Economist 7/30/15

  1. IT IS little more than a week since Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and perpetual irritant to his country’s authorities, was given back his passport, marking the end of a four-year travel ban. Mr Ai has already made arrangements to visit Europe, stopping first in Germany. But on July 30th it emerged that the visa for his proposed onward trip to Britain would be unexpectedly limited, after Mr Ai received a letter from a bureaucrat saying that his travel would be restricted because of a failure to own up to his “criminal” past. Mr Ai is used to such interference. The surprise was that the letter came not from the Chinese authorities, but from the British.Rather than be given the six-month visa for which he applied, Mr Ai has been given permission to be in Britain only between September 9th and 29th. That means he will be safely out of the way by October, when London is expecting another Chinese visitor: Xi Jinping, the president.
  2. The bicameral system under which Britain is governed today dates back to the 14th century, when knights representing shires and boroughs (the Commons) began to meet separately from religious leaders and nobles (the Lords). The Lords was initially the mightier of the two houses, but by the 17th century, and in the aftermath of Britain’s 11-year period without a monarchy, the Commons’ pre-eminence was formalised. Over the centuries the Lords evolved into a body made up of senior members of the clergy, political appointees and aristocrats who had inherited their places there, as a check on the legislative decisions taken by the more powerful lower house. It lost most of its veto powers in the first half of the 20th century, and in 1999 saw the expulsion of all but 92 of the hereditary peers. Today the House of Lords, now dominated by political appointees,Rather than receive a salary, each of the over 800 members is paid a £300 ($468) allowance for each day he or she attends. 
  3. Recent estimates put the number of low-cost private schools in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, as high as 18,000. Hundreds more open each year. Fees average around 7,000 naira ($35) per term, and can be as low as 3,000 naira. By comparison, in 2010-11 the city had just 1,600 government schools. In the developed world private schools charge high fees and teach the elite. But Ken Ade is more typical of the sector, not just in Nigeria but worldwide. In 2010 there were an estimated 1m private schools in the developing world.But the fastest-growing group are small low-cost schools, run by entrepreneurs in poor areas, that cater to those living on less than $2 a day.One reason for the developing world’s boom in private education is that aspirational parents are increasingly seeking alternatives to dismal state schools.Many poor countries have failed to build enough schools or train enough teachers to keep up with the growth in their populations. Half have more than 50 school-age children per qualified teacher.State schools are often plagued by teacher strikes and absenteeism.
  4. Choosing a private school can be a perfectly rational personal choice, but have only a limited effect on overall results.One such failure is that parents often lack objective information about standards. Countries where state schools are weak rarely have trustworthy national exam systems.Chile’s voucher scheme, which started in 1981 under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, aimed to enable poor students to move from bad public schools to good private ones and to raise standards by generating competition between the two. Today 38% of pupils are in state schools, 53% in private ones that accept vouchers and 7% in elite institutions that charge full fees.
  5. The new standard-bearer for market-based education reform is the Pakistani province of Punjab. .Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of the prime minister, Nawaz, has decreed that the government will not build any of the new schools needed to achieve its 100% enrolment target for school-age children by 2018. Instead money is being funnelled to the private sector via the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF), an independent body with a focus on extremely poor families.One scheme helps entrepreneurs set up new schools, particularly in rural areas. Another gives vouchers to parents living in slums to send children who are not in school to PEF-approved institutions. All the places in some schools have also been bought up. Those schools cannot charge fees and must submit to monitoring and teacher training.Crucially, the province is also improving oversight and working out how to inform parents about standards. It has dispatched 1,000 inspectors armed with tablet computers to conduct basic checks on whether schools are operating and staff and children are turning up.PEF now educates 2m of Punjab’s 25m children, a share likely to grow by another million by 2018.A promising development is the spread of low-cost for-profit school chains in big cities in Africa and south Asia.Bridge International Academies, which runs around 400 primary schools in Kenya and Uganda, and plans to open more in Nigeria and India, is the biggest, with backers including Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Omega Schools has 38 institutions in Ghana.Bridge’s cost-cutting strategies include using standardised buildings made of stacked shipping containers, and scripted lessons that teachers recite from hand-held computers linked to a central system.

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