Leading Article: Harman gets her priorities right

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The Independent Online
Harriet Harman's son, Joe, is not a politician. He has not spent years debating composite motions at the Labour Party conference about comprehensives and opted-out schools. Nor has he stood for Parliament advocating particular educational policies. If Labour wins the general election, Joe will not be in the running for a cabinet post. He is simply an 11-year-old boy, who, like any child, needs the best schooling available.

And that is exactly what Ms Harman and her husband, Jack Dromey, a senior Transport and General Workers' Union official, are trying to provide. They have decided to send him to St Olave's School in Bromley, Kent, after he beat 600 other children in an examination to gain one of just 90 places in the grammar school. It is a fine school, state-funded, where the teachers are committed and the results are good. Most pupils go on to university.

Any parent would be proud that a son had a chance to thrive in this school's excellent academic environment and to enjoy its generous tree-lined rugby fields. They would be right to reflect on the fact that such facilities within the state sector are available only to the lucky few. But no parent, not even Harriet Harman, can be held responsible for the uneven nature of Britain's state education system.

Yet neither the political opportunists in the Conservative Party nor the puritanical ideologues of the Labour Party have been able to keep their lips buttoned.

Tory critics say the decision exposes Ms Harman as a hypocrite and makes a nonsense of Labour's opposition to selection in state schools. Combined with the Blairs' decision to send their son to a grant-maintained school, this latest controversy is being seized upon as vindication of the Government's education policies. Meanwhile, Clare Short, Ms Harman's fellow frontbencher, yesterday made a thinly veiled attack on her colleague, who would have to "answer to her constituents" for what she had done. Ms Short is unlikely to be the only Labour politician to make known her distaste for Joe being allowed to attend St Olave's.

All this is politics taken too far. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this country's education policies, the debate should be confined to public life. The children of politicians do not choose their parents and should not have to suffer for their beliefs. It is also hypocrisy to expect a parent, even a politician with strong views, to do anything but the best for her children. The real crime would have been if Ms Harman had stunted her son's potential achievement and made his progress come second to her own political ambitions.

Indeed, it is reassuring to see Ms Harman prepared to take the flak for her choice rather than pretending to be an ideological saint. As Labour makes its claim to govern, most people would prefer politicians whose actions reflect what they themselves would do in the circumstances. Voters are certainly likely to be more comfortable with a politician who gets her priorities right and puts the interests of her children first.

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