The boys of Eton College stand as headmaster Tony Little arrives for morning assembly. Photo: Getty.
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The NS debate: what should we do about education’s Berlin Wall?

Leading educationalists respond to the question of public schools.

In a wide-ranging essay in last week’s New Statesman, David Kynaston and George Kynaston challenged policymakers (especially on the left) to address the dominance of the private school minority in public life. This week, leading educationalists reply to the essay and offer their own solutions to what we are calling the “7 per cent problem”.

Anthony Seldon | Andrew Adonis | Laura McInerney | Tony Little
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett | Tristram Hunt

* * *

Open up the private schools to the poor
Anthony Seldon

David and George Kynaston have written one of the most thoughtful recent contributions about private schools. Their question, why has the left not done more to address the private school problem, is more pertinent than ever. Labour’s private school prime ministers, Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, proved far more successful electorally, winning five general elections and losing only one, than its state school premiers. Many of Labour’s towering figures have indeed been public school products, as have many of its private donors and most influential supporters. The party has rattled sabres in opposition, but once in power it has been uncomfortable doing anything to challenge the entrenched position of private schools. It has equally been as silent on another topic not mentioned in the Kynastons’ article, the stranglehold that the better-off have over top state schools.

It is not only Labour that has been silent. The Conservative Party, guided for nearly 40 years after 1965 by leaders who had attended state schools – Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – and committed to equality of opportunity and a competitive economy, has been equally coy about private schools.

Private schools, for much of the past hundred years, and especially when the economy has been adverse, have had difficult periods. But since the 1980s they have forged ahead, in confidence and academic success. However much the state sector improved, and it has done so markedly in the past 15 years, the private sector has achieved still more. True, private schools in the north of the country and in rural areas have found it hard, but parents are still managing to find the fees. It has been a continuing misconception of the left that the private schools are full of rich children, sent by snobby parents who don’t want them to mix with those from ordinary backgrounds. Part of the left’s problem is its failure to understand the schools and their parents.

The myopia of the left about private schools does not stop there. It has taken as a given that parents of children in private schools should pay twice, through taxes and school fees, while refusing even to coun­tenance the possibility of affluent parents contributing to fees at top state schools. The left has proved equally out of touch in imagining that private school heads could not have any non-cynical reason for wanting to partner with state schools. It was risible hearing for years that the only reason why they wanted to do so, at heavy cost to the schools, was a cowardly wish to avoid losing their charitable status. Yet, since 2011, when the threat to the charitable status of private schools was lifted, charitable activity partnering state schools has increased. Many of the best-known critics of private schools on the left have never visited them. Those who have, like Melissa Benn, are often pleasantly surprised, even if it doesn’t change their outlook.

A January report from the Institute of Education argues that English education is among the most class-ridden in the developed world. It blames decades of inequality on the gap between the best schools and the worst. The problem of stagnating social mobility is worsening and we have no time to lose. To me, after a lifetime writing about education and working in schools, it has become clear that neither the Conservatives nor Labour alone will be able to produce the policies we need to give an excellent education to all, regardless of background.

Only a cross-party commission will be able to make the breakthrough that Britain so badly needs, as I argued in a report for the Social Market Foundation, Schools United, published last month. My particular focus is the bottom quartile. If we can advance their opportunities for education, we will transform the entire landscape. Only brave and radical change will solve the deep-seated problems we have. I thus propose that a quarter of places at private schools in Britain (as well as a quarter in the top-performing state schools) be reserved for bottom-quartile children. Places at top state schools could also be means-tested so that those who can afford to pay do so, which would bring much-needed money into the state system while guaranteeing that the principle of free state education for all stays untouched, because spaces at middle- and low-performing state schools would remain free even for the most wealthy. The affluent would either pay for the top places, or move to the less popular schools, where their muscle would drive up standards. True, some might switch to private schools; but as premium house prices in the catchment areas of top state schools often far outstrip private-sector fees, as the Reform Scotland think tank argued at the end of January, is that necessarily so unjust?

