Ed Balls' week: a new bill, more academies and a school visit

13th July 2007 at 01:00
At a school in his home town, the local MP's car is robbed and the minister looks a bit awkward

MINISTERIAL SCHOOL visits are a bit like Royal visits. And just as the Queen probably thinks Britain smells of new paint, education ministers must secretly wonder why teachers moan so much.

Everywhere they go they encounter beautifully behaved pupils supervised by staff eager to praise the latest government initiative they are helping to launch.

So it was when Ed Balls returned to his home city to make his first classroom visit since becoming the new Secretary for Children, Schools and Families. Mr Balls spent a decade as a pupil in Nottingham. But the grand 19th century battlements of the pound;8,898-a-year Nottingham high are a long way from the squat, flat-roofed buildings of Seagrave. Michael Jackson, the head, said that the school served one of the region's poorest housing estates.

As if to illustrate the point Graham Allen, the local Labour MP who organised the visit, had his shiny Volvo estate broken into and his jacket stolen within minutes of parking outside the school.

So it was the perfect place for Mr Balls to announce an extra pound;13.7m to extend the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme until 2011. The scheme aims to improve behaviour by teaching conflict resolution and empathy.

He passed his first test, fitting into a plastic chair designed for seven year-olds while trying to look engrossed in the lesson.

His first parliamentary statement in his new role four days later was less of a success. As far as content was concerned, Mr Balls announced what was effectively a new education manifesto with a level of detail and political calculation more than worthy of his prime ministerial sponsor. But his delivery managed to sound hurried and halting all at the same time.

And in the first round of his much anticipated contest with his new shadow minister, Michael Gove, it was probably the Conservative who came off best with a quote from Alastair Campbell's diaries: "Ed Balls is no good on message. All he does is repeat what Gordon Brown has already said."

The fast-talking 40-year-old may also need to brush up on his ability to chat to pupils. After witnessing an impressive dance display at Seagrave, Mr Balls asked the children: "Whose mum and dad said, 'I can't believe you could do that?' " A girl shot up her hand. "What did they say?" the minister asked. The nine-year-old gave Mr Balls a quizzical look before patiently replying: "They said, 'I can't believe you could do that.'"

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