Selling the Royal Mail, and the country that banned fee-paying schools

Finland, where fee-paying schools are illegal and league tables don't exist, does consistently well in educational surveys and produces some of the cleverest children. Plus: a magic formula for regulation.

Even by the usual standards of Tory privatisations, the sell-off of Royal Mail is an outrage. Ministers have offered the shares at a maximum of £3.30 each, valuing the company at £3.3bn. As I write, analysts reckon that is at least £1bn below the true value and predict that shares will sell at £4 once they go on the market. Even if the analysts prove wrong in the short term, they are unlikely to be wrong about the medium-term prospects for Royal Mail. The shares are a bargain, offered at taxpayers’ expense.

How can a government be so generous when it is cutting benefits, supposedly to repair the public finances? Why is it giving City banks and hedge funds, for which most shares are reserved, a free lunch? Why is it, in effect, transferring money from poor folk who can’t meet weekly food, fuel and rent bills to people who have enough spare cash at least to buy the shares for a few days? Dare I suggest it’s a straightforward bribe to potential Tory donors and voters?

George Osborne fusses about the UK’s credit rating, arguing that he must reduce debt if the government is to continue borrowing cheaply. Someone should explain to him that governments can borrow because they hold assets such as Royal Mail. He accuses Labour of failing to repair the roof while the sun was shining. He’s dismantling it in the middle of a downpour.

Press charges

To break the interminable deadlock over press regulation – the Privy Council has rejected the newspapers’ proposal and is now trying to adapt the Royal Charter to its tastes – can we have a dummy run?

Let both sides set up their complaints commissions. Give them two cases: the Daily Mail and its treatment of Ralph Miliband; the Sun and its treatment of the mentally ill. (The latter, in case you missed it, headlined “1,200 people killed by mental patients” over a story that, according to a Telegraph blogger, was not only “irresponsible and dangerous” but also “nonsense from top to bottom”.) Let their commissioners pass judgement and recommend penalties, if any. The Mail should get a mild reprimand for the headline “The man who hated Britain”. The Sun should be required to publish a prominent correction and clarification, pointing out that the true figure should have been 738, not 1,200; that, in an average year, less than 0.005 per cent of the 1.2 million people in touch with hospital mental health services kill anyone; and that the danger of their doing so is falling, not rising.

The one that comes up with the above answers –which I believe most people would accept as the right ones – would be declared the winner.

For Pete’s sake

I welcome the promotion of the cerebral Tristram Hunt to shadow education secretary. But the idea that he’s part of an anti-Blairite coup, dictated by Unite’s Len McCluskey, is laughable. When I edited the NS, we published several pieces from Hunt, then unknown. I was told he had written to a friend saying “I owe so much to Peter”, which seemed a refreshing change from contributors who griped about our modest fees. Further inquiries, however, revealed that the reference was to Peter Mandelson, Hunt’s political mentor.

Great Finnish

“England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills,” scream the headlines, and that’s just the Guardian website. The source is an OECD survey of adult skills in industrialised countries. What stands out is that, while English adults as a whole are around average when tested on literacy and numeracy, those aged 16 to 24 are behind even their Polish, Estonian and Slovakian contemporaries. Tories blame the usual suspects: comprehensive schools, lack of academic rigour, Labour governments.

Many comparisons are made with South Korea, where young adults score far better than their elders, while here there’s hardly any difference. Fewer comparisons are made with Finland, which, as usual in educational surveys, comes at or near the top in everything. “Older Finns,” the OECD reports, “perform at around the average . . . while younger Finns are, together with young adults from Japan, Korea and the Netherlands, among today’s top performers.”

Finland has no selective schools, no feepaying schools (they’re illegal), no streaming within schools, no league tables, no external exams until the age of 18, no national curriculum beyond broad outlines. Before the 1970s, its schools were similar to ours, with grammar schools, private schools and so on. Finland also has one of the most equal income distributions among the 22 countries in the survey; we have the most unequal, next to the United States, which also does badly in the tests.

I leave you to draw conclusions.

Finnish children on their second day at school in Vaasa, Finland. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear