Ruth Kelly's road leads to a class apart

19th January 2007 at 00:00
Ruth Kelly's decision to send her child to a private school came as no surprise to me. It was only a matter of time. Personally, I think her choice had more to do with social class and a sense of guilt from a parent who was herself privately educated, rather than her son's special needs.

It is a fact of life that children who go to private schools go on to the "right" university and then become the movers and shakers of tomorrow, even if they have special needs. The reason politicians on all sides have chosen not to condemn her actions is because they want to reserve the right to do the same for their own children.

As minister for communities, Ms Kelly lives in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in the country. Yet it is a very expensive place to buy a house. The gap between rich and poor is widening and few on my own teaching staff (myself included) can afford to buy property in the area. Most support staff do live in the locality, but they live in social housing.

Many affluent professionals who have moved into the borough live in "gated"

communities and have little contact with the wider community. If their children were to attend local schools, that would aid and even strengthen social cohesion. This is a real issue for us in Tower Hamlets, and it is especially disappointing that Ms Kelly should lose faith in the local school system in this way - though, to be fair, her other children are still in state education.

Despite Tower Hamlets being one of the poorest areas in the country, it is very well funded and very well run. Schools are generally doing well and provide a high-quality education service. Children's services provide excellent support for schools, and for young people and their families. The authority is well known for its inclusive policy and practice, and young people with a wide range of needs are being successfully included in mainstream schools. Many others attend special schools. Of course, there are some children with whom inclusion is not successful, but in such cases action is taken to provide alternative provision.

It has been suggested that it was a lack of special schools that caused the problem. The debate about special versus mainstream has taken a backward turn over the past few years, and I believe those who oppose inclusion are misguided and misinformed.

There are many reasons why parents choose to send their child to a mainstream school, but an important one is that they want their children to be part of their community. They want them to be able to "play out" and mix with children in their neighbourhood.

One of the drawbacks for children who attend special schools is that they have to be bussed to and from schools and are increasingly separated from their local community. They don't have friends who live nearby, and evenings, weekends and holidays can be lonely because they are like prisoners in their own home once school has finished for the day. If you send your child away to an expensive private boarding school, as Ms Kelly has done in this case, then they will not mix with the locals. Perhaps that is the general idea.

Social class is as much an issue today as it was 50 years ago.

Comprehensive schools set in leafy suburbs with the "right" intake of pupils are fine for some politicians - particularly if they have been selected according to their ability andor religious affiliation. But if, like Ms Kelly, they live in the heart of London's East End, the social make-up of the population is what gets in the way.

Social class is the most difficult barrier to overcome.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher of George Green's community school in east London

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