Dominic Lawson: A child is worth more than any principle

I am the last person to criticise Kelly having had a similar encounter with my own local schools authority
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The Independent Online

I wonder what David Cameron thought when he read Ruth Kelly's statement yesterday. In defending her decision to send one of her sons to a private boarding school, the Secretary of State for Communities - whatever that means - said that the boy has "particular and substantial learning difficulties". David Cameron's son Ivan cannot walk, talk or eat. Not only does Ivan have an all-encompassing cerebral palsy, he also suffers from cluster epileptic fits. Ms Kelly's son has dyslexia.

Officially promoted euphemisms have so denuded language of meaning that the same term - "substantial learning difficulties" - can be applied to two children who have nothing in common save their humanity. The gentlemanly Mr Cameron, however, chose to accept Ms Kelly's statement without quibbling - while simultaneously managing to point out that Ivan goes to a special school in the state sector.

It was not Mr Cameron or the Conservative Party that Ms Kelly's statement was designed to appease, of course: it was the Labour Party, which even after 11 years of Mr Blair's leadership is still viscerally opposed to the idea of people choosing to pay for the education they want for their children. It was presumably for this reason that Ruth Kelly felt unable to say straightforwardly that she was exercising the basic right of any parent in a free country. Instead she produced verbiage such as: "Acting on professional advice - which the local authority accepts - I am placing my son in a school that will be able to meet his particular needs... I have not and will not seek the help of the local authority in meeting these costs."

That last bit is especially disingenuous. We can be almost certain that Tower Hamlets LEA would not have met those costs, if asked to do so by Mrs Kelly and her husband. Yesterday Tower Hamlets insisted that it "provides excellent services to all children including especially tailored provision to those with special needs." Indeed, a brief glance at its website shows that it offers no fewer than seven special needs schools, including a residential one in the beautiful South Downs of East Sussex. I am the last person who should criticise Ruth Kelly, however, having had a similar encounter with my own local educational authority. Our younger daughter has Down syndrome. We wanted her to go to the same school as the one to which her elder sister had won a scholarship, which is a private all-girls Catholic foundation only 15 minutes drive from their home.

Our daughter's "statement of special educational needs" concluded that she required the maximum amount of one-on-one care - that is to say, a full time teaching assistant. We were most grateful for this - many children with Down syndrome are not given such an allocation; but the LEA insisted that if we wanted this assistance to be provided by them at a Catholic school, then it would have to be at the nearest state Catholic school, which was a (very good) co-educational one about 45 minutes away from our home.

Perhaps it was overprotective of us to be worried about how our younger daughter would fare at a mixed school; but I think it is perfectly normal to want one's children to be as close as possible to home - and at the same school. Like Ms Kelly and her husband we made it clear to the LEA that we did not require them to pay any fees. We just asked them to meet the cost of the extra care specified in her statement of special educational needs which they had drawn up. We also pointed out that if she went to the state Catholic school, then the local authority could well find itself obliged to meet the considerable cost of the daily taxi service there and back, whereas our choice would mean that she would be taken with her sister on the normal school run.

Our argument was brushed aside. This was a matter of ideology, not money: the LEA preferred to spend more public funds in order to guarantee that our daughter was not educated at a perfectly good private school.

They, certainly, could not be charged with hypocrisy. It is a peculiar aspect of modern Britain that hypocrisy has become the greatest of all crimes. If a member of parliament is discovered to have been having a sexual relationship with a sheep, it will not be his bestiality that will cause him to be condemned in the leader columns of our newspapers, but the fact that he once criticised Channel 4 for transmitting a programme about sex with animals; whereas if he once put forward a private member's motion in favour of such practices, he will be described as man of principle.

As it happens, no one can find anything that Ruth Kelly has said which allows them to label her a hypocrite. The most that can be said is that her actions demonstrate what Labour Cabinet ministers refuse to admit: that no matter how much public money is spent on the educational system, there will always be parents who cannot find what they want for their children in the state sector. Gordon Brown has declared that he intends to raise the money spent per child in state schools to the level that obtains in the private sector. I would welcome that; not least because it should then no longer be possible for the supporters of the comprehensive system to argue that only lack of funding lies behind the gulf in quality between the state and private sectors.

Of all the Labour MPs who have wriggled on this hook, the most painfully exposed is Diane Abbott. The member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington criticised Tony Blair when he sent his eldest son to the selective London Oratory, protesting that people voted Labour because they believed in equality. When Harriet Harman sent her son to a grammar school, Ms Abbott remarked: "She made the Labour Party look as if we do one thing and say another." Then Ms Abbott decided, after all, that Harriet had a point. She proceeded to send her own son to a £10,000-a-year private school.

The son in question spoke out for his mother, saying: "She is not a hypocrite, she just put what I wanted first." He was half right. Ms Abbott is a hypocrite; but in putting his welfare before her political principles she was acting nobly. The opposite is much less attractive. I recall meeting a well-known comedian who seemed to take great pride in telling me how she had felt it was right to send her son to the local comprehensive - even though it was known to be rife with drug-taking and had been the subject of a number of critical reports. Not only did she feel good about herself; she argued that she was putting the interests of the community first. I told her that I doubted her son would be grateful for her public-spiritedness.

It can't be said too often: the welfare of a single child is more important than any political idea.