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.

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