Blair 'backs parental choice' amid private school row

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair fully supports the right of parents to choose the school they send their children to, Downing Street said today.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman refused to comment directly on the decision by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly to send one of her children to a £15,000-a-year private school for pupils with learning difficulties.

However, he made clear that Mr Blair did not see the holding of ministerial office as a bar to parents sending their children to schools outside the state system.

"What the Prime Minister supports absolutely is the right of parents to make choices about their children's education which are best suited to their children's needs irrespective of who their parents are or what job they do," the spokesman said.

He said Mr Blair had always believed in a "mix of provision" in education.

"For some pupils inclusion in the mainstream system will be the answer. For other pupils that will not be the answer," the spokesman said.

Mr Blair himself has previously been embroiled in controversy over his children's education.

He was criticised in 1995 for sending his elder son, Euan, to the grant-maintained Catholic London Oratory school in Fulham, south west London.

Tories accused the then leader of the Opposition of taking advantage of freedom of choice in education for his own children and denying it to others.

But Conservative leader David Cameron today defended Mrs Kelly's right to decide, saying he did not think she was being hypocritical.

He told GMTV it was a "personal matter", adding that the minister was "a parent first, but we're all parents first rather than politicians" and "must do the right thing" for children.

"Some people are going to say it's hypocrisy. Well, if they were going to abolish private education then it would be hypocrisy, but they're not.

"People should recognise that politicians, like everyone else, are parents first and will act in the best interests of their children."

Mr Cameron, whose son, Ivan, suffers from cerebral palsy, said: "I'd like my children to go to a state school, that's my intention, but you must always do the right thing as a parent."

Mrs Kelly's Government colleagues have refused to comment directly on the decision, although Trade and Industry Minister Margaret Hodge acknowledged there was a public interest in whether Labour MPs sent their children to private schools.

Current Education Secretary Alan Johnson insisted the Government was trying to ensure the state sector offered the same level of service as the private sector.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: "I'm not going to talk about personal issues involving a colleague and her child without any indication of what the facts are."

Present education policy encourages the schooling of children with learning difficulties within the mainstream state system where possible.

The private school in question grooms children with a particular, relatively common condition for entry into elite public schools such as Harrow and Winchester.

It is based in a country house in the Home Counties and offers its 60 pupils, aged seven to 13, large amounts of one-on-one tuition, as well as the use of facilities including a swimming pool, tennis courts and music rooms.

The decision has provoked anger among Labour MPs, one of whom described it as a "slap in the face".

Mrs Kelly, a mother of four, is widely expected to issue a statement on the matter later today.