Out-of-hours crisis sees 14% rise in number of nurses doing the job of doctors
Nurses are being used in place of GPs to cover out-of-hours shifts. The country’s largest provider of care at evenings and weekends has increased the proportion of nurses covering shifts by 14 per cent in the past 12 months.
Harmoni, the company responsible for out-of-hours services covering eight million patients, said it was increasingly using nurses to carry out telephone consultations to establish the severity of a patient’s illness. It added that in many circumstances nurses could do just as good a job as GPs, if not better.
But some experts have warned that an absence of qualified doctors could put the safety of patients at risk.
Meanwhile, a survey by Pulse magazine found many areas are struggling to recruit GPs to cover out-of-hours shifts.
Nearly half (44 per cent) of the family doctors surveyed said their local out-of-hours provider had difficulties recruiting GPs to work evenings and weekends, while a quarter said there were gaps in the rota.
The survey found one trust, NHS Norfolk and Waveney, had been unable to fill 29 per cent of out-of-hours shifts last September, although the situation has improved significantly. There has been mounting concern about the standards of out-of-hours care since GPs were allowed to opt out of working these shifts under a controversial contract brought in under Labour in 2004.
Many primary care trusts now outsource evening and weekend work to firms that recruit local GPs or agency doctors. But standards of care are variable and in 2008 the failings of one firm were tragically exposed when pensioner David Gray was mistakenly given a fatal overdose of morphine by German GP Daniel Ubani on his first shift.
Harmoni, which is responsible for out-of-hours care at 20 PCTs in England, said GPs would cover 68 per cent of sessions next month, with the remaining 32 per cent filled by nurses. In February last year, GPs covered 72 per cent of sessions and nurses 28 per cent.
Andrew Gardner, chief executive of Harmoni, said nurses were increasingly used in ‘telephone triage’, speaking to patients when they first call to establish the severity of their condition.
Based on this, the nurse will decide whether a patient is ill enough to need a home visit by a doctor or nurse, needs to come in to a walk-in centre or is able to manage their symptoms on their own at home.
He said: ‘We’ve moved from GPs to nurses. We’ve tended to put them on telephone triage because we’ve found that their delivery is just as good. They might take ten minutes to do a triage rather than eight minutes, but sometimes patients like that.’
Mr Gardner said it was important to have a good mix of GPs and nurses as they were both better at different roles. For example, nurses would be better trained to visit a cancer patient in their homes, while GPs would be better at carrying out a face-to-face examination.
But Dr Simon Poole, a GP in Histon, Cambridgeshire, said: ‘If doctors are absent, you have to be concerned about safety. ‘One measure of an out-of-hours provider’s success should be the capacity to recruit local doctors.’
NHS bosses agree to pay for cancer boy’s Germany surgery after British hospitals delayed operation twice
The NHS has agreed to cover the costs of a mother who was forced to fly her son to Germany for cancer surgery after British hospitals delayed his operation twice.
Seven-year-old Zac Knighton-Smith’s family spent about £10,000 to send him abroad to remove three tumours, as the Mail revealed earlier this month.
Yesterday, his mother Sam Knighton, 43, said: ‘The NHS has agreed to fund our travel expenses and surgery costs, which is a great relief as we have already spent a fortune.’ But she added: ‘There’s no way they would have done it without the publicity from the Daily Mail.’
Zac, of Rushden, Northamptonshire, flew out to Germany on January 9 for surgery. He had been due to have the cancerous lymph nodes removed in Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre on December 22, but the surgery was delayed until January 19 as there were no paediatric beds available there.
Miss Knighton feared it would be dangerous to wait that long, and so the operation was rescheduled for January 4 at Leicester Royal Infirmary – but was cancelled half an hour before the family were due to make their way to the hospital, again because of a lack of paediatric beds.
In desperation, former advertising executive Miss Knighton, who has taken Zac to Germany in the past for treatment, phoned his consultant there who agreed to operate as soon as possible.
She flew out with Zac and her partner, Bob Smith, so the boy could get treatment at the University Hospital Greifswald, a specialist centre for neuroblastoma, the form of cancer with which Zac was diagnosed.
