Saturday, March 28, 2009

Teachers attack 'absurd' British plans to measure pupil happiness

Plans to grade schools based on pupils' happiness have been branded "meaningless" and "absurd". Headteachers said Government proposals for a radical overhaul of school inspections were too bureaucratic and would lead to schools in deprived areas being "castigated".

Under plans, schools will be rated on a range of measures including the take-up of lunches in canteens, the proportion of pupils doing two hours of sport a week, the quality of sex education lessons and relationship advice. Schools will also be measured on truancy, exclusions and the ability to promote "emotional resilience" in their pupils. The so-called wellbeing indicators could also be used in a "report card" system being proposed by the Government as a new way of ranking schools.

It follows a recent report from the Children's Society that said that competitive schooling, league tables and selfish parenting was creating a generation of miserable young people.

But the "happiness" measures are being opposed by teachers' leaders, who claim they are almost impossible to quantify. In response to an official Government consultation on the plan, the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents more than 14,000 secondary heads and deputies, said they were creating "widespread anxiety" in schools. The use of school lunches as a proxy for pupil wellbeing was "absurd", claimed the association, while exclusion rates said little about whether pupils were happy. Officials also warned that schools in the poorest areas would suffer because they admitted large numbers of problematic pupils.

The National Association of Head Teachers, which represents primary heads, said the plans were "fundamentally flawed".

The National Union of Teachers said the proposals would "simply reduce schools' work in this area to a checklist of Ofsted indicators". Another union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "We are disappointed that the Government is spending time and money developing indicators which will indicate nothing of any substance."

But Phil Revell, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, said: "The aim behind what the Government is trying to do – that schools should be reporting to parents on the basis of more holistic indicators than simply pupils' exam performance – is right. But the current set of measures are not good enough."

The comments come days after Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing in Glasgow, said that teachers' drive to build their pupils' self-esteem had gone too far, with many parents unwilling to have their children criticised for fear it might damage their feelings.

Ofsted and the Government are due to respond to their consultation by the end of the month. An Ofsted spokeswoman said: "Early analysis of the consultation responses shows broad support for many aspects of the consultation. Many of the indicators proposed, including those derived from surveys of parents/carers and pupils and information about attendance and exclusions, are invaluable. They will help schools to evaluate and compare aspects of their own practice with schools nationally, as well providing evidence for Ofsted inspections."



One by one, the energy giants that hoisted green flags and trumpeted their conversion to renewables are ducking and diving and hiding behind the curtains. Iberdrola, a big investor in wind farms in Spain and the owner of ScottishPower, is slashing its spending on renewables by 40 per cent. Shell said recently it would no longer invest in wind turbines, preferring to focus its efforts on new biofuel technology, while BP has opted out of the UK renewables market, deeming it to be a poor bet.

It is tempting to see the great push for renewable energy in Europe as a fair-weather phenomenon. The performance of Britain's turbines is a case in point - for much of January they were operating at about 10 per cent of capacity.

That should be no surprise, given that periods of severe cold (or heat) coincide with lack of wind, but it doesn't help when a utility is trying to deliver power into the grid, not to mention returns to its shareholders. These issues are critical, because we need to begin building more power capacity today if we are to avoid blackouts by 2015 when we are committed to closing old coal-fired power stations.

All of this is embarrassing for a Government that likes to portray itself as the champion of green causes. But it is pointless for Ed Miliband, the Minister for Energy and Climate Change, to berate utilities for not building stuff that is uneconomic and, anyway, cannot be relied upon to deliver the power we need at the flick of a switch.


Gurkhas win 'legal first' against law-defying British Government

Gurkha veterans who have fought for Britain will be given the right to stay in this country following a "legal first" in which the High Court had to enforce its own ruling against the Government.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has now been forced to abide by a High Court order that will give the previously excluded former soldiers from Nepal who served in the British Army the right to apply to settle in Britain. She is expected to make the announcement to Parliament in three weeks, the court heard.

The news came as the Gurkhas returned to court to enforce a legal victory they won last September, when a High Court judge ruled that the Government's existing immigration policy excluding them was unlawful. Campaigners, including the actress Joanna Lumley, whose father fought with the Gurkhas in Burma during the Second World War, said the Government had "delayed and delayed" since the court decision. Ms Lumley has previously called the Government's position a "stain on our national character".

The court heard that in the hiatus since the September ruling a number of veterans had died waiting for resolution of the case. The most recent was Rifleman Prem Bahadur Pun, who died on Sunday, March 15. A statement seen by the judge said: "It appears that his death - as well as being deprived of cheap modern drugs to bring him comfort in his final months - is linked to the Secretary of State's failure to comply with her assurances to publish the policy and complete the reconsideration of over 1,000 stayed cases by December 30 2008."

Gurkha campaigners described today's return to the courts as "a legal first" in which a litigant had to return court to enforce a judgment against a Secretary of State. Surrounded by Gurkha veterans, David Enright, a solicitor representing the veterans, said: "The Government has delayed month upon sorry month, allowing your fathers to die while their sons served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "The Government has had to be shamed, kicking and screaming, back to court again."

In September's ruling, the judge said Government immigration policy in the case of the Gurkhas "irrationally excluded material and potentially decisive considerations" or "was so ambiguous" as to mislead applicants, entry clearance officers (ECOs) and immigration judges alike.

Six claimants brought the case to challenge the lawfulness of the Government policy that Gurkhas who retired prior to July 1997 - the date that the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its base from Hong Kong to Britain - did not have the necessary "strong ties" to be allowed entry.

A Home Office spokesman said: "The revised guidance is currently under consideration and will be published by 24 April. "Since 2004, over 6,000 former Gurkhas and family members have been granted settlement in the UK under immigration rules."


Illegal to wake up a dormouse??

Batty Britain again

When Dreamy the dormouse was pictured in the Mail sleeping peacefully on a red rose, he became a very small celebrity. Not that he knew, of course, because he was busy hibernating. But his celebrity status became a big problem for staff at his rescue centre home after Jonathan Ross showed the picture on his BBC1 chat show.

Ross suggested Dreamy must have been woken from hibernation at some point during his photographic session, an offence under the Animal and Welfare Act. Some viewers believed him and rang police. When an officer went to investigate at the Secret World Wildlife Rescue Centre in Somerset, staff were horrified. After all, they had originally saved Dreamy when he was found in a greenhouse with wounds thought to have been inflicted by a cat. Spokesman Jamie Baker said: 'We told them the dormouse had never been woken up. '

Avon and Somerset Police later said no offence was committed. The following week, on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, the presenter apologised, adding: 'The charity who provided that picture have been raided by the police for allegedly disturbing the dormouse during its hibernation, which is illegal. The dormouse stayed asleep during the whole thing and was fine.'

Mr Baker said: 'I think people meant well but they should have got the whole story first.' A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police confirmed that a complaint was made over the dormouse and that an officer was sent out to investigate. He added that no offence was committed.


British elite hatred of the middle class again

'Equal Justice Under Law' are the words chiselled in stone above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court building in Washington. I did not notice whether any similarly stirring sentiment adorns the somewhat less impressive frontage of a certain magistrates' court in East London but I rather suspect that it does not.

My wife and I are three months behind with our council tax payments to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and as a result we had to appear in court. We hoped that if we promised to clear our debt of 549 pounds by March 31, the end of the fiscal year, the magistrates would waive the additional 75 cost of our summons. As most of our food shopping involves the 'Last Day Of Sale' shelf - we walk a fine line between nourishment and food poisoning - that sum represents more than two weeks' worth of groceries for us.

We felt we had a chance. After all, the two magistrates on the bench had been magnanimously lenient in the four cases that preceded ours. However, it was not to be.

Our financial troubles had started when the credit crunch began to affect our already irregular incomes, necessitating the selective paying of bills. My wife, Vahni, is a sporadically employed ballet dancer and I am a sporadically employed actor. We have always resorted to various day jobs to get by between engagements: market stalls, telesales, product demonstration and a host of other badly paid, short-term posts ranging from the boring to the unbearable. Now even those were becoming few and far between. One firm we had worked for had closed its doors without notice, owing us money.

So our cardinal rule has been never to sign on or to claim any form of social assistance. I'm Canadian, naturalised British, Vahni is American, and although we've lived here for many years and are eligible for benefits, we would find it embarrassing and presumptuous burdening a 'foreign' country with the responsibility of subsidising our artistic ambitions...

On our day in court, the magistrates, both of whom had public-school accents, worked slowly and carefully through each case preceding ours and were punctiliously fair to all the defaulters, who were of many different nationalities. Interpreters were provided, all sorts of holy books were made available for oath-taking and a lawyer was present to explain the finer points of the law. In two instances, the magistrates gently admonished those before them for obvious lies and evasions.

It didn't seem to bother them that not a single defendant was completely self-supporting. Employed or not, all were on some sort of benefits and the magistrates carefully took this into account when assessing repayments. In each of the four cases, thousands of pounds had been owed over a considerable time but the magistrates generously charged no interest, wrote off a significant proportion of the arrears and made no mention of court costs. The most flagrant evader was ordered to repay 20 pounds a week - he'd owed 5,000 for some years - the others were let off with repayments of 10 pounds per week.

We were easily distinguishable from the other defendants because we'd made the effort to dress in a manner we felt appropriate for a court appearance. Also, our case involved just a few months of arrears rather than years, we were not on benefits and we spoke English as our native language.

Our turn. Into thy hands, Blind Justice. I rose and politely stated our case. I freely admitted the money was owed, explained our impecunious circumstances, promised repayment as soon as possible, and asked only that court costs should not be charged.

The magistrates smiled, and one thanked us for being so straightforward and honest. 'Are you aware,' he asked with a vulpine grin, 'that your appearance today means a further 20 pounds in costs, in addition to the 75 previously assessed?' I was not - and I sensed with some unease that the magistrates seemed almost to relish our discomfort.

