Monday, May 11, 2009

Scotland: Homosexual rights campaigner who led double life as boss of paedophile ring among 8 guilty of catalogue of child abuse

Eight members of a paedophile ring were found guilty today of a catalogue of child pornography and abuse charges, including the sexual assault of a three-month old baby. The ringleaders - convicted sex offender Neil Strachan and gay rights campaigner James Rennie - were convicted of sex attacks on children. Strachan, 41, and Rennie, 38, both from Edinburgh, were also found guilty of conspiring to abuse youngsters, as were three other members of the gang.

All eight accused in the 10-week trial at the High Court in Edinburgh were convicted of a series of child porn offences. The gang members were traced through their explicit internet chats about sexual fantasies involving children. From various locations across Scotland, they plotted, whether by using web cameras or other means such as by phone, to participate in sexual offences, including rape and sodomy.

The jury - down to 14 men and women after one member was discharged during the trial - took 10 hours over two days to reach its verdicts. The court fell silent as the succession of verdicts to more than 50 charges were given. Nearly 125,000 indecent images were seized during Operation Algebra, which uncovered the group, believed to be Scotland's biggest paedophile network.

Ross Webber, 27, of North Berwick, Craig Boath, 24, from Dundee and John Milligan, 40, from Glasgow, were all found guilty of conspiring to participate in the sexual abuse of children along with Strachan and Rennie. The five men, with Colin Slaven, 23, from Edinburgh and Neil Campbell, 46 and John Murphy, 44, from Glasgow, were also convicted of a catalogue of child porn offences.

But the undisputed ringleaders of the ring were Strachan and Rennie, who on the surface held down good jobs and were trusted members of the community. But the pair had a shared interest in young boys and had collected some of the worst child abuse images ever seen by police experts. They were also responsible for the abuse of very young children - one as young as three months old.

Rennie was the successful chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland, an organisation dedicated to helping young gay people. A former secondary school teacher, he regularly spoke out in public on gay issues, particularly how they affected young people. But the High Court in Edinburgh heard he was 'polluted by deviant compulsion'. Crown QC Dorothy Bain said: 'In reality he is someone who allowed his profound interest in the sexual abuse of children to engulf his entire life.'

The extent of his obsession with under-age sex unfolded as the 10-week trial progressed. He was charged and ultimately convicted of molesting a child over a number of years, starting at the age of three months. And in an online conversation with another accused, he even expressed a wish to see children with Down's Syndrome or a learning disability sexually abused.

Operation Algebra officers found that Rennie had links with paedophiles in the US and the Netherlands. He was traced and arrested by police at the end of 2007. He was suspended from his high-profile post and by February 2008 had resigned.

Strachan also hid a dark past, in which he was jailed for three years for molesting a young boy. He was the man who sparked Operation Algebra when indecent images were found on computer equipment used by him in his work. Tests revealed 'sinister' emails between him and Rennie. They had encountered each other online in 2004 when Strachan congratulated Rennie on the content of his web page on a site known to have been misused by paedophiles.

When the case came to trial, what the jury did not know was that Strachan had offended before. He was jailed for three years in 1997 for repeatedly molesting a young boy while he was an official at a youth football club. He started abusing the child when he was five years old and the abuse went on for two years. Strachan quit his post as secretary of Celtic East Boys Club in Edinburgh after he was caught.

When he was jailed, it emerged that he had also been convicted of a similar sex offence 12 years previously. Among the charges faced by Strachan in the current trial was an allegation that he committed a serious sexual offence against a toddler at New Year from 2005 into 2006.

But Strachan, despite being one of the worst offenders in the group, was the only one of the eight men on trial who denied every charge against him. Prosecutors were forced to piece together the case against him bit by bit. Crucial to their case was a photograph partially showing a man sexually assaulting a young child. The Crown called on a world-renowned expert in human anatomy to examine the picture, known in court as The Hogmanay Image.

Pinpointing the abuser's physical traits, including a distinctive thumbnail, Professor Susan Black said there was 'strong evidence' that Strachan and the man in the picture were the same person.


Once more, reality intrudes on a Greenie dream

It was meant to be a carbon-neutral adventure to fire the imaginations of 25,000 schoolchildren.

