Interview: Ed Balls

The education secretary is passionate about transforming schools and the lives of children in Britai

Ed Balls is worried about Christmas. It just isn't the way it was when he was a lad. He talks excitedly about the festive season in the Balls household three decades ago, heralded each year by the arrival of his grandmother, bearing a special treat. "You remember the big issue of the Radio Times, when it was the only source of TV listings? You only had four channels. What you chose was really exciting."

As one of the "Young Turks" around Gordon Brown, Balls is often represented as some sort of teenage tearaway, when he is in fact a 40-year-old father-of-three. He grew up in the 1970s, in the days before satellite television, before mobile phones, before the internet.

Woven into the fabric of his new Children's Plan is a recognition that the 21st century is a scary place for parents, many of whom are struggling to comprehend the rapid technological shifts affecting their children. So, to complement the changes to the curriculum, the increase in nursery places for two-year-olds, reform of primary school tests, comes a commitment to examining the effects of new cultural phenomena on children. Experts will examine the impact of violent computer games on boys, of the increasing sexualisation of women's bodies on young girls and other effects of commercialisation.

"Because there's so much more dedicated children's TV and advertising, you can see how the pester power of children is much greater than it was 30 years ago. That is something that, as a parent, you just try to deal with. As a parent, I worry about the way in which commercial pressure - TV, the internet, sexualisation - impacts on self-esteem. But I couldn't say I understand it." This is quite an admission from a man with a reputation for knowing everything about everything. Balls believes that our knowledge of how the media affect our behaviour is still limited, but he is convinced the effects are real.

The Children's Plan is a vastly ambitious document, nothing short of a blueprint for the next generation. "The driving vision is wanting to make Britain a better place for children to grow up, wanting every child to fulfil their talents, to make progress at school, but also to be healthy, be happy, to be able to play as well as learn," Balls says. He talks of schools being "an early-warning indicator of things which are becoming a problem outside", such as health, antisocial behaviour and poverty. At the heart of this mission is the need to "break down all the barriers to learning and progress for every child in and outside of school".

Intervention for troubled children does not come early enough, he says. "The first time they get extra help if they're going off the rails shouldn't be when they get into trouble with the criminal justice system."

He acknowledges that the rate of progress has been slower than it should have been. "Standards have been rising progressively in the past ten years but we're not yet world-class. Children from poor backgrounds have seen faster improvements in results in the past four or five years. But it is still the case that your educational chances are substantially affected by where you live, the occupation of your parents, the income of your family."

Early learning

We suggest that the plan marks a significant shift in philosophy from the early days of new Labour. The Balls concept of "personalised learning", for example, does not sound a million miles away from the concept of "child-centred learning", which was much derided by the likes of David Blunkett as a hangover from the progressive teaching practices of the 1960s and 1970s. "Well, it's certainly putting the needs of children and families first," says Balls.

He concedes that the government has struggled to resolve the intractable problem of dealing with the bottom 20 per cent of children who consistently fail to hit the level now expected of them at 11 (Level 4 at Key Stage 2, to use the official jargon). "An important reason why the pace [of improvement] has slowed is that as you increase the number of children who are getting to Level 4 at 11, as you get closer to the 80 per cent, getting above that means tackling a whole series of situations in children's lives which are not simply going to be solved by teaching a particular curriculum in the classroom."

For this reason Balls is convinced of the im portance of so-called "wrap-around services" for schools outside normal school hours - in particular, breakfast clubs. "Too often children, because of what's happened to them at the weekend, arrive at school unable to start learning. The breakfast club for the first hour of the day means that they eat, but they also stabilise, which means that they can learn through the rest of the day. If it weren't for that, we couldn't teach in the school. It's also a critical part of tackling the wider barriers to learning."

Underlying moves to change the way children are tested in the final year of primary is a view that the present system is too simplistic. Instead of tests on a single day, children will be assessed when teachers judge them ready. This will allow brighter children to move on to a more advanced curriculum and children who are less able, or younger, to work at their own pace.

"This is not a retreat from objective standardised information school by school, which allows parents and national and local government to assess progress," he says. "But it is a move away from inflexible, one-size-fits-all testing at 11. Instead, when children move up a level, the level at which they start and how far they can go depends on the child - and teachers and parents."

Has he been depressed by the difficulties La bour has encountered in tackling social mobility? He sighs. "It tells you that you don't turn round a century or more of attitudes and assumptions about what different groups in society can achieve in a few years. It's a big, long-term task."

In a previous interview with the NS before he became a minister (during the Blair era), Balls said he was not afraid to describe himself as a socialist. So we ask him again about equality. Now in the cabinet, he appears to be making similar claims for Labour under Brown.

"We're a progressive egalitarian government which wants to abolish child poverty, make sure opportunity is available for all and not just some, and to break out of an idea that excellence can only be for a few, and that you have a two-tier view of society in which the education and opportunities of people from low-income families or from particular communities are second-best." This, he says, goes far beyond the old mantras of equality of opportunity.

