Friday, July 03, 2009

Trendy British teaching is 'producing a generation of history numbskulls'

A generation of teenagers know almost nothing about the history of Britain because schools are sidelining knowledge in favour of trendy topics and generic skills, a university academic has warned. Professor Derek Matthews, an economics lecturer at Cardiff University, was so concerned at his students' lack of historical knowledge that he decided to investigate by setting them five simple questions. Over three years, 284 UK-educated first-years took the test, which demanded basic knowledge the professor believes 'every 18-year-old should know'.

But just one in six - 17 per cent - knew that the Duke of Wellington led the British army in the battle of Waterloo. And only one in ten could name a single 19th century British prime minister. In total, the students answered just 26.7 per cent of questions correctly - just over one in five. Students with A*s or As in history GCSE fared little better, answering just a third correctly. Those with A-level history got just two in five right.

In a later report on the 'death' of school history teaching, Professor Matthews said levels of ignorance among the young were an 'outrage' that 'should be intolerable'. His finding was highlighted by Tory schools spokesman Michael Gove as he pledged to 'completely overhaul' the curriculum to restore a focus on knowledge and ensure pupils are given a proper grounding in science, maths, British history and literature. This would entail tearing up the Government's planned new curriculum for primary schools that merges stand-alone subjects into six 'areas of learning'.

Mr Gove also pledged a major shake-up of the education watchdog-Ofsted amid fears it is losing focus on academic standards. The body will be ordered to bear down more heavily on weaker schools and move away from inspecting schools for success in promoting 'well-being' and other 'fuzzy, fashion-driven, intangibles'. 'Under this Government we have seen a decisive move away from valuing rigorous subject teaching and education as a good in itself,' Mr Gove told the Prince's Teaching Institute yesterday.

Professor Matthews, who lectures in economic history, tested firstyear undergraduates reading history in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He recounted in his report how students in a typical tutorial had never heard of the Reformation and did not know what was meant by the term Protestant. One thought Martin Luther was an American civil rights leader. His students were probably in the top 15 per cent of their age group for educational success.

'This implies that, all things being equal, 85 per cent of my undergraduates' age group know even less than they do. 'In other words, we are looking at a whole generation that knows almost nothing about the history of their (or anyone else's) country.' He added: 'This is an outrage and should be intolerable.'


Another NHS failure

'Thousands of Britons' travel abroad for IVF, research finds. Shameful for the country that invented IVF

Hundreds of British couples are travelling abroad for IVF treatment every month, says the first study to evaluate the extent of “fertility tourism” around Europe. Restricted access to fertility treatment on the NHS, the high cost of private therapy at domestic clinics and a serious shortage of donated eggs are driving couples to visit overseas clinics for help in starting a family.

Almost two thirds involve women over 40, who do not qualify for free IVF on the NHS. Britons are more likely than those from any other country to cite access to treatment as the chief reason for going abroad, the study reported. A private IVF cycle typically costs at least £4,000 in Britain — twice the amount charged in parts of Southern and Eastern Europe. IVF patients who need donated eggs are particularly likely to travel. Domestic donors are in short supply because of the removal of anonymity and tough rules against selling eggs.

Spain and the Czech Republic are prime destinations, due to laws allowing donors to be paid €900 (£765) and €500 respectively for eggs. British donors get no more than £250 in expenses.

The new figures come from a study that counted all overseas patients treated by 44 clinics in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland over a one-month period last autumn. The participating clinics performed 1,230 IVF cycles on overseas patients in this period, 53 involving British women. As the study ran only for a month, in a small fraction of Europe’s clinics, the true number of Britons who travel for treatment each year will probably run into thousands.

Fran├žoise Shenfield, of University College Hospital, London, told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Amsterdam that she understood why couples might consider travelling, but they should know that foreign clinics were not regulated to UK standards. Many overseas doctors, for example, will transfer more than two embryos to the womb — a practice largely banned in Britain because of the high risk of causing hazardous twin and triplet pregnancies.


The bitter fruit of Britain's politically correct policing

Britain's violent crime record is worse than any other country in the European union, it is revealed today. Official crime figures show the UK also has a worse rate for all types of violence than the U.S. and even South Africa - widely considered one of the world's most dangerous countries. The figures comes on the day new Home Secretary Alan Johnson makes his first major speech on crime, promising to be tough on loutish behaviour.