Zac is expected to make a full recovery, but the disease could recur at any time.
Speaking to the Mail from Greifswald, Miss Knighton said the family were flying back to England on Friday, adding: ‘I just think it’s a shame it came to this. ‘Perhaps if the NHS used the money to provide better facilities in the UK, they wouldn’t have to fund expensive trips like this.’
Zac began showing symptoms in October 2008. He was given the all-clear last February, but a scan in May in Germany showed three tumours in his abdomen.
Northamptonshire NHS spokesman Tony Delaney said Zac’s case did not set a precedent, explaining: ‘There is a history of cooperation between the NHS and the hospital in Germany in this particular case, so that is why we have agreed to fund the treatment. ‘This would not apply to another family who decided to send their child abroad for treatment.’
Amid the talk of Scottish independence, it’s now time to answer the English Question
The reawakening of national identity south of the border will have major consequences
During a relatively brief radio interview at the weekend, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader, used the phrase “the people of Scotland” at least a dozen times. You don’t have to listen for long to a US politician, from the president downwards, before you hear the words “the American people” uttered. Yet can you imagine a mainstream political discussion here in which the “people of England” are routinely invoked?
While others proudly assert their nationhood, Englishness is the identity that hardly dares to speak its name. As Richard Wyn Jones, professor of politics at Cardiff University and author of a report on Englishness to be published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), said yesterday: “The British political class is very uncomfortable in dealing with England as England.”
However, this reticence is no longer sustainable in view of the debate about Scottish independence and the prospect of a break-up of the United Kingdom. As a couple of polls have shown recently, resentment is growing rapidly in England over what is perceived to be the special treatment of Scotland. In particular, the so‑called West Lothian Question has started to make itself felt, with more than 50 per cent of English voters of the view that Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote in the Commons on laws that affect only England.
This week, the Government is due to announce the membership of a constitutional commission to see how this anomaly can be addressed. In some ways, it feels a bit like a sideshow to the main event, the debate over the future of the Union. But since this process will either fracture the UK or, more likely, see Scotland remain within the structure but with enhanced powers, it cannot be ducked any longer.
It was in 1977, during the devolution debates in the Commons, that Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian, asked: “For how long will English constituencies and English honourable members tolerate honourable members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics, while they have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?” Enoch Powell, in the same debate, gave Mr Dalyell’s puzzle the status it now enjoys: “We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at,” he said. “Let us call it the West Lothian Question.”
To call something a “question” conjured up those great issues that once preoccupied parliamentarians, like Schleswig-Holstein or, more pertinently, the Irish Question. But this was never really the West Lothian Question – it is the English Question. How does England fit into the post-devolutionary settlement? This has been ignored, largely because the English have not indulged in an all‑consuming narrative about national identity as the Scots have done. Symbolism is important. Next week, for instance, the rituals of Burns Night will keep the nationalist flames alight. But where is the English equivalent, a Shakespeare feast of Lancashire hotpot or shepherd’s pie, followed by readings from the works of the Bard and accompanied by pints of bitter and glasses of mead? On March 1, St David’s Day, the Welsh will happily sport a daffodil, but if an Englishman turned up at work on April 23 wearing a red rose in his lapel it would be assumed he was on his way to a wedding, not celebrating his national day.
The English, by dint of their nation’s long history and its disproportionate size within the Union, have never felt it necessary to expend much, or any, political energy on matters of identity. Yet this has meant that many of its people have become estranged from the history, literature and symbols that are quintessentially English, as opposed to British. A poll in this newspaper several years ago found that a quarter did not know the date of St George’s Day, even when it was included in a list of options.
Moreover, while the Scots and the Welsh have never had any compunction about parading their nationalities while abroad, a significant proportion of people from England tended to describe themselves as British. But this is changing (and I write this as an Ulsterman brought up in England for whom the only available national identity is British).
More than 10 years after devolution, the IPPR report detects a fundamental shift in English attitudes and a politicisation of English identity that spreads far beyond fringe nationalist groups. How will this manifest itself in our institutions? Even if Scotland does not split away, pressure for an English parliament within a loose federation of four constituent states will become harder to resist. At the very least, a new system of debating English-only laws will have to be introduced, something that has so far been resisted for fear of stoking up anti-Union feeling in Scotland. That genie is now out of the bottle. The other option, that of regional devolution – a sort of balkanisation of England – was tried by Labour and shot down in the North-East referendum.
The irony is that devolution was supposed to halt the march to separatism. When he was prime minister, Gordon Brown sought to promote Britishness as a concept, in the expectation that it would bring the peoples of the United Kingdom together. Instead, there has been a resurgence of national identities. A new English iconography is developing, with the cross of St George – which became associated with the working-class populism of the far Right – much more in evidence. The heightened debate about Scotland’s future means that the time is coming for the people of England to have a say in their future as a nation. As Chesterton said, they have not spoken yet.
British bureaucrats’ lavish spending reined in under the Tories
Civil servants have started to dine out at McDonald’s and Burger King after a spending purge at a department run by Eric Pickles
Mr Pickles looks like he knows a thing or two about pickles
Officials at the Communities and Local Government department are using their Government credit cards to pay for meals at fast food restaurants rather than four star establishments, new spending figures show.
In 2010/11, officials spent £17.95 at McDonald’s, £23.60 at Nando’s and £11.48 at Burger King on their Government Procurement Cards. None of the restaurants appeared in GPC bills in any of the previous four years, according to a Parliamentary Answer.
Overall, spending on the cards by CLG officials fell from £515,000 in 2007/8 and £535,500 in 2008/9 to £210,000 in 2010/11.
A large proportion of the savings were in hotels, bars and restaurants. In 2007/8 and 2008/9 CLG officials spent around £120,000 a year on their cards in hotels. In the first year of the Coalition – 2010/11 – they spent just £18,000.
Similarly spending in restaurants and bars by CLG officials on their cards fell from £54,000 in 2007/8 to just £5,425 in 2010/11. In the first six months 2011/12 the figure was just £180.
Many of the restaurants which featured regularly in the GPC statements under Labour – such as the Cinnamon Club in Westminster – no longer appear in the GPC statements under the Coalition.
Thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money was also spent at a host of upmarket hotels such as the Hyatt in Philadelphia, the Grand Hotel Karel V in the Netherlands, the Grand Hyatt in Dubai and the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh before the last election.
Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: “We are cracking down on the abuse of Government Procurement Cards, which saw Labour spend people’s hard-earned cash on lavish restaurants, hotels and even pampering at a spa.
“At DCLG we are embracing total transparency, putting as much data as possible into the hands of the people. Transparency saves taxpayers money and we urge local authority users of the cards to take similar steps to end this abuse.”
Some examples of profligate spending did get through however. Stays at Avon Gorge Hotel in Bristol and the Hyatt Regency in Birmingham were charged to the taxpayer on GPC cards under the Coalition.
Officials also spent £217.23 at MC Chauffeurs, a executive chauffeur driven car hire firm in Leeds, despite a ban by Prime Minister David Cameron on using official cars, in July 2010.
The department also organised an away day for “senior management” at the Boy Brigade in September 2010, costing £223.
British Liberal leader hits out at Israel
Israel doing ‘immense damage’ to peace process Nick Clegg says
Nick Clegg tilted Britain’s Middle East policy sharply towards the Palestinians on Monday with an attack on Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank.
The Deputy Prime Minister drew a hostile reaction from Israel by saying the government’s continued construction on internationally recognised Palestinian land was “an act of deliberate vandalism” that undermined the basis of the Middle East peace process.
In some of the most critical language ever used by a senior European politician in government, Mr Clegg accused Israel of making the likelihood of a negotiated settlement to the conflict impossible to deliver. “It is an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise on which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years,” Mr Clegg said.
He said there was “no stronger supporter of Israel than myself as a beacon of democracy in the region”, but added: “The continued existence of illegal settlements risks making facts on the ground such that a two-state solution becomes unviable.
