Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I'll sue to get my son a proper education, says British father after school limits academic subjects in favour of 'practical' GCSEs

A father is threatening to sue his son's state school for failing to provide a proper academic education. Peter Hills says teenagers are forced to sideline traditional academic subjects in favour of vocational qualifications when choosing GCSE courses. His son Alex, 14, wants to take a full set of academic GCSEs, but his school is making him choose at least one practical course in either Information and Communication Technology (ICT), art or drama. This must take the place of one of his four preferred options: history, geography, French and music.

Mr Hills has written to Children's Secretary Ed Balls to complain that his son faces almost a day a week studying for a qualification in which he has no interest. The transport company director, who lives in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, with his wife Nicky, believes he will be forced to pay for private education for Alex instead - and is consulting solicitors about suing the school for part of the cost.

Alex studies at nearby Eastwood School, which specialises in performing arts and sport. Pupils studying GCSEs there must choose one vocational course - a BTEC in art, a BTEC in performing arts or an OCR National in ICT. This counts as one subject choice, in addition to the compulsory core subjects of English, maths, science and RE. However, it is taught for four periods a week instead of the two allocated to other options.

Mr Hills wrote: 'While I am aware that The Eastwood School has a leaning towards the performing arts and sports, it is surely required to make an equal effort in providing a full academic education for those that require it.

He said the school's specialisms 'appear to be given prominence over all academic subjects, ie history, geography and languages, which surely should be the cornerstone of education in this country'. He added: 'If this matter cannot be resolved, then I feel I will have no option other than to send my child to a private school willing to provide the education best suited to his abilities, and to recover part of the cost from The Eastwood School via the county court.'

Mr Hills said: 'We have sought legal advice to see whether or not it is possible to obtain redress. It is at an early stage. 'What the state is providing, in my opinion and that of just about everyone else I have spoken to, is not suitable.'

The Education Act 2002 says that schools have a legal duty to offer all 14 to 16-year- olds suitable learning challenges and a broad curriculum - including entitlements to study the arts, humanities and languages. Lawyers for Mr Hills are likely to consider if Eastwood School has properly fulfilled these duties.

He said he was very doubtful about the ICT qualification Alex would probably end up taking. He believes the subject matter will soon be obsolete. Ofsted urged the Government to 'evaluate the degree of challenge' the qualification poses, in a report this year. It noted that two major ICT courses, one of which is understood to be the OCR National, count as four GCSEs in school league tables but typically take half the time to teach. 'Students were able to meet the criteria, whether or not they had understood what they had done,' the report said.


Half-witted British doctor says climate change is the cholera of our era

See below. He of all people should know that cold (as in winter) kills a lot more people than warmth (as in summer). He should be celebrating warming if it were public health that concerned him. But Professor Sir Muir Gray is obviously an establishment figure who is just doing his best to uphold establishment beliefs. He didn't get a knighthood for rocking the boat

In the 19th century, cholera outbreaks that escaped from the slums to kill rich and poor alike caused the great Victorian revolution in public health. Fear of cholera ensured that vast sums were spent on building sewers and ensuring that everyone had clean water. Climate change is the cholera of our era — fear of the havoc that climate change will wreak should stimulate a new public health revolution. And just as doctors led the Victorian campaign, so the medical profession should be in the vanguard of this new revolution in public health.

The front page of The Lancet of May 16 says it all: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” This prestigious journal, which usually gives no more than ten pages to vitally important clinical research, made space for a 39-page report.

Climate change will hit the poorest nations hardest, but it will affect us too. In the summer of 2003, la canicule, an unexpected heatwave, killed 14,000 elderly people in France. Rising temperatures will bring that type of problem to our shores. Our health services will be put under pressure by severe weather and floods. But it is the global effects that will hit us, and especially our children and grandchildren, because of the effect that climate change will have on world food and water supplies; millions of climate refugees will disrupt the borders of even an island nation.