My own report proposes a series of further moves to build a more united school system, and hence a more united country. They include the cause I have long championed – all private schools should start named academies, and work with a proven academy provider or a successful state school to provide the necessary expertise. All state school pupils should have access to the breadth of educational experience and the preparation for careers that their counterparts at private schools enjoy. The left, sadly, has poured scorn on these ideas, preferring to cling to proposals that simply will not happen, such as the abolition of the private sector.

The left, as well as the right and centre, must be silent no longer: they must join forces along the lines I have suggested. Fail to do so, and in the next hundred years Britain will become even more polarised and fragmented.

Anthony Seldon is the Master of Wellington College and executive principal of the Wellington Academy

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Academies can make the difference
Andrew Adonis

David and George Kynaston describe brilliantly the reasons we are where we are. But what is to be done? The imperative is for a bold and credible reform that has a realistic prospect of achieving system-wide transformation, rather than piecemeal initiatives or utopian gestures that signify nothing. Systematically engaging good private schools with the academies programme is the policy to make a real difference. Good progress has been made since the launch of academies 14 years ago. It needs to be continued resolutely; if that happens, the sum will increasingly amount to more than the parts.

There are two options for successful private schools within the academies programme, and both involve a fundamental change to the institutional character of private schools, making them in effect state-private hybrids. First, good private schools, too, can become academies – or “free schools”, in the Gove lexicon, which legally are the same as academies. This reincarnates them as state-funded but independently managed schools, sustaining their ethos, character and standards while accepting pupils without fees on the basis of fair admissions (in other words, no eleven-plus selection).

So far, more than a dozen leading independent schools have taken this course, and the number increases by a few each year. The biggest coup is Liverpool College, one of the founding members of the Headmasters’ Conference in 1869, which last year became an academy and opened its educational excellence, facilities and 28 acres to Liverpool children without fees. It promptly received 600 applications for its year 7 places. As part of its transition to being an academy, it is increasing its total places from 730 to 1,150, and will continue to run a boarding house.

Hans van Mourik Broekman, headmaster of Liverpool College, is frank about the combination of altruism and self-interest which motivated the decision to become an academy. The affluent middle class is increasingly thin on the ground in Merseyside. Liverpool College could have continued in the fee-paying sector, small and select, but academy status is enabling it to become large and open, true to the progressive social mission that animated its foundation by Gladstone and the Liverpool merchants a century and a half ago. A Dutchman who exudes in equal measure educational professionalism and mystification about the English class system, Broekman was well placed to make the change.

Like Liverpool College, the other private schools that have become academies are all of high quality and great popularity in their localities. Mostly in the less affluent north of England, they include Birkenhead High School, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester and the King’s School Tynemouth. The first two of these are run by the Girls’ Day School Trust, which operates a historic national chain of highly successful private schools for girls, several more of which are ripe for conversion to academies to fulfil their original social mission.

Not all the “converters” are in the north: there are two in affluent Bristol – Bristol Cathedral Choir School and Colston’s Girls’ School. As the success of Liverpool College and the other converters becomes well established, the altruism/self-interest dynamic could easily yield another 50 or 100 nationwide within a decade, forming a substantial new private/state sector.

The second option is for successful private schools – or the foundations behind them – to sponsor academies or free schools, taking responsibility for the governance and management of a school or schools in the state-funded sector as well as their existing school or schools in the fee-paying sector.

There are now several dozen of these “new” independent school academies. Here, too, the past year has brought a significant breakthrough. Eton and Westminster, the two most prestigious private schools, have become academy sponsors, taking sole or joint responsibility for the management of their new state-funded institutions.

Eton is the sole sponsor of Holyport College, a free school opening near Maidenhead this September for 500 pupils. It will be half boarding and half day, leveraging Eton’s boarding expertise, facilities and curriculum. Eton’s governors will henceforth be responsible for two institutions: one private-funded, one state-funded; one (essentially) for the super-rich, the other (essentially) for local families and those with boarding need, both with Eton’s reputation attached.

Westminster School is also opening a free school in September – in the shape of a sixth-form college for 500 16-to-18-year-olds with top GCSE grades who have the potential for entry to leading universities. The Harris-Westminster Sixth Form is being established and managed in partnership with the Harris Federation – one of the most successful academy chains, sponsored by the carpet magnate and philanthropist Lord Harris of Peckham. The initial places are far oversubscribed. Outreach to poorer communities is a central part of the mission: 70 per cent of the applicants are eligible for the pupil premium, and one in five is a pupil at one of the 27 existing Harris academies, all of which are in deprived parts of the south-east (mostly south London).

