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Middle man Laws is winner of Balls v Gove scrap

Lib Dem education spokesman is audience favourite in TES pre-election debate as Schools Secretary and Conservative counterpart slug it out

Lib Dem education spokesman is audience favourite in TES pre-election debate as Schools Secretary and Conservative counterpart slug it out

The run-up to The TES debate this week had featured a fair amount of mud-slinging and goading, particularly from Schools Secretary Ed Balls' corner.

Two weeks before the main event, Mr Balls used a TV interview to taunt his opposite number Michael Gove, claiming the shadow schools secretary was "scared" to face him in a debate.

Unbeknown to the minister, Mr Gove had agreed to take part in the debate two days earlier. But aside from the usual political posturing, name- calling and chest-beating, the aim of the debate was best surmised by David Laws, Lib Dem education spokesman.

He said the evening should give each politician a chance to go into greater detail than the "sound bites they are usually forced into by day- to-day demands of the media".

But if he hoped the 400-strong audience, and the many others watching online, would leave the debate with a clearer understanding of each party's policies, he might have been disappointed.

In his opening remarks, Mr Balls listed a telephone directory of figures in support of his party's achievements over the last 13 years. There were 40,000 more teachers in schools, 130,000 more teaching assistants and fewer than one in 12 schools were failing to meet the Government's GCSE benchmark.

But he said Labour's achievements to date were not enough. Expectations were rising, he said, and if young people were to be equipped with the skills needed to succeed in life, we needed more great teachers and leaders, and schools working with one another.

Crucially for Mr Balls, he was able to point to his party's commitment to school spending - a 0.7 per cent real-terms increase from 2011-13 - a policy his shadow cannot match. Indeed, the secretary of state used his speech to pour scorn on the Tories' proposals, labelling them "unfair, unaffordable and the wrong choice".

Mr Laws distanced himself from the Tories' view that standards were falling, but was quick to add that improvements were being achieved from a low base. He pitched himself as the voice of reason and sparred with his counterparts without getting a bloody nose.

The role of consensus politician may be an easy one, but Mr Laws avoids rhetoric and attends his policies with a direct and business-like air.

His proposals were threefold - "intelligent accountability" out of the hands of political control; "radically transform" accountability mechanisms such as the Government's GCSE benchmark; and prioritise education funding above all other public funding. All were welcome, but perhaps easy to promote when there is little danger of having to implement them.

But the most disappointing of the three speakers was Mr Gove. Many observers argue that he is the most articulate and charming of the three, but he gave a stand-up routine of a performance.

He said the critical thing for schools was "not to compare themselves with the past, but with the best". This led him on to the feats of Sweden and the US with their free schools and charter schools.

Sweden was a focal point of the debate, with Mr Balls quoting various pieces of evidence to argue against their claimed success while Mr Gove cited an equal amount in their favour. Again Mr Laws was the voice of reason, accusing the Secretary of State of creating a caricature of Sweden, while claiming Mr Gove was attributing too much to its education model.

The bullish Mr Balls scored some important points against his Tory adversary. He cornered Mr Gove on his plans to move key stage 2 tests into Year 7 and the Tory refused to commit to the proposals.

The idea of secondary teachers marking primary Sats and league tables then being reconstructed from their findings was, asserted Mr Balls, "barmy". He added: "You said that it would be secondary teachers marking the Sats. Now is that your policy or have you changed it because we're about to go into a general election and people need to know?" Mr Gove failed to give a straight answer.

The real winner was Mr Laws and his party's policies, which straddle Labour and Tory proposals. The audience agreed.

A vote at the end of the debate gave the Lib Dems a narrow lead over Labour - unsurprising among an audience of educationalists as both parties have committed themselves to protecting school budgets.

But in a further vote, the same audience suggested that the next government would be blue in colour. They may not agree with Tory policy, but they may have to get used to it.


Michael Gove 510

He enjoyed the stage a little too much. His playing to the audience was perhaps an own goal as it made him look light in policy. Undoubtedly the most entertaining.

Ed Balls 610

He started well, but allowed himself to become too pugnacious. His aggression towards Gove played against him, but he is undoubtedly passionate.

David Laws 710

Succinct, setting out his policies in a direct and measured manner. He avoided a bloodied nose by not getting dragged into a political boxing match.

Read TES news editor Ed Dorell's commentary on events and get the view from the Twitterati

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