Commentary - Minister will be judged on policy slips and personality clashes

7th May 2010 at 01:00

Ask senior education figures what they really think of Ed Balls and you will come away with some remarkably hostile verdicts.

Some speak highly of the man who has led England's schools since June 2007. But the virulence of those who disagree can at first seem surprising. Mr Balls has, after all, shifted policy towards the natural prejudices of the "education establishment".

The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families recognised many teachers' view that results won't continue to rise unless you address the whole child and what happens to them outside school.

Academies - viewed with suspicion by many for their lack of accountability - had their freedoms reined in.

Labour began to address one much-hated aspect of school accountability - league tables - with report cards. And it made the first steps towards removing a second - national tests - with a fresh emphasis on teacher assessment.

Mr Balls tried to reverse much of the damage caused by the rejection of the widely rated Tomlinson report on 14-19 education through heavy promotion of Diplomas.

He spread the best practice of the London Challenge school improvement scheme through the National Challenge and aimed to reduce centralisation by getting rid of the National Strategies.

So why does a significant section of education's great and good seem to view Mr Balls with even greater disdain than it had for one of his predecessors, Ruth Kelly?

Personality and reputation must play their part. Mr Balls never enjoyed a particularly good press as Gordon Brown's most trusted backroom boy and his pugnacious manner as a minister may not have helped him since.

Examine policy detail and other reasons emerge. The new DCSF created a social policy powerhouse for Mr Balls, with tentacles stretching all over Whitehall in much the same way that Lord Mandelson was rewarded with his Business, Innovation and Skills empire.

But the Baby P and Doncaster scandals raise questions as to how much difference government machinery really makes to children's lives.

Pushing Diplomas is all very well, but unless ministers follow another of Tomlinson's key recommendations and end competition from A-levels, they appear doomed.

Labour sabotaged its good work in spreading the London Challenge with closure threats and the effective naming and shaming of hundreds of England's most vulnerable secondaries.

To imagine that newspapers will ever be happy to replace school league tables with simplistic A-D report card grades is fantasy and many teachers fed up of the testing culture will see the move towards teacher assessment as too little too late.

Timidity is one charge that could be levelled against the policy of the last three years. Mr Balls was clearly unhappy with the academies scheme but did not have the courage to do more than tinker with it. Worse still, he failed to come up with genuinely new ideas when the money was still flowing to support them.

The National Strategies may be going. But is that really about decentralisation or just the first of many cuts that will characterise the years to come?

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