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

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile