Monday, January 08, 2007

What's Ruth Kelly done wrong?

I don't think it's very clever to get into the political position of slagging people off for doing what they think is best for their children. Establishing the principle that doing so is a sackable offence seems to me like an extremely effective way of deterring people from getting involved in politics. There are very few policy debates which benefit from being focused on the decision of one individual and this certainly isn't one of them - the effect is just to make it more poisonous.

There are good reasons why the government has been pursuing a policy of inclusion, with considerable support from disability campaigners amongst others, but there will always be some children with special needs for whom mainstream education isn't right and alternative private provision gives them a higher quality of life and education - I know from working on holiday playschemes how some children with moderate learning difficulties flourished and some had an absolutely terrible time from being in mainstream education. It is very hard to design a system which takes all of this into account, particularly with limited resources (how many people now calling for Ruth Kelly to resign were calling a year for more funding to support pupils with SEN in mainstream education or special schools as a spending priority compared to whatever the pet cause in the news was then?)

I think this does strengthen the case for MPs to be paid much closer to the average wage, so that when they are taking decisions about what is best for their children, their options are more like those which most people face. But let's have policy made on evidence, and ministers judged on what they do or don't do in office, not where their children go to school.


At 3:07 pm , Anonymous Tim F said...

There are probably more plausible reasons to slag Ruth Kelly off after all...

I too don't like the idea of holding ministers to a different standard to everyone else. One of the reasons why private education is bad in the first place is because we expect parents to do what is best for their child, and some parents are more able to do that than others. MPs are not some special breed of human whose "morality" (or behaviour as some of us call it) is determined independently of their circumstances. Which is after all the argument for MPs being paid the median wage.

At 6:04 pm , Blogger Citizen Andreas said...

It's simple enough really, unless Ruth Kelly's choice can be seen to have been made as a direct result of her policy choices she's not a hypocrite.

The ideas of wanting what's best for your child and wanting universal good quality state provided education are not muually exclusive.

At 10:23 pm , Anonymous angus said...

"The ideas of wanting what's best for your child and wanting good quality state provided education are not mutually exclusive."

Er, yes...I'm sure if all middle class people (rather than just the 7% of the population who do so now) opted out the state school system would hugely benefit...or not. [I should confess here though that I've never found the idea that the sum of all free self-interested decisions are led by an 'invisible hand' to the outcome that serves the common good terribly convincing.]

I agree that Ruth Kelly is not a hypocrite. For one thing, she doesn't actually oppose private schools. And her decision to go private *may* even be justified by the details of the case. There is clearly a point at which state education becomes inadequate enough to justify this.

On the whole though going private is a form of anti-social behaviour that should be discouraged by public opinion, whether by MPs or anyone else. Though arguably it is especially damaging for the credibility of Labour MPs. Of course tim f is right that only legislating against private schools would be totally effective.

At 9:38 am , Blogger Citizen Andreas said...

Angus, the position that Ruth appears to be taking is that those who can afford to should be allowed to send their children to a private school. She is accepting that in this case the resources that the state can provide are not sufficient to give her child the best possible education.

The example you use is outside of the argument in question, since there is not a large body of middle class people who could afford to take theoir child out of state education. £136K is far more than your average middle class earner brings home.

Personally, I have no objection to the existence of private schooling. I simply believe that it is unable to provide efficient and stable education on a large scale.

At 10:24 am , Blogger Stephen Newton said...

The idea that you can separate the personal from the political is nonsensical.

Ruth Kelly works hard in public to reassure parents in a similar position to herself that the state education system can cope with their children. But her personal decision shows that she does not really believe that.

She shouldn't be expected to martyr her child, but she should be expected to be honest and admit that she has no faith in the state education system to do what's best for her son (and be extension other people's sons and daughters).

Such openness and honesty might actually go some way to building the trust and credibility required to assure parents that government recognises the issues, is in sympathy with their concerns and that while things may not be right today, much is being done to make sure they are right tomorrow.

At 10:41 am , Anonymous angus said...

"there is not a large body of middle class people who could afford to take their child out of state education"

I doubt this, actually-the figure would be significantly higher than 7%. Outside London they don't, mostly, because they can find a state school that they consider 'good enough' and so think it not worth the cost to their family's standard of living to fork out for the best education for their child that they could literally afford.

Anyway, my point is that it is burying your head in the sand to claim that the decisions made by parents to educate their children privately have no impact on the rest of society-they do, which is part of the case against private education.

I am less interested in how left wing middle class parents choose to respond to that dilemma than in their accepting that the dilemma exists.

At 11:54 am , Blogger Citizen Andreas said...

Stephen, saying to a parent that "the state can cope" is not the same as saying that "the state can provide the best possible education". I would not agree that she would have to admit that she has no faith in the state education, merely that in this case the private sector can provide a better education.

Angus, I would oppose legislation against private schooling on the grounds that it restricts an individuals right to choose. I see state schooling as essentially in competition with private, if state schooling is good enough parents will, of their own volition, choose to send their children to a state school.

As far as I can tell, taking your child out of state education would not reduce the overall funding available to education, so that state education would essentially get the same money split among fewer pupils. I don't see how this is a bad thing. Could you elaborate on your objection to private schooling?

At 4:39 pm , Anonymous angus said...

"if state schooling is good enough parents will, of their own volition, choose to send their children to a state school"

For some parents the motivation for sending their children to private school is social, not educational (e.g. not wanting their kids to mix with the 'riff-raff' or wanting their kids to become part of an elite old boy network). Do you think the Royal family would of their own volition attend state schools even if it had equal funding and results to private schools? To some extent private education is a positional good-the benefit is derived directly from the fact it is exclusive.

"Could you elaborate on your objection to private schooling?"

Well, besides the above and the fact I don't see why children from wealthier backgrounds ought to get greater educational opportunity, there is *in practice* a funding gap between private and state schools that will prove difficult to close. Given that, private education has detrimental effects in that:

i)private schools cream off a significant number of good teachers (trained by the state) and a significant proportion of pupils with high academic potential and few behavioural problems

ii)if pushy middle class parents had to use state schools they would be vociferous in demanding and achieving improvements (and more likely to support higher taxes to increase education spending)

iii) in their detrimental effect on state schools i and ii far outweigh any financial savings to the state of private education-much of which is lost in tax breaks to private schools anyway. Surely part of the case for the state providing universal, rather than means-tested, services like education is precisely that they are likely to be better for everyone when the better off are in rather than out.

Abolishing private education would not be a panacea, but accompanied by such policies as 'ability banding' to ensure all state comprehensives truly were comprehensive it would do a great deal to improve the education system and overcome social division. Unfortunately, it isn't politically possible at the moment.

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