Wednesday, August 05, 2009

British Conservatives talk crap on education

"Excellence should be for all" -- a dreamy Leftist impossibility, a logical impossibility, in fact. The Labour party tried it for years with a disastrous outcome. There is no alternative to bringing back the Grammar (selective) schools if a way is to be opened up for all able Britons to get a decent education

Mr Gove is one of the inner circle, that core of those closest to the leader who provoke jealousy among some MPs. He is so close, in fact, that the Goves share the school run with the Camerons. As the party's education spokesman, it is his task to persuade the sceptics that a Conservative policy that is explicitly against grammar schools and selection stands a cat's chance of reversing the appalling decline in standards over the past 30 years.

It is a tall order. There are those who believe the Conservatives are ducking the real debate about education reform because they are cowards, public-school boys too embarrassed about their origins to challenge a cosy Left-wing consensus about comprehensive education.

The recent attack by the Charity Commission on the charitable status of independent schools is a case in point. Why did we not hear more from Mr Gove? He professes his admiration for what the independent sector achieves and boasts of his contacts with the headmasters of Eton and St Paul's. Asked whether he would reverse attempts to end the tax advantages of private schools, he says he is reviewing the issue: "Excellent academic institutions should not be damaged in this country."

He says he wants to run education for the many, not the few. "The responsibility of the Shadow Secretary of State is primarily to ensure that state education improves. The crucial argument that we need to have is how do we improve all of our children's education, given that the majority will be educated in the state sector."

What he takes issue with is the "soft bigotry of low expectations" – a phrase coined by George Bush senior – on both the Left and the Right. "There are people on the Right and on the Left who assume that any academic education can only ever be the preserve of a minority. They are both wrong."

Mr Gove is a Scot, who was adopted by parents from a modest background who made great efforts to educate him privately and send him to Oxford. This "accident of birth" informs the zeal with which he approaches the issue of grammar schools and selection.

He knows the emotion the issue provokes. His party bears the scars of a dispute that still simmers. The audience on Radio 4's Any Questions? recently roared its approval when the columnist Peter Hitchens called for a return to grammar schools. The view is one that exercises readers of The Daily Telegraph. My colleague Simon Heffer is one of their most eloquent champions.

"People know there is something wrong with our education system and they know the rot set in the Sixties," Mr Gove says. He insists he, too, wants a return to traditional teaching, to narrative history built around a chronology, to teachers as respected figures who introduce children to an inheritance of knowledge, to the proper place for science and mathematics,

"So when Peter Hitchens evokes grammar schools, or Simon Heffer does, or Jeff Randall does, all of them are absolutely hitting the sweet spot of public concern. Because people know that the place of knowledge at the heart of our curriculum is not what it was and not what it should be. More and more children should be given access to that kind of education. A proper knowledge-based curriculum should be available to all rather than just a few."

But surely that cannot be done without selection? It is a "difficulty" in the debate, he admits. Excellence should be for all. "I hope Simon Heffer wouldn't have any objection to all children enjoying the sort of education that he enjoyed. Simon's fear, I think, is that in order to have a good education you have to ration it to a minority. If you open it too widely, you dilute the quality."

Mr Gove's favourite school is Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, where the teachers wear ties, the pupils rise whenever an adult enters the room, and all students follow an academic curriculum until 16. And it is a state comprehensive. "For a school what matters is not its intake, but its ethos."

Mr Gove wants to turn every comprehensive into a grammar, but without the selection: "We will ensure that the curriculum your children are taught reflects your values, your concerns and your priorities."

To achieve that, he proposes a number of supply-side reforms, the most important being an end to local-authority control over the supply of school places, allowing funding to follow pupils wherever they go, and a pupil "premium" for those in poor areas to give an incentive to new providers – charities, livery companies, private firms – to set up new independent academies.

It is a priority for the first Queen's Speech of a new administration, but he fears some on his own side do not quite understand how serious Mr Cameron is about education. "We are going to have in David Cameron a Prime Minister who has made it explicitly clear that anyone who gets in his way will be blown out of the way," he says, before acknowledging the doubts some have about his leader.

More here

U.K. to Review and Tighten Requirements for Citizenship

The U.K. government is planning to review its immigration policies, in a move likely to make it more difficult for foreigners to become British citizens. Home Secretary Alan Johnson plans to announce as early as Monday new proposals under which foreigners would have to score a certain number of points to become British citizens -- a requirement already in place for people entering the country to work or study.

