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Commentary - Big Beasts' point-scoring leaves crowd underwhelmed

It would have fast become apparent, even to the most casual of spectators, that Ed Balls and Michael Gove really don't like each other. This isn't just a bit of political rough and tumble; they genuinely know how to wind one another up.

As a result there really was only one winner from Monday's TES pre-election debate - the Lib Dems' ever-thoughtful education spokesman David Laws.

Long eyed enviously by both main parties (none of their frontbenchers seems able to understand why someone they rate isn't on their team), Laws successfully rose above the scrapping of the Big Beasts.

While there were undoubtedly moments of real insight from all three politicians, when they discussed old classics such as assessment or the Swedish schools system, there were some desperate low points, too. For example, when Balls accused Gove of playing "silly debating games" after the Tory had quoted one of the secretary of state's previous speeches back at him. "Why should you be able to when I'm not allowed," came Gove's slightly whiny response.

The Conservative - who many consider to be one of David Cameron's biggest hitters and among the party's brightest young stars - was indeed clearly playing the debating game well (think public school sixth form or, indeed, the Commons), but this didn't prove a hit with the crowd.

"Ed has emotional intelligence in abundance, he would make a great teacher," Gove said at a later stage, his voice dripping in sarcasm. "Let's hope he gets the opportunity to do more of it after the election." Such digs would get a pack of Tory backbenchers growling their approval, but not the more civilised folk that attend TES events.

Despite Balls adopting a slightly more adult approach, he too did himself few favours by repeatedly grumbling to himself and anyone near enough to hear. "Rubbish", "not true", "bonkers" were all phrases that could be heard emanating from his general direction.

Laws, meanwhile, sat there serenely - allowing the other two to go the full ten rounds - occasionally interjecting with sensible policy initiatives and observations. It soon became clear that the crowd had warmed to him, too, when he won the final audience vote.

Perhaps the intervention of the night, however, came from audience member Jackie Schneider, who left the Westminster men flailing for decent replies. "When I go back into the staffroom and I tell my colleagues that I've been to this wonderful TES debate they will never believe that the most repeated word was Sweden."

Well, quite.



All 3 MPs well informed, passionate and intelligent. Tory policy accused of being dotty and barmy - 1950s vocab abounds!


If Laws and Gove could work together and both do a bit more research they might be on to something.


Ed Balls is advocating schools working collaboratively - does that mean he'll get rid of league tables? Would get my vote!


Why aren't they former headteachers? *sighs* at removed "expertise" of running the country's schools.


Scary that Ed Balls is making the most sense. All Gove is doing is convincing me further he doesn't know what he's on about.


I haven't heard the word "learning" too often from these three.


Gove is out for the count, Laws is off the ropes (a bit punch drunk) but has his hands up, Balls is winding up the sledgehammer punch.


What - if anything - from this debate would not have been said in 1997? Sadly, not much.


Reports cards so far - Balls: B; Laws: C+; Gove ... F ... and suffice it to say he'll need a no-notice inspection!


Does Gove not understand the difference between teachers having high-class degrees and teaching as a valued profession?


Have now glazed over. Ed Balls = "evasion, evasion, evasion".


Next time patronising sarcastic Gove goes overseas to salivate over their schools, can we leave him there?


TES Debate finishes with a rousing agreement that schools have never been better. Can the politicians take any credit?

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