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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.