Saturday, July 25, 2009

Education is increasingly a road to nowhere in socialist Britain

"Any luck?" I ask my daughter, as she returns from her latest foray into town. Her glum face gives the answer. She is leaving school today and, in October, will be going to university – Oxford, if she gets the grades she needs. In a perfect world, she would get a summer job, earn some money, then go travelling for a few weeks. But not much about the world is perfect these days. That low-paid summer job is proving far more elusive than a place at university.

In the recession-hit Cotswolds, where she lives, the temporary jobs in shops and pubs and caf├ęs are just not there, or have already been taken, probably by someone from Warsaw or Tallinn. She touts around her neatly typed CV, littered with As and A*s, but nobody wants to know. "Sorry, luv. Perhaps at Christmas..."

Friends with children in a similar position have the same story to tell. The son of a friend in Wimbledon is typical. After weeks of rejection, he thought he had finally got lucky when he spotted a vacancy in a Vietnamese restaurant. "I'm sorry, we only recruit Vietnamese." "But I thought that was illegal," he stammered, drawing on his A-level politics and economics. "It's how we do things here," came the reply.

Even at the All England Club, where skilled labour is needed to pour Pimm's into a glass without spilling it, 20 per cent fewer catering staff were recruited this year. Not even the Andy Murray magic can generate jobs in the depths of a recession. If the Scot couldn't play tennis, he would probably be out of work himself.

Youth unemployment is at its highest for 16 years, rising to 726,000 in the three months to the end of May, a quarterly increase of 95,000, according to figures released yesterday. Earlier this month it was reported that, among 16 to 24 year-olds, the Murray generation, the number of Neets in the UK is about to pass a million for the first time. Neets – and it is a term we are going to hear a lot more – is government jargon for young people "not in education, employment or training". The forgotten underclass.

A MILLION? It is a terrifying statistic, when you think about it. That is an awful lot of wasted, stunted, frustration-filled lives. It is hard not to link it to another statistic unveiled this week – that the UK has the worst record of violent crime of any country in the EU. Perhaps David Cameron's talk of a broken society is not so exaggerated after all.

If the plight of children leaving school at 16 without a GCSE to their name is grim, the plight of those like my daughter, armed to the teeth with GCSEs but unable to find the most menial work, is equally depressing – if not more so.

All through their childhoods, they have been sold the same dream – by their parents, by their teachers, by the government. That, if they buckle down at school and take their studies seriously, it will be worth their while in the long run. That their hard work will be rewarded with a place at university and a well-paid job.

The dream may not be in tatters, but it has frayed so badly around the edges that it is not surprising so many young people have become cynical and disaffected. Life is not always fair: we imbibe that lesson in our mother's milk. But if reasonable expectations are consistently and savagely disappointed, why bother to try to better yourself at school and university?

Education, education, education, said Tony Blair. Perhaps he should have said unemployment, unemployment, unemployment. Data from the Higher Education Standards Authority released this week indicates that, of those who graduated last summer, eight per cent were still out of work six months later.

The ones with vocational degrees such as medicine are all right. The poor lambs who thought reading history or philosophy or computer sciences would boost their career prospects have had a rude awakening. They are just itching to get their feet under a desk, any desk, so they can pay off those five-figure student loans, but they are having to wait. And wait. And wait.

Young people have time on their side, of course, and with the recession affecting all sections of society, unemployed graduates are no more deserving of sympathy than carmakers or engineers who have been made redundant in their early 50s. But the souring of young dreams, particularly when those dreams are rooted in legitimate aspirations and backed up by hard work, is particularly corrosive. It jeopardises all our futures. Without the optimism of youth, what hope is there of building a stronger economy or a fairer society?

There is not going to be much youthful optimism on view this summer; in fact, school-leavers will be caught between a rock and a hard place. Jobs are in such short supply that they are applying for university in record numbers; but with only a small increase in the number of places available, an estimated 60,000 teenagers will be turned away from university in September and, in most cases, have to join the dole queue.

Even the lucky ones who get university places are caught in an economic vice of frightening rigidity. Student grants and loans are going to be frozen next year, while tuition fees rise. To make ends meet, the students are going to have to grub around for part-time jobs, which will be in short supply or, in Vietnamese restaurants, zero per cent supply, to paraphrase the Prime Minister.

As summer turns to autumn, the students who have managed to avoid swine flu will find themselves riddled with financial insecurity and self-doubt. What are they doing at university in the first place? Where is it all leading? Will that degree be worth anything in the outside world?

Then, next spring in all likelihood, the final indignity. The first general election at which they can vote. Their first chance to have a say at the ballot box about the sort of Britain they want to live in. But why bother to vote? The sins of New Labour are just part of an age-old malaise: politicians promising a better education for all, then dashing the hopes they have so recklessly raised.

If the young took to the streets, as they have in Iran, their anger might be a harbinger of better times ahead. As it is, they seem, in all too many cases, to have succumbed to disillusion and apathy.

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking along the canal in Oxford when I saw a couple of young men perched on top of a bridge, moodily throwing stones into the water. Their faces were pale and sullen and they scowled at me as I approached. There was a trail of lager cans and cigarette ends beside them.

Town or gown? Town, I would have said, without hesitation, 12 months ago. They had the anger of the long-term unemployed about them. They were not throwing stones into the water for fun: they were throwing them to let off steam. Then I overheard one of them talking about Euripides. So not town, gown. Students at a world-famous university. The top of the educational tree.

And if life at the top of the tree is that bad, what chance for those clinging to the lower branches?


British swine flu farce

No wonder Britain has the worst incidence of it

I was the first in my house to go down with the H1N1 virus. It was only a matter of time before someone else in the family followed. Seven days after my initial symptoms, my husband woke up with the telltale sore throat, headache and general all-over ennui that signal the start of this virus. By yesterday he was no better, his throat inflamed and his temperature hovering around the 38C mark.

I called the new swine flu helpline. A well-spoken, pre-recorded gentleman gave me a clear explanation of the clinical nature of swine flu. In a passage that reminded me faintly of Mitchell and Webb’s “Remain Indoors” sketch, I was told to stay at home if I or someone I knew was experiencing any of the symptoms, and to visit the website or call this number: 0800 1513100.

Not wishing to drag my husband into the shed that doubles as my office, I decided to try the telephone option. Much to my surprise, I got through quickly and easily to a rather nervous-sounding woman from Scotland. Anxiously, she checked that I was calling from England (this service doesn’t work for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland).

Was the person I was calling on behalf of a child? No. Were they with me? Yes. Were they also in England. Er, yes. Asleep or awake? Awake. Could they talk without loss of breath? Yes. She checked again: it’s not a child? No. Are they making grunting noises? What, like the baby in Alice in Wonderland? No, not yet at any rate. Could the patient touch his chin to his chest. Yes.

There was a long silence while this information, clearly the bit of the questionnaire that is designed to weed out meningitis and other serious infections — the work that an actual doctor would normally do — was being processed. She then asked for his date of birth and name, and we proceeded to the meat of the survey — sorry, assessment.

It was at this point that the process became a shade farcical. As the questions progressed, it became clear that not only did the operator have no formal medical training, she wasn’t even familiar with basic health terminology. For example, she struggled to read out the word “Relenza”; When asking if the patient had any other metabolic conditions, the word “metabolic” seemed to baffle her, as did the names of various drugs; and the term “cystic fibrosis” eluded her completely. I really wasn’t expecting any detailed clinical knowledge, but surely basic literacy should be a requirement.

Nevertheless, the computer seemed satisfied, and so I was told that my husband was authorised for a course of antivirals. I was given a number, which the woman stressed I could be told only once (in the manner of that other great British farce, ’Allo ’Allo) and that if I lost, would not be reissued. I was to take this number, along with my ID, to my antiviral collection point.

Meanwhile, in a darkened room somewhere, a friend of mine with early symptoms was on her laptop. By her own admission more likely to be suffering from hypochondria than real flu, she had nevertheless decided she wanted to be on the safe side and secure some Tamiflu just in case. Even with a rudimentary knowledge of all things swine, she managed to tick all the right boxes and rang me, delighted, to say that for her, too, the computer had said yes.

Quite why the Government has taken swine flu away from the medically qualified and franchised it out to some of David Brent’s less sparky colleagues is a mystery. People whose day jobs normally consist of conducting market research surveys should not be in charge of speaking to potentially sick people. That is at the very least the job of nurses. Anything less is a dereliction of duty.

The principal dangers from this virus seems to be with secondary infections: complications arising from the illness. When the person assessing your symptoms can’t even read the questions, it hardly offers much grounds for reassurance. All that will happen is that the genuinely ill will get overlooked, and the wily will get their Tamiflu.

Next stop, eBay.


Another report:

'Are you unconscious?': What happened when the Mail phoned the new swine flu hotline

The National Pandemic Flu Service hotline was caught up in controversy almost as soon as it was launched yesterday. Callers were asked to describe their symptoms by call centre workers with no medical training.

Concerns were raised by doctors and campaign groups as patients were asked a series of bizarre questions including whether they were 'unconscious' or 'unresponsive'.

Launched at 3pm, the helpline and website were intended to dispense antivirals quickly to those at risk and take the pressure off GPs. But thousands of sufferers were given conflicting information by the 2,000 call centre workers with just three hours of experience.

Calls made by the Daily Mail revealed inconsistencies in the advice given.....

More here

British wind power plan blown off course

The Government was facing a growing credibility gap over green jobs last night as environmental campaigners and trade unionists united to fight the closure of Britain's sole major wind turbine plant.

Only last week, ministers proclaimed a green employment future for the UK involving 400,000 jobs in environmental industries such as renewable energy – yet this week they are declining to intervene over the forthcoming closure of the Vestas Wind Systems plant on the Isle of Wight, with nearly 600 redundancies.

Workers at the Newport factory, which makes wind turbine blades, were last night staging their third night of occupation of the plant in an attempt to prevent the closure which is scheduled for 31 July. In an alliance not seen before, they were being helped by climate-change campaigners who have set up an ad hoc camp outside the factory and yesterday helped to get food to the occupiers.

Vestas, a Danish company which is the world's biggest wind energy group, announced in April it was pulling out of the UK, citing the difficulties of getting wind farms built in Britain in the face of local "Nimby" opposition campaigns and the slowness of the planning system.

"A problem we are facing is our inability to get planning consent," said a senior company executive. "We needed a stable long-term market and that was not there in the UK. We have made clear to the Government that we need a market. We do not need money."

Several weeks before the closure announcement, Vestas bosses led by the chief executive, Ditlev Engle, went to 10 Downing Street for a high-level meeting attended by the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, where they made specific demands for more direct government support. When this was not forthcoming, the closure was announced.

While the Government may not have felt able to respond to what were in effect threats from a private manufacturing company, the consequence of allowing the country's major wind energy manufacturing plant to fold has attracted ferocious criticism from the green movement.

This was not least because of the prospect that the 7,000 or so wind turbines Britain will install over the next decade to help meet its climate-change targets will have to come from abroad, even though last week both Mr Miliband and the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, launching the Government's climate strategy, went to great lengths to stress the green business opportunities of Britain becoming a low-carbon economy.

"Last week Labour promised Britain would install thousands of wind turbines in the coming years. Are ministers really now saying they'd rather buy those turbines from abroad than make them here in the UK?" said Robin Oakley, head of the Greepeace climate campaign. "Letting this factory close is like a football manager saying he's up for the cup then dropping his only goal scorer. It just doesn't make sense.

"It is factories like this and engineers like the ones occupying it that Britain desperately needs if ministers are serious about launching a green industrial revolution."

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader and the Isle of Wight's MEP, sent a message of support to the workers and called for immediate government intervention to save the factory from closure. "The decision to close the facility represents a spectacular failure by government ministers to adequately promote green industries, and protect the future of manufacturing in this country," she said.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This closure exposes the hollow truth of Labour's climate change strategy." Five Labour MPs have already signed a Commons motion protesting against the closure.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said the company had taken a commercial decision to reduce its production capacity across northern Europe. She acknowledged there were "cultural and planning issues" behind the construction of wind farms, but promised they would be tackled by the climate strategy. She said: "We are hopeful Vestas will go ahead with their plans for a research and development facility on the Isle of Wight which could provide up to a further 300 jobs and also help develop and test products that are suitable for the UK offshore market."

Vestas erected a fence around the site in response to the protest. Workers claimed it was being put up to stop food or drink being sent in. One said: "We are convinced this is against the Human Rights Act because we are being denied humanitarian aid."

Three protesters were arrested outside the site. Hampshire Police said a 28-year-old man from Southampton had been arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer and a 49-year-old man from Portsmouth was arrested on suspicion of a breach of the peace.

A London man, aged 38, was arrested on suspicion of a breach of the peace and later released without charge.


Stress in the womb can last a lifetime, say researchers behind new exhibit

The logic below is far from unassailable. What they have is a correlation between cortisol in the amniotic fluid and baby IQ. Maybe (for instance) the cortisol level is dispositional rather than situational -- in which case maybe there is some genetic link between neuroticism and IQ

Visitors can see how their stress levels could affect the heart rate of their unborn baby and find out why pregnant women should reduce their anxiety, at a new exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which opens today.

The researchers behind the exhibit, from Imperial College London, hope that it will raise families' awareness of the importance of reducing levels of stress and anxiety in expectant mothers. They say that reducing stress during pregnancy could help prevent thousands of children from developing emotional and behavioural problems.

Visitors to the Exhibition will have the chance to play a game that shows how a mother's stress can increase the heart rate of her unborn baby. They will also be able to touch a real placenta, encased safely in plastic. The placenta is crucial for fetal development and it usually protects the unborn baby from the stress hormone cortisol. However, when the mother is stressed, the placenta becomes less protective and the mother's cortisol may have an effect on the fetus.

The Imperial researchers' work has shown that maternal stress and anxiety can alter the development of the baby's brain. This in turn can result in a greater risk of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, behavioural problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and being considerably slower at learning. Some studies have even suggested that it may increase the likelihood of later violent or criminal behaviour. Their findings have suggested that the effects of stress during pregnancy can last many years, including into adolescence.

Professor Vivette Glover, the lead researcher behind the exhibit from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, said: "We all know that if a mother smokes or drinks a lot of alcohol while pregnant it can affect her fetus. Our work has shown that other more subtle factors, such as her emotional state, can also have long-term effects on her child. We hope our exhibit will demonstrate in a fun way why we all need to look after expectant mothers' emotional wellbeing.

"Our research shows that stress due to the mother's relationship with her partner can be particularly damaging. We want fathers visiting our exhibit to see how they can help with the development of their child even before the birth, by helping their partner to stay happy," added Professor Glover.

The researchers say that the stress hormone cortisol may be one way in which the fetus is affected by the mother's anxiety during pregnancy. Usually the placenta protects the unborn baby from the mother's cortisol, by producing an enzyme that breaks the hormone down. When the mother is very stressed, this enzyme works less well and lets her cortisol through the placenta. By studying the amount of cortisol in the amniotic fluid, the Imperial researchers' latest study suggests that the higher the level of cortisol in the womb, the lower the toddler's cognitive development or "baby IQ" at 18 months.

Kieran O'Donnell from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London said: "We are very excited to have this opportunity to talk with the public about our work. We think that by promoting awareness of this subject we may be able to benefit many families in the future."


Four out of five Britons want immigration capped, poll shows

Eight out of ten voters want a cap on immigration and say Alan Johnson is 'out of touch' with the public mood. The findings are revealed in two separate opinion polls which will set alarm bells ringing for the Home Secretary. Mr Johnson recently insisted he does not 'lie awake at night' worrying about the UK population soon reaching 70million.

But his stance is even at odds with voters in his own rock solid Labour constituency of Hull West and Hessle, where 80 per cent of people said both that he was out of step with their views, and that immigration was putting too much strain on public services. The polls were carried out by the pressure group Migrationwatch and by the Home Office itself.

The Ipsos Mori research for Mr Johnson's department found 81 per cent of Britons favour a cap on immigration - a policy which Mr Johnson explicitly rejected only a few days ago. The Migrationwatch poll, conducted by ORB, found 81 per cent of the public are worried about the prospect of the population reaching 70million in 2028, as predicted by Whitehall statisticians. It is currently 61million. Seventy- eight per cent say Alan Johnson is out of touch with people like them.

And 76 per cent want to see net immigration - the number of migrants entering the country minus the number leaving - cut from its present level of 237,000 a year to 50,000 or less. Of that 76 per cent, 32 per cent want to see a policy of 'one in, one out' while 22 per cent want to see no immigration at all.

Broken down by party affiliation, 90 per cent of Conservative voters are worried about a population of 70 million. For Labour voters it was 70 per cent and for the Liberal Democrats 76 per cent.

In Mr Johnson's own constituency, 83 per cent of voters want to see net immigration reduced to 50,000 a year or less, and 78 per cent oppose his general attitude to immigration and population. Some 73 per cent are concerned that Britain is losing its identity and culture.

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, said: 'The new Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are hopelessly out of touch with the mood of the nation on this issue. 'This is not just about a "cap" on immigration. It is about the future of our country. 'Failure to cut immigration back to the level of the early Nineties will result in our population going to 70, then 80million and beyond as immigration is the main driver of population growth. 'In many parts of Britain the public are seething with resentment at the total failure of the political class to take seriously their deep concerns about the impact of immigration on the future of our country.'

The Home Office's own research, released separately to the Migrationwatch poll, found that 64 per cent of adults believe 'laws on immigration should be much tougher', while another 9 per cent said immigration should be halted completely. Only 7 per cent favoured more relaxed immigration policies. While the economy has taken over as the biggest single concern facing adults in the UK - up from 4 to 54 per cent in the past 18 months - immigration remains a major issue.

In the Home Office study, 69 per cent described immigration as either a 'big problem' or a 'very big problem', listing the burden on public service and pressure on jobs as their main concerns.

The Home Secretary caused astonishment last week when he told MPs he was relaxed about Britain's population rising from its current level of 61million to 70million in the next few years, claiming he 'did not lie awake' worrying about the prospect. He rejected setting an upper limit on the UK population, claiming any figure would be 'arbitrary' and would harm the economy. And he accused those who argue that mass immigration has left more native Britons unemployed of using the same rhetoric of 'hate and division' as fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

A Home Office spokesman said of the Migrationwatch poll: 'This survey tells us nothing - it is based on leading questions, and the Home Secretary's comments about Britain's population have been taken out of context. 'The Home Secretary made it very clear that he did not favour a cap on immigration because it is a crude measure which could harm the economy and is not as effective as the points-based system the Government introduced in 2008.'


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