Such a High Price for Incompetence; as a Minister Is Taken to Task for Choosing to Educate Her Child Privately, Many Parents Feel Anger and Betrayal at Labour's Record on Schools

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Byline: ANNE MCELVOY

THE traditional Labour row over private education has been reignited.

Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly becomes the latest figure laid out on the rack of "hypocrisy" as an erstwhile Secretary of State for schools who sought a private provision for her own special-needs child.

My own reservations about this charge are as follows. Most of her critics would do exactly the same thing it were their child and they could afford to do so. It is not wildly aberrant behaviour and neither is she the kind of Leftwing politician or commentator who inveighs about the evils of private schools but then resorts to them. She was most unwise not to announce the decision herself rather than be exposed, but that is a different matter of judgment.

The double standards charge is also invariably one-sided, being one to which only Labour politicians are exposed, which is simply inequitable. Will it be laid with the same intensity against Conservatives, many of whom will still seek to have their children educated in the excellent existing grammar schools, now that the party has bid farewell to expanding grammars to benefit more of the population? Fair's fair in the education wars if this is the weapon of choice.

Frankly, though, I would be more interested in what solutions are produced to affect the rest of us than in harrying some politician, whatever their party, for their own choices.

The pent-up aggression that the Kelly case unleashes is felt most deeply by those who negotiate the London education system and feel trapped and dissatisfied by what it offers.

Despite Tony Blair's threefold " Education" pledge and a succession of initiatives to improve state schools since 1997, there remains a widespread despair about our schools - and that is shared by a growing number of people who would not previously have opted for private education, nor felt comfortable with the social selection it brings.

Just before l'affaire Kelly broke, a friend told me she was opting out of an upper mid-ranking London comp for her son in favour of a private school place. She is fiercely Left-of-centre and, like myself, the product of a state school.

We compared the subjects we had been taught at our own comps and the paltry curriculum offerings her son was grinding through joylessly now. We had both studied two modern languages, three sciences, history and classics to 16 - her child was offered a single mixed science course, one appallingly taught language and no history that did not clash with another core subject.

As for classics, that is now almost exclusively what it was before the Second World War - the preserve of the privately educated.

Progress is often measured by societies in which parents want more for their children than they had themselves. In large tranches of our education system it is the other way round: our children are set to receive a far less attractive or rounded education if they remain in state schools than we got.

"Some people will think I'm a hypocrite," said my friend. "And you know what? I just don't bloody care any more."

Rising expectations mean fewer parents will be held back by any ideological concerns from leaving the state system if they can. All around them they see inadequate or just-about-OK provision, often with a City Academy on the horizon, which may or may not come up to scratch, as the only hope. …