Government, energy & environment

Private School Dumps the Frills

Private schools, so long associated with architect-designed buildings, Olympic swimming pools and elaborate theatres, can cost, on average, UK parents 12,000 pounds a year. So it is fairly radical to open a private school with none of these fancy add-ons, the same level of education, and fees of only 3,000 pounds a year.

As its founder, Professor James Tooley says, it is “traditional private education without the frills”.

The new school, Independent Grammar School, will set up in Durham (UK) in a newly refurbished church. It will have a Christian basis, without focusing on any particular faith. The curriculum is described as “traditional and knowledge-rich, giving children access to the best of what has been written, spoken and said”.

Of course, this school, while costing only a quarter of some private schools, is still out of reach of lower income families. But it could appeal to parents who want their children to have a private education with high academic standards without paying for the extra frills. There are no selection tests, which means current academic ability is not a prerequisite.

The idea was born out of Tooley’s social enterprise, Omega Schools Franchise, which set up private schools in Ghana, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. Parents pay a relatively tiny daily rate for their children to learn and, depending on which research study you believe, they do better than state schools.

Tooley’s Durham school is supposed to open in September, following an Ofsted inspection in mid-June 2017 to see if it meets Independent School Standards. At the time of writing, the results of this inspection are not known.

He is known as something of a maverick in education who in 2005 claimed education would become “organically linked again into … family homes, workplaces, sports centres, town halls, reading rooms in pubs” and over time there would be no more “youth ghettos we call schools and colleges”. Tooley has even said he could envisage school chains called EasyLearn or Virgin Opportunity, carrying the same guarantee of quality as, say, Boots the Chemist or Sainsbury’s supermarket.

The idea of cheaper private school education could be described as Economic Premium, just as airlines created different levels of Economy, according to what people will pay. It will be interesting to see whether parents do pay for a private school education without the frills or whether they see the frills as, in some way, better education.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 22 February 2017, ‘”No frills” private school charges 52 a week’, by C Turner.
Guardian (UK), 12 November 2013, ‘Professor James Tooley: A champion of low-cost schools or a dangerous man?’ by P Wilby.
Search words: school, independent, private, fees, curriculum, selection, India, Nigeria, Ghana.
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Beware Predictions of Communist Party Collapse

It was back in 2013, that the FT wrote an extensive piece about the likely collapse of the Communist party in China. Even some of the Party faithful were wondering when it would collapse and claimed everyone was asking the same question. But it appears nobody yet has the answer – or whether it was the right question to ask.

In 2018, the Communist Party in China will have enjoyed unbroken rule longer than in the Soviet Union or Mexico. It thrived even by inviting capitalism into the Party, which the FT describes as the world’s “largest chamber of commerce” where businesspeople can interact and win contracts.

So why are there concerns about the long-term future of such a powerful body?

Chinese academics say there are seven threats to the party: “western constitutional democracy”, human rights advocacy, independent judiciary, media independence, and judgments of the Party’s past. These are dubbed “seven things that cannot be spoken of”. What the sixth and seventh are nobody seems to be saying - Ed).

Meanwhile, modernisation theory predicts authoritarian systems become more democratic as incomes rise. First, a rising middle class causes the process to speed up. Second, a combination of slow growth, inequality and high corruption, completes the picture. Some believe corruption is now so endemic it alone threatens the party.

There is already evidence of loss of faith in state ideology, worsening corruption, perceived failure to provide social welfare and a sense of insecurity among Chinese. There is increasing social and ethnic unrest, elite factionalism and worsening income inequality. Many wealthy Chinese appear to be hedging their bets by investing in offshore assets and property and sending their children to western schools and universities.

Meanwhile, the Chinese middle class are making new demands, such as clean air and water, safe food and quality consumer goods. According to McKinsey, 14% of urban Chinese households are already “upper middle class”, increasing to 54% of households in 5 years.

The FT says, by any measure, Chinese society is one of the world’s most unequal, with “wealth concentrated in the hands of a small, politically connected elite”. What is ironic about this statement is that, in the West, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small, politically connected elite.

It is also true there is growing social and ethnic unrest and widening inequality throughout Europe, Britain, America, and Australia, in spite of democracy. So if these trends are an argument for the collapse of the Communist Party, they are also an argument for the collapse of democracy and perhaps Capitalism itself.

The Diplomat magazine claims the Communist Party retains one, vital, iron grip on China. It has the power to decide who is appointed and who goes. With the final say over Party leaders in universities, companies and provincial governments, the Party maintains its giant political power. Predictions of its collapse may yet be premature – or wishful thinking.

Ref: The Diplomat (US), 5 January 2017, ‘What all of China’s new leaders in 2017 will have in common’ by K Brown.
FT magazine (UK), 21-22 September 2013. ‘How long can the Communist party survive in China? by E. Powell.
Search words: China, Communist Party, Congress, leadership, power, appointments, control, collapse
Trend tags: Rise of China

Budgets for the Rest of Us

One of the ways of measuring the transparency of a government is to look at the way they arrive at and present their budgets. After all, if somebody very powerful holds the public purse strings, it is worth knowing exactly what they plan to do with the purse.

A new concept, “citizen budget” is an abridged and user-friendly version of the budget, often co-created by government and civil society groups. The idea is that everyone should be able to understand it, not just treasurers and accountants.