This would extend a system, modeled after one in use in Australia and introduced last year, that grades workers and students hoping to enter the U.K. on criteria including education, age and need for their skills. The changes were aimed at making it easier to slow the flow of foreigners looking for work in the U.K. when the economy weakens.

Further details of the new proposals weren't immediately available, but a Home Office spokeswoman said their aim would be to "provide flexibility for the government to respond to the changing economic needs of the country."

The move comes as unemployment is now at a 12-year high and as concerns about terrorism have fueled a surge in protectionist sentiment in the U.K., long one of the world's most open countries. Earlier this year, workers at a number of refineries staged large-scale strikes to protest the use of foreign workers. Meanwhile, once-marginal anti-immigration politicians have been gaining ground.

The U.K. began tightening its immigration policies several years ago. The points-based system has raised hurdles for all but the most highly skilled workers to enter and live in the country.

The Home Office said its proposals will be put out for public and political consultation. The spokeswoman said the proposals would aim to strengthen the country's current citizenship process, which already requires candidates to display good conduct, speak English and demonstrate that they are making a contribution to the community. "The points-based system has already proved to be a powerful tool for controlling migration for the benefit of both British people and the economy," she said.

This week's proposals will likely include changing a rule that allows workers who have been in the country for five years to apply for a passport, by making that period longer, a person familiar with the matter said.

This year, England, which receives the majority of the U.K.'s immigrants, is expected to overtake the Netherlands to become the most densely populated country in Europe. According to government calculations, immigration will add seven million people by 2031 to the U.K.'s population, which is currently more than 60 million. Critics say recent increases are placing a huge burden on public services, as hospitals and schools face increased demand but no increase in their budgets.

In elections last June, two members of the British National Party won seats in the European Parliament, the first electoral success for the anti-immigration party.

Other European countries also are clamping down on new immigration as their economies slow and citizens complain that too many people are being allowed in. Britain, however, with France and Germany, was among the first to open its borders to large-scale immigration from non-European countries after World War II.

Some industries have complained about the increased restrictions. Both Britain's catering industry and its powerful banking sector have said that tightened immigration rules have made it harder for them to attract global talent and fill jobs that can't be filled through local hires.

The points-based system was also criticized this weekend in a report by a committee of U.K. lawmakers, who said it gives undue priority to factors such as qualifications and ignores ability or experience.

Some critics, such as member of Parliament and former Labour government minister Frank Field, have said the points-based system's effect has been trivial, and that it has reduced the number of foreigners looking for jobs in the U.K. by only 8%.


Three million British pupils have left primary school without the basics since the Labour party came to power

More than three million children have started secondary school without a proper grasp of reading, writing and maths since Labour came to power. Half a million have left primary school unable to read and write at all. The depressing figures come despite Labour investing billions over the past decade in literacy and numeracy drives.

This September alone, around four in ten children - almost 220,000 - are expected to move up to secondary school without sufficient mastery of the three Rs. They will struggle to punctuate basic sentences, spell words with more than one syllable or recall the six times table. Around 35,000 will be completely unable to read and write.

National curriculum test results for 11-year-olds, published today, are expected to show that more than one in five is failing to reach the grade in maths, while almost as many are not achieving the standard expected of their age in English.

Between 1998 and last year, 3,069,843 children who took national tests for 11-year-olds failed to achieve 'level four' in reading, writing and maths, the standard expected for their age. An analysis by the Liberal Democrats shows that 465,797 of these children left primary school with 'no useful literacy' over the same period. This number is expected to pass the 500,000 mark when the Government unveils this year's results later today. Last year, 81 per cent of pupils reached 'level four' in English and 78 per cent in maths. This represented a one percentage point increase in both subjects on the figures for 2007. However, 39 per cent failed to achieve the required standard in reading, writing and maths combined.

Today's figures are expected to show marginal improvements in English and maths but they will still fall short of the Government's 85 per cent target in both subjects.

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman-David Laws said: 'It is shocking that under Labour nearly half a million children have so far left primary school unable to read and write. 'These children are far more likely to fall further behind and be turned off education altogether.'

Tory education spokesman Michael Gove said: 'Ministers may boast about ever-rising standards. But the reality is that hundreds of thousands of students do not have the qualifications required to compete effectively in the current economic environment.'


NHS facing a bleak future

For the NHS the future looks far from rosy. While politicians promise funding increases above inflation from 2011 onwards, it is hard to see, firstly, where the money will be found, and how what is scraped together will cover even the most basic increases in demand.

