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January 15, 2007

Ruth Kelly, Helping Children, and University Access

Posted by Jeremy Black

In the mass of comment about Ruth Kelly's decision to send a dyslexic child to a private special school, there has been little discussion of the hypocritical contrast between encouraging, accepting or, in New Labour's regulatory imagination, "allowing" such action, and the guidelines they have been trying to enforce as far as university entry by private school pupils is concerned.

In the Laura Spence imbroglio, the issue of university entry of course provided guidance to the unattractive self-righteousness of Gordon Brown, red in tooth and admonition, but it is not only Mr Brown who is involved. Labour has sought to limit university freedom over admissions. In doing so it has failed adequately to address serious issues about variable standards at school level and problems of social expectation and support. Complaints about unfair advantages for private school pupils are easier to express, and make Labour politicians feel that they have not abandoned their principles.

Fairness is of course highly subjective. When I was in the History Department in Durham, I can recall colleagues at a Board of Studies who were pressing hard for more difficult grades from private school pupils being irritated when I suggested that we ban the children of academics and schoolteachers in that they had the unfair advantage of seeing their parents read a lot.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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