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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.