Joint analysis by The King's Fund and researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies of the future for NHS funding show that even a small real rise in funding each year from 2011 onwards will be difficult to achieve. A real rise of 2 per cent a year for the NHS could mean real cuts in all other departments totalling 14 per cent by 2014.

Adding to these pressures is the fact that the NHS will face increasing demand for its services. Simply "standing still" and meeting the needs of a growing and ageing population requires a real increase in funding each year of 1.2 per cent. To go further and increase the quality of services will take an additional 3 or 4 per cent increase each year. Despite the best efforts of any government, this is going to leave a gap in funding.

Filling this gap with deeper cuts in other parts of government or higher tax rises is unlikely. Instead, the NHS will need to increase its productivity. But the step change required is large. Over the past decade NHS productivity has fallen by just over 4 per cent. Filling the funding gap will require productivity increases each year up to 2017 of between 4 and 8 per cent.

Cutting the set prices hospitals are paid for services will increase the incentive to be productive. But providing more care for less money will mean real action to cut costs and "rationalise" local services. This could lead to changes often unpopular with patients such as small units being closed and services concentrated in specialist hospitals.

Such reforms can improve quality and levels of care by concentrating professional expertise in centres of excellence, but tightening the screw too much too quickly could lead to poor decisions - not just cutting costs, but quality, too.

There are difficult times ahead, but the public and politicians will need to be prepared to support the NHS as it grapples with these tough decisions in the interests of patients.


Boy given ticket by British police for climbing a tree in a park

Someone complains and the police use it as an excuse to throw their weight around. Maybe they should instead have explained to the the complainer that it is normal for children's play to be noisy and lively sometimes

For Kade-Liam Read, his summer holiday was meant to be filled with happy memories of the five cousins he rarely sees. Instead the nine-year-old was left 'terrified' after a PCSO gave him a stern warning for climbing a tree, leaving him standing in the park with paperwork to fill out. The boy, who lives in Germany, was visiting his cousins in Churchdown, Gloucester, and his parents now fear he will be too scared to return to England.

His father Bryan Read, 45, said: 'They were just playing on the park and climbing the tree when the community police came and gave them a blue slip for anti-social behaviour. 'They said they were abusive but my son can't even speak English so how could he be abusive? 'It is the summer holidays and they were just in the park enjoying themselves - they were really scared and my son doesn't know what to think. 'This is the only holiday we will have this year and it has been spoilt by this nasty experience.' He is now worried his son will be too frightened to come back to see his cousins Melissa Read, seven, Jessica Read and Abby Read, both 12, Beth Powell, 11, and Joe Powell 10.

Gloucestershire Police defended their decision and said they had received a complaint from a resident near the park which borders three streets. A force spokeswoman said today: 'While we would not discourage any child from playing and having fun in a park we must also respond to official complaints made from the public. 'A report was made to us by a resident who complained of rude and anti-social behaviour from a group of children playing in a nearby tree.

'A PCSO was sent to talk to the children who explained to them that their behaviour had upset one of the neighbours, and that it would be better if they played further away from the houses to avoid any further upset. 'It was explained that no criminal offence had taken place and that they were not in trouble but, in accordance to national policy, they had to be given a Stop and Account form to show where and why they were spoken to. 'It is up to the children whether they show their parents these forms and the parents are then welcome to call the officer and discuss the matter further. 'The PCSO in question has spoken to the parents of all the children to explain the situation.'


It’s not Facebook that’s doing down our young

The Archbishop of Westminster is just the latest in a long line of pessimists to be bewildered by a younger generation... interviewed in Lourdes, where he was vacationing among the keepsakes, relics and discarded crutches, the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, seemed to deliver himself of the assertion that social networking via the computer, as practised by the youth of today, was a distinctly inferior sort of friendliness. “There’s a worry”, said His Grace, “that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and e-mails means ... we’re losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that’s necessary for living together and building a community.”

And when this Facebook stuff goes wrong, because of “transient friendships”, he added, then sometimes the result can be suicide.

It would be a low blow to suggest to the handsome prelate that any teenager may be sceptical about such strictures emanating from someone who daily speaks to an invisible presence — a presence , moreover, who doesn’t speak back. A higher argument might request of the Archbishop whether any actual evidence exists that many teenagers communicate by “almost exclusive use of text and e-mails”, any more than they used to communicate by almost exclusive use of the house telephone. In my experience, admittedly limited to three females at present between the ages of 12 and 19, the texting and Facebooking is supplementary to a vast, almost Gormenghastian, structure of personal relationships.