Smoking, Aids, swine flu? They all pale into insignificance compared to climate change’s threat to health. That proposition will instantly provoke a hostile reaction from the diminishing band of climate-change sceptics. But as a doctor of 40 years’ standing who has been involved in running public health services for 30 years, I know that the evidence is good enough to make action, not inaction, the sensible choice. An empirical view of the data shows that delay will not just increase the amount of preventable harm, it may take us past a point of no return.

So the medical profession must accept responsibility in the campaign for change. However, with a few notable exceptions, doctors are effectively silent on the health threat that will come to define our age. My fellow doctors cannot just leave this issue to their leaders, to the presidents of the Royal Colleges and to the members of the Climate and Health Council. They should be active in their local communities, where they are known and respected, using their influence to press for national and international action.

Leaders, no matter how great, must have courage and a mandate to act. What is needed, for instance, is for 20 or 30 MPs to collar Ed Miliband, the Climate Change Secretary, as he rushes across the lobby and say: “Three [or more] doctors have been to my surgery in the last month warning me about the concern that they and their patients have about climate change — that’s more doctors than have ever come to see me about the NHS or even their pay. They tell me the medical profession is clear what needs to be done.”

“Why do I never get letters from doctors about smoking?” an MP asked me when I was the secretary of Action on Smoking and Health. “Why do I get more letters on animal welfare than human health?” Why indeed. The medical profession is too silent, and sometimes too apathetic. Fortunately, many of today’s medical students and young doctors have fire in their bellies and are taking to the streets demanding action. Their older colleagues should join them and use their influence. Perhaps, they could try some “collar-and-tie” direct action — those doctors who own shares should be at AGMs demanding that companies clean up their environmental acts.

But the medical profession needs to put its own house in order too. I was in a hospital last month that is doubling its electricity supply “to meet demand”, with no thought about the future. Sometimes the NHS is not unlike Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby, keen to reform others while her own children were scalded through neglect.

The NHS is gigantic and has a carbon footprint that is nearly one twentieth of the whole UK’s footprint — 1.3 million staff each with their own footprint, the drugs bought, the buildings, the transport, the water and the food, too much of it thrown away. Now is the time for the profession to mobilise and show the passion that took them into medical school but is then so often extinguished.

In December in Copenhagen, the vital United Nations Climate Change Conference meets. Unfortunately, British MPs are distracted, so the medical profession has a duty to act to make the politicians focus on it.

A recent summit meeting of leading doctors at the British Medical Association unanimously agreed that the need for action is essential. However, battles are not won in headquarters but by the troops on the front line. So I would like to see 90 per cent of doctors making environmentally friendly personal changes; half of doctors signing the Climate and Health Council pledge; and at least one in 20 doctors lobbying their MPs face-to-face. What more appropriate place than a constituency surgery could there be for a doctor to tell his or her MP that the medical profession thinks that urgent treatment is needed?


Windfarms a security threat

The body that monitors UK airspace is seeking a solution to the potentially disastrous problem of commercial and military aircraft disappearing in radar blackout zones caused by wind farms. National Air Traffic Services (Nats) has asked Raytheon, the American defence company, to design the world's first system for allowing radar to see through wind farm interference. The cost of the £5 million project is expected to be picked up by the wind energy industry.

Wind farm turbines create a Doppler effect as they turn, which shows up on radar screens. As the area and number of these wind farms has increased, the number of radar blackout zones has also risen. Aircraft passing through the area can disappear in the blackout and air traffic controllers can lose their exact position. The Royal Air Force is concerned that enemy bombers or other aircraft could hide behind interference from offshore wind farms and approach Britain undetected.

A Nats spokesman said: “We have a duty to safeguard our operations, so in the past we have objected to the development of a number of wind farms that threaten aircraft safety. We need a system that can eliminate this problem.”

Raytheon has been asked to create a software system that will filter out the wind farm noise from other radar signals. This will effectively allow air traffic controllers to see through the wind farms. The company, which is the largest manufacturer of radar systems in the world, hopes to complete the project by the end of next year. Once completed, it will also be deployed in the Netherlands.