Here again, the change for the sponsoring private school is profound. Westminster School is located in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, harking back to its original charitable mission, and the chair of the school’s governors is always the Dean of Westminster, one of the most senior clerics in the Church of England. John Hall, the current dean, is conscious that the Church’s social mission sits uneasily with England’s foremost cathedral being physically and institutionally conjoined to one of the world’s most exclusive private schools, with fees of £33,000 a year. The Harris-Westminster Sixth Form academy will also conjoin it to a state-funded school for the less affluent.

Academy by academy, year by year, the private-state divide in education is being overcome. There is far, far further to go. But we have made a start.

Andrew Adonis, minister for schools under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is the author of “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools” (Biteback, £12.99)

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Follow the Indian model
Laura McInerney

Reading the Kynastons’ essay, one almost gives in to sympathy for the Labour Party. How difficult it must be to overthrow the private schools when so many politicians (and their children) have benefited from their hallowed halls. How tragic it would be to yank away the right of individuals to pay for tennis courts and Latin lessons. Your heart bleeds less, however, when you realise that India, a nation with a caste system, now requires all of its private schools to ensure that 25 per cent of their intake comes from the poorest children in a given area. And don’t think that they can pick out their favourites. The places are won by open, random lottery. Any child from a low-income family can enter; if he wins he must be admitted and taught. As far as India is concerned, if you want to be a private provider, you better be ready to take those most in need alongside those who can pay.

Much as the Labour Party has had to face continuous wailing over the private schools issue, India’s revolution was not quiet. Due to be introduced in 2006, the law was passed only in 2009, after agreement on the 25 per cent figure (a reduction from the 50 per cent initially posited). Predictably, wealthy parents complained. The irony of allowing lower-caste women to serve as their nannies while arguing that the children of these same women were unworthy to rub shoulders with their own children was lost amid complaints about “different sorts” of child.

The private schools also complained. Although the government reimburses every school for each poorer child it admits, it does so only at the same rate as any state school would receive for the child. With the extra cash for these children gone, the schools were concerned about the upkeep for their fancy facilities. Faced with being judged solely on their teaching – rather than their sports facilities and music rooms – many gurned. One can only imagine the long faces in England if we did likewise.

Nevertheless, India’s government persevered. It has sent watchdogs to tackle lottery rigging and the systematic mistreatment of students. Examples include poorer students being seated at the back of the classroom, or siphoned into separate classes altogether.

So, compare India’s bravery to the compromises offered, in the Kynastons’ article, by Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust. It describes the generous-sounding proposal that private schools “open up” one-third of their places – just as long as they are funded by the government.

But read the original report and note the actual, complete proposal. It reads: “Open Access is a voluntary scheme that would open the best independent day schools to talented children from all backgrounds.” Did you spot the keyword? Private schools would open to “talented” children. But, one should ask, why? Why should private schools – with their extra cash and bundles of social capital – skim off only the most “talented” children?

And this is where a lie is made of the suggestion in the Kynastons’ essay that private schools are somehow of “intrinsic merit”. See, if private schools really are imbued with magic sauce why must they take in only the talented? Why not, instead, select 25 per cent randomly from among the ranks of the poor? (Assuming, of course, that they would wish to go.) Only it seems to me that the “inventory of privileged access” that the Kynastons say is bestowed on private schoolers can’t be attributed to intrinsic merit at all. It is merely down to a calculated selection of children. I wonder whether the private schools fear that if selection stopped, their not-so-greatness might be exposed after all.

Perhaps I am being harsh. Let us accept for a moment the idea that most private schools are superb and confer the best-quality teaching going (and, to be fair, this is true for some). Given such skills, why limit access solely to the talented? The poor-yet-dim child is surely at least as deserving of a great education as the poor-but-bright. In fact, given that a child who is both poor and struggling with school runs a greater risk of becoming unemployed, ill or homeless in the future, might it not even be prudent for him or her to be given such an excellent education?