'We will,' the second magistrate pronounced in lordly tones, dripping with munificence, 'waive that 20.' A pause. 'The 75 will stand.' 'Yes,' said the first. 'You should realise many people are suffering financial hardship these days. We can't make exceptions for everybody. Kindly make arrangements with the council to pay this off as quickly as possible.'

Undoubtedly their predecessors would have hanged me and sold my remains to an anatomist. The court usher sighed as he showed us out. 'Can't say I'm surprised,' he said. 'Sometimes they seem to come down hardest on the well-spoken ones.'

On the way home to our privately rented flat, we tried to work out what had gone wrong; why we were the only people the court had stigmatised. Was it because we were the only ones who had respected the court and dressed accordingly, perhaps making us look affluent? Was it our assurance that we'd do everything we could to pay off the debt as soon as possible? Or had we simply made too much of the fact that we'd never succumbed to the lure of benefits?

Not for the first time I wondered why our society seems dedicated to the punishment of those who are trying to pull their own weight. Is it because liberal democracies know that without the taxes extracted from those of us who concede the necessity to pay them, their mad social engineering schemes would vanish in a puff of brimstone?

But I'm not bitter: everything is grist to an actor's mill. If I am ever asked to play a victim of injustice, I can always draw on the memory of this experience.


More NHS incompetence

IVF mother died during caesarian birth after 'doctors starved her brain of oxygen'. The NHS relies heavily on overseas doctors who are often poorly trained. "Prasad" is an Indian surname

A mother who spent years undergoing IVF treatment died after a bungled birth and never saw the baby she longed for, an inquest was told yesterday. Joanne Lockham had a Caesarean operation to deliver baby Finn but her brain was starved of oxygen for up to 30 minutes, it was claimed. Within moments of the birth she suffered a heart attack and she died two days later after sustaining massive irreversible brain damage. Her husband Peter is now bringing up Finn on his own.

The inquest jury heard that Mrs Lockham, a 45-year-old nurse from Wendover, Buckinghamshire, had been through countless rounds of failed IVF treatment when she finally became pregnant. Her baby was six days overdue when she went into Stoke Mandeville Hospital to have her labour induced on October 9, 2007.

Because doctors were concerned about the slow progress of the labour, they decided to perform a Caesarean with the assistance of an epidural anaesthetic. But later Mrs Lockham was told that further complications involving foetal distress meant she needed a general anaesthetic. She sobbed as she was told of the change of plan but midwives assured her that she would soon be holding her first child.

Jacqueline Hall, a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology, said she did not anticipate any complications when she 'strongly' advised the Caesarean at 6pm. However, problems arose in the operating theatre. The jury heard that three attempts were made by anaesthetist Dr Prasad to insert a tube to give Mrs Lockham oxygen before it was eventually believed to have been successful.

Dr Prasad broke down in the witness box as he told how he repeatedly tried to intubate Mrs Lockham. He told the jury that on the first occasion on which he tried to provide a tube to get air to her lungs, he was unable to do it sufficiently. On the second try, the equipment was not working as he believed it should. Dr Prasad then made a third attempt to insert a tube using a mask and thought he was successful. Dr Prasad said: 'I was doing my job, but I was in a complete state of shock, I couldn't think, I was trying to be useful in anything I could. 'I went in at that point in time with a particular plan and it didn't happen. 'It was completely out of the blue and the equipment was not giving way, so I didn't know what to do, it completely numbed me, it was not what I was expecting.'

The inquest was told that just before 7pm the obstetrician started the operation and the baby was delivered. Then Mrs Lockham went into cardiac arrest. When consultant anesthetist Dr Bogdanov arrived at the hospital at 7.30pm after being paged because of the complication, he was unhappy with the placement of the intubation tube and removed it. He used the same piece of equipment that Dr Prasad believed was faulty to re-intubate Mrs Lockham.

When Dr Prasad was asked if he was blaming the equipment for his own inadequacy, he replied: 'No, I am not.' Mrs Lockham was transferred to intensive care but following brain stem tests, the decision was made to switch off her life support machine.


Racist talk OK if you are brown

We read:
"Gordon Brown’s efforts to smooth a path to international agreement at next week’s G20 summit in London hit a bump in Brazil yesterday when he was told that the financial crisis was the fault of the “white and blue-eyed”.

President Lula da Silva [above] of Brazil warned that there would be spicy discussions and “tough confrontation” next Wednesday as world leaders faced up to who should pay the costs of the banking crisis.

As Mr Brown looked on during a press conference, Mr Lula da Silva said that action was urgent since it would be intolerable for the poor — who were blameless for the collapse of financial markets — to suffer the most from its effects.

“This was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by the irrational behaviour of people who were white and blue-eyed, who before the crisis they looked like they knew everything about economics, but now have demonstrated they know nothing about economics,” he said, mocking the “gods of wisdom” who had had to be bailed out. “The part of humanity that is responsible should be the part that pays for the crisis,” he added.


President da Silva is a long-time Leftist so he would be well aware of Leftist shrieks about racism

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