“That, in turn, will do nothing to safeguard the security of Israel itself or of Israeli citizens. That is why I condemn the continued illegal settlement activity in the strongest possible terms.”
He was speaking alongside Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who is on a visit to London.
Mr Clegg’s comments reflect growing European impatience with the government Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Israeli prime minister, who is seen by many Western officials as an obstacle to peace because of his refusal to freeze settlement building.
But while European and even American government officials regularly criticise Israel’s settlement policies, few have done so quite as bluntly, a fact that will strain the Government’s increasingly tense relations with Mr Netanyahu.
Israel reacted with predictable hostility, with a foreign ministry spokesman accusing Mr Clegg of “gratuitous bashing”. “It would be much better to contribute to peace by encouraging the fragile revival of Israeli-Palestinian talks,” the spokesman said.
Mr Abbas was delighted by so strong an endorsement of the Palestinian position. “That is exactly what we wanted to hear officially from the government of the United Kingdom,” he said.
Officials in Jerusalem say they now view Britain as one of the most hostile states to Israel in Europe, although the Government bowed to Israeli pressure by agreeing to abstain if a vote on Palestinian statehood was held in the UN Security Council.
The Palestinian Authority has refused to join peace talks with Israel unless Mr Netanyahu agrees to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, seen by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state.
With more than 600,000 settlers living on land occupied by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, any further expansion of Jewish construction would make a Palestinian state unviable, Mr Abbas says.
Palestinians also claim that previous peace talks have led to an escalation of settlement construction as a result of Israeli leaders having to pacify the powerful Right-wing in the Jewish state.
David Cameron, who also met Mr Abbas in Downing Street yesterday, signalled his support for his deputy. “We think that time, in some ways, is running out for the two-state solution unless we can push forward now, because otherwise the facts on the ground will make it more and more difficult, which is why the settlement issue remains so important,” the Prime Minister said.
HRT breast cancer alert that led to thousands of women abandoning treatment was ‘based on bad research’
I have been pointing this out for years
British research which linked HRT to breast cancer and led to hundreds of thousands of women abandoning the treatment was ‘unreliable and defective’, says a damning review.
It is almost ten years since the study – the largest of its kind – contributed to a worldwide scare about the safety of Hormone Replacement Therapy. It was one of three major pieces of research which undermined the confidence of women and doctors in the therapy.
As a result GPs were advised to prescribe it on a short-term basis only to combat menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats. They were also told not to use it as a treatment for the bone thinning disease osteoporosis – which can lead to deadly fractures. An estimated one million women gave up HRT in Britain, halving the number using it.
Scientists at Cancer Research UK’s Epidemiology Unit at Oxford, who carried out the MWS, said HRT doubled the risk of breast cancer and blamed it for an extra 20,000 British cases over the decade.
However, the new review led by Professor Samuel Shapiro, a leading epidemiologist at Cape Town Medical School, South Africa, says the size of the study was irrelevant because the design was flawed and this skewed its findings. Professor Shapiro claims the study failed on a number of criteria accepted in good quality research.
For example, cancers detected within a few months of the study’s start would have already been present when women were enrolled, but these were not excluded and this skewed the findings.
Women in the study were contacted through breast screening – but this in itself would have increased the number already aware of lumps or pre-cancerous changes and led to a bias in higher numbers of cancers being detected.
A key criticism is the ‘biological implausibility’ of HRT promoting new cancers – and of this effect being ‘switched off’ within months of a woman stopping using it.
The researchers also said the name Million Women Study implies an authority beyond criticism or refutation. ‘Size alone does not guarantee that the findings are reliable,’ said the review. ‘HRT may or may not increase the risk of breast cancer, but the MWS does not establish that it does.’
The review, published in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, is the final in a series looking at research linking HRT to breast cancer, which found flaws in two other major studies.
Review co-author Dr John Stevenson, consultant metabolic physician at Imperial College, London, and Royal Brompton Hospital London, said: ‘So much damage has been done by frightening women off HRT, in terms of reducing their quality of life, preventing bone loss and fractures and improving the risk of cardiovascular disease.