The Kynastons provide us with a second option: Andrew Adonis’s idea of coaxing private schools into the state sector through the academies and free schools programme. (Rab Butler suggested a similar idea during the drafting of the Education Act 1944 but he was overruled by Churchill.) That only six schools so far have gone down this route suggests the policy is far from being a tide change. Oddly, though, the slow pace does not result from reluctance on the part of private schools. In the first year of the government’s free schools programme, 103 independent schools applied to convert to state-funded academies. However, only five were accepted. And of those five, three were labelled as “requiring improvement” at their first Ofsted inspection. Not the greatest sign that private schools are the answer to perceived state school problems.

Ultimately, the most important question is one posed by the authors: are private schools educating the wrong children? I’m not convinced by “wrong”; but they certainly aren’t helping. If Labour hasn’t the guts to get rid of the private schools it should at least ensure that their charitable status becomes dependent on them saving 25 per cent of places for children drawn at random from among groups with the most need – either those on a low income or those of low ability. Doing so will solve one of the main dilemmas outlined in the piece. It would allow the wealthy to exercise their right to buy a private education but stop them from any longer buying an “exclusive” one. Let us never forget that distinction.

Laura McInerney was a teacher in London and is now a Fulbright scholar studying education policy

The landscape is changing for the better
Tony Little

We are where we are. David and George Kynaston are right to draw attention to the failure of the Fleming report and the half-heartedness of subsequent attempts to address the gap between independent and state schools. But we are where we are because successive broad-brush attempts to realign systems have not been able to accommodate the spirit of independence. We conceive of ourselves as a free country and parents must have the fundamental right to choose how to educate their children.

If independent schools were marginal or feeble, they would, I suspect, pass unremarked. They are popular because they are, in the main, very good schools, not just in terms of academic results but because they celebrate true breadth in education. Indeed, there is a strong argument that independent schools have been able to sustain their vision of holistic education precisely because they are one step away from the fickleness of government policy.

As the Kynastons observe, “Education is not just another item or service to be bought or sold.” The best independent schools thrive because they embody deeply held beliefs about the value of education.

In Shanghai recently, I was in conversation with heads of top-performing schools in one of the highest-performing regions in the world. These are the Olympic medallists of contemporary measurement culture. Yet all, they said, was not right. They realise that the driven approach to exam success was not equipping their students effectively to be citizens in an interconnected world. And to whom do they look for some inspiration? British independent schools.

The best British independents are world-class. We would be foolish to undermine them. The question is how best to use what they have to offer.

For decades, independent schools have turned in on themselves, in part through a comfortable insularity, but largely as a consequence of the hostility they have received. When I started as the head of an independent school 25 years ago, it was made very clear to me by the local state school that there would be no contact of any kind between us. Often, when attempts have been made to bring schools together, they have been ham-fisted, built on the assumption that there is one definitive model that can be readily transplanted. Mistrust and resentment have followed. In recent times, the drive to push independent schools to sponsor an academy as the route to preserving charitable status was misguided. Most independent schools readily acknowledge that they do not have the expertise to tackle the particular issues faced, for example, by an inner-city comprehensive and shy away from patronising intervention.

Yet, if independent schools see themselves as part of our national provision, they must take the initiative and seek to be better connected, not as a reaction to political pressure, but as a moral imperative. Independent schools that are expansive create a richer culture for their own people as well as opportunities for others.

One way to create that richer culture is by making independent schools as open and accessible as possible. Schools should state their intent by publishing targets for increasing means-tested bursaries. At Eton at present, 263 boys receive means-tested financial assistance averaging 60 per cent remission of the fee, with 63 paying nothing at all. The short-term target is to raise that number to 320 with 70 on full remission – and then move on to the next target, with the ultimate goal of being, in the American phrase, “needs-blind”: in a position to take all suitable candidates irrespective of their family’s financial situation.

But above all, independent schools should find practical ways to work alongside fellow professionals in the state sector. They can play to their strengths. In Eton’s case, experience with academic high achievers in the sixth form led us to join a consortium of independent schools supporting the London Academy of Excellence, an academically selective, state-funded sixth-form-entry school in east London. Our belief in the transformative power of good boarding education has led us to be the educational sponsor of Holyport College, a new state boarding school. Relationships with local state school heads, developed over years, have led to the creation of an independent state schools partnership and support for a multi-academy trust.

