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Why    are   these   items     featured    here  ?

This page contains summaries of selected news items, commentaries or research related to the theme of empowerment. Most of the articles are derived from several sources; where possible the main source is cited.

We will be grateful for information, cuttings or references that can be used as background material from which we can prepare other articles relevant to empowerment; such material can be sent by e-mail to ecdc@ecdc.org.uk    (People without e-mail access of their own can send background material by post to the address given on the contacts page in this website.)

Viewers' comments on any of the articles featured on this page can be sent to the above address. As a matter of principle we do not publish material of a personal or party political nature.

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Archive: Roads to Empowerment

“Health and Safety” used as a bureaucratic shield

Unreasonable claims that numerous practices and situations are a threat to health and safety have long held sway, with few people willing to confront such claims. The effects of accepting those claims can be damaging in making parents fearful about risks in the normal everyday activities of their children, as well as reducing the children’s confidence in tackling the normal challenges of everyday life.

It has been pointed out that as society becomes increasingly risk-averse, parents limit their children’s freedom to wander within their local environments and encourage the children rather to play computer games indoors and watch inordinate amounts of television. Yet the risks of child abduction are as minimal today as they have ever been, according to some estimates; it is the perception of such risks that has widened to the point of fearfulness.

Children "wrapped in cotton wool" The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, an independent body which advises the Government, stated recently that many schools and youth groups jeopardise children’s development by wrapping them in cotton wool and stopping them making their own decisions. Society has ended up with a nanny state where children are seldom let out (of the home), schools are too afraid to take pupils on trips and in some cases children are discouraged from playing football during school breaks.

A strict interpretation of guidelines means that children are not learning social and team-building skills. Instead they are becoming couch potatoes, frustrated and likely to find it hard to cope with problems in later life.

Many regular school trips in which youngsters learned at first hand about nature or the urban environment have been cancelled because teachers are not prepared to face what they see as the risks of an accident (or even worse, having to face disciplinary or court action if a child is injured). The likelihood of such incidents occurring is minimal. A Government Minister recently urged teachers to continue pro-viding such outings, as they were a vital part of a rounded education; action was only taken against teachers when there was evidence of serious negligence, according to the Minister.

Risk part of everyday life   In a recent incident, a young teenager slipped and fell to her death while walking with her family on a mountain hike. The parents courageously said that they would not have brought up their children differently; risk was part of life and part of everyday existence.

The national Health and Safety Executive has become so concerned about the misuse of ‘Health and Safety’ by officials who try to restrict normal activities, that it sent a team to participate in a national conker throwing competition. (Some while ago a local council had cut down its beech trees on the grounds that a falling conker might injure someone and cause them to sue the council for compensation.) The only condition laid down by the Health and Safety team was that the conkers should be fresh (i.e. soft) and participants should not be free to choose old or hardened conkers that could cause injury.

Accident prevention body adds its warning From another direction, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents added its warning against ”small-minded bureaucrats” who undermined genuine health and safety work. While Rospa’s work focuses on reducing the total of 12,000 people a year who die in accidents, at a cost to the UK of 25 billion, it is the (unofficial) health and safety “extremists” who prevent children from leading a healthy and robust life.

The head of Rospa pointed out that these extremists contributed to the misperception of health and safety, so that it came to be seen as restricting people’s lives rather than helping them to live better lives. A child’s minor injury resulting from playing in a challenging environment could be a positive necessity rather than unacceptable, as some people claimed.

The headmaster of a large girls’ school said that the girls at that school were encouraged to assess risk themselves and learn what they can and can’t do, even if it does involve grazed knees and bruised noses. He criticised those teachers who hid behind health and safety rules to refuse to go on school trips. Health and safety were about protecting the child, not the institution. Risk is essential in a child’s education.

Ref. empowerment 0005. Sources: various press reports. 10.06.



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Valuable aid given by poor countries to rich countries

Much attention is focused on the considerable volume of ‘foreign aid’ given by rich countries to the poorer developing countries. Huge campaigns are waged to increase debt relief, while international conferences serve to impress the world and its media about the generosity of the donors. There is another side to this picture - the ways in which many poorer countries are providing direct and indirect aid to richer countries. Some examples:

Provision of trained medical staff  Each year tens of thousands of doctors and nurses are trained in developing countries to internationally prescribed standards, usually at the expense of the governments concerned as the students do not have the resources to pay for training. A significant proportion of these qualified doctors and nurse then emigrate to rich western countries to better themselves, and in most cases are offered jobs in hospitals and other health services in the host countries. Approximately one-quarter of medical professionals practising in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia were trained abroad. In the UK some 60% of these came from developing countries, and in the USA the equivalent figures was 75%.

