'Bully Balls' is actually one of the good guys

11th January 2008 at 00:00
When I heard last May that Ed Balls was to be Schools Secretary, the news - first heralded in this column - hit me like a pulsating New Year's Day hangover. He had always struck me as the playground bully. It was clear he didn't like Head Boy Blair, whom he tried to oust in favour of his own champion, school bruiser Brown; but he gave little sign of what he did believe in.

His reaction to my new biography of Blair - that what I had written was "fictional", had "no foundation", was "rubbish" and full of "ridiculous" allegations - did little to improve my view. I did not respond because I was happy for the facts to stand as they were. Brown could have put this man in charge of defence or prisons, I reasoned: but children, families and schools? You must be joking.

I suspected he would try to centralise control of education back into Whitehall and town hall, and take away the all-too-little powers heads possess. I was sure he would roll back academies and trusts, and be reactionary and old Labour. The initial indications that he was not oleaginous nor silky tongued on stage began to circulate, as did his lack of knowledge of schooling, and the picture of him as Mr Bad appeared to be solidifying (although his lack of smarm I thought a positive in a politician).

It pains me to say it, but I have had to revise my views about the Schools Secretary. An early harbinger was his support for the teaching of emotional literacy, which has to be part of what all schools should be trying to do. Policy followed swiftly and surely, including his 10-year Children's Plan before Christmas. It is far from perfect, but the nay-sayers have overlooked much that is deeply valuable and thoughtful about it.

This is a bid to address poor performance and give all children, regardless of the accident of birth, a good start in life. I still worry that too much stress might be placed on schools and not enough on families' responsibilities, but the heart and much of the detail of the plan is right. I applaud his determination to make school and home work more closely together, the emphasis on play and adventure for children, the encouragement for teachers to acquire further qualifications and for teachers to be taken more seriously, the move away from key-stage testing, and much else.

Perhaps it is because he has young children himself, or because his exceptional brightness has a practical bent, unlike his predecessor as education secretary, Keith Joseph, who had a similar intellect. But I believe Ed Balls has the potential to become the best education secretary of the past 40 years. He even seems to be sympathetic to academies and trusts, and school autonomy, all of which is to the good. We will never agree on some matters, but he is shaping up to be the figure that schools have needed for many years.

On a different note, can I conclude by drawing readers' attention to my favourite item of 2007 in The TES, written just before Christmas by my old sparring partner Peter Wilby, called "Count to 10 and forget about plans and tables". It really is worth digging out and will dispel any New Year gloom.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire and author of 'Blair Unbound', an account of the former Prime Minister's premiership from 2001.

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