Friday, July 24, 2009

British schools are the problem, not its elite universities

Alan Milburn's new report into social mobility is not entirely surprising. Those of us who write about education know that social position, the background you come from and what your parents do, all make a huge difference to what you will become when you grow up. And in today's Times, Mr Milburn writes about social mobility and education.

But the new report covers more than our children's schools - and has over 80 recommedations. Certain professions should have a much wider intake, says Mr Milburn, and so should universities.

But here's John O’Leary, author of the Good University Guide, with his take on the report: he's not completely impressed....

"There are many good ideas in Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility, Unleashing Aspiration – not least a proposed network of careers mentors and the extension of financial support beyond full-time undergraduates. But few of them involve universities, which the report considers the key to greater mobility.

Like most of the debates in this area, this one confuses widening participation in higher education as a whole with fair access to the most prestigious universities. Both are important, but they are not the same thing. So by encouraging more students to stay at home and go to their local FE college, for example, you may send out the message that it does not matter where people take a degree.

In fact, as the report acknowledges, it does matter both in terms of the quality of course and subsequent career prospects. What prospective students need - especially those from families and schools with little knowledge of universities – is the best possible advice on their options. These may involve highly selective universities, but the most suitable course might well be elsewhere.

The report assumes that the most highly-qualified students should go to the universities at the top of the league tables, quoting the 13 regarded by the Sutton Trust as the cream of the crop. The fact that there are 13, rather than ten or 20, shows what an arbitrary dividing line this is. Are the tens of thousands who apply to Manchester (the most popular university in terms of applications) or Exeter (which is in the current top ten in The Times Good University Guide) deluded?

Mr Milburn’s panel wants yet more information to be published on the socio-economic background of entrants to university. But there are statistics galore on students’ class, school and home area. A few more will not change anything.

Not surprisingly, there is no flash of inspiration in the report that will transform access to the most selective universities. Many of the proposals, such as partnerships with poor schools and extra leeway for applicants from schools and colleges with low average results, are well established already. If anything, the £392m spent on widening participation over the past five years to limited effect, suggests that there are too many initiatives, rather than too few.

Mr Milburn – and the Government, which commissioned the report – are right to be concerned about access to the professions and, by extension, to the top universities. Indeed, David Willetts, who leads for the Conservatives on universities, raised many of the same concerns in a speech to the Politeia think tank yesterday. But, while the charge of social elitism can still be levelled at a few universities, the focus should be on state schools if real progress is to be made on social mobility."


Another grateful asylum seeker at work

A rapist who posed as a policeman to get into his 89-year-old victim's home was snared because she copied a scene from CSI and scratched his face for DNA. Bouncer Mauro Lopes, 31, who weighs 20 stone, raped the frail seven-stone widow twice after tricking his way into her home in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

In the midst of her horrific ordeal she had the presence of mind to remember an episode of the cult U.S. forensics drama - and clawed his face knowing police would be able to retrieve his DNA from under her fingernails. It allowed detectives to catch Lopes just two days after the attack on March 14 because he was already on the national database after a drink-driving offence in 2005.

Lopes, who won asylum after coming to the UK from Angola on a false passport seven years ago, was jailed for nine years at Leeds Crown Court yesterday. Prosecuting, Felicity Davis said the attack - after Lopes put a large pillow over the woman's face - was so violent that she had to be taken to hospital with heavy bleeding.

But the widow of 20 years managed to tell police: 'I have been watching CSI so I scratched his face so you could get DNA from my fingernails.' Unable now to live alone, she is in a care home but still has trouble sleeping. She cannot be identified for legal reasons.

Anne Dixon, defending, told the court that Lopes was remorseful and, in his own words, 'had fallen out of his personality with drink'. He carried out the attack following a visit to a lapdancing club after discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him.

Judge Peter Collier QC said his offences were 'vile and extreme' and added: 'He is a 31-year-old man with all his faculties and his desires. He got drunk and did something unspeakable.' Lopes had previously pleaded guilty to two counts of rape and one count of sexual assault. It is thought he will be deported at the end of his sentence.


Failed asylum seekers will get free British health care

They should not even be still in Britain

NHS treatment will be available for tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers to ensure their human rights are honoured, it was announced yesterday. At present, they are denied free treatment if an asylum bid has been turned down but they have not left the country. But a Government U-turn means failed applicants who are destitute or cannot return home 'through no fault of their own', will be entitled to free care.

The decision increases the numbers potentially able to use the NHS by tens of thousands. But the campaign group MigrationWatch believes it could open the floodgates to 'up to a million' illegal immigrants. Last night doctors undermined the strategy by saying it was not their job to act as immigration officers - raising the possibility that GPs would refuse to ask failed asylum seekers tough questions about their status.

There are understood to be around 450,000 failed asylum seekers who have not left the country, although only 10 or 20,000 are directly affected by the new rules.

Yesterday Health Minister Ann Keen presented the measures which include the new clause as an attempt to end health tourism, where residents from poorer countries travel to Britain for treatment, as well as maintaining the Government's commitment to human rights. In a written statement to the Commons, she said: 'Persons seeking refuge or asylum are already exempted from charges for the duration of their application, including the full appeal process. 'The Government has not been persuaded that this full exemption should be extended to all whose application has failed but have not yet left the country.

'It has however recognised the case for those whose claim has been refused but who are being supported by the UK Border Agency because they would otherwise-be destitute, have children-and/or because it is impossible-to return home through no fault of their own. 'It is therefore proposed that an exemption from charges is extended to this group.'

Health tourism is understood to cost the NHS more than £200million a year. Most countries have social insurance systems where patients are expected to prove they can pay before being treated. But our NHS is free at the point of need.

Mrs Keen said ministers wanted to see rules which would mean foreigners with significant debts to the NHS being banned from entering Britain. She is also 'investigating the longer-term feasibility' of introducing a requirement that everyone entering the country would have to have health insurance.

Mrs Keen said: 'These changes will support a clearer and fairer system of access to free NHS services that will maintain the confidence of the public and prevent inappropriate access, while maintaining our commitment to human rights.'

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch, said the rules gave the green light for up to one million illegal immigrants to get free NHS care. This is possible because GPs can put patients on their books without checking if they are entitled to free care. Sir Andrew said: 'This is yet another capitulation to the immigration lobby. No wonder they are queueing up in Calais.'

The British Medical Association said all failed asylum seekers should be treated free - and that it was not their job to decide who is eligible for free care and who is not. Head of ethics Dr Vivienne Nathanson said: 'There are many who have had an asylum claim refused, cannot return home and need urgent treatment. This announcement, while positive, applies to only one group and does not go far enough.'


Infantile defacing of the Bible is sad for the defacers not for the Bible

It shows how poorly they have been taught the wonderful stories and great truths of the Bible. Unlike the Koran the Bible does not require enforced respect. It is is just there for those who are blessed to drink of its wisdom and feel the liberating power of its messaage

A publicly funded exhibition is encouraging people to deface the Bible in the name of art — and visitors have responded with abuse and obscenity. The show includes a video of a woman ripping pages from the Bible and stuffing them into her bra, knickers and mouth. The open Bible is a central part of Made in God’s Image, an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (Goma) in Glasgow. By the book is a container of pens and a notice saying: “If you feel you have been excluded from the Bible, please write your way back into it.”

The exhibit, Untitled 2009, was proposed by the Metropolitan Community Church, which said that the idea was to reclaim the Bible as a sacred text. But to the horror of many Christians, including the community church, visitors have daubed its pages with comments such as “This is all sexist pish, so disregard it all.” A contributor wrote on the first page of Genesis: “I am Bi, Female & Proud. I want no god who is disappointed in this.”

The Church of Scotland expressed concern, the Roman Catholic Church called the exhibit infantile, and a Christian lawyers’ group said that the exhibition was symptomatic of a broken and lawless society.

