A guide to the moral maze of education

14th March 2003 at 00:00
TAKE heart, angst-ridden middle-class parents. You may not be able to get your children into Bristol University. But now you can stop feeling guilty about sending them to private or selective schools. Or at least some of you can.

It all depends on your views, the quality of the local state comprehensive you shun and the private or selective school you choose. In a new book, How not to be a hypocrite - school choice for the morally perplexed parent political philosopher Adam Swift teases out the moral dilemmas faced by parents who disapprove of private education and selection in theory yet choose it for their own children.

Dr Swift is a fellow and undergraduate admissions tutor at Balliol College, Oxford. He started to think systematically about this, he says, during the row over the decision by Harriet Harman, then shadow education secretary, to send her son to a selective school.

The comforting conclusion of his systematic thought? That there are "lots of ways in which parents can, without hypocrisy or inconsistency, send their children to schools that they would vote to abolish....Even better news: that decision can be the right one to take."

But Dr Swift warns that there is still plenty of room for hypocrisy and inconsistency. Parents inclined to trip off, morally liberated, to Winchester College or the London Oratory should think again. For he thinks parents are justified in opting out only if the local comprehensive is so inadequate that the child would be seriously harmed by attending it - and only if the school chosen as an alternative is "good enough" rather than one offering a royal road to privilege and success.

It is hard to imagine a boy so brilliant that only a school like Winchester would keep him on the rails, he remarks.

Analysis, 19 Peter Lampl, 23

"How not to be a hypocrite" by Adam Swift is published next week by RoutledgeFalmer, paperback pound;9.99, hardback pound;45.

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