Raoul Surcouf, 40, a landscape gardener from Jersey, and Richard Spink, 32, a physiotherapist from Bristol, shunned the polluting aircraft normally used to reach Greenland's polar ice cap and set sail in Fleur, a 40ft yacht fitted with solar panels and a wind turbine. Schools were poised to follow their green expedition online; once the duo had skied across the Arctic wastes they had hoped to boast of the first carbon-neutral crossing of Greenland.

On Friday, nature, displaying a heavy irony, intervened. After a battering by hurricane force winds, the crew of the Carbon Neutral Expeditions craft had to be rescued 400 miles off Ireland.

As if their ordeal wasn't terrifying enough, their saviour seemed chosen to rub salt in their wounds: a 113,000-ton tanker, Overseas Yellowstone, carrying 680,000 barrels of crude. In a statement from the tanker, Spink said: "We experienced some of the harshest conditions known, with winds gusting hurricane force 12 ... The decision was made that the risk to our personal safety was too great to continue."

In truth, the crew could not afford to be choosy. They were in a life-threatening predicament, and heaped thanks on Captain Ferro, the tanker's skipper, and his crew for being "outstanding in the execution of the rescue". But the rather awkward twist was not lost on Spink, who ruefully noted afterwards that "the team are now safely and ironically aboard the oil tanker" as they headed to Maine, where they are due to arrive in three days.


'Give unruly kids a right royal rollicking' (whatever that is) says British nut

School behaviour tsar spells out his solution to Britain's unruly classrooms: don't suspend pupils, just send them to the head. Talk without the cane to back it up is unlikely to achieve anything, though

A good old-fashioned bawling out in the head's office can be a better way of dealing with badly behaved pupils than suspending them, the Government's behaviour "tsar" says today. Sir Alan Steer, a former headteacher, warns that schools that frequently suspend pupils for two or three weeks at a time should review their policies because they are failing to tackle poor behaviour.

"Sending them to the head and giving them a right royal rollicking could be better than giving them a fixed-term exclusion," he said in an interview with The Independent. "Some schools seem to have very high levels of fixed-term exclusions," he said ."I don't see that as showing you're tough on discipline. It could be absolutely the opposite. It is not being very effective and you might need to rethink your strategy if a pupil is excluded again and again. They just get used to being out of school."

Sir Alan, a former head of Seven Kings school in Ilford, Essex, who is coming to the end of his four-year tenure, was speaking for the first time since his "swansong" report on discipline last month. His comments also come on the day a new report shows that bright pupils in disadvantaged schools are missing out on GCSE grades because of the anti-learning culture of other children in the school.

The report, by the education charity the Sutton Trust, revealed talented pupils in the most disadvantaged schools underperform compared to pupils from the suburbs by half a grade per GCSE.

Sir Alan also discussed his plan to enshrine in law the teacher's right to impose discipline – making measures such as detention and confiscating mobile phones legal. He considers the new powers necessary because too many parents challenge school discipline rather than support it. As a result, some schools are reluctant to use traditional methods of discipline.

Sir Alan also warned that schools are flouting a new law under which children expelled or suspended are entitled to a full-time education after six days out of the classroom. By not sticking to the rules, excluded pupils are left to roam the streets and are falling prey to gang influences. "They're not likely to go to libraries," he added.

Figures show that, while the overall number of permanent exclusions has fallen to around 8,680 a year, the number of suspensions has risen. In particular, according to figures released by the Conservatives, the number of children excluded more than 10 times in a year has tripled in four years.

Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary, says that headteachers should have more freedom to exclude pupils permanently by abandoning the right to appeal against exclusion, but Sir Alan said he believed Mr Gove's case to be "misleading". "It is said that 25 per cent of pupils successfully appeal," he said. "Well, there are 8,680 permanent exclusions – 970 of which went to appeal. Of these 250 were successful but only 100 of them ended with the pupil being reinstated. You can see where they got the 25 per cent figure from, just about, but the number reinstated was about 1.2 per cent of the total."

Sir Alan also wants new powers allowing teachers to search pupils for weapons, drugs and alcohol to be reviewed in three years' time to see whether they are effective. He said: "If you're faced with a 6ft 6in teenager you suspect of having a machete, I would be the first to say it's a case for bringing in the boys in blue rather than searching for it yourself."