The exhibition has been created by the artists Anthony Schrag and David Malone, in association with organisations representing gay Christians and Muslims. Mr Schrag, the gallery’s artist in residence, said that he did not believe in God, but that his research for the £7,000 show had underlined his respect for people of faith.

The community church, which celebrates “racial, cultural, linguistic, sexual, gender and theological diversity”, had suggested the “interactive” Bible and pens and Mr Schrag, 34, said he had been intrigued. “Any offensive things that have been written are not the point of the work,” he said. “It was an open gesture. Are those who say they are upset offended by the things that people write, or just by the very notion that someone should write on a Bible?”

The artist, a Canadian who took a master’s degree at Glasgow School of Art, said that human rights were at the centre of the show. “If we are to open up the Bible for discussion, surely we have to invite people to speak out,” he said. “Art allows us to discuss difficult things, and Goma allows difficult discussions to take place — that is why Glasgow is at the cutting edge of contemporary art.”

Jane Clarke, a minister of the community church, said she regretted the insults that had appeared. “The Bible should never be used like that. It was our intention to reclaim it as a sacred text,” she said. While the exhibition’s supporters insist that the exhibit promotes “inclusivity” and should break down barriers between orthodox religion and gay and transgendered people, most contributors have paid scant regard to matters of sexuality.

One writer has altered the first line of the Old Testament from “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth” to “In the beginning, God (me) I created religion.” Another has written “The Gospel According to Luke Skywalker”. The main sentiment, however, is rage at Christianity. “F*** the Bible”, one message says.

Last night the producers of the exhibition indicated that the most offensive pages would be removed, but Christians expressed outrage and disbelief that the show had been staged at all. “This is symbolic of the state of our broken and lawless society,” said Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre. “We have got to a point where we call the desecration of the Bible modern art. The Bible stands for everything this art does not: for creation, beauty, hope and regeneration.”

The Church of Scotland said it condemned any sacrilegious act. “We would discourage anyone from defacing the Bible,” a Kirk spokesman said. A spokesman for the Catholic Church said: “One wonders whether the organisers would have been quite as willing to have the Koran defaced.”

A video by Roxanne Claxton forms a second element in the exhibition. It shows a young woman ripping pages out of the Bible and stuffing them in her knickers and bra, and in her mouth. The film showed “the word as power”, Mr Schrag said. “Roxanne gave a performance where she ate a Bible and it became part of her.”

Made in God’s Image is part of a series of exhibitions focusing on human rights organised by Culture and Sport Glasgow, part of the city council. The division’s chief executive is Dr Bridget McConnell, wife of the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell.


£100m blood filter treatment that stops CJD is ‘too expensive for NHS patients’

Just firing a few of their army of clerks and administrators would enable them to afford it easily

A medical breakthrough that prevents the spread of the human form of mad cow disease via blood transfusions may be denied to NHS patients because it costs too much. More than 60 adults having surgery have received blood free of the risk of variant CJD in trials overseen by the National Blood and Transplant Authority. The advance centres on a filter that can remove the rogue vCJD protein, called a prion, from blood in just 30 minutes - eliminating the patient’s risk of catching the brain disease.

The filter could restore faith in British blood supplies which are proven to be tainted with vCJD after several deaths related to transfusions. But documents reveal it has been branded ‘not cost-effective’ and experts warn it will double the price of producing red blood cells, leaving a bill for an extra £100million.

Donors who do not realise they are carrying the disease, which can have an incubation period of up to 50 years before showing symptoms, risk passing on vCJD when they give blood. It is feared as many as one in 4,000 could be carriers. There is no reliable way of testing stored blood to see if it is infected.

The filter simply clips on to the blood collection bag and red cells are slowly dripped through it into an empty bag underneath. Any prions are captured in a mesh containing resins that are designed to ‘attract’ amino acids found on the surface of vCJD proteins. Animal studies have proved it prevents transmission of the deadly disease through blood transfusions.

