Ruth Kelly is no hypocrite
You will not need me to tell you that a first-class political row has been sparked by the news that Ms Ruth Kelly, formerly Secretary of State for Education and now Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, has decided to send one of her children, who reportedly has learning difficulties, to a private school, even though the local authority within which Ms Kelly and her husband and family reside (Tower Hamlets) itself provides facilities for children with Special Educational Needs.
But you may need me to tell you that this first-class political row is an entirely artificial furore, manufactured by those in our society whose agenda is both sinister and frightening.
In its essentials, Ms Kelly’s decision is none of our business. All caring parents want to do the best for their children — indeed, that is the overriding duty of all caring parents. Ms Kelly has a child with learning difficulties. It is entirely proper that she should seek out for this child what she and her husband consider the best possible educational support. The private academy which this child will attend has, by all accounts, an excellent track record in offering an expert and compassionate learning environment. Moreover, she and her husband are going to pay the fees charged by this academy from their own resources.
Why, then, has this caring parent been the subject of vicious, spiteful and (I would say) malicious attacks?
Ostensibly because, as a member of the Labour Party and of the Labour government, Ms Kelly is accused of betraying the principles of that party, and of that government, by having recourse to the private sector for the education of her dyslexic son.
Well, let me tell you that opposition to private education has never been a policy embraced by the Labour Party. Never. Many members of the party have themselves been educated outside the state system, and have gone outside that system for the education of their children. Famously, Clement Attlee, the first Labour prime minister to win a parliamentary majority (1945), was himself educated at a “public” (ie private) school — Haileybury — and deliberately sent his children to private schools. He was completely unapologetic about this decision. Only when standards in state schools, he explained, reached those in the private sector, would he consider changing his mind.
Moreover, there is no policy statement I know of emanating from the Blair government that reflects any opposition to privately provided education. On the contrary, the Blair government has expanded very considerably a policy that is now over 100 years old, that of supporting independent faith schools from the public purse.
Nor can Ms Kelly even be accused of common-orgarden hypocrisy. When, in 2003, the Labour MP Diane Abbott announced that she was sending her son to a private secondary school, she was rightly adjudged a hypocrite — a verdict with which she herself apparently agreed (she branded her decision as “indefensible”), because she had previously voiced her opposition in principle to private education. But Ms Kelly has never made any such pronouncement.
Ms Kelly’s critics can be divided into two groups. On the socialist left, she is the latest victim of the politics of envy and of greed that says, “If I can’t buy what you can buy, then I shall prevent you from buying it.” Equality means not so much a levelling up as a levelling down — the equality of disadvantage: if Ms Kelly’s Bolton constituents can’t afford to exercise the choice of sending their children to the independent educational sector, then she should not be able to exercise that choice either.
But what I find infinitely more disturbing are those of Ms Kelly’s critics who are attacking her from a much more sinister angle. These critics simply do not believe in the right of parents to determine the education of their children. Their preoccupation is not so much with the education system per se as with the use to which that system might be put in the cause that is dearest to their hearts, namely social engineering. In their view, the overriding purpose of an educational system is not to transmit knowledge and skills, but to re-order society according to their view of what the social order should look like. If the rights of parents are trampled in the process, so be it.
Draw up a list of Ms Kelly’s critics. Draw up another list of those who oppose faith schools. Draw up a third list of those who oppose the state subsidy of faith schools. The lists are practically identical.
Let us applaud Ms Kelly for choosing to be a wise parent. Let us berate those who do not think that she — and you and I — should be allowed to exercise that choice.