Sir Alan, who caused controversy when he launched his latest report at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' conference with a declaration that "there is no behaviour crisis in schools", stuck to his guns. "I really strongly believe we don't have a crisis in our schools," he said. "We have problems and we have to tackle them but there have always been problems. Most kids are great. Why don't we think more of the 150,000 kids who are sole carers for their family – or the tens of thousands who spend hours and hours volunteering in the community? We have a tendency to be constantly negative about children."


Students at top British university revolt over teaching standards

A PRESTIGIOUS university has been hit by Britain’s first tuition fee rebellion from hundreds of students angry at reduced teaching hours and attempts to have essays marked by undergraduates instead of lecturers. Some 600 students reading economics and finance at Bristol have signed a complaint arguing that the university has failed to improve its teaching since tuition fees were raised to more than £3,000 in 2006. Instead, they claim standards have deteriorated. In a seven-page complaint to the university they write: “Since 2006 the university has charged more and delivered less. We demand results today.”

The rebellion may be copied by students at other universities as the number studying for degrees increases while funding to teach them is squeezed. It will make it harder for universities to justify a further increase in fees in a review this summer by John Denham, the universities secretary.

Eric Thomas, Bristol’s vice-chancellor, has argued that the £3,145 limit on tuition fees is too low, although he acknowledges the recession has ruled out an early increase.

The protests at Bristol have been led by Robert Denham, a former grammar school pupil from Croydon, south London, and Roderick McKinley, who attended the independent Westminster school. “Bristol gives a good education, but it is not good enough,” said Denham (who is not related to John Denham). “There had been a lot of general moaning but the spark was a decision to cut the length of exams from three hours to two.”

One academic at Bristol, who declined to be named, said: “It has created a sensation at the university. This is the most important student rebellion in this country in a generation. They should be proud.”

The complaint by Denham, McKinley and fellow students analyses the university’s finances and points out how it has benefited from increased income. “Revenue per student from tuition fees has increased and we simply ask that the quality of our education be improved accordingly,” it says, before listing grievances, all of which it claims have been sparked by the university's cost-cutting:

- Some student essays are already being marked by fellow undergraduates, instead of academics, in a trial that could see strugglers giving marks to high-flyers.

- The prospectus suggested lectures would be given to groups of about 100 students. In reality, they contain up to 380, although 150-200 is more typical.

- Tutorials for small groups have been withdrawn for many students. Some of the rest contain up to 30 undergraduates. “The [department] should be providing more contact with academics, not less,” the complaint states.

- Money from tuition fees is being diverted to other parts of the university rather than improving education for undergraduates.

David Willetts, the Tories’ shadow universities secretary, who has helped broker negotiations at Bristol, said: “The students have done a very impressive and thorough analysis of the education they are entitled to expect for paying their fees. This will be a powerful trend that universities ignore at their peril.” He added: “The only way universities could ever win an argument for higher fees is to show this would benefit the students and parents paying the fees. They have to wise up.”

The dispute at Bristol - which the complaint acknowledges still offers a “top-class education” - shows even the most prestigious universities are under severe pressure from Labour’s mass expansion of higher education. Universities say that they may have to make thousands of redundancies to achieve £180m efficiency savings by 2011. Academics are being balloted by the University and College Union on action in support of a 6% pay claim.

The previous hike in fees sparked one of the most serious backbench rebellions of Tony Blair’s premiership.

Bristol, which celebrates its centenary this year, is still negotiating with students over their complaints. A spokesman said several of the changes described by the undergraduates as a decline in quality had been carried out only after consulting them - for example, changes to class size and to exam time. He said that students were not receiving less teaching time than those studying economics and finance at rival universities.

Bristol has described as “not true” the idea that increased tuition fees were intended to lead directly to improved teaching. Instead, it says they are aimed at strengthening the finances of universities.

Bristol University came 16th in the latest Sunday Times University Guide rankings, and would have been higher but for poor student scores. It was ranked sixth by head teachers and ninth by academics, but data from the National Student Survey showed undergraduates were less positive, putting it 109th, with just 11 institutions below it.


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