The Tories said Labour had presided over a decade of spiralling violence. In the decade following the party's election in 1997, the number of recorded violent attacks soared by 77 per cent to 1.158million - or more than two every minute. The figures, compiled from reports released by the European Commission and United Nations, also show:

* The UK has the second highest overall crime rate in the EU.

* It has a higher homicide rate than most of our western European neighbours, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

* The UK has the fifth highest robbery rate in the EU.

* It has the fourth highest burglary rate and the highest absolute number of burglaries in the EU, with double the number of offences than recorded in Germany and France.

But it is the naming of Britain as the most violent country in the EU that is most shocking. The analysis is based on the number of crimes per 100,000 residents. In the UK, there are 2,034 offences per 100,000 people, way ahead of second-placed Austria with a rate of 1,677. The U.S. has a violence rate of 466 crimes per 100,000 residents, Canada 935, Australia 92 and South Africa 1,609.

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: 'This is a damning indictment of this government's comprehensive failure over more than a decade to tackle the deep rooted social problems in our society, and the knock on effect on crime and anti-social behaviour. 'We're now on our fourth Home Secretary this parliament, and all we are getting is a rehash of old initiatives that didn't work the first time round. More than ever Britain needs a change of direction.'

The figures, compiled by the Tories, are considered the most accurate and up-to-date available. But criminologists say crime figures can be affected by many factors, including different criminal justice systems and differences in how crime is reported and measured. In Britain, an affray is considered a violent crime, while in other countries it will only be logged if a person is physically injured.

There are also degrees of violence. While the UK ranks above South Africa for all violent crime, South Africans suffer more than 20,000 murders each year - compared with Britain's 921 in 2007.

Experts say there are a number of reasons why violence is soaring in the UK. These include Labour's decision to relax the licensing laws to allow round-the-clock opening, which has led to a rise in the number of serious assaults taking place in the early hours of the morning.

But Police Minister David Hanson said: 'These figures are misleading. Levels of police recorded crime statistics from different countries are simply not comparable since they are affected by many factors, for example the recording of violent crime in other countries may not include behaviour that we would categorise as violent crime. 'Violent crime in England and Wales has fallen by almost a half a peak in 1995 but we are not complacent and know there is still work to do. That is why last year we published 'Saving lives. Reducing harm. Protecting the public. An Action Plan for Tackling Violence 2008-11'.'

The timing of the Europe-wide violence figures is a blow for Mr Johnson, who will today seek to reassert Labour's law and order credentials. In his first major speech on crime since becoming Home Secretary, Mr Johnson is expected to promise a concerted crack down on antisocial behaviour. He wants to set up a website to allow the public to see what is taking place in their neighbourhood, such as the number of louts who have been served with Asbos. Mr Johnson is also known to support early intervention to stop children going off the rails.


Church of England school bans girl from wearing crucifix - but allows Sikh pupils to wear bangles

A school told a child to remove a Christian cross she was wearing even though it lets Sikh children wear bangles as part of their religion. Lauren Grimshaw-Brown was told to take off a necklace with a cross on it because of health and safety fears. But the eight-year-old's furious mother has accused the school of double standards because they allow children following other faiths to wear jewellery on religious grounds.

The mother-of-two says Lauren and brother Callan, five, have always worn crosses at St Peter's CE School in Chorley, Lancashire. 'We're a Christian family and my children wear the necklaces underneath their tops,' she said. 'On Thursday Lauren was told by a teacher to take it off because apparently they're not allowed to wear jewellery. 'I could understand it if it was a fashion accessory or a High School Musical necklace, but it's part of our faith.'

Mrs Grimshaw-Brown complained directly to the headteacher, Helen Wright, who referred the matter to the school's chairman of governors, Father Atherton. He upheld the ban.

Mrs Grimshaw-Brown added: 'I received a letter in my child's reading folder. It said that if she had been a Sikh child she would be allowed to wear bangles because it's part of their religion. 'I've got absolutely no problem with any other religion wearing bangles or another item of jewellery, but why can't my daughter wear a necklace with a cross? It's a church-led school. 'The necklace is designed to come apart if it snags. The school has suggested she wear a brooch but surely that's more dangerous because of the pin. 'Lauren was really upset by this and I feel very let down.'

