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Monday, January 08, 2007 

The pros and cons of Ruth Kelly's privates.

On the surface, Ruth Kelly's decision to send her son to a private, fee-paying school should be an easy enough one to denounce. It's only been a few months since her own piss-poor reign as education secretary came to an end, where she tried and failed to convince her own party to support Blair's pet trust schools project. That a government minister, one who only recently was in charge of improving school standards nationwide, should decide that her local schools are so poor that she needs to send her own children to a private school, is a smack in the face to all those who pay their taxes to fund their own children's education, not to mention the children themselves who have to suffer the conditions that aren't good enough for a government minister's child.

The issue itself though may not have come to light if the Mirror hadn't made the decision to actually name the minister. The Grauniad this morning reported that a cabinet minister had sent their son to a fee-paying school, but didn't name who we now know to be Ruth Kelly as to "protect the identity of the child". One also has to wonder whether that with Ruth Kelly also being a former Grauniad hack if that came into the equation. Justifying their decision in a leader column for plastering Kelly's decision over the front page, the Mirror makes a pretty compelling case. It might be argued it was a private matter if Kelly hadn't previously occupied the education hot-seat, or if she hadn't made any public pronouncements on state schooling, but this was plainly not the case.

What the makes the issue more complicated, personal and more difficult to comment firmly on is that the child, has "substantial learning difficulties", to quoth the BBC. To say that the quality of teaching and general provision for those with learning difficulties in state schools is controversial would be an understatement on the scale of saying that Iraq is a bit of a blunder. Some continue to call for separate schools for those with special needs, claiming that the policy of one size fits all that occurs in the state sector fails them, while the Labour government has been at the forefront of promoting inclusiveness, partly out of the belief that such schools only promote difference and fail to prepare their pupils for "normal" life as adequately as comprehensive schooling does. Both sides of the argument have merit, and as it falls to local authorities and councils to provide school provision, central government generally keeps out of the decisions that are made.

Yet the decision by Kelly is still by no-means clear cut, whether the child has learning difficulties or not. Even going private on the basis of professional advice, it's still a vote of no confidence in the schooling which he has had up to know. This is remember a government that claimed its first three priorities were "education, education, education", yet only just more than half leave school at 16 with five A-C GCSE grades. Top-up fees were introduced, despite claiming that they would do no such thing. It has been effectively 9 years of meddling; we've had city academies, giving control over the curriculum to evangelical Christians and oleangenious businessmen who've also donated money to Labour, and now trust schools introduced, along with "specialisms", yet there's been few measurable achievements apart from driving down class sizes and increasing the pass-rate a little, but by nowhere near enough.

Kelly's justifications and the coincidences involving the picked school are also far from clean:

She said it was not uncommon for pupils with substantial learning difficulties to spend some time outside the state sector to help them progress.

"Sometimes this is paid for by the local authority. In my case, I have not and will not seek the help of the local authority in meeting these costs," Ms Kelly said.

As much as this is true, most who do spend time outside the state sector tend to rely on tutors, and this is outside of school hours. Her choosing of the following school will also raise questions about whether she's being truthful when she says she intends to send him to a state secondary:

The private school which Ms Kelly is believed to have chosen charges £15,000 a year, and grooms children with a particular, relatively common condition for entry into elite public schools such as Harrow and Winchester.

Even if we dismiss Labour tribalism for a second, listen to the likes of Guido when he says that state schooling is collapsing in the Tower Hamlets area, and recognise that the hypocrisy here doesn't come close to approaching the levels of Diane Abbot sending her son to a private school, the decision is still suspect. It shows the limitations of education under Labour, yet the solution which Kelly and other middle class families choose is doing nothing to help the situation, rather instead demoralising teachers who recognise that not even ministers believe their own rhetoric, damns the proles to schools which the more affluent can avoid, and perpetuates the cycle of defeatism. That there are seven special schools within Tower Hamlets, including one specialist centre, additionally makes her look using it more as an excuse rather than a necessity.

The response from her political opponents has been less than condemnatory. It's more than apparent that the muted reaction is down to the fact that her son has special needs, with David Cameron unlikely to capitalise on something that he may yet have to do himself, not to mention his own privileged education. Sarah Teather, finding time out from her search for sex to comment on her actual position (is this right? Ed.), took much the same approach.

Personally, it's just another stroke against Kelly and her far from dazzling ministerial career. Hopeless at education, moved into a position where she finds herself, a member of Opus Dei, supposedly having to defend outlawing discrimination against homosexuals, and apparently doing the exact opposite, she should do the decent thing and resign.

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