Catch 22 for the politically correct parent

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Geraldine Hackett reports on the Labour party's efforts to get back on top of the education agenda, while Soraya Madell finds an improbable Harriet Harman supporter in Tottenham's black MP Bernie Grant.

The debate over Labour health spokesman Harriet Harman's decision to send her son Joe to a selective grammar school outside her own borough has focused attention on a dilemma faced by many people in public life, especially Labour politicians, writes Soraya Madell.

Michael Barber, professor of education at London University's Institute of Education and an adviser to the Labour front bench on education, describes the problem thus: "Labour politicians, like thousands of parents, want the best for their children and if they live in some of the major conurbations, which are the areas they are most likely to represent, they will worry about the schools in their local area.

"The dilemma for them is that if they want to stop worrying, they have to choose schools which contradict Labour policy . . . it seems quite right that they seek the best opportunities as a parent but this will always look hypocritical from the outside."

Professor Barber suggests three courses of action for Labour parents in this position: send the child to a selective school and "put up with the flak"; risk sending the child to the local comprehensive school, which may not be the best one for the child (the decision may be opposed by partners who are not politicians); or move closer to a good school.

This last option solves the problem of accusations of hypocrisy but is likely to damage inner-city communities by creating social segregation. Professor Barber says: "Each of the solutions has its own tensions within it. None is attractive."

Margaret Tulloch, chief executive at the pro-comprehensive pressure group, the Campaign for State Education argued that Labour politicians in inner cities (such as David Blunkett) had found suitable local schools for their children.

She said the Harman issue had prompted concerns about what Labour's policies would be should the party gain office. "But we welcome the debate," she says. "We don't feel people have been saying enough about the success of comprehensive education."

Senior Labour politicians surveyed by The TES this week sought to avoid directly commenting on Harriet Harman's decision, insisting that a parent's choice of a child's school is a personal matter even though that parent may be a Labour front-bencher.

Defence spokesman David Clark said: "It seems to me to be a matter for the individual. I never even thought about it. My daughter went to the local comprehensive in Gateshead, one of the poorest boroughs in the country, and now she has got two degrees."

Joan Lestor, a former education junior minister and now overseas development spokesman, said: "I believe in comprehensive schools and both my children went to comprehensives. If all children with motivated parents moved out of poor areas, then schools would not receive an influx to improve them."

Of the 20 members of the Labour shadow Cabinet who have had to make school choices, 16 have followed the party's education policy in choosing local state primary schools or comprehensives (or, under the 11-plus system, state grammars or secondary moderns). Labour Chief Whip Donald Dewar and Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Doug Hoyle declined to take part in The TES survey.

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