whereabouts may need to be kept secret. ContactPoint is a £224 million online database that contains the names, addresses, dates of birth and details of schools, GPs, social workers and support services of all 11 million people aged under 18 in England. It is intended to improve child protection. The project has been dogged by controversy since its inception in 2003 and the loss of many big databases has dented public confidence. ContactPoint was supposed to go live nationally this year but a spokeswoman for the DCSF said that the department had ordered a “pause in the ongoing data update” pending an investigation into the shielding problems."

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