In fact, what seems to have happened as a result of all this inferior computing is a continuation of friendships beyond the bust-ups that happen when kids separate to go to different schools or colleges. In this respect, my progeny seem to keep their friends longer than my own generation used to.

But it is intriguingly impossible, is it not, to imagine the Archbishop discovering such an upside for his interviewer? “I know many people express concern about this networking,” he would never have said, “but I think that there’s much that is positive about it. It’s just another aspect of progress.”

Impossible. It wouldn’t fit his world view, so, in the context of the interview it was just another regret about the decline of community and authenticity in the modern world. And I thought, as I read it, does the Archbishop not recall that every generation says this about the subsequent one? That theatre and dancing sapped the martial spirit, that radio killed live performance and atomised the audience, that video killed the radio star and atomised the audience, that comics meant the end of reading, that TV meant the end of reading, that computers meant the end of reading, and that now texting means the end of friendship? That modernity (at whatever level we have now reached) threatens our essential human selves (whatever they are)?

Archbishops, it seems, can exist only in a declining world. And they are not the only ones. Newspapers, too, have that tendency. I was having a look at some of the doom-sayings about youth and various technologies, and came across a terrifying 2007 headline reporting a study claiming that watching “too much” television, among other side-effects, was responsible for premature puberty in females. A Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of several institutes who has been a consultant to several companies, had “analysed” 35 other reports and concluded that the bright light of evening TV might depress melatonin levels and thus assist early puberty.

Then I discovered another headline, for exactly a year earlier, in which early puberty in girls (a threat to civilisation if ever there was one) was analysed as being the result of stress at home. The report’s author told the BBC: “If a girl senses her environment is unstable then it may be that an evolutionary mechanism kicks in to try to ensure that her genes are passed on sooner rather than later.” Strangely, the author was also Dr Aric Sigman.

And Dr Sigman it was too who, in February of this year (are you seeing a pattern here?) published a paper in the journal Biologist entitled “Well connected? The biology of ‘social networking’ ”, in which — according to one precis — he “warns us of the dangers of sacrificing old-fashioned social contact for the current trend towards more online interaction”.

It has to be said that his paper contains no citation that backs up such a claim, but at least premature puberty didn’t figure this time.

Handy man for the scared-up declinists is Dr Sigman. But he is only one of many doom-study writers. Such is the appetite of senior priests and others for narratives of downfall that they will happily accommodate completely contradictory jeremiads, without noticing their mutual exclusion. Taking a chance in the writings of a female Jeremiah recently, and dodging the evidence of rotten society that she flung around her, I became aware of just how unconsciously unscrupulous declinists are in their use of what are rather laughably called “studies”.

Modern society was so bad, this declinist wrote, that one study showed how girls in a particular part of Scotland — with their problems of binge drinking and violence — thought so little of themselves that the number answering that they saw themselves “as a worthless person” had gone up threefold in 20 years. This was awful.

Part of the reason for this badness, she went on, could be discerned in the work of the US academic Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and its sequel The Narcissism Epidemic. What had happened was that modern youngsters had developed an exaggerated and selfish idea of their own importance in the world, as evidenced by shows such as Pop Idol and as proved by surveys. One such proof was the increase between the 1950s and the 1980s from 12 to 80 per cent in the numbers agreeing that “I am an important person”. And this was awful.

These two impossibly contradictory figures were used in the same space to argue for the same narrative of societal decline without the author, or any of those who then praised her, apparently even noticing! And it prompted this thought. We’re only doomed if we want to be, and it isn’t Facebook, TV or Pop Idol that constitutes the greatest threat to the mental and social health of our teenagers, but rather the determined — almost ruthless — cultural pessimism of some of their spiritual, academic and commentating elders.


British helicopters 'not fit for use': "BRITISH military helicopters set to be deployed to Afghanistan were not properly equipped to fly combat missions, a newspaper said today, fuelling a row over adequate resources for troops. The helicopters were not fitted with special armour, leaving them vulnerable to attack by Taliban extremists while transporting troops, the Daily Telegraph newspaper said, citing unnamed Royal Air Force sources. The Ministry of Defence rejected the report, saying the six aircraft set to be deployed by the end of the year were "fit for operational use." "Our Merlin Mk3 helicopters have ballistic protection as standard, and are being fitted with a range of modifications to make them fit for operational use," a spokesman said. The newspaper said pilots wanted the helicopters fitted with Kevlar armour, which would cost about £100,000 ($200,944) for each aircraft, to protect them from bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Claims of a shortage of helicopters have been at the centre of a political row over adequate equipment for the armed forces amid a surge in the British death toll in Afghanistan."

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