LEADING ARTICLE: Why Blair must stand by Harman

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The Independent Online
Harriet Harman must not resign. Tony Blair should back her to the hilt. If he fails to do so the old guard of his party will pick up the message all too quickly - "Rough me up a bit and I will cave in." That message will be relayed to an anxious electorate and they will ask: if the old guard can force him to retreat on this issue, then what other promises to the aspirant middle classes will he backtrack on? In short, Blair has much to lose on this apparently trifling issue of the future of one 11-year-old boy.

It is not just a matter of presentation. There are difficult and troubling issues at stake. The first is parental choice. It should play a central role in secondary education. As a nation we must want parents to desire and seek the best for their children. To do that we must allow them to search for the school most suited to each child.

The kind of antagonism unleashed against Harriet Harman's decision casts doubts on Labour's commitment to choice. For all her middle-class primness - she seems at times like a Labour version of Virginia Bottomley - she nevertheless has an unnerving habit of slipping out of the political world and behaving like an ordinary person. And up and down the country parents of all classes are doing exactly what she is doing. Labour would be woefully misguided to side against them.

On the contrary, Labour should be advocating greater diversity within the state sector, with more specialisation within schools allowing them to focus on music, the arts, science or sport. And there should be forms of streaming and setting within comprehensives.

Yet if there is to be choice, then schools that acquire a good reputation will be oversubscribed. The long-term solution to that is to allow good schools - possibly through involving private finance - to grow to accommodate this demand, and to work on improving the quality of all schools, especially the worst. With proper funding and good management even sink schools can be turned around. But in the short term where demand outstrips supply, there must be rationing - and that raises the question of selection.

The 11-plus examination had a disastrous impact on Britain. It condemned millions of children to a second-class education, second-class life chances and second-class jobs. There must be no return to such a divisive system. The aim of British education - as it is in Germany and Japan - should be to raise the standards of all our children's education, not just the top 5 per cent.

That means entry selection for schools should be used as a tool to deal with oversubscription. There should be alternatives to selection on academic grounds and examination results: random selection, interviews, work projects completed at junior school, selection based on geography. None of these is satisfactory, as any parent will testify.

The political point is clear, though. The left has held back from attacking Mr Blair directly; a full frontal assault would not succeed and would be too damaging. So it is attacking Harriet Harman as a proxy for the Labour leader himself.

If he loses his nerve and backs down, the middle-class voters he has been courting so assiduously will feel badly let down and may never fully trust him again.

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