Andy Zogg, vice-president of command and control systems at Raytheon, said: “As the number of wind farms grows, there are more and more of these radar black holes. They show up as clutter on the radar screen and the concern is that aircraft approaching from behind the turbines or flying over them cannot be seen.”

Brian Smith, general manager of Raytheon Canada, said: “Our work will be to develop the algorithms that allow us to discriminate between turbines and aircraft. It is called clutter erasure.”

The Government has identified wind power as a key to reducing reliance on carbon dioxide producing energy sources. Europe's largest onshore wind farm opened last week at Whitelee in Scotland. The 140 turbines cover an area of 55 square kilometres and are each 110 metres high. The wind farm will generate enough electricity to power 250,000 homes.


Britain wastes huge sums on windmills while the need for reliable electicity supplies becomes ever more urgent and costly

On a barren hillside outside Glasgow, dozens of wind turbines are spinning in the breeze as Britain's largest onshore wind park starts to generate electricity. With 140 turbines producing enough power to supply tens of thousands of homes, it is among the largest and most vivid symbols of the Government's drive to replace Britain's collection of ageing coal, gas and oil-fired power stations with a cleaner, greener alternative.

But this effort to transform Britain's energy industry, which is being propelled by tough new emissions rules and by the sheer decrepitude of much of the network, does not come cheap and has profound implications for consumers.

The site, at Whitelee on Eaglesham Moor, has cost ScottishPower, its developer, £300 million, but this is a tiny fraction of what will be required to upgrade Britain's power network. According to Ernst & Young, the total cost of doing so and meeting tough targets to cut carbon emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 will be no less than £233.5 billion. Although some of that burden is likely to be shared with power companies, the figure, divided among the UK's 26million households, implies a total bill of up to £8,977 each — or £598 a year for the next 15 years.

Tony Ward, power and utilities partner at Ernst & Young, said that about half of the total, or £112 billion, will need to be spent building new supplies of renewable energy, including vast new offshore wind parks - each many times the size of Whitelee — as well as biomass-fired power stations, tidal and wave-energy projects.

Britain must also renew almost all of its ageing nuclear power plants, which account for about 20 per cent of the country's electricity supply, a project that is expected to add £38.4 billion to the cost. A further £28 billion or so will have to be poured into the grid to build a transmission network capable of supporting new reactors and remote wind parks sited as far north as the Shetlands and in the North Sea. This excludes the cost of building new coal-fired stations equipped with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), bolstering the UK's gas storage facilities, new gas-fired power plants and a rollout of “smart meters” in every home and business in the country.

Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, whose company will be at the centre of this effort, said: “It's very clear from the renewables and new nuclear stations being planned that there is going to be a need for a substantial increase in investment to build a modern, 21st-century grid.”

He expects National Grid alone to spend up to £5 billion a year from 2012 and he is already drawing up plans for a network of seabed cables feeding renewable electricity from Scotland to consumers in the South, as well as sweeping reinforcements to conventional high-voltage lines that criss-cross the country.

Craig Lowrey, director of markets for EIC, the energy consultancy, said: “These are massive investments — we are talking about potentially the biggest investment programme in Britain's history. But if the Government is serious about meeting its emissions targets, it needs to make people understand the true scale of these costs.”

Ian Marchant, chief executive of Scottish & Southern Energy, Britain's second-largest utility, takes a similar view: “In the long term, the unit price of energy is going to have to go up significantly. We are going to have to produce energy in a greener and more secure way and that will cost money.”

Ernst & Young's figures might underestimate the total expense because they do not include regular maintenance costs, Mr Marchant said, suggesting that a figure of £300 billion could be closer to the mark. However, he is optimistic that dramatic improvements in energy efficiency could mean that consumer bills will remain stable or even fall in the long term.

The fear is that in Britain's liberalised energy market this tidal wave of required investment simply will not materialise.

Dr Lowrey believes that, under its current structure — which relies on market forces plus consumer-funded incentives designed to boost investment in renewable energy — the scale of investment needed is unlikely either to meet expectations or to be allocated in the way that the Government or society wants. It is a concern that has been compounded in recent months by a collapse in funding that has accompanied the credit crunch and the plunging value of the pound, forcing up the cost of imported power-generating equipment.

The falling prices of oil, coal and gas have also undermined the economic rationale of many investments in more costly, alternative forms of energy. “There is a need for greater intervention to make this investment a reality,” Dr Lowrey said. “We need a guiding hand from government.”


Climate Change Act: Now the world faces its biggest ever bill

One of the mysteries of our time is how impossible it is to interest people in the mind-boggling sums cited by governments all over the world as the cost of the measures they wish to see taken to "stop climate change", observes Christopher Booker.

One measure of the fantasy world now inhabited by our sad MPs was the mindless way that they nodded through, last October, by 463 votes to three, by far the most expensive piece of legislation ever to go through Parliament. This was the Climate Change Act, obliging the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to reduce Britain's "carbon emissions" by 2050 to 20 per cent of what they were in 1990 – a target achievable only by shutting down most of the economy.

Such is the zombie state of our MPs that they agreed to this lunatic measure without the Government giving any idea of what this might cost. Only one, Peter Lilley, raised this question, and it was he who, last month, alerted me to the fact that the minister, Ed Miliband, had at last slipped out a figure on his website (without bothering to tell Parliament). The Government's estimate was £404 billion, or £18 billion a year, or £760 per household every year for four decades.

Such figures, produced by a computer model, are, of course, meaningless. But one of the mysteries of our time is how impossible it is to interest people in the mind-boggling sums cited by governments all over the world as the cost of the measures they wish to see taken to "stop climate change".

Last week I dined with Professor Bob Carter, a distinguished Australian paleoclimatologist, who has been trying to alert politicians in Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand to the scarcely believable cost of these proposals. He gave me a paper he presented to a committee of New Zealand MPs. China and India, as the price of their participating in the UN's planned "Kyoto Two" deal to be agreed in Copenhagen next December, are demanding that developed countries, including Britain, should pay them 1 per cent of their GDP, totalling up to more than $300 billion every year.

Africa is putting in for a further $267 billion a year. South American countries are demanding hundreds of billions more. In the US, the latest costing of President Obama's "cap and trade" Bill is $1.9 trillion, a yearly cost to each US family of $4,500.

Meanwhile, as Mr Obama's Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, babbles on the BBC's Today programme about how the world's energy needs can be met by wind and solar power (for which, he assured us, we would need to cover only 5 per cent of the planet's deserts with solar panels), a study shows that for every job created in Spain's "alternative energy industry" since 2000, 2.2 others have been lost. (Mr Obama talks about creating "five million green jobs" in the US.)

Last week the BBC and various newspapers excitably greeted the opening by Alex Salmond of Whitelee, "Europe's largest onshore wind farm", 140 giant 2.3 megawatt turbines covering 30 square miles of moorland south-east of Glasgow. It was happily reported that these would "generate" 322MW of electricity, "enough to power every home in Glasgow". They won't, of course, do anything of the kind. Due to the vagaries of the wind, this colossal enterprise will produce only 80MW on average, a quarter of its capacity and barely enough to keep half Glasgow's lights on.

It really is time people stopped recycling the thoroughly bogus propaganda claims of the wind industry in this way. Any journalist who still falls for these lies by confusing turbines' "capacity" with their actual output is either thoroughly stupid or dishonest. The truth is that the 80MW average output of "Europe's largest wind farm" is only a fraction of that of any conventional power station, at twice the cost. For this derisory amount of power, the hidden subsidy to Whitelee over its 25-year life will, on current figures, be £1 billion, paid by all of us through our electricity bills.

Truly, our world has gone off its head, and no one seems to notice – not least those wretched MPs who allow all this to happen without having the faintest idea what is going on.

On May 15, the Guardian’s famed environmental crusader George Monbiot triumphantly posted on his blog an item headed “How to disprove Christopher Booker in 26 seconds”. This was the time, he claimed, it took him to discover how the figures that I had reported on the melting of Arctic ice were wrong.

Guardian groupies piled in to congratulate him, calling for my editor to sack me. Then one or two suggested he should look again at what I wrote. Three hours later, a disclaimer appeared at the top of his blog: “Whoops – looks like I’ve boobed. Sorry folks”. The Great Moonbat conceded that he had been looking at the wrong figures. Still, it was good of him to admit it – and at least his blog ended up with an impressive 514 comments.


Absurd British immigration clearance procedures

"Tougher" rules have been accompanied by much more lax enforcement. The letter below from a recently retired British immigration official appeared in "The Times" so may attract some attention

I worked at the immigration coalface for 38 years, including spending a number of spells as an entry clearance officer abroad. Your recent reports (May 21) echo the concerns of many recently retired immigration service personnel and many still within the ranks of the UK Border Agency.

The new points system for visa applications, brought about because of an insistence in drastically cutting costs to the detriment of security and a fair and firm immigration process, has devastated the visa officer network that had successfully operated for many years. Whereas previously most visa/entry clearance officers were UK-based, highly trained immigration service or Foreign Office staff, well versed in ferreting out the obvious and at times the not so obvious bogus student, now most applications are now dealt with on a “tick box” system, rather than by personal interview. More and more visa officers are locally engaged staff who are not British citizens and in many cases have never even visited Britain. To leave the security of this country and the implementation of UK government immigration policy in their hands is ridiculous.

In Mumbai some years ago I interviewed a young Indian student coming to study a fairly high level IT course; his papers were in order as were the arrangements for finance. Asked what he used the mouse for on a computer he said he did not leave his computer on the floor so a mouse would not get near it! A few more questions revealed he had absolutely no knowledge of IT and his visa application was refused. Would the current system have revealed this? Of course not. Furthermore, immigration officers at UK ports of entry are now actively discouraged from interviewing visa holders on arrival as this is considered too time consuming and not a good use of resources; “no second bite of the cherry” being the common mantra. This despite the knowledge that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of bogus students arriving annually.

If the Government is serious in its wish to have an effective visa and border control system, then financial consideration must not be its highest priority.


Fewer taking history GCSE as British pupils abandon traditional subjects

Fewer teenagers are taking GCSEs in history as pupils abandon traditional subjects in favour of new-style skills classes, according to research

Ofsted, the education watchdog, says pupils' knowledge of history - including the Second World War - is 'often very patchy'. Less than a third of students sat history exams last summer - the second-lowest number since Labour came to power. The disclosure - in figures published by the Conservatives - comes amid claims that mainstays of the curriculum are increasingly being marginalised in state schools.

More students have been put onto vocational courses in subjects such as ICT (information and communication technology) - which often count for as many as four GCSEs - to boost schools' positions in national league tables. Last September, the Government also introduced new diploma qualifications in five practical areas, including health, engineering and media, to rival GCSEs and A-levels.

The Conservatives claim entries for traditional subjects are increasingly being dominated by students from private and grammar schools, undermining the chances of comprehensive school pupils getting into top universities. According to Tory figures, 35.4 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds took a GCSE in history when Labour came to power in 1997. Some 379,280 teenagers missed out on studying the subject, it was revealed. But numbers slumped to a record low in 2007 when only 30.9 per cent of pupils took a history GCSE, meaning 453,679 teenagers left school without studying the subject properly. Numbers increased slightly last summer to 31 per cent. The Conservatives claim the overall slump has left many children without a decent grasp of the past.

According to a 2007 report by Ofsted, the education watchdog, pupils' knowledge of history is "often very patchy and specific; they are unable to sufficiently link discrete historical events to answer big questions".

Michael Gove, the Tory shadow schools secretary, said: "The number of children studying history beyond fourteen has fallen to less than one pupil in three. The Government's league tables encourage schools to push pupils away from harder subjects, even if they are of more long term value."