So why did the government give in to pressure from the Conservatives and the right-wing press to raise the threshold of inheritance tax, perhaps the clearest redistributive tax of them all?

"If you send a signal out which is that 'there's only so far you can rise in Britain', then people will go elsewhere. Having been a City minister for a year and seen the reality of that world, [I can tell you that] the high achievers are very, very mobile people. We don't want to send a signal that we are a society which doesn't welcome talent and expertise and doesn't want to see people being rewarded.

"I don't want to live in a society where inequality is rising and you have huge gaps between the haves and have-nots. That isn't the foundation for a strong society. But at the same time, I don't think in a global economy you can start by addressing the balance by capping rewards at the top without paying quite a big price in terms of your ability . . . to attract investment and talent and companies to come and create jobs in your country - and that is central to the progressive dilemma."

Spread the word

In the last issue of the NS, the left-wing deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas and his campaign manager Jon Trickett published the most trenchant critique yet of the Brown government's faults. We ask Balls for his view, expecting him to dismiss the article. Instead he argues that Cruddas and Trickett are knocking at an open door. "I think that we are, in education, child poverty, health, housing, setting out radical progressive policies with increasingly clear dividing lines between the parties," he says. Why then are so many on the left disillusioned? "We as a government need to have the confidence to talk and shout about those issues more."

When Balls was in internal opposition to the Blairites he was often thought to be working behind the scenes to undermine flagship policies such as tuition fees and trust schools. His Commons opposite number, Michael Gove, likes to quote Balls, also from the NS, expressing doubts about the controversial education bill of the time, which gave schools new freedoms from local authority control.

Balls admits he has changed his mind. "The thing about policymaking in the past ten years," he says - "and this includes policy I was involved with - this is the process: you start with a view, there's discussion, policy evolves, you reach a conclusion. The question is: Have you reached the right conclusion? Have you arrived at the right place? What started as a policy that some feared would set school against school and what some feared would lead to greater selection actually ended up delivering a stronger admissions code than we've ever had."

So Blair was right all along?

"As I said, it's the evolution of policy, and it shows the government, the Labour Party and parliament at its best. There were very influen-tial select committee reports and there were debates which went on and we ended up with a good outcome."

Jobs for the boys

Ed Balls has stood shoulder to shoulder with Gordon Brown since he became an adviser to him in opposition in 1994, when he really was young. In government he has been at his side at the Treasury, first as an adviser and then as a minister. His rise to a top cabinet post under a Brown premiership was inevitable. His analysis of the events of the past six months provides a fascinating insight from within the Brown bunker.

"The idea was that once the transition occurred, Gordon Brown would slump in the polls and fail. Therefore when the transition occurred, to be honest, everyone was rather taken aback by how well it went. So when you had quite a big swing in one direction . . . then maybe people suddenly sort of pinched themselves and said, 'Well, it can't be going this well.'"

We ask Balls if he thinks the Labour Party is off the bottom now. "There have been too many weeks in the past few weeks where you've thought, 'Nothing could come along and be as difficult as it was last week,' and then it did," he says. "But politics isn't about avoiding issues that are difficult to deal with. You win elections by having difficult issues which you deal with well."

One area where he admits bad mistakes were made is the cancelled election, a fiasco for which Balls and other "Young Turks" have been held responsible. He is frank in his analysis.

"It was badly handled in that . . . an interesting discussion which was a reflection of the fact that we were ahead in the polls . . . moved beyond the theoretical. And as Gordon himself has said, he should have moved more quickly to shut down the speculation if he wasn't going to go for the election."

So just how closely involved is he in the Downing Street machine? What about meetings with other members of the young clique? Balls insists he has seen the likes of Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander perhaps only three times over the past month, outside cabinet meetings. After all the recent problems, does Brown need to bring new people into his team? "That's a question you've got to ask Gordon. I'm the Secretary of State. I get on with my job." What about talk of a return for Alastair Campbell? "News to me."

Does Balls talk to Brown every day, for example - as some reports suggest? "No. Of course I don't," he retorts. "Do I do morning calls every day? No. Do I go and have a meeting with Gordon every day? No. Am I trying to run the government or run Downing Street? Of course I'm not. Is it bad enough trying to run a department of this scale and scope? Yes. Is it a time-consuming job doing that? Yes. If Gordon rings me do I talk to him? Of course. I'm not part of the strategic directive of Downing Street. But what's the point of me attempting to jump up and down every time a diary story or a sketch says that must be true? You just roll your eyes and carry on."

Ed Balls: the CV

1967 Born 25 February in Norwich. Educated at Nottingham High School and Oxford

1989-90 Fellow at Harvard

1990-94 Leader writer and columnist, Financial Times

1994-97 Economic adviser to Gordon Brown

1994 Coins the term "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory", leading Michael Heseltine to quip: "It's not Brown's, it's Balls"

1998 Marries Yvette Cooper MP (now minister for housing). They have three children

1999-2004 Chief economic adviser to the Treasury

May 2005 Elected MP for Normanton

May 2006 Becomes economic secretary to the Treasury

June 2007 Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Research by Alyssa McDonald

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