The key to all such engagements is identifying practical outcomes – what works well. Relationships flourish when there are seen to be reciprocal benefits. In all the projects we undertake, our teachers and students have something to learn and something to give. Their understanding and skills are enhanced as much as those in the partner state school, if perhaps in different ways. Real school partnership is short on rhetoric, long on pragmatism.

The landscape is changing for the better, as witnessed by the quality and frequency of conversation between heads of state and independent schools who recognise they share a common purpose and simply wish to do the best for their young people. This is a meeting of minds that was rare a quarter of a century ago.

By their nature, independent schools exercise their independence. Some are wholeheartedly engaged in seeking to embrace a bigger vision of their purpose: others are not. The Kynastons describe a clarion call. All independent schools should wish to respond to it.

Tony Little is the headmaster of Eton

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How to reduce class bias
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

There is a tendency to regard disparities in education, income, status and power as equally important forms of inequality. But in trying to understand human social hierarchy or, for that matter, animal pecking orders or ranking systems, one must take into account that they are all primarily about access to scarce resources. Parents send their children to private schools to give them a better chance of securing the best-paid jobs. Wanting your children to speak “nicely” and to have the manner and confidence – or sense of entitlement – that go with private education are simply means to that end.

We won’t know precisely how much private education contributes to the upper-class domination of politics, business, the judiciary, the media, medicine and so on, until we have managed to get rid of it and can see how much of the problem remains. We believe private education has very powerful effects, but even without it upper-class parents would still manage to pass on a large measure of privilege to their children.

The difficulty in abolishing private education springs directly from the way the establishment is dominated by its products. Abolition would provoke unified howls of abuse and ridicule from every powerful quarter which no government could withstand, unless it had the strongest backing from public opinion.

Our solution would be to implement policies that raise the price and weaken the value of private education as a means of gaining access to top jobs, so making abolition politically more feasible.

First, the data shows that societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor have higher social mobility. They also have higher overall standards and smaller differences up and down the social ladder. In measures of cognitive development among five-year-olds, in maths and literacy scores among older children, and in measures of child well-being, more equal societies achieve higher standards.

All the ways in which class and status imprint themselves on us throughout life are strengthened by bigger income differences. Because bigger material differences create bigger social distance, you cannot create a classless society without vastly reducing inequalities of income and wealth.

Policies to reduce income differences are therefore an essential part of any strategy to level the playing field from the earliest ages. That is not simply a matter of redistribution and the prevention of tax avoidance. It is also a matter of reducing differences in pre-tax incomes by supporting all forms of economic democracy, from legal provision for employee representatives on company boards to the expansion of employee ownership and producer co-operatives.

Second, we would also weaken the private school advantage in university entry, particularly to the better universities. This could be done partly by requiring that universities randomly allocate places to the highest-ranked applicants from each school. So pupils in the top 10 or 20 per cent coming from schools in the poorest areas would have the same chances as pupils in the top 10 or 20 per cent from Eton. Evidence shows that students from state schools do better at university than privately educated students with the same A-level grades, so this may raise rather than lower educational standards. This could be introduced to cover a low percentage from each school and then raised gradually. Each university would allocate places randomly among pupils who were among the best from each school applying to that university. There are several international examples of successful schemes similar to this.

To reduce further the class bias in entry to the professions and in job selection procedures, professional associations should be charged with the duty of monitoring progress and taking action against offending institutions.

As well as reducing the class bias in access to top jobs which private education perpetuates, measures should be taken to raise the cost of attending a private school. That would at least reduce the proportion of the population that felt it had a vested interest in protecting it. Private education’s charitable status should be withdrawn, and it should be taxed to pay for the external social costs that the perpetuation of injustice imposes on the rest of society. Policies of this kind would gradually change the class nature of our society and weaken the support for private education to a point where its complete abolition would become feasible.

Another reason why enormous inequality has survived in our society is that the public is unaware of its extent. To overcome this, the Equality Trust has developed a resource with information on the extent and effects of economic inequality in the UK.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are the authors of “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone” (Penguin, £10.99)

What does Labour think?
Tristram Hunt

The shadow education secretary declined to comment on last week’s NS cover story or to write a reply.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Aid in whose interest?