The Tories also criticised the Government's new primary school curriculum, which was published last month, claiming it would "further water down history" for the youngest pupils. Under plans, traditional subject headings will be removed in place of six broad "areas of learning". History has been merged into new "historical, geographical and social understanding" lessons, which also include a focus on sustainability, climate change, recycling, human rights and a requirement to learn about the role of local authority councillors and MPs. "All these reforms take us completely in the wrong direction," said Mr Gove.

A decline in the number of students taking history at school has already been heavily criticised. Last year, one leading examination board threatened to axe its least popular GCSE subjects, including classical civilisation, following a decline in interest. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance axed its separate Latin and Ancient Greek languages GCSE courses in 2004.

A DCSF spokesperson said: "All pupils must study History up to the age of 14. Students are offered a range of options for GCSE and history remains a popular choice for young people, both at GCSE and A Level. The proportion of GCSE entrants studying history increased in 2008, of which 68 per cent achieved grades A*–C. "What is clear is that throughout their school careers, pupils gain a wide knowledge of British history – from Roman Britain to World War II."


NHS criticised by Harley Street doctor for 'missing Jade Goody's cancer diagnosis'

A Harley Street consultant who treated Jade Goody has attacked the NHS for allegedly failing to spot her cancer earlier. Jade Goody died in her sleep at home on Mother's Day

Dr Ann Coxon, a doctor introduced to Goody last year was said to be "very angry" over an alleged failure to spot her illness earlier. Dr Coxon will speak in the E4 documentary Jade: As Seen On TV to be broadcast on Thursday night, according to Max Clifford, her publicist.

He said "Her doctor was very upset and very angry with the way the NHS looked after her and failed to diagnose the cancer that was growing for such a long time," he said. Goody, who died on Mother's Day earlier this year, was given a diagnosis of cervical cancer while taking part in the Indian version of Celebrity Big Brother last August.

The mother-of-two and former dental nurse, who was originally from Bermondsey, south London, first came into the public spotlight in 2002 when she appeared in the third series of the Channel 4 reality programme Big Brother.

In an interview in September, Goody said she had no plans to sue the NHS hospital she claimed was late in diagnosing her illness. "They (the hospital) should have actually spotted that there was something wrong a long time ago," she said. "I don't hate them, I'm not angry with them. Sorry - I don't hate them, I don't want to start suing them or stuff like that, because personally I don't think it's morally right to sue an NHS hospital. "All that's gonna do is take more money out of it and then more people are gonna suffer." She added: "I just think: it's not going to get my womb back, it's not going to get my health back. So what's the point?"


Grow old gracefully to keep dementia at bay

Amusing. Below is a recitation of popular assertions about Alzheimer's. See here for my comments on the "growing old" study that he refers to. As is usual among journalists, he has ignored all the ifs and buts in the study concerned. His recommendations are a house built on sand. Yet the article comes from "The Times", of London, which makes it likely to be widely trusted

Working until you are 70 instead of 65 is one of the ways that you can minimise the risk of brain disease in later life. The Government is rumoured to be considering raising the retirement age to 70 in an attempt to reduce the national debt — plans that will have been given a useful fillip by new research that reveals postponing retirement can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

According to researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, at the Maudsley Hospital, southeast London, every extra year worked delays the onset of dementia by just over a month. So working until you are 70 instead of 65 is likely to give you an extra six Alzheimer-free months. I am not sure that is enough of a benefit to warrant the additional effort, but extending your working life is not the only thing you can do to protect yourself.

One person in 20 over the age of 65 in the UK has some form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease — characterised by a loss of brain cells, shrinkage and protein deposits forming tangles and plaques throughout the brain — may be the most common form, but it is not the only one. Gradual furring up of the arteries supplying the brain accounts for at least 20 per cent of cases and causes similar impairment to Alzheimer’s with resulting loss of memory and cognitive ability, disorientation and confusion. And, while there isn’t much we can do to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, there is a lot that can be done to keep our brain and its circulation healthy — and the healthier your brain the less noticeable any deficit is going to be.

