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

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge