Interview: Ed Balls

With soaring street violence and constant classroom testing, Martin Bright and Suzanne Moore ask the

We interview Ed Balls the day after yet another terrible murder of a teenager in London. Sixteen-year-old Ben Kinsella was stabbed four times in the neck and chest following a party to celebrate the end of his exams. Kinsella was described as a model student who was likely to get a string of A grades at just the sort of inner-city comprehensive the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is trying to encourage to succeed against the odds.

We ask him if it is any wonder that parents in modern Britain are worried about their children, with stories like that appearing on the front pages of the newspapers so regularly (17 teenagers were killed with guns or knives in London in the first six months of 2008). Parents such as Cherie Blair, for example, who says she fears for her children on the streets because of gun and knife crime.

Balls is adamant that schools themselves remain a safe haven for children. "There is no evidence in the last ten years of any rise in any of these crimes in schools," he says. "In fact, it almost never happens."

He does recognise, however, that schools have a crucial part to play. "The most important thing to do is to make sure schools are a place where, in partnership with the police, teachers are doing prevention and the kids know that if there's something going on which they are worried about, then they can speak up. It's about a cultural change."

It is exactly a year since Ed Balls took over at the newly created Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) with the express intention of changing the culture of childhood. He is responsible not just for primary and secondary education, but also for strategies on youth crime prevention, youth offending, play schemes, youth alcohol and drugs. Jointly with the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, he is also responsible for youth justice and, with the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, for children's physical and mental health. The Children's Plan, a ten-year strategy published in December 2007, is a vastly ambitious attempt to shift the emphasis in policy to the needs of young people.

Under Balls, there has been a marked departure from the more punitive instincts of Blair-era policy and towards children, inside and outside the classroom. The so-called Respect agenda has been quietly shelved and the obsession with Asbo rhetoric curbed. In the classroom, there has been a serious attempt to address concerns about the testing regime. Balls is already looking at reforming tests for 11-year-olds to allow them to be taken when teachers feel the pupil is best prepared. This "testing when ready" approach is designed to be more like a music exam, one which the children enter only when their teacher believes that they have reached a certain standard.

We suggest that above and beyond all the other pressures faced by young children in 21st-century Britain, they are also being tested to within an inch of their lives. Many teachers and parents are in despair at the stress tests - especially National Curriculum tests (SATs) for seven-year-olds - are causing. Balls is initially dismissive of the suggestion that large numbers of seven-year-olds are being traumatised by testing because their parents are warned in advance.

"It doesn't happen in every school," he says.

We agree, but suggest it's quite normal. "It's totally the wrong way of doing things," he says.

The wrong way of testing

But it happens a lot, we say. We know schools that do it. Some of them are quite close to where Balls himself lives in north-east London.

"No seven-year-old should ever know they are doing SATs," he says bluntly. This is an odd answer. We know that he knows that we know what's going on. Schools think they are doing the right thing. We say that many schools send out notes to parents warning them that the tests are coming up and asking them to give their children extra support. It has been suggested that some schools lay on special treats, such as film shows and even sweets, to soften the blow.

The discussion becomes decidedly heated and at one point Balls just shakes his head and says "rubbish". But he also begins to shift his ground: "The best headteachers will ensure that no six- or seven-year-old knows they are doing SATs. I promise you that is the case. If you are telling pupils in Year 2 that they are doing SATs next week then that's the wrong thing to do. You should not be stressing the children."

It appeared to be an issue close to his heart. "They don't need to do the SATs in a sit-down environment," he says. "It's something that can be done as part of the school day. Honestly. And there are loads of schools doing that."

And those that aren't?

"I feel as angry as you about that. I cannot believe they are doing that. They should not be doing that."

Balls has been charged with being too interventionist, too prepared to meddle. On this issue, however, there is little he feels he can do to control the way individual schools run their tests, short of abolishing them altogether, which he is not prepared to do because they are a useful tool for teachers. His frustration is evident. There is a distinct feeling that he would happily wring the neck of every headteacher who announced tests for seven-year-olds in advance this summer, if that wouldn't set an even worse example to Britain's children.

Beyond the stress of curriculum tests, Balls emphasises that most British children's experience of childhood is essentially a happy one. "If you get most of your observation from reading the press, you get really pessimistic about what happens to children and young people," he says. But he also recognises this is not the case for all young people: "There are schools, families, areas, where children are really getting a raw deal. We all get angry about the fact that if you live in a deprived community in terms of income, you are much more likely to be scalded in the bath or be run over by a car in your area, as well as much more likely to not do well at school."

Balls turns to his own experience of childhood in Nottingham to illustrate the point that things were not necessarily better in the past. "When I was growing up, when I was ten, 11, 12, my mum and dad didn't want me to get the bus to watch Nottingham Forest play at home because when you went to the football you got beaten up. In the good old days it was pretty bad, actually."

Yet he does recognise a crucial difference: that the gap between those who do well and those who have a tough time is wider than it was, especially in a context of drug and alcohol misuse. Naturally, he traces this back to the "bad old days" before new Labour. "One of the consequences of the Eighties and Nineties is that a lot of young people had a tough time themselves, and their kids have gone on to have a difficult time as well," he says.

For Balls, the key to tackling youth violence is intervention at an early age, but he knows many schools do not have a good working relationship with the police/social services. It should be possible, he argues, to identify children at risk of problem behaviour by identifying those who have an older brother, sister or a parent who has spent time in custody. But many heads wouldn't have this information to hand.