Use it or lose it. The brain is often compared to a muscle in that “exercising” it can slow the damage time brings, and challenging yourself mentally every day will help to keep you sharp. The latter can include hobbies, keeping up an active social life, learning new skills, doing crosswords and puzzles and brain-training games and, as the recent research has shown, working for longer.

The brain is made up of around 100 billion nerve cells, each connected to thousands of others through synapses and it is a decrease in this interconnectivity, rather than the loss of brain cells alone, that is responsible for the slowing of mental agility that occurs with advancing years. Challenging the brain is thought to help by maintaining existing synapses and encouraging the formation of new ones...

Check for diabetes. Ask the nurse at your doctor’s surgery for a blood test if you suspect diabetes — clues include a great thirst, peeing more than normal, recurring infections such as boils or thrush, lack of energy and blurred vision. Those most at risk include the overweight, anyone with a family history of the condition and those of Asian and Afro-Caribbean origin.

Drink in moderation. While sensible drinking — the equivalent of two or three small glasses of wine on most days for a woman and three to four for a man — can protect against some forms of dementia, heavy drinking has the opposite effect. One recent review suggests that alcohol accounts for at least 10 per cent of all UK dementia cases. You don’t have to be middle-aged or elderly to be at risk: there is evidence that heavy drinkers in their thirties and forties already have significant memory impairment.

Eat oily fish. Fresh tuna and tinned salmon, or fish oil capsules, may protect against Alzheimer’s disease and improve brain function. The exact mode of this protection is now under investigation, but it is thought that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils may slow the formation of plaques — an effect that may be enhanced by fatty acids also seeming to protect the delicate lining of the arteries supplying the brain, thus helping to maintain good blood flow. One American study found that men and women eating at least one portion of fish a week were half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who didn’t eat any.

But the case is not so strong for another popular brain supplement. It is thought that as many as one person in ten with dementia is now taking ginkgo biloba despite the latest evidence, which suggests that, while the herb may boost blood supply to the brain, this doesn’t translate into any significant benefit.

Consider hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Women who take HRT have been shown in a number of studies to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life. But HRT has no impact on the progression of the disease once a woman develops the condition. Bottom line? It is a useful side benefit, but concerns about Alzheimer’s disease on their own are not a strong enough indication to prescribe HRT in women who are not having menopausal symptoms.


Catholic Church is living with one foot in Hell

Comment from Britain

Understandably distracted by our own little crisis of trust, we have perhaps not taken in the apocalyptic import of a bigger one across the Irish Sea.

Perhaps it is a vague sense that we knew it all; perhaps reluctance to engage with the horrid details of the Ryan report into child abuse by Irish clerics. Perhaps some think it is old history, a 1950s horror. Maybe there is even a decorous sense that — as a new Archbishop of Westminster is enthroned here — it is tasteless to dwell on the wickedness deliberately concealed by his Church right into the 1990s. Or maybe our own child protection system now looks so shaky that we cannot bear to contemplate the toothless, deferential Irish respect for the priesthood that enabled thousands of children to be starved, raped, enslaved and beaten even as Ireland moved into its tiger economy in the new Europe.

But don’t look away. There are wider lessons. Ireland is at least looking squarely at it now, and trying to understand how history twisted its public values into obeisance to unanswerable clergy, so that cruelty and child rape became endemic. It was not only in orphanages and schools but in parishes where families dared not protest. For it was the courageous Colm O’Gorman who helped to prise this all open, when he spoke of his repeated rape, at 14, by Father Sean Fortune in his home village. He successfully sued the Church and challenged the Pope (whose nuncio hid behind “diplomatic immunity”).

The victim was accused by the Vatican of being part of a conspiracy; “Canon Law” defences were invoked and the first report — the Ferns report — ignored. “How can it be,” asks Mr O’Gorman, “that a church hierarchy who comment on a children’s film [Harry Potter] can fail to comment on a report, commissioned by this State, that found Rome culpable in the rape and abuse of Irish children?”

