August 2011

Revd David Ward

Sadly, David Ward died last weekend. He and Pat became friends of ours when he was appointed as Vicar of St Paul's Hook, and I served under him as church warden.

David was not reticent about his political views, and when he retired and moved to Tolworth he decided to run for Council for the Liberal Democrats. He was successful in being elected for Alexandra ward in 1994. When Ian became Mayor in 1996 he appointed David as his Deputy, and the four of us had a wonderful year together.

There will be a family funeral, but everyone is invited to his Memorial Service on Tuesday 16th August at 3pm at St George's Tolworth.

We will miss him.

Lose weight by sitting down?

in

I was highly sceptical about a full page advert that has been appearing in the local papers for a product called 'Sit and Slim'. Having seen Dragon's Den last weekend I'm now wondering whether I should report them to the Advertising Standards Agency.

The product is a combination of a massage chair and an audio tape, and the company really does claim that you can lose weight sitting down. Apparently, in order to use the system, you have to enrol at a local centre at a cost of over £600 per year.

The founder of the company was roundly criticised by the Dragons. He seemed incapable of answering questions about his business plan and didn't know how many people had enrolled at the differing rates. But the most telling thing was his reaction when asked whether there was any scientific basis for his claims.

He kept saying that a hospital somewhere was carrying out tests, but he had to be pushed hard to acknowledge that there was no evidence to back his assertions. And yet the advert in this week's Kingston Guardian (page 12) states unequivocally "NHS Trial Proves Sit & Slim Chair Works".

There is also an article about it in the paper on page 3. I'm not sure whether he lives locally, but he has a centre in New Malden.

I have checked his NHS Trial claim. It seems that he did not have results from the trials when the programme was recorded, but now that he has got his 'evidence' it is not all it seems. Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust was given a chair which was tested on 18 members of staff for a 3 month period each. Of these 12 lost weight and 4 gained weight.

To quote from the Norwich Evening News: Vicky Stone, one of the trust’s physiotherapists, said the trial results were not “statistically valid” or rigorous, but they do offer the health and wellbeing board an insight into whether the chairs could continue to help staff and reduce sickness rates, and if they could even possibly be used for patients in the future.

In other words, it was not a controlled experiment and not a formal NHS trial, although the anecdotal evidence could certainly be a trigger for more detailed investigations into the promoter's claims. It certainly does not justify the "NHS Trial Proves ..." headline in the advert.

Now before anyone jumps in and tells me that his idea does have some merit, I would say that I think I do understand what this is about. Having lost 3 stone in a matter of 8 months recently, I do know that the most important thing was getting the psychology right. Motivation was crucial, as was a positive attitude to the process, and a determination not to demonise food. So sitting in a massage chair, listening to some positive thinking on an audio tape, could possibly help some people to find the motivation they need. Indeed, it is a form of hypnotherapy, but without the professional hypnotist.

But the ad says this: "We understand that you may be sceptical about losing weight by simply sitting on a Sit & Slim therapeutic wellbeing chair, most people are." Note simply.

Yes, I am sceptical. At some point you have got to get out of that chair, shop for suitable food, count calories, carbs or fat units, and get some exercise. Nothing else works.

Going out to play

"We have a generation of young people who do not respect society or their parents" - that is one view on the streets this morning. But it's not true. Attempts to demonise a whole generation of young people - or their parents, or schools - must be resisted. The country is actually full of young people who are a delight to know and who abide by the conventions.

But the dreadful activities of recent nights have highlighted the fact that communities work for most of us because of the unspoken social conventions that bind us together. On the whole, people do not behave decently because they are in fear of the police or social retribution; they behave well because they respect others and want their communities to function smoothly.

There was a very dangerous moment in Tottenham last week when we could have seen an explosion of racial violence. The death of a young black man - we still don't know the real circumstances nor why the police were armed - could have been the catalyst for race riots. Instead a peaceful protest by his family and friends became an excuse for a disturbance which seemed to bear no relation to the original issue, and was not racially motivated.

But then the copying began.

When I was a student there was a craze for smashing up old - I emphasise 'old' - pianos and pushing the pieces through a small hole, all for charity (I think). It was glorious fun, with the added excitement of breaking a taboo against damaging musical instruments.

Smashing a large window must carry the same thrill. And having broken one of the conventions that keeps society together, it must seem like a liberation. We can do anything and no-one can stop us. Theft then becomes a guilt-free option. Once over that threshold moral constraints melt away.

As far as I can see from the reporting, the core smashing and looting has been carried out by existing gangs - people who have already passed over that threshold.

But around them are scores of vulnerable and impressionable young people who are witnessing challenges to social norms all around them. Once they have picked up and thrown that first bottle, without being stopped, the adrenaline starts flowing and they become hooked on the heady excitement. I imagine this is what is driving them; the illicit luxury goods are just an added trophy.

Don't blame young people, parents, schools, local councils, the Government or any other generic group. Instead, let's pay heed to researchers and youth workers who have analysed gang culture and who understand their dynamics. Let's get to grip with the features of urban living that turn natural friendship groups into lawless territorial gangs. And let's act on what they tell us.

Footnote

I hear from the Police that things have remained relatively calm in Kingston and the local town centres, in spite of some rumours going around the social networks. The only incident was in Cambridge Gardens where some youths threw things at the police, but no-one was hurt and they were dispersed.

Some shops have been closing early and removing valuable goods, but there have been no breakages or looting.

The Olympic trial cycle race will go ahead as planned on Sunday.

I have complained to the Advertising Standards Agency about Sit and Slim

in

Today's Kingston Guardian carried another full page advert for the Sit and Slim system that I wrote about last week.

It still repeats the misleading claims about a 'NHS Hospital Trial' and implies that you can use weight 'by simply sitting on' one of their chairs.

So I've put in a complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency. Perhaps you would like to do so too?

Ooops - that should be Advertising Standards AUTHORITY.

Breakdown in society or government policy? You decide

The headline comes from a quote from Nick Clegg yesterday. According to the Guardian "he said there was a tendency for parties to adopt 'cardboard cutout' positions to social problems with one side blaming the problems on a breakdown in society and the other blaming government policy."

Both positions are far too simplistic.

The country is still in a state of shock after last week's riots, and we should always be wary of far-reaching solutions to problems advocated in the middle of a trauma. Unfortunately people look to politicians for leadership, and politicians want to grasp the moment for their own reasons, so there is a serious danger that popular strategies will be implemented without proper thought given to the possible consequences.

So I want to look at some of the knee-jerk reactions to the riots, all designed to position the proponents on one side or the other of the question in my headline.

First, the proposal to removal of benefits and/or social housing from rioters. This strategy doubly punishes the poor, but has no impact on the better-off, so is inherently unfair. In a democratic society it is the courts, not social services or housing agencies, that have the task of meting out punishment on behalf of society.

Now I am not suggesting that people should never be evicted from social housing because of their behaviour. As a councillor, on two separate occasions I actively supported two families whose lives had been made totally miserable by neighbours from hell. But the social landlords had to go through lengthy investigations and legal processes to obtain eviction orders, and it was right that these safeguards were in place. It is a serious matter to deprive a whole family of their home, and it should only be done after other solutions have been tried and failed. The fact that one member of a family had been convicted of a criminal offence would never alone be a sufficient reason to evict all the members of his or her family. The test must always be the amount of harm they are directly causing to the neighbourhood. I see no reason for that to change.

Then there are the consequences of removing benefit or social housing. Both act as safety nets for people in need; without either or both there is the danger that people will be driven further into criminality.

Second, placing the blame on a 'broken society'. I've argued before that our society, whilst not perfect, is no more broken than it ever was. The broken society rhetoric implies that there was once a golden age when crime was minimal and we all lived in pleasant neighbourly communities. For most of us, this time was apparently when we were children. But we forgot that, as children, we were protected from, and unaware of, many of the realities of social life.

I now know that when I was a child, parents and teachers could legally beat children with sticks, men could rape and assault their wives by right, homosexuals were imprisoned or forced to take drugs that chemically castrated them, pregnant girls were hidden away and forced to give up their babies, people with mental health problems or learning difficulties were locked away in bleak institutions, unwanted children were sent to Australia where they were treated appallingly. And I have written before about a case where a headteacher was given nothing more than a conditional discharge for sexually assaulting a pupil at his school.

That was not a golden age.

Third, heavier sentencing. We expect consistency from our justice system. Courts should be imposing roughly similar sentences for similar offences, after taking the personal circumstances of the accused into account. So someone who broke into a shop and stole a television last week should expect the same level of sentence as someone who committed the same offence two months ago, after taking into account previous convictions.

There appears to be evidence that the courts are being heavy-handed in the sentencing of people involved in the riots. The courts do not have to be soft on criminals, but they should be consistent.

Politicians can blame the so-called broken society, or blame the current or past government and its policies, but neither can provide a comprehensive explanation of the causes of the riots, or a blueprint for improvement. However, I do believe that there is an analysis of society that both describes how things are and gives pointers for change. It is based on a study of the effects of inequality - but more of that in a future post.

Girls are brighter than boys - but let's try to forget that

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Once again, girls have out-performed boys at GCSE. This, apparently, is a 'cause for concern.' By whom? Well, by men, of course.

I'm sorry; that was a cheap jibe. But then like all women of my age I spent the first 30 years of my life being subjected to cheap jibes about women's intellectual abilities.

I do have some background in all this. During my gap year, I spent 6 months working as a number cruncher for an educational research team on two significant longitudinal studies. It was quite a revelation to me when I discovered that the raw scores in IQ and other tests were standardised by gender.

Throughout primary school girls performed, on average, better than boys - in other words, the mean score was significantly higher for girls. Raw scores on these tests were then mapped for each gender on to a normal distribution with a mean of 100. So the mean score for a girl was standardised to 100, as was the mean score for a boy, even though the girl's raw score was actually higher. This was done with the best of intentions but had the effect of masking the higher performance of girls.

The population at large genuinely didn't know that girls scored higher than boys. The popular view was that boys were brighter.

One of the consequences of this was that a girl had to achieve a higher score than a boy in the 11+ in order to get a place in a grammar school. And that was significant at a time when most pupils who did not get into grammar schools left school at 15 with no opportunity to gain any qualifications at all. That gender disparity is still true today; girls have to reach a higher threshold score than boys to get into the two Tiffin schools in Kingston.

In spite of the differential at primary school, once they got to secondary school boys tended to surge ahead and did better than girls at O levels (which were not standardised by gender) . Educational studies showed that girls continued to be brighter than boys at secondary school, but their performance at 16 did not reflect that. Oddly enough, this was never a 'cause for concern'.

Comprehensive schools were created in order to give everyone a chance of reaching their full potential, so you might have expected them to redress the imbalance. But they didn't. Boys still outperformed girls in most subjects, except English, at 16. What was going on?

In the late 1960s I started my teaching career in a mixed comprehensive in Peckham and began to understand the social pressure on girls to perform less well than their male classmates. Their performance dropped off just at the point when they wanted to attract the attention of the alpha males in their social groups.

Undoubtedly the expectations of teachers and parents had an impact too. I remembered when I was a pupil myself at a girls' grammar school, and a number of my friends were not allowed by their parents to stay on to the sixth form because of the prevailing view that it was not worth keeping girls in education. Others were sidetracked into so-called secretarial courses in shorthand, typing and filing, or encouraged to take the traditional paths into nursing or primary school teaching, neither of which required A levels at that time. Of the 60 girls in my year (in a grammar school, remember), only four of us went on to University. Expectations were low, and we know that children live up, or down, to the expectations that parents and teachers have of them.

When I started to complain about the underachievement of girls - which I continued to do when I was lecturing in Education at what is now Roehampton University - I was, as you might have guessed, treated dismissively.

Gradually, though, values changed, particularly in girls' schools, where young women could be encouraged to achieve academically without the pressure to play dumb in front of the boys. This became very marked in Kingston where in the 1980s and 1990s, under outstanding female headteachers, the students in Tolworth Girls and Coombe Girls were obtaining GCSE results which were substantially above those in the boys' schools.

Over the last 30 years girls across the country have found confidence, raised their expectations and reached their potential. This is something to celebrate.

And yet, predictably, the pundits complain that boys are in some way being penalised or discriminated against. Some even suggest that we need to change teaching methods to ones that overtly favour boys. That is patronising nonsense. Good teaching takes into account the personalities and learning styles of all the pupils in a class, and works with and around cultural, social and gender differences. Good teachers have expectations of individual pupils based on their knowledge of their abilities and interests, not on their gender, race or social class.

Oh, and talking of race ... try substituting black children for girls and white children for boys in my comments about expectations in this post, and another truth may emerge.

Published by Mary Reid, 126 Clayton Road, Hook Chessington KT9 1NJ
Printed and hosted by Office Network Systems, 106a Tolworth Broadway, Surbiton, KT6 7JD