As the New Statesman hits the news-stands, the DCSF will be publishing plans for legislation to set up "children's trusts" that bring together the various agencies responsible for children in a given area. The move comes as a result of recommendations by Lord Laming following the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000. Laming found that the abuse eight-year-old Climbié suffered had come to the attention of social workers, hospital staff, police and the local authority, but there had been no mechanism to act together to help.

Get to them earlier

Balls points to a number of schools that now have child psychologists, children's health services and advice for parents all located on-site. But he concedes there are still big problems of communication between the various agencies responsible for children. He tells the story of a boy at a school he recently visited, whose father had committed suicide in prison the previous year, and who was playing truant.

The headteacher explained the problem to social services, who said it was too serious for them to deal with. She then went to the agency that helps adolescents with mental health problems, which said the child would have to spend six months on the waiting list. When the head said the problem was urgent, she was asked if the boy had harmed himself, because a physical manifestation of the problem was needed before intervention would be possible. Balls's conclusion is that heads must be given the means to intervene early, and immediate help from other agencies when they demand it.

Despite everything, the Children's Secretary remains positive about the generation now going through the school system. "The majority of kids are doing better in school, have a more stable education, do more volunteering. More are doing music. Actually, they are the best generation of young people we've ever had, and we demonise them stupidly."

As we leave, we ask for a final verdict on the state of the nation's children. "The vast majority are doing great and the ones who aren't, we should be getting them earlier," he says. "And we should help parents to see that the world isn't such a scary place."

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood

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Why Nigel Farage is hoovering up all the women I know

Beware young fogeys.

I can’t remember where I was when I first worked out that I was older than Nigel Farage. You’d think after that bombshell went off, you’d still be able to locate the crater. Anyway, there it is: the cut-price little Oswald Mosley is about a year younger than me.

I mention this not because I want to dwell on the nasty piece of shit, but because I’ve been having to face, at one remove, so to speak, the problem of young fogeyism. It seems to be all around. And not only that, it’s hoovering up women I know.

The first time it happened was with B——. She was going to come round last weekend, but then emailed to cancel the day before, because she was going to watch rugby – apparently there’s some kind of tournament on, but it never seems to end – with her boyfriend. How ghastly, I said, or words to that effect; I’d rather die.

She then made the Category One mistake of saying, “Rugby, cricket, all the same to me,” with a cheeky little “x” at the end of it.

I replied thus: Rugby is a violent and brutal game (the coy term is “contact sport”, which means you get to – indeed, are encouraged to – injure the opposing team as often as you can, in the absence of any other tactic) loved by fascists, or, at best, those with suspicious ideas about the order of society with which I doubt you, B——, would wish to be aligned. Also, only people of immense bulk and limited intelligence can play it. Cricket is a game of deep and subtle strategy, capable of extraordinary variation, which is appreciated across the class spectrum, and is also so democratically designed that even the less athletic – such as I – can play it. [I delete here, for your comfort, a rant of 800 or so words in which I develop my theory that cricket is a bulwark against racism, and rugby, er, isn’t.] Both are dismayingly over-represented at the national level by ex-public-school boys; cricket as a matter of historical accident (the selling-off of school playing fields under Thatcher and Major), rugby as a matter of policy. Have a lovely day watching it.

Two things to note. 1) This woman is not, by either birth or ancestry, from a part of the world where rugby is played. 2) You wouldn’t have thought she was one of nature’s rugby fans, as she considers that Jeremy Corbyn is a good person to be leading the Labour Party. (True, thousands of Tories think the same thing, but for completely different reasons.)

That’s Exhibit A. Exhibit B is my old friend C——, whom I haven’t seen for about five years or so but suddenly pops up from the past to say hello, how about a drink? I always liked C—— very much, largely because she’s very funny and, let’s be frank about this, something of a sexpot. She seems keen to bring someone over with her who, reading between the lines like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I deduce to be her latest partner. The thing is, she says, she’s not sure he can come, because he might be going beagling.

Beagling?

Well, she does come round (alone, thank goodness) and she’s looking even better than I remember, and is even funnier, too, and she shows me some of the pictures she has put up on her profile page on some dating site, and they’re not the kind of photographs this magazine will ever publish, let’s leave it at that. (One of them even moves.) And, as it turns out – and it doesn’t really surprise me that much – the young beagler she is seeing is a good thirty years-plus younger than she, and his photograph shows him to be all ears and curls, like a transporter mix-up between Prince Charles and the young David Gower. Like B——’s young man, he is not called Gervaise or Peregrine but may as well be.

What on Earth is going on here? Can we blame Farage? I can understand the pull of the void, but this is getting ridiculous. Do they not quite understand what they’re doing? Actually, C—— does, because she’s had her eyes open all her life, and B——, her youth and political idealism notwithstanding, didn’t exactly come down in the last shower, either.

So what is it with these young wannabe toffs – one of whom isn’t even rich? “You’d like him,” C—— says, but I’m not so sure. People who go beagling sure as hell don’t like me, and I see no reason not to return the favour.

Well, I can’t thrash this out here. C—— leaves, but not before giving me the kind of kiss that makes me wish Binkie Beagley, or whatever his name is, would just wink out of existence.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times