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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.