There is something unseemly about the row that has erupted in the Labour Party over Ruth Kelly’s decision to send her child to a private school.
Labour’s commitment to state provision has always made it difficult for Labour ministers to school their children privately. Yet the fact remains that private education can provide better outcomes for children that state schools.
This is not always the case: past Labour administrations were crammed full of and led by grammar school boys who had got the best state education by passing their 11+ exams (or their parents paid for the privilege). But since Labour dismantled the two-tier grammar school system, our current Labour Prime Minister has been drawn from the ranks of the private schools.
In fact, debate still rages over whether private education always provides better outcomes for children. Every few weeks another study emerges arguing either that children from private schools enjoy better outcomes as a result of their education, or that there is no discernable difference.
Whether or not parents should have a right to educate their children outside the state system, and whether parents should be allowed to take the money their children would have costed the state and spend it elsewhere if they see this as in their child’s interests are important but macro-level debates. What is so disgusting about the reaction of Labour members to Ms. Kelly’s decision is that it shows absolutely no concern for the welfare of the child.
Take these quotes in today’s Times:
Ian Gibson (Norwich North): "I think it’s wrong. You should set an example as a minister and support your local school. It is a slap in the face for the teachers and the pupils in the school that the child has been taken out of."
Ann Cryer, (Keighley): "MPs should try to get state provision for their children because that is what we believe in."
Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak): "I think it goes against the principles of the Labour Party. It makes me wonder about the sort of people who achieve high office who are in New Labour."
Margaret Hodge, Trade and Industry minister: "Given our commitment to state education, it is an issue of public interest."
Not one of these Members of Parliament even qualified their statements by suggesting that Ms. Kelly’s main concern as a parent should be the welfare of her children. A government minister may choose to sacrifice their own interests for their career – say, by spending time on an NHS waiting list rather than paying to go private. For a minister to sacrifice their child’s interests would be disgraceful. For the minister’s colleagues to berate her for not doing so is disgusting.
Ms. Kelly’s child struggles with dyslexia. Whether or not state education should be able to provide her child with the best schooling is beside the point. The child’s parent has made an informed choice about what is in the interests of her child. We should respect that choice.
We may of course cite that choice as proof that Labour is failing to provide state education that meets the needs of children with special educational needs, but we should not condemn Ms. Kelly for recognising that fact and responding by doing what she can for her child. It does not matter that she was once Education Secretary. What matters is the welfare of her child.
That is what the likes of Gibson, Cryer, Jones and Hodge fail to appreciate. Too wrapped up in the battle of ideology, they have lost sight of the child.