Harman: I won't quit over school

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Harriet Harman, the shadow Health Secretary, last night vowed not to resign in the face of Tory attacks and mounting protests within her own party over her controversial decision to send her son to a grammar school.

Breaking 72 hours of media silence over the decision, and fortified by the backing of Tony Blair, the party leader, Ms Harman stood firm with a resolute public defence of the choice of the selective St. Olave's school in Orpington for her 11 year old son Joseph.

"I don't think my position is untenable. I know our choice has been controversial, but we had to make the right decision in the interests of our child. Most parents up and down the country understand ... we would be less than human to do anything else."

"We have not moved him out of the state system. We are not in favour of selection. Our choice, which we are making here and now, makes no difference to our education policy and I totally support our education policy. Just as I want excellence in education for my child, we want excellence in education for all children.

Ms Harman's decision to go public in an interview on Channel Four News came after a weekend of Tory attacks on Labour for "hypocrisy" over its non-selective education policy and stormy scenes in yesterday's Commons education debate.

Ms Harman said of her and her husband Jack Dromey's decision to send their 11-year-old son, Joseph, to St Olave's grammar school in Orpington: "We made a choice, available on the same terms to all the children in my constituency. This is not a private school, it's a state school." She pointed out that Labour would not abolish existing grammar schools unless it was the wish of local parents involved."

As the Tories gleefully seized on signs of Labour disarray after months of being on the defensive, Joy Johnson, Director of Campaigns, Elections and Media, coincidentally resigned from her job.

Although both she and the party insisted her departure had been amicable, the move followed several months of tension between her and close aides to Mr Blair.

Aides to Mr Blair claimed Ms Harman's interview had been a "turning point" in the row. And in a meeting with Ms Harman yesterday, Mr Blair told her that the fuss over her decision was "out of all proportion", and it was not a resigning matter.

The Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, led a sustained Tory attack on Labour in the Commons. "Nothing now can hide the basic contradiction and deep division at the heart of Labour education policy," she said.

Considerable anger - and a good deal of anguish - among sectors of the backbench parliamentary party had earlier surfaced, when Gerry Steinberg, chairman of the backbench Labour education committee, resigned in protest and declared that Ms Harman should herself have resigned as a front bench spokesman. But Tessa Jowell, the party's spokesman on women's issues, said Ms Harman should not resign: "She needs to be able to look son in the eye and be able to tell him she has done the best for him." Ms Jowell also strongly criticised the media for intrusion over the weekend. Miss Harman is complaining to the Press complaints commission about the conduct of the press, and that one photographer chased Joseph, 11, down the street. Geoff Hoon, a member of Labour's Treasury team, said MPs had a responsibility for their children which did not mean they had to "conform with every letter and comma of Labour policy particularly at a time when there is nothing we can do about implementin

g that policy. "Ms Harman was also attracting all the blame for a decision taken by both her and her husband, Jack Dromey. "It is often the MP's spouse who is the best suited to take the decision on a child's schooling." Earlier, Joan Lestor, one of Ms Harman's Shadow Cabinet colleagues, had issued a pointed statement, in which she declared that she had supported comprehensive education "throughout my political life" Ms Lestor, who resigned from the Callaghan government over education cuts, added: "It is not a matter of political correctness, but of political conviction and principle - and it is educationally very sound," Ann Clwyd, a former Shadow Cabinet member, said she had "every appreciation of Harriet's abilities". But she added: "I think on this particular issue, she is wrong, she is incorrect, and should not have done it." The pro-Labour Daily Mirror today calls on Ms Harman to resign from the Shadow Cabinet and said if she did so, she would "win universal acclai

m" for putting the interests of her child above her political career.