But minutes of the advisory committee on the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) record: ‘Implementation of prion filtration is not cost-effective under the majority of scenarios modelled for risk.’

One proposal is for filtered blood to be initially given only to under 16s, on grounds of cost, as they are least likely to have been exposed to ‘mad cow’ disease through eating BSE-infected meat.

Estimates from the National Blood and Transplant Authority say the cost to the NHS of producing one unit of blood - about a pint - would double, from £50 to around £100 using the filter, meaning it could cost about £100million to introduce.

However, while declining to give exact figures, manufacturer MacoPharma says its P-Capt filter - which is classed as a medical device and was awarded the European CE quality mark in 2006 - would probably cost the health service half this amount.

Judy Kenny, wife of Deryck Kenny, 69, who died in 2003 after contracting vCJD through a blood transfusion, said: ‘As a nurse, I know there has to be good evidence it is safe and it works. ‘As the wife of someone who died after contracting vCJD through blood, I think cost should not be a reason to stop it being introduced.’

A spokesman for the Health Department said: ‘Cost benefit analysis is carried out on all new measures to assist SaBTO in its decision and is one of several factors it will consider. ‘This does not mean prion filtration will be turned down purely on the basis of cost.’



Planning delays caused by a transition to a new government after next year's election threaten to hold up investment needed to secure Britain's energy supplies and cut carbon dioxide emissions, industry leaders have warned. Ernst & Young, the professional services group, says in a report on Tuesday that the years to 2015 will be "critical" in determining whether Britain meets targets to develop renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Over the next seven years the industry will have to invest £90bn ($149bn) in new wind farms, power stations, electricity networks and energy efficiency measures to have a chance of achieving the government's objectives, E&Y believes.

But concerns are growing in the energy industry that Tory plans to sweep away the new planning system being introduced by Labour will create uncertainty and delay investment plans until well after the next election, expected to be held in May next year.

Tony Ward, a partner in E&Y's power team, said: "If a transition to a new government doesn't happen seamlessly, then the risk is we won't be on the critical path for some investments. If a new nuclear power station, for example, is to be operating in 2018, there are critical decision points only 12 to 18 months away."

Industry concerns centre on the new Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will take decisions on large projects including energy investments, and the National Policy Statements, due in the autumn, which are intended to shape planning decisions.

The Conservatives plan to subsume the IPC into the Planning Inspectorate and pass its role for decisions on strategic projects to a minister, probably the energy secretary in the case of power stations, wind farms and grid connections. The energy industry fears another period of uncertainty while the new system beds down. The Tories plan to retain the NPSs, but the statements are subject to consultation and parliamentary scrutiny and the industry is keen to avoid further delay.

Sarwjit Sambhi, director of power generation at Centrica, which commissioned the E&Y study, said: "We don't have a problem with [the Tory plan] per se; we just hope that it happens expediently and smoothly."



Britain's largest low-cost airline is to cut almost a third of its flights from Stansted this winter, blaming "unfair" passenger taxes for making the routes uneconomical. Ryanair, which currently runs 40 aircraft from Stansted, its main London hub, will run just 24 planes from October, leading to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of weekly flights. It is the latest airline to cut its schedules, increasing the pressure from the aviation and tourist industries on the Chancellor to review the controversial air passenger duty (APD).

Belgium, Holland, Greece and Spain have all reduced or scrapped similar taxes to boost tourism during the recession. Yesterday Ryanair's arch-rival easyJet joined in the attack, branding the tax "certifiably bonkers".

The British Air Transport Association (Bata) has already approached the Government over the issue as many of its members have warned the measure could have a disastrous impact on an industry already suffering heavily from the effects of the recession. An industry analyst, Rigas Doganis, said that the decline of the aviation industry had been "absolutely frightening".