Building on this is The Open Budget Index (OBI), a comprehensive survey of budget transparency found online. The OBI assigns 115 countries a score based on answers to questions about whether the government provides eight key budget documents to the public.

The top five for budget transparency are, in this order, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa (!), Norway and United States. The UK is much lower because it does not produce a citizen budget.

Even a small change in budget transparency can make a big difference, according to OBI. It can do all these things: stop misuse of money by powerful interests, increase trust in government, clarify policies and create opportunities to influence decision-making. In fact, some of the best improvements in budget reform are in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo.

As the internet continues to increase transparency, it is becoming harder for governments to hide behind economic jargon and political obfuscation. When citizens know exactly where their money is going, we believe, it helps to create a good society.

Ref: The Conversation, 26 April 2016, ‘The “citizen budgets” of Africa make governments more transparent’ by U. Chohan.
Search words: budgets, transparency, government, Open Budget Index, ‘citizen budget’, Australia, Canada, Parliamentary Budget Office.
Trend tags: Transparency

Why Workers Must Keep Learning

The years children spend at school, college or university, are crucial for the opportunities they will have as adults. Yet this overlooks the fact that we need to keep learning, long after we leave these institutions. Education has to keep up with technology and, if people fall behind the pace of technology, then society itself can fall apart.

In our story, Full-time for robots; part-time for humans (Work section), we note some of the jobs that are likely to disappear because of automation. There has never been a more pressing need to keep up with technology. The question is how best to do it. Few employers are providing the kind of training people need: on-the-job training has fallen by half in Britain. The cost of continual training in time as well as money, is often prohibitive. Meanwhile, universities focus more on young people and their education may not always apply immediately to actual jobs.

Stepping into the gap are a few contenders offering lifelong learning. One is the MOOCs – massive open online courses, which teach anything from the speeches of Plato to how to write a piece of code. Online learning is not new but the kinds of courses now going online are becoming increasingly practical and what jargon-talkers call “job ready”.

Udacity and Coursera offer “microcredentials” and “nanodegrees”: cheap, short programs in specialised topics. The ideal length of a course is only 4 weeks. This is long enough for people to quickly update their skills in a small but vital area. It is similar, in a way, to upgrading computer software regularly.

Perhaps one of the best ways to keep citizens learning is for governments to encourage it in the first place. Rather than increasing fees to exorbitant and unaffordable levels (as happens in Australia), they can take a cue from Singapore. Here, each person over 25 has an individual learning account, with money to spend on any of 500 approved courses.

The big question is how manual workers, who are losing their jobs in droves, will be able to update their skills. Many current users of online learning are people who are already educated. Is it possible to offer lifelong learning to people who are not educated and not necessarily interested in learning? The challenge then is not the “lifelong”, but the learning part.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 14 January 2017, ‘Lifelong learning’ by Anon.
Search words: education, technology, manufacturing, MOOCS, Coursera, Singapore, trade unions.
Trend tags: -Technology acceleration

The New Face of Manufacturing

There was a time when everyone in the town worked for the local manufacturer. It might have been Marconi, Hoffmans or Ford. These jobs were considered dependable, decent and good for people with modest skills. Politicians are always very concerned about manufacturing, whether it is Trump’s vision for America or George Osborne’s, “Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”.

Today only 10% of British workers are involved in manufacture. In America, it is one in 11 and in Germany, one in five. Even so, there are problems with the way these figures are calculated. While millions of manufacturing jobs have vanished – or gone overseas for cheaper labour – manufacturing itself has changed.

There are jobs on which manufacturing now depends, which are not classified as manufacturing, but ought to be.

The first misconception is manufacturing is just assembly. In fact, assembly of airplanes for Airbus adds only 5% of value and assembly of iPads only 1.6% of the retail cost. The majority of value comes from R&D, design and clever management of the supply chain that supports assembly, testing and delivery to market.

Dismantling is crucial to the manufacturing process. Many companies now have to take responsibility for their products after use, such as batteries or whitegoods. Manufacturers also bring in service companies, such as accountants, marketers or testers, to provide specialised knowhow for their businesses.

Even so, service companies are not included in manufacturing figures because their employees do not do what the largest block of manufacturing employees does.

Manufacturers are also moving away from being seen as providing products, to providing services. Rolls Royce, for example, sells by the hour engine, servicing and maintenance as ‘power by the hour’. Similarly, the auto industry is starting to see itself as a provider of ‘mobility services’. It makes sense, given the trend towards ridesharing and autonomous vehicles and away from car ownership.

Another newer aspect of manufacturing is 3D printing, even of more luxurious items like motorbikes, in inner cities like London and New York. Here they are close to both the designers and the buying public. In a way, it is re-localising work and bringing manufacturing back home: see our story, Bringing the shoes back home (Work section).

Perhaps it is time to manufacture some new policies. These policies would make sure education is affordable and available for people to become engineers and be technically adept. Ongoing training would help them keep up with technology. Finally, offer retraining programs for workers whose jobs are no longer required in assembly but who have other manufacturing knowledge.

As the Economist notes, the only tool remaining in factories today is the vice. The rest has changed, but there is no reason to think manufacturing has lost its tools.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 14 January 2017, ‘They don’t make ‘em like that any more’ by Anon.
Search words: manufacturing, vice, assembly, R&D, dismantling, design, service, 3D printing.
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