No payment is made by the host countries to the countries of origin, despite the fact that the cost of school education and professional training of such staff can amount to a western equivalent of 100,000-200,000 or more for the most skilled medical staff, and 50,000 or more for nursing staff. The value of this annual export amounts to several billion pounds a year. The cost to the host country is not only in the expense of educating and training those who leave, but also in the huge volume of ill health resulting from the loss of health staff who would otherwise have been caring for and curing ill people in their countries of origin.

With the growth in educational and training facilities world wide, western societies are milking even more of the massive amount of skilled human resources that are now available in poorer countries, with no recognition that western foreign aid is probably exceeded by the importation of great numbers of trained staff in a multitude of skilled occupations, with the resulting loss of talent and enterprise for the exporting countries, and only a limited flow of temporary staff in the opposite direction.

Water privatisation Some western governments, including the UK, are using their own foreign aid disbursements to compel the recipient countries to sell their public water utilities to international companies, who then compel residents to start paying for this water. The argument for this policy is that the revenue generated can be used to improve and increase the provision of clean water. But there are also sizable contributions from the recipient countries to the profits of the international companies, profits which will continue to roll in for decades after the original investment has been paid for.

Export of agricultural products and minerals in their raw state    For generations this has meant a significant transfer of wealth from the poor source countries to the rich user countries. As a prime example, most coffee beans have to be exported in their raw state, at a relatively low cost, to the rich consumer countries where the value of the coffee is multiplied many times by the process of grinding, mixing of grades and tastes, and packing of the finished product. It is factories and wholesalers in the host countries who benefit greatly from the sale of the coffee, while farmers in the producer countries are often living at near starvation levels, with some easing of their lives when “fairtrade” is introduced by more socially-minded importers to ensure a higher price for the farmers and possibly win kudos with consumers in the rich countries.

The same principle has long been used in compelling producer countries to provide raw mineral ores to industries in the rich countries, where the ores are converted into copper, steel and other usable materials.

The hidden factor in the exports of raw agricultural and mineral products is that trade barriers in the host countries allow these imports unhindered entry if they are not processed, but put high tariffs on those same products if they are processed. This discourages international companies who might otherwise set up processing facilities and provide high tech process methods in the producer countries.

Ref. empowerment 0004. Sources: New Engl. J. Med. (2005, 353: 1810-1818) and other reports on the international flow of human and material resources. 06.07.

Teaching children maths: Piagetian thinking questioned

For many decades the method of teaching numeracy and mathematics to children in infant schools in the West has been based on the theories of the Swiss developmental philosopher Piaget. He claimed, on the basis of research with learning-disabled children, that young children had to go through certain stages of cognitive development before they could safely be taught algebra and other mathematical skills.

Russian mathematicians, for generations among the most advanced in the world, have long argued against that narrow view of children’s potential. They introduce Russian children to algebra - which has much to do with combining logic and numbers - right at the outset of their schooling. The results are so impressive that the vast educational systems in China and elsewhere in Asia have followed suit.

Piagetian hypotheses may limit maths progress Unfortunately some interesting Piagetian hypotheses have become become the holy grail of infant teaching in much of the West, especially the US and Britain. Teachers have to follow prescribed curricula that ‘protect’ young children from being introduced to algebra and other mathematical manipulation. For a variety of reasons, including the dominance of Piagetian theory in early education in the West, the mathematical abilities of 13 to 14 year olds in the USA were 15th down the list of advanced countries in international tests carried out in 2003; the abilities of English and Scottish children in those same tests were ranked 18th and 19th.

Some parts of the US are now experimenting with this ‘new’ approach of allowing children to start on algebra from the beginning of infant schooling. There do not appear to be any official decisions on curriculum reform in this area in the UK, as yet.

Ref. empowerment 0001. Sources: Monthly journal Prospect (Jan. 2007) and elsewhere. 01.07



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Anatomy  of  a  mistaken  murder charge against adopting parents

An adoptive couple were mistakenly imprisoned after one of their three adopted children died mysteriously. Details of the case provide a disturbing insight into how three eminent professions can fail to identify an alternative explanation which would have exonerated the innocent parents.

The UK couple applied to adopt when the mother found that she could not conceive. Social services carried out the usual checks over a period of eight months and three children from one family were then placed with the couple for a 13-week trial period. Half way through this period one of the children, a three-year-old boy, died four days after becoming comatose. Tests showed an abnormally high level of sodium in the child’s blood.

Deliberate poisoning alleged The parents were prosecuted for murder, the allegation of a medical expert being that they had deliberately poisoned the child by dosing him with 4 teaspoons of salt. The prosecution also claimed that a number of bruises on the head indicated child manhandling. The couple said the child had been misbehaving, had thrown his lunch on the floor and soon after had become comatose, at which point the child was taken to hospital, where he died four days later.