The government appears to be raiding the aid budget to subsidise big business and the security state.

In March 1988, Scottish aristocrat and Defence Minister to Margaret Thatcher, George Younger visited was part of a controversial offer of £200m of the UK aid budget in exchange for Malaysia signing a £1bn arms deal.

The government promised public money to subsidise UK construction giant Balfour Beatty to build a hydroelectric dam named Pergau in Malaysia’s mountainous north east.

Malaysia’s national utility, the World Bank and auditors at the Overseas Development Administration, the UK aid ministry, questioned the human development value of the project for the middle-income country, finding its costs to be “markedly uneconomic" compared to other options then available.

But these warnings were summarily dismissed.

Thatcher, who I believe saw aid not as a vehicle for eradicating poverty but as a means to advance Britain's commercial and geostrategic interests, wanted the arms deal.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted an infrastructure project in Kelantan state, which was held by a rival party, which he wanted to wrest votes from.

But the National Audit Office soon got wind of the deal and parliamentary committees started to ask awkward questions of those involved.

The press published dozens of articles and the Pergau scandal was born.

Newspapers soon unearthed other white elephant development  projects resulting from the tying of aid to private British interests that did little for reducing poverty but were a boon for the contractors involved.

The Permanent Secretary to the ODA (Overseas Development Administration, now Dfid – the Department for International Development), Tim Lankester, said that Pergau was “unequivocally a bad buy”, “an abuse of the aid system” and “not a sound development project”.

The World Development Movement (renamed Global Justice Now) won a judicial review in 1994 against the government in the High Court which ruled the payment of aid “for unsound development purposes” illegal.

The Tories reacted, not by untying aid from UK vested interests, but by slashing the aid budget as punishment for the bad press – it seems that Thatcher saw little use for aid that could not be used to subsidise private interests.

Labour came to power in 1997 with an agenda to reform how Britain did development. It established a better-funded and politically-stronger aid department, the Department for International Development (DFID), with a seat in cabinet.

It scrapped the Aid and Trade Provision, the official mechanism by which aid was used to subsidise British company contracts, and in 2001 untied aid from UK commercial interests. The International Development Act of 2002 for the first time legally committed the UK to spending aid only on poverty reduction.

But since the Conservatives won a clear majority in last year’s general election, the government has been wilfully unlearning the lessons of Pergau.

Out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have unpicked Labour’s reforms by effectively retying aid to the interests of the private sector and its perceived security interests.

They appear to have deprioritised poverty reduction as the principal purpose of the aid budget. “There is a real risk of the budget being recaptured by commercial interests as it was in the 1980s,” Sir Tim Lankester told me recently. “[International Development Secretary] Justine Greening has been making sure British commercial interests get more and more of the cake.

“What’s remarkable these days is the huge contracts going to the big consultancies to advise government and manage projects – The Adam Smith Internationals. The Crown Agents and others.”

November’s aid strategy “tackling global challenges in the national interest”, written largely by the Treasury rather than by Dfid, announced that aid would be a tool to “strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world”.

The retying of aid spend is sold in the strategy in the same way the Conservatives sell austerity and privatisation at home.

Using the language of “prosperity” and “economic opportunity” (“inequality” was not mentioned once in the 22-page document), the government spins the dubious argument that communities in the world’s poorest nations share the interests of both UK business and the UK security state.

This “what’s good for us is good for you” aid strategy’s promotion of the UK interest over those of the poor grossly undermines the government’s legal duty under the International Development Act.

The aid strategy leaves it to the concurrently published National Security Strategy to enumerate what these imaginative interests are: to “protect our people”, to “project our global influence” and to “promote our prosperity”.

To achieve these ends, the government has allotted half of the aid budget to conflict-hit states, which are expected to be the states Britain has helped destabilise in recent years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Syria and Yemen.

The government also successfully lobbied the OECD to widen the official definition of “Official Development Assistance” (aid) to include military spend on counter-terrorism and expand the use of aid subsidies for private – and inevitably British – projects in the developing world.

