So what happens to the aid budget in an "age of austerity"?

Harriet Harman is right to draw our attention to the coalition's approach to development spending.

It wasn't just the NHS budget that the Cameroons pledged to ringfence and protect in opposition, as part of their failed "detoxification" and rebranding of the Conservative Party between 2005 and 2010. The aid budget, we were told, would be protected too - Bono appeared via video link at the Tories' annual conference in 2009 to heap praise on Cameron and co for signing up to the 0.7 per cent pledge.

But let's be honest: the aid budget isn't an issue that tends to be at the top of politicians' or journalists' priority lists. It can be so easily overlooked, forgotten and/or ignored.

So yesterday, in a speech at the London School of Economics, Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, who is also the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, was right to flag up the "fragile" nature of the Conservatives' pledge on international aid and the need for a Labour-led grassroots campaign to keep up pressure on the coalition to deliver for the developing world:

With the Tory Party commitment to the 0.7 per cent being fragile , with the opposition from within their own ranks so virulent, with growing public anger about the effect of the cuts on domestic priorities, alongside a strong public belief that "charity begins at home", no-one should take it for granted that the Tories will inevitably deliver on their pledge. The fact that the two parties of the coalition government and the official opposition all agree on this target should not lull anyone into a false sense of security that its achievement is a foregone conclusion.

So, we cannot simply wait for the pledge to be honoured, we must remake our arguments for it. It is time for "a Keep the 0.7per cent / 2013 promise" campaign. We are launching it next week. I am sure that we can look to young people, the churches, the aid agencies and our diaspora communities to support such a campaign - as they did so much to campaign for the original promise and so strongly backed the actions our government took to increase aid and drop debt.

She went on to make this rather important if depressing observation:

Despite the government's commitment to UK aid reaching 0.7per cent of GNI by 2013, the Spending Review Statement of last October froze the aid budget as a percentage of GNI for the next 2 years.

The cost of this 2 year freeze - instead of continuing the upward trend we established - is £2.2 billion which would otherwise have been available in development aid.

...Abandoning the steady progress towards the 2013 target, instead of building on the progress that was made when we were in government will require a big jump in the aid budget in 2 years time. Following the 2 year aid freeze, to meet their promised target by 2013, they will need to boost the aid budget by 31% in a single year - an increase of approximately £3billion - in 2013.

Does anyone - apart from perhaps Steve Hilton - really believe that's going to happen in the run-up to 2013?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times