The parents were found guilty and sentenced to prison. As a result of evidence submitted subsequently about the possibility of the child suffering from ‘reset osmosis’ - a condition under which a biological balancing mechanism goes out of order and the body does not excrete excess sodium in the normal way - the couple were released after having spent a year in prison, and a new trial was ordered. The condition referred to above allows salt to accumulate to the point where an affected person can die from excessive sodium. At the second trial the jury found the couple not guilty.

Similar claims made in earlier cases A number of questions arise from such a case. There have been previous cases where allegations have been made (and disproved) about parents dosing a child with salt in order to kill it. Eight months of social service vetting in this case would surely have indicated sufficient stability in a couple for the adoptive children to be reasonably safe. Would the normal social worker visits to the family during the adoption trial period not have revealed cause for concern had there been a serious problem with the behaviour or care of the child who died? If the bruising to the head had been sufficiently serious, would that not in itself have provided grounds for prosecution? If this was not done, does it suggest that the bruising was only mild and could have occurred when the child was falling comatose and attempts were made to revive it? If the child was really unmanageable, social services could have been asked to take that child back.

Evidence that high salt leads to vomiting In a situation such as the one described here, it is hard to understand why matters reached the point of prosecution. Once the high sodium content in the blood had been identified as the cause of death, experts in this field could have been asked whether it is possible to poison a child by giving large doses of salt. The evidence is that excess salt in the stomach leads to immediate vomiting to get rid of the salt. A BBC reporter, John Sweeney, showed on film how taking the alleged dose of 4 teaspoons of salt caused him to vomit. To get the complete film he repeated this five times, each time followed by vomiting. As the body naturally excretes excess sodium. alternative explanations of biological malfunction could have been sought in the case of the dead child.

There are other factors that could also have been looked at. The couple were well known and highly respected in their community. A couple who cannot have their own children and who were happy to have three children simultaneously placed with them for adoption, would surely be the last ones to adopt the extreme remedy of killing a misbehaving three-year-old. Do we always have to assume the worst of parents in complex situations such as this one?

Ref. empowerment 0002. Sources: Dr James LeFanu, Telegraph (6.3.07), and other newspaper and media accounts. 06.07

Failure of school-based interventions

There are many intervention programs that target the smoking, drinking, drug-taking and bullying habits found among secondary school youngsters. These programs are set up and evaluated in the UK, US, Australia and elsewhere in the Western world. They have two things in common.

First, very few of these interventions have any significant success. Their results are partial, limited and often persist for only a year or two. Given the high cost of the interventions and the wasted commitment of the adults involved, it does not hold out much hope for developing yet more of that kind of program.

The seriousness of this conclusion is that the four problem behaviours mentioned can have devastating effects on some school students, on their health, self-esteem, spending resources and adult lives. The fact that the adult generation can achieve little in counteracting the growth of these problems suggests a total rethink of how such intervention program are undertaken.

Youngsters not involved in developing programs  The other factor that most programs have in common is that the strategies put forward do not come from the youngsters themselves and the latter are not empowered to help administer the programs.

It is understandable that children in primary education would not in general have the ability to think through strategies to deal with these complex and damaging behaviours, nor would they be in a position to direct the administration of such programs. But for youngsters in secondary education there are strong reasons for involving them as the key players.

They are into their early adult years, learning responsibility and open to being encouraged to use the opportunity to experiment with what are normally seen as adult matters. The empowerment of such youngsters could be a major factor in realising the goals of these programs, as they would be far more likely to make a success of initiatives in which they have a major part, than they would be in carrying out programs handed down to them by school teachers, outside psychologists and others in position of authority.

Understandably, most teachers and other professionals are likely to want to develop the behaviour modification programs themselves, on the strength of their greater knowledge of the problem behaviours, and having the authority to ensure that what they specify as the elements of the programs should be carried out by the youngsters - with only limited input from the youngsters themselves. The fact that there are so few successful programs dealing with school students’ smoking, drinking, drug-taking and bullying behaviours, suggests however that the vast efforts made by a great many adults are largely in vain.

Trial with youngsters administering programmes?   What has not yet been tried on any major scale is the setting up of school forums where the youngsters elect from among their number those who are interested in giving up some of their free time to help develop and administer behavioural programs for their own school communities.

Clearly these would not be groups acting in isolation from adults, where damaging and cruel Lord of the Flies situations could develop within uncontrolled groups. A few trusted adults would need to serve as monitors and be available for consultation. The choice of such adults would be critical, as they would be selected because of their empowering and empathetic nature. They could caution against certain policies that appeared to be too demanding or too punitive. On the other hand they would need to give the school committees the encouragement to try out their own ideas, and adapt them if the original proposals are not seen to work.

Ref. empowerment 0003. Sources: Caroline Hunt (CAMH, 12,1,2007,21-26, on an anti-bullying program) and other professional journals and press reports. 06.07.



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