Over the course of this Parliament, the Tories will triple to around £5bn the amount of aid to be spent outside of Dfid. The main beneficiaries of this diversion of aid are the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the foreign office (FCO) and the business department (BIS). These departments are considerably less transparent than Dfid and, according to the National Audit office, spend most of their aid on middle income countries, rather than low-income countries.

This slide towards using aid to subsidise British business and as a slush fund top up its military and security budgets means that development projects devoted to public health, education and countering the agricultural and ecological destruction wrought by climate change, will suffer.


Take the growing spend by Dfid on private consultants and accountancy firms.

Under the Tory austerity programme Dfid’s staff has been slashed, which means there is less public capacity to allocate, monitor aid projects.

To compensate for this under capacity the government has farmed out the aid budget in bigger and bigger parcels to private contractors and accountancy firms to do the work for a profit.

Dfid spends some £1.4bn directly through private contractors and several times more than that through its payments to multilateral development banks that recycle British aid back through the private sector.

In 2014, Dfid said 90 per cent of its contracts are awarded to British companies, strange for a department that claims to have untied aid. Almost no contracts are signed directly with NGOs or contractors in the Global South.

In 2014 alone, it spent £90m through a single private consultancy, Adam Smith International (ASI), which that year declared £14m in profits, a profit that doubled in two years on the back of Dfid and British taxpayers.

ASI, which was spun off from the neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, is in the business of privatising public works in the Global South from Nigeria to Afghanistan and deregulating the Nigerian economy under its “Business Environment” stream of Dfid’s £180m Growth and Empowerment in States scheme.

In 2014, Dfid spent £42.9m on the services of one accountancy firm alone (PwC), in spite of its part in the LuxLeaks tax avoidance scandal. It is this tacitly sanctioned flight of wealth that costs poor nations (non-OECD) three times more each year in tax avoidance to tax havens than they receive in aid from rich nations (OECD) according to the OECD itself.

Contrary to the public perception, aid is for the most part not “given” to poor countries. At present, only 0.2 per cent of the world’s humanitarian aid goes directly to local and national non-government agencies and civil society organisations. This is despite a consensus that these groups are the most effective engines for development.

The increasing use of private contractors and large bilateral financial institutions to get aid out of the door constitutes nothing less than a capture of the aid budget by corporate interests, which also advise the government on where to direct future aid flows.

Under this government, aid has become less a tool for development but a rent for a veritable industry that concentrates the knowledge, skills and finance in the companies and institutions of rich nations.


Take the amount of British aid that subsidises the fossil fuel industry and therefore promotes global warming, which affects the poor considerably more than the rich because they lack the resources to adapt.

The effects of climate change are already biting. The rising frequency of drought on the world’s semi-arid regions of the world, including the Middle East constitutes, to borrow a term from Professor Rob Nixon, a “slow violence” enacted by industrialised nations on the poor.

Our refusal to take commensurate action on climate change means that water stress is rising across the world, which impairs development and has even been linked to conflict in Nigeria and Syria.

In April, I visited Somaliland, which is experiencing the worst drought in living memory along with the rest of east and southern Africa. Agriculture has collapsed, the animals are dying and migration is rising fast.

Many of these climate refugees are washing up on the shores of Italy and Greece. Survivors in are being sent back to Turkey because there is no international protection available to a subsistence farmer without water or a parent who cannot afford to feed their children.

In 2009, the UK pledged at the G20 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies but instead it has been using public funds to increase them, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

Using aid money to give the fossil fuel industry a leg up and imperil us all to the onslaught of global warming entrenches inequality and hampers sustainable development.


Last year the EU signed a €1.8bn aid package with the governments of 20 African nations, including Eritrea, a totalitarian state financed by slave labour, to keep Eritreans in their country and to accept planes filled with their citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

Clearly, this aid money is being spent principally the interests of the donors and not the world’s poor.

But aside from using aid to forcibly return people at risk of human rights abuses, this aid holds development back in other ways. Migration is the biggest driver of development because economic migrants from poor countries who work in rich countries back remittances that amount to three times the international aid spend.

“Migrants are the original agents of development,” William Lacy Swing, director of the International Organization for Migration, told the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

In effect we are spending public money legally allocated for reducing poverty on keeping the world’s poor mired in it.


