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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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.