The letter to Mrs Grimshaw-Brown said: 'The prospectus makes clear that jewellery may not be worn except for earrings and watches. 'This is because there have been incidents in schools where hooped earrings, bracelets and necklaces have caused injuries to children when caught in outdoor play or physical activity. 'The prospectus makes it clear that school will allow jewellery where it is a necessary part of the religious faith of the child, i.e. Sikh families must wear bangles as one of the "five Ks", the religious rules for dress.'

Mrs Wright denied there was any discrimination against people following a Christian faith. 'We do want children to be proud of their Christian faith, therefore we would like to encourage them to wear crosses,' she added. 'The best solution in this case for children to be kept safe would be for pupils to wear a brooch - in fact some children already do.'


Genetic test to produce disease free babies

A “genetic MOT” which can help IVF couples screen embryos for hereditary diseases and have healthy babies could be available in the UK within a year. The technique, known as karyomapping, has the potential to spot virtually any inherited genetic disease. It can also pick up chromosomal problems that might lead to Down’s syndrome or prevent pregnancy. Scientific trials are set to begin on the groundbreaking technique, which has been developed by British researchers and which they believe could eventually even eradicate some inherited conditions like Huntington’s Disease.

But the move will spark fears that the technology is moving towards creating “designer babies”, because it could theoretically be used to screen out non-serious conditions or help couples have babies with “designer” traits such as blue eyes. However, its use would be heavily regulated in Britain and is likely to be limited to extremely serious inherited diseases.

The £2,500 procedure removes the need for geneticists to spend months developing a test for a specific gene mutation, a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Last year the first child in Britain was born free from a breast cancer gene which raises the lifetime chance of developing the disease to 80 per cent, after doctors used PGD. But only around two per cent of 1,500 inherited diseases can be identified in this way.

The new test compares defects in a couples’ genes with that of their embryo, and scientists believe that it can identify almost all known genetic diseases. Developed at the Bridge Centre in London, scientists have successfully proven that the test can identify 100 per cent of embryos with cystic fibrosis, clearing the way for clinical trials to begin later this year.

Gary Harton, from the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, who will lead the trials, said he hoped to be offering the test to tens of couples by December. Embryos proven to be free from the disease are then implanted into the women using in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).

As well as diseases caused by gene mutations the technology can also detect those that come from abnormalities in chromosomes, such as Down’s Syndrome. Detecting problems in chromosomes can also reduce the chance that an embryo will fail to become a successful pregnancy. But the technology will not be able to eradicate most inherited diseases completely, the researchers behind the procedure said.

Professor Alan Handyside, from the London Bridge Fertility Gynaecology and Genetics Centre in London, who pioneered the technology, said it was right that patients should have access to karyomapping. “I believe passionately that it’s a question of patient choice,” he said. “These families know first hand what it’s like to suffer from these conditions. I don’t believe it’s for the Government or scientists and clinicians to debate. “The hope is that clinicians will be able to test embryos for specific genetic diseases and know that, with one test, they are transferring chromosomally normal embryos.” He added: “There are spontaneous mutations happening all the time, but at least now we can identify inherited mutations.”

However, he said that Huntington’s Disease, an incurable brain condition which affects around 8,000 people in Britain could be eventually eradicated because most mutations were inherited.

Prof Tony Rutherford, the chairmen of the British Fertility Centre, said that although the technology did raise the possibility of creating designer babies, those risks already existed because of previous technology such as PGD. He said: “One thing that is superb is that we are regulated (in Britain). The safeguards are there. “We are regulated; we’re not mad Frankensteins working away in our labs creating designer babies. We can only look for major disorders.” He added: “The big advantage of karyomapping is its reliability.”

The announcement was made at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) conference in Amsterdam.


Icecream advertisement banned

We read:
"Regulators have banned an advertisement that showed a priest and nun looking as though they were about to kiss. The image was thought “likely to cause serious offence”.

The Advertising Standards Authority received ten complaints about the advert for Antonio Federici Gelato Italiano ice cream after it appeared in Delicious magazine and Sainsbury’s Magazine. In the picture, the priest was wearing rosary beads and holding a pot of ice cream above the slogan “Kiss temptation”.

The authority said the advert breached decency rules. “We considered that the portrayal of the priest and nun in a sexualised manner and the implication that they were considering whether or not to give in to temptation, was likely to cause serious offence to some readers,” the ruling states.

Antonio Federici said that it was a “tongue-in-cheek portrayal celebrating forbidden Italian temptations”. He added that it was significant that the image did not show the nun and priest touching, or kissing"


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