Take the UK’s “preventing violent extremism” agenda – borrowed, of course, from the Americans – under whose banner projects can be now funded with UK aid.

Britain’s successful lobbying of the OECD – in opposition to other large donor states, including Sweden – to include some counter-terrorism military spend in the definition of aid is of deep concern.

The OECD already allowed for the provision of aid to prevent conflict and promote peace but this new extremist lens, as opposed to the purely conflict lens, allows the aid spend to become politicised.

After all, governments across the world call their political enemies “extremists” or “terrorists”, but the term is rarely ascribed to governments themselves, even when they brutalise their populations.

The government seems ready to exploit to this change, having set up its new £1bn aid-funded Conflict Stability and Security Fund (rising to £1.3bn in 2020), of which 90p of every pound is spent by the FCO and the MoD.

The stage has been set for Britain’s security state to raid the aid budget to pursue the ill-conceived and expensive military strategy du jour.

The government’s agenda to spend aid in conflict-hit and fragile states on counter-terrorism projects has a bad precedent. The US development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan, which was embezzled or spirited out of the country.

Even worse, the aid was destabilising. “Instead of rescuing the [political] transition process, aid contributed to its failings,” said the NGO Saferworld in a report this year on the lessons learned from the American state-building strategy in Afghanistan. “Large aid volumes overwhelmed local absorptive capacity and sustained a rentier state . . . The influx of aid funds and the competition over the illegal economy strengthened predatory and opportunistic elites that the US and its allies tried to reform.”

The British government risks falling into the American trap of using counter-terrorism aid to remake conflict-hit fragile states into democracies.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.


In another dangerous case of aid not being used in the interests of development, the Tories are using it to establish private healthcare and education across the Global South.

Publically provided, free and universal health and education of the type we enjoy in Britain should be pursued across the Global South because it reduces inequality and strengthens democratic accountability.

Private provision of these services in the words of turns these basic needs into commodities whose price variable and unaffordable to poor and marginalised sections of society.

In Britain we should be internationalising the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use health and education, a privilege hard fought for by a generation of Labour politicians interested in social justice and the condition of the poor.

Instead, Dfid’s Education Position Paper calls for “developing new partnerships across the public-private spectrum” and commits Dfid to promoting low-cost private schools “in at least four countries”.

Its flagship education programme of the Department of International Development, in partnership with Coca Cola and PwC, is the £355m Girl’s Education Challenge, which rolls out private education across 18 countries, including 15 African nations.

In signing up to last year’s Sustainable Development Goals last year, Britain committed to “achieve universal health coverage”, which is directly undermined by a development agenda which favours fees.


The privatisation of our aid budget alongside its entrapment by enormous multilateral financial institutions is symptomatic of the wider erosion neoliberalism is enacting on the British – and global – economy.

In 2016, aid should be about empowering the losers of neoliberalism across the Global South to cut poverty and reduce inequality. This means placing more emphasis on working directly with the poor, colonised and, more-often, the women of the Global South.

Aid should not be spent on the five and often six figure salaries of the global financial elite, nor should it be tied to Britain’s commercial interests to provide public subsidy for private interests. If we wish to subsidise our private sector, that’s fine, but should do it using export credit and not disguise it as aid.

I can already hear the outcry from development experts that spending money at the grassroots is harder to track and the shrill headlines that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on bee-keepers in Kyrgyzstan or on a Somali radio drama that gave tips to illegal immigrants (all real headlines from the Murdoch press).

But I would accept more “waste” by employing more Dfid civil servants to monitor a greater number of smaller grassroots aid projects on a trial-and-error basis than I would accept the other now ubiquitous form of waste that we do not call waste: the subsidising poverty barons, who enrich themselves off the aid ‘industry’.

This is not a particularly radical agenda. Aid under Labour’s Clare Short, Dfid’s first head, targeted the grassroots and there is a growing consensus among the establishment that we must return to this model to make development more effective and give poor people ownership over projects rather than imposing them from above.

More power and capital needs to go into the hands of grassroots groups.

We must recall the lessons of Pergau and redesign our aid system so that it is not captured by industry or distant elites for their own profitability but a means by which the poor can bring about transformative social change for themselves. 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow secretary of state for international development.