Balls' tour of duty bangs the drum of election belief

4th December 2009 at 00:00
You think our schools would be safe in Tory hands? Try telling that to the voters, says Ed Balls. Richard Vaughan spends a train journey in the company of an ebullient Schools Secretary

According to the political commentators, next year's general election battle will be won on two fronts: who has the best strategy for economic recovery; and who is promising the best education for the nation's future generations.

These were the items I would be putting to Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, on a train journey back from Southampton. But my interview with Mr Balls began a little earlier than expected. The idea was to meet him and his junior minister Vernon Coaker at a school in Southampton and take it from there.

But I found myself sitting next to the Schools Secretary for an entire long and awkward train journey down to the south coast. Thankfully, we both agreed to ignore one another until our destination. Small talk with the Secretary of State is rarely in great supply.

The Normanton MP was in a more talkative mood on the return leg of the journey, however, when discussing his plans ahead of the next election. Mr Balls has an aggressive, bullish manner that puts him at odds with his counterpart, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove. He is eager to make his point, even if it means being dismissive.

The trip is an interesting insight into the whirlwind life of the Schools Secretary. To say his average day is busy would be an understatement. A regular week sees him visit around five schools.

Last week, he was quizzing the senior leadership teams of Upper Shirley High School and Shirley Junior School on how they are performing as a trust, before being quizzed himself on the future of Sats by a handful of Year 6 pupils. The school visit was to show how, by working together, schools will be able to improve standards while making significant savings.

Mr Balls sees the collaboration between local schools as the only viable option open to headteachers if they are to get the most out of what are expected to be tighter school budgets. The alternative, the Schools Secretary says, is "the easy cut", and that means front-line staff.

"The example I used back in September was a three-school federation - two secondaries and one primary," he says. "They come together, they have a school leader in every school - I've always said a school needs a headteacher - but by sharing some leadership across the schools, having some subject speciality across them, they can make savings.

"If we don't do this now for next year, at the end of this process headteachers will be under pressure and on their own in the final weeks before the budget round, thinking, 'Well, what am I supposed to do?' And that's when they start thinking, 'Well, what's the easy cut?' The more far-sighted thing to do is to find ways to be more efficient."

Collaboration and sharing resources to save money is a drum the Schools Secretary will be banging from now until the election. But earlier this month, Mr Balls was reported to have demanded #163;2.6 billion from the Treasury for his own department in an attempt to steal the march on his cabinet colleagues as the scrap over shrinking portions at the feeding table begins. It is a claim that both he and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, laughed off.

Mr Balls said he will be working hard with the Chancellor to secure a rising education budget in real terms, albeit a significantly smaller rise than previous years.

"Having spent many years myself at the other side of the table within the Treasury, I know the importance of starting these discussions early," he says. "They are detailed, collaborative - we're all trying to do the same thing.

"I think the Treasury will look at the leadership our department has taken on this debate - about efficiencies and releasing resources to the front line - and we will get support, not criticism. We're working very closely together."

It is certainly encouraging for schools that they have one of the Cabinet's heavyweights on their side, arguing for a heftier piece of the pie.

By getting what he wants, Mr Balls will be able to draw a simple dividing line for voters: vote Labour and see sustained investment in schools; vote Conservative and see school budgets cut from 201011.

"I don't think people are under any doubts that we will be facing tougher public spending," he says. "That's why the discussion we're having now is about being more efficient.

"There's no doubt that the deficit must come down, and for the debt to come down steadily. There's obviously a big economic debate to be had about how you get the growth to really drive up the resources to create jobs and get the tax revenues coming in."

The choice lies in what voters feel are the country's chief concerns, he said, and when it comes to the Conservatives, it is not education.

"There has been no such commitment to Michael Gove (to ring-fence education spending) from (shadow chancellor) George Osborne," he says. "This is going to be a central part (of the debate). But it's also about what your priorities are, and what your values are.

"The Conservatives say the market should decide. Well, if you're willing to sacrifice children in that way, then you have different values to me. When it comes to children's education, I don't think the libertarian free-market experiment is something that I want to be part of. And I don't think many parents do either."

Mr Balls said he is in no doubt that education will be key to the election, and there is a now a "gaping divide" between the two parties' policies.

"What we've seen in recent weeks is that it will become more of a political battleground," he says. "And the clearer they have become about what they are offering, the more concerning it is.

"It's absolutely clear that David Cameron and Michael Gove are planning for profit-making companies to run schools. Absolutely clear. (Under the Conservatives' plans) if a school in your area is not doing well enough and as a parent you have the time and the wherewithal to set up your own school, then that will be financed or you can get a private company to do it and make a profit.

"But if you can't do that, your children will just stay in a school where their (school) rolls will decline year by year and the school will slowly decline without any intervention powers from the Secretary of State. So what happens to those children? It's a free-for-all. It's totally unfair. It's deregulation gone mad.

"So I think this will be a central battleground, and the more scrutiny there is, the better from our point of view."

Over the past 18 months, there have been question marks over Mr Balls' enthusiasm for his role. It is a widely held belief that it is the Chancellor's seat and a place at Number 11 that he is more interested in, and possibly even a stint as leader of the party, but he says it was his decision to stay as Schools Secretary.

"I'm now the second longest standing (education secretary) since Kenneth Baker, the third since Keith Joseph, and I don't think there could be a better job in the Cabinet," he smiles.

"The nature of politics is you have things written and rumours about you. I have resisted moving because I want to see this through - the Children's Plan, the white paper, the vision that we've set out, I think this is the right future. The ideological choices that are on offer make me even more determined to see this through. I can't think of a better job to be in."

Whether he truly believes that is neither here nor there - it is the position he is stuck with, and from it he will have to fight for his party's survival. A recent Observer opinion poll placed the Conservatives six points ahead, highlighting the fact that the election battle is not over yet.

Mr Balls said his belief that his party can still win the election comes from listening to "the people on their doorsteps", and he is not hearing much support for Tory policy.

"How many parents do you find saying, 'What I really want to do is set up my own school and, if I can, find a profit-making provider that will inspire me with confidence'?" he says.

"Who do you find saying the solution to our society's challenges is less community, less co-operation and less regulation? I think this election is completely up for grabs. And I think the education debate is central to it.

"I can remember what it was like to canvass in 199697, and people on their doorsteps were saying they wanted Tony Blair to be Prime Minister - I don't hear people saying they want David Cameron to be Prime Minister."

But do they want Gordon Brown? Both party leaders will undoubtedly need a substantial armoury to win the war, but only next May will tell whose was more powerful. What is clear, however, is the education battlefield will be crucial in deciding who will be king.

Let battle commence.

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