‘HRT is one of the cheapest treatments in medicine and we have yet to count the cost to the NHS because of women not having HRT.’
Professor Dame Valerie Beral, who led the Million Women Study, said the review authors were influenced by work as consultants to HRT manufacturers, and that 20 other studies had come to the same conclusion as MWS. [An “ad hominem” attack is about as weak a rejoinder as you get]
Expect fewer top exam passes, parents warned: Price worth paying to curb grade inflation, insists British education boss
Parents should be prepared to accept a fall in the number of pupils getting top GCSE and A-level grades, Michael Gove warned yesterday. The Government’s crackdown on grade inflation will mean fewer As and A*s being handed out in an attempt to return to realistic results, the Education Secretary said.
Mr Gove argued that this was a price worth paying for an exam system that commands respect among universities and parents.
In an interview yesterday, he said grade inflation ‘discredits the integrity of our education system’ and GCSEs, A-levels and degrees must get ‘tougher’. ‘If that means fewer passes, then that’s something we’ll have to accept, but I want to ensure that as well as exams being tougher, schools work harder,’ he said. ‘What I hope we will see is our exams are once again trusted across the globe and our children are among the best in the world.’
Mr Gove said he would not emulate his Labour predecessors and pat himself on the back if exam results were to go up each year.
He said: ‘Unfortunately, the real achievements of children on the ground became debased and devalued because Labour education secretaries sounded like Soviet commissars praising the tractor production figures when we know that those exams were not the rock-solid measures of achievement that children deserve.’
Mr Gove added: ‘You’ve got to tell the truth about these things. When people see that pass rates have improved at this level, they know that while schools have improved, they haven’t improved at that rate. ‘It discredits the integrity of our education system.’
Mr Gove also said that improving the UK’s place in international school league tables would take ten years to achieve. In 2009, England slipped to 25th for reading, 25th for maths and 16th for science.
Mr Gove spoke out as he prepared to outline new plans to improve discipline. Head teachers will no longer need to give 24 hours’ written notice for detentions outside school hours from today.
Schools will get new powers to keep unruly pupils behind after lessons as part of a drive to restore order in the classroom. These ‘no notice’ detentions are one of the key elements of the Education Act 2011, which aims to help teachers maintain discipline in the classroom.
Other changes will follow in the coming months, including extended powers for teachers to search pupils for items ‘that are going to be used to cause harm or break the law’.
Teachers will also be granted anonymity when accused by pupils, and independent appeals panels for exclusions are being overhauled so that they will no longer be able to reinstate pupils who have committed serious offences.
The Coalition has also laid down regulations which, subject to Parliamentary approval, will mean that teachers will be able to search pupils for tobacco and cigarette papers, pornographic images and fireworks, without their consent.
Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on school behaviour, said yesterday: ‘Without good behaviour, teachers can’t teach and pupils can’t learn. Teachers need to have the right powers at their disposal to use if they wish.’
The gamekeeper’s girl aged nine, her magical century-old exercise book and a humbling lesson for today’s schools
Who was Fannie Bryan? All I know for sure is that she was born in 1889 and lived all her life in the tiny hamlet of Tidenham Chase, deep in the Forest of Dean, with views stretching to the River Severn.
I doubt she ever journeyed as far as Bristol, 23 miles away, but still, her education at a tiny village school provided her with skills that stretched her young mind to the full. By the age of nine, Fannie could read, write, spell and do sums at a level which is, to the modern eye, frankly astonishing.
I know this, because I have in front of me her old school book, found among her possessions when she died, an old lady, just yards from the house belonging to the grandfather of my friend Alan Dorrington in the quaintly named Miss Grace’s Lane.
Alan’s father, a forester, gave him the exercise book, together with a charming album of postcards when Fannie’s cottage was cleared, years ago now, and they’ve been languishing in a drawer ever since.
He gave them to me because, like me, when he took them out to examine them, he was astonished at the story their pages told. Not about Fannie’s life, but about the decline in standards that has left so many of today’s schoolchildren intellectually impoverished.
It is a story that deserves a wider audience. For anybody looking at what Fannie achieved in her poor rural backwater is likely to reach the inevitable conclusion that we have let recent generations of children down. Badly.
Fannie was not born into a family of great intellectuals. I’m guessing her father, Jack, was probably a gamekeeper, because her exercises are written out in a hardcover book called The Gamekeeper’s and Game Preserver’s Account Book and Diary. There are a few pencil accounts by Jack: the birth of a couple of calves, the number of eggs laid, and details about the value of dogs and equipment in a kennels.
So did he work for the Big House nearby? Very likely, because the sums involved seem enormous and the area was famed for hunting and game. There’s also a note which tells us that once a week he went ‘to town’ in his cart with his daughter to sell butter and eggs. That would have been Chepstow, just two-and-a-half miles away.
Was little Fannie badgering her father for some paper to write her homework on when he gave her that notebook? Working people wouldn’t waste a thing – and so in 1898 he (or another adult) wrote her name at the front: ‘Fannie Bryan – nine years’, in confident steel pen and ink.
The pages which follow are impressive. The first thing you notice is the handwriting. Every pupil was taught a good cursive (meaning ‘joined-up’) hand, and made to practise letter shapes again and again. Boring? Nobody thought in those terms then. You did it because it got results. So at nine, Fannie was writing beautifully presented sentences which dance across the page.
And don’t think she was unusual. When I turn over the postcards slotted into her album I notice that her cousins wrote in the same way. For example, Wilf, a relatively lowly second steward on a steam ship, displays an elegant penmanship equal to hers.
A modern educationist would probably dismiss Fannie’s careful passages about geography as ‘uncreative’. But when I read her words about Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Vienna, Cape Finisterre, Rotterdam and the rest, I think of how fascinating all the information must have been to the country girl.
And there are interesting insights into her mind, as she asks: ‘Would you not rather live in those airy Viennese palaces than in the midst of town, yet most people like best to live in the crowded city. I believe the reason is they like having a great deal of company.’ How many nine-year-olds could write that fluently today?
And what about this comment, which looks forward to 20th century conflict? ‘Warsaw is the capital of Poland. It is full of soldiers. They are Russians sent by the Emperor to keep the poor Poles in order…’
And the poetry of this: ‘Cracow… is a small city… the kings of Poland used to be crowned there and buried there. On a high rock stands a church. A steep road leads to it. How many kings have gone up that road – first, very much pleased – to be crowned, and then – silent and cold – to be buried!’
A year later, at ten, Fannie is concentrating on her dictation. Older readers will remember this involved your teacher reading you a difficult passage that you had to write down making as few mistakes as possible, getting all the words and punctuation right. In Fannie’s book the dictations are perfect.
But that won’t mean much unless I quote you a typical example: ‘The largest waves are seen there directly the storm has passed away, not while it lasts. No matter how furious the gale might have been, for the rushing wind has a tendency to blow down the waves, so to speak, and prevent them rising to their utmost height, it is when the storm is over that the swell rises; it does not however impress the beholder with its magnitude until it draws near to the rocks and begins to feel the checking influence of the sea.’
‘Incredible,’ do I hear you say? Yes, Fannie had to follow and reproduce extremely complex sentences that would baffle most modern children.
Beneath that exercise, and all through the book, are lists of words she was obviously supposed to memorise. Here are some examples: Londoner, refluent, spectral, embargo, weird, shadowy, listless, engineer, gurgling, dissolve, alert, stealthily, leisure, companion, purify, venture – and so on.
If the average sixth-former today used half of the vocabulary carefully copied out to learn by little Fannie Bryan they would be writing at a very sophisticated level indeed.
As for the pages of mathematics, Fannie’s sums – her pounds, shillings and pence, long division and fractions – look very difficult to me, but then maths was never my strong point. The point is, each calculation is laid out neatly, and (from the teacher’s markings) most of them are correct. And I get a touching sense of Fannie as a real, normal child when, after some sums (these ones less neat, as if she was bored) you find a lovely little doodle in ink — of an ostrich.
Why do I close this book feeling saddened, and even angry? Because it demonstrates what an ordinary child could do, when nobody was assuming she couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be stretched because she was working class.
But was she typical? I pulled from my bookshelf Winifred Foley’s classic autobiography, A Child In The Forest, about her childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean. Fannie was about 25 when Winifred was born some 15 miles away, but their backgrounds would have been very similar.
Winifred Foley, whose family rarely had enough to eat and who wore ‘scruffy’ clothes, writes of being promoted to the top class at the village school when she was nine, like Fannie.
She describes how the teacher ‘took us out of the classroom… with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black Beauty, Lorna Doone, Treasure Island. This wasn’t just “doing the classics” – as she went along, we followed, spellbound. Every day, life became richer. Learning new words was like having the key to free the imprisoned thought I’d been unable to express’.
What modern child of that age would tackle those marvellous books? What teacher would expect them to?
Last week the Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that many primary school pupils were unable to enjoy books such as Harry Potter and the Narnia series because ‘they haven’t learned to read properly’.
He said that about one in six 11-year-olds struggle to read and one in ten boys that age has a reading age of seven or below. In the last nine years England has fallen in the International Reading League Table, from 7th to 25th. Behind the statistic is a tragic story of children who have not been given the ‘key’ that meant so much to Winifred Foley – and no doubt to Fannie Bryan – the key to a mind which could be challenged.
Today, it is hard not to fear that for many who deserve better the key has been lost. Let me emphasise that I am writing this as the author of more than 25 children’s books, who has visited scores of primary schools and received hundreds of letters from children over the years.
Charming as they were (and much appreciated by me) I’m sorry to say that not even the best of them would measure up to Fannie Bryan’s work in terms of an ability to write well at the age of nine or ten.
When did the change happen? Why were writing exercises, tough spelling tests and punctuation thrown out of the window? When did teachers stop expecting children to do well, to be stretched?
When my son, Dan, first went to primary school in 1978 he wasn’t taught how to read or write – not in the sense that I was in the Fifties, or Fannie Bryan was in the 1890s.
In late Seventies Britain, playing in the sandpit was considered an area of expertise. There was little structure to the day and it was fine for children to mess about with their backs to the teacher – because that’s how classrooms were arranged. Remember? Left-wing educationists (who ruled – and I know because I spent a couple of years as an education journalist) spoke of tried-and-tested teaching methods such as ‘sitting in rows’ and ‘learning by rote’ as if they were positively vicious.
It was all about ideology, not children’s needs. And certainly not about raising standards as a means of children escaping their backgrounds.
At Dan’s South London school his teacher looked at me as if I was a dinosaur (as well as a pain in the neck) for suggesting that he wasn’t making progress and some spelling might be useful.
Two years later, in despair at what the state school was doing to him, we reluctantly entered him for a small prep school in Bath. They were seriously worried at how far behind his peers he was – but brought him up to scratch in one term.
How? Not because of class size – because after all, in my own post-war baby-boom inner-city Liverpool primary school, we had 50 per class and astonishing standards. No, by a rigorous application of the 3Rs, which a Victorian (and Edwardian and later) child took for granted.
Looking at Fannie’s book, I can’t help grieving for those common-sense rules of learning – lost amid conflicting political doctrines, educational fads, lies about standards and endless doctrinaire tinkering by those whom Education Secretary Michael Gove has dubbed ‘the enemies of promise’.
Of course, it goes without saying we have thousands of dedicated teachers preparing the lessons they will deliver to happy children who are doing very well in school. But if so many of our teenagers are lagging – in English – behind their peers in Canada, Australia and Shanghai, we have to ask ourselves why.
It pleases me to bring Fannie and her beautiful writing into the light. She may never have left the hamlet where she was born, but that little drawn ostrich alone is proof that she was encouraged to travel as far as she could, within her imagination.
Is it too much to hope that we can all learn something from her homework?