However, industry sources believe that while a £1 rise in the tax in November appears to be a "fait accompli", they are concentrating their efforts on stopping a doubling of the tax, due to come in next year. APD first came into effect in 1994 but was overhauled in the pre-Budget report last November. The tax is in four bands, dependent on how far the passenger flies. In Europe, there is currently a flat £10 fee for passengers on shorthaul economy flights, rising to £40 to fly further. This will rise to £22 and £90 from November next year. The Government introduced it as a green tax, which easyJet rejected yesterday. "As an environmental tax it is stupidity itself as it is a flat rate. A passenger flying on the most environmentally friendly plane will pay the same as one on a dirty old banger."

Virgin Atlantic also came out against the tax, and has started printing anti-APD messages on its e-tickets. Sir Richard Branson called it "one of the most unjust taxes out there" on a website launched railing against APD. He said there was "not a shred of evidence to suggest the £2bn-plus currently raised is going towards environmental or sustainable projects".


Drinking milk 'cuts risk of dying from heart disease and stroke by one fifth'

This appears to be a review of epidemiological studies with all their attendant limitations. Maybe middle class kids are given more milk so all we are seeing is a class effect, for instance

Drinking milk could cut your chances of dying from heart disease and stroke, say scientists. Contrary to reports that milk harms health, they claim consumption could reduce the risk of succumbing to chronic illness by as much as a fifth.

Scientists at Reading and Cardiff universities reviewed 324 studies on the effects of milk consumption. They found milk protects against developing most diseases, apart from prostate cancer, and can cut deaths from illnesses by 15 to 20 per cent.

Reading University's Professor Ian Givens said milk had more to offer than just building strong bones and helping growth. 'Our review made it possible to assess whether increased milk consumption provides a survival advantage or not,' he said. 'We believe it does. 'When the numbers of deaths from coronary heart disease, stroke and colo-rectal cancer were taken into account, there is strong evidence of an overall reduction in the risk of dying. 'We found no evidence milk might increase the risk of developing conditions, with the exception of prostate cancer. '

The reviewers say that encouraging greater milk consumption might eventually reduce NHS treatment costs because of lower levels of chronic disease. 'There is an urgent need to understand the mechanisms involved and for focused studies to confirm the epidemiological evidence since this topic has major implications for the agri-food industry' said Professor Givens.


British schoolboy is first convicted of racist abuse of classmate

Bullying is very common at school and blacks are often abusive and intimidating to whites (read the second post down here if you doubt it) but I have yet to hear of a black kid going ro jail over it
"A schoolboy is facing the threat of a year in a young offenders' institute after he became the first to be convicted of racially harrassing a fellow pupil.

The 15-year-old boy, who cannot be named, caused a 14-year-old classmate to attempt suicide by repeatedly calling her "wog, coon, nigger, gorilla and golliwog" for six months. Lincoln magistrates, who convicted the boy of racially aggravated harassment, heard that the girl took a mixture of pills and wrote a goodbye note to her family. The behaviour of the boy, who had no previous convictions, was condemned as "merciless" last night by anti-racism campaigners.

However, his conviction - the first for the crime over an incident in a school - prompted questions over whether such bullying should be dealt with through criminal law. David Green, the director of Civitas, the right-leaning think-tank, said that while the boy's behaviour should be condemned, "the law does not belong in the schoolyard in these cases".

"We are not talking stabbings or serious assault here," Dr Green said. "This should be a matter for the school and the children's parents." Josie Appleton, the director of the anti-regulation think-tank the Manifesto Club, which will publish a paper on schools' obligations over racist incidents this autumn, added: "This should be dealt with in the school.

"Criminalising it undermines the authority of schools. Teachers have to be able to set a moral example."

The boy, who denied the charge, was convicted after a six-hour trial. He will be sentenced on August 13. He faces a maximum two-year detention and training order, including 12 months in a young offenders' institute.

However, Sunil Khanna, the boy's solicitor, said: "I'm not sure a criminal prosecution was the right way forward. "I know this goes beyond normal bullying, but mistakes that might have been down to youthful ignorance will now stick with him years."

The boy's grandfather said: “It's difficult to know what to believe, they can make more out of court cases sometimes than there is. He has always protested his innocence and we are not a racist family.”


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