Now the wider, more terrifying Ryan report has met with almost equal evasion and the Church — which raked in millions from government subsidy over decades — has even managed to slough off most of its financial responsibility.

I am not exaggerating; rather the contrary. The Ryan report, merciless and forensic, finds the crimes “systemic, pervasive, chronic, excessive, arbitrary”. It speaks of the deliberate protection of priests and religious by their hierarchy; of inspectors and police backing off respectfully and senior clergy refusing to help the inquiry. It says that the order that housed the worst sadists, the Christian Brothers, made only a “guarded, conditional and unclear” apology, and cut a deal that no individuals should be named.

The children’s own testimonies are too harrowing to repeat: beaten, stripped, humiliated, hung from windows. Some got pregnant, some killed themselves. Sexual attack came not only from their keepers but visiting functionaries; one little boy who spoke of being assaulted by an ambulance driver was beaten by the nuns “to get the evil out of him”.

Enough. There is no defence, the evidence is overwhelming. It was a sickness of cruelty, exploitation, official cowardice and inward-looking hypocrisy traceable all the way to the Vatican. Catholicism has not been cleaned up, only lightly dusted. Some Irish dioceses have become properly robust, and Cardinal Se├ín Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, speaks of being “deeply ashamed”; but I do not notice him pointing his condemnation upwards or rejecting the culture of hierarchy and obedience, anonymity and deniability.

Our own new Archbishop, Vincent Nichols, expressed due horror, but then enraged survivors by praising the “courage” of clergy “who have to face these facts from their past”. Incredibly, in an interview on Five Live, he also observed: “it is a tough road to take, to face up to our own weaknesses. That is certainly true of anyone who’s deceived themselves that all they’ve been doing is taking a bit of comfort from children.”

Weakness? Comfort? God save us! It gives an insight into why the Church, quick to absolve, blithely moved known abusers on to fresh fields and fresh victims.

“They had their own laws that were written to ensure they were never in the wrong” says Mr O’Gorman, simply. And they covered their backs: when the former Archbishop of Dublin was told that he could be liable if abusers were returned to parishes, he did not prevent this happening. He just took out an insurance policy against financial losses from such claims.

It has been an Irish disaster, but has lessons for us all about the perils of respectful naivety. Archbishop Nichols, after his predecessor moved a paedophile priest to Gatwick, where he offended again, said that little was known about paedophilia then; well, he still knows little if he can talk about men “taking a bit of comfort from children”.

This is pure celibate silliness: we are not talking about cuddles here, but rape. I grew up with the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness of sins, I know the territory: but to forgive your own team and ignore their victims is not holy. It is corrupt.

When good people are smug and bad ones are slippery, great evils grow. When any institution slaps on a self-approving label — whether it is “Holy Catholic Apostolic” or like our MP’s, “Honourable” — and uses it to defy cynical inspection, the weak will suffer. What seems not to be fully understood by the hierarchy is how much damage this has done.

It gives me no pleasure to say so: I was raised a Catholic, and know what high ideals of gentleness it expresses, and how beautifully.

I learnt at 12 years old not to believe in the automatic holiness of the religious, in a South African convent where nuns hit us and spoke contemptuously of “kaffirs”. I then learnt not to condemn the lot, when I moved back to a kindly, intellectual English convent where they honestly tried to live the holy dream. I have always been able to believe the tales of evil without rejecting the whole shebang.

Many Catholic clergy do great good. The remarkable Colm O’Gorman, after decades of struggle, does not reject the ideal either: he says he wept for Father Fortune’s suicide and hopes that in afterlife he finds forgiveness.

Now that’s holiness for you, and without a smug label round its neck. And until the institutional Catholic Church recognises that, abases itself, pays up, allows whistleblowing and faces the unthinkable, it remains a disgrace. Until it learns humility, it has no hope at all. It is a Church living with one foot in Hell.


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