'If we were failing to meet targets consistently, I'd be out of a job'

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Ed Balls celebrated his first year as Schools Secretary this week. William Stewart spoke to him about the challenges he faces, before grilling him with questions from TES readers
Ed Balls celebrated his first year as Schools Secretary this week. William Stewart spoke to him about the challenges he faces, before grilling him with questions from TES readers

If Ed Balls is finding life tough, he does not show it. It certainly has not been an easy year for the secretary of state for schools. There have been reports, strongly denied, of cabinet rifts provoked by his cross-Whitehall children's empire, with suggestions that Jack Straw, justice secretary, even threatened to punch him because of a policy turf war.

Commentators and anonymous MPs have been only too happy to criticise Mr Balls for being "smug", for his expenses - even his weight.

If the questions sent in by TES readers are anything to go by, many teachers also harbour ill feelings towards the minister. One was addressed to "the idiot in charge".

Teachers' pay could be one reason for this level of vitriol. With public spending increases slowing down, Mr Balls has found himself the first minister in more than 20 years to preside over a national teachers' strike.

And his suggestion that teachers should not mind taking real terms pay cuts because it will keep their mortgage payments down is unlikely to go down too well.

But, leaving that issue aside, most of his actions in the past year have been in the direction traditionally favoured by teachers. He has taken some of the sharpest edges off the academies programme and there has been a move away from top-down diktats towards giving local authorities a greater role once more.

Most importantly, the Children's Plan and the whole structure of Mr Balls' department has at its heart a recognition of what teachers have been saying for years - that ministers shouldn't look at a child's education in isolation. They should take into account the impact that everything else in a child's life can have on how they do at school.

That is perhaps why there has been such a furious reaction to the National Challenge scheme.

Of the 638 schools being targeted for low GCSE performance, 250 have above average contextual value added (CVA) scores - the measure developed specifically by the Government to take children's outside circumstances into account.

"If you have high value added and you've been unfairly represented by local papers, that is frustrating," Mr Balls admits.

It is always tempting to pin the blame on the media. After all, ministers did say that some of the National Challenge schools were high performing and at "low risk" of intervention because they had good CVA scores.

But they also described 240 as "high risk" and likely to be in need of radical action such as mergers or closures. And as The TES has already shown, 105 of these actually had above average CVA scores.

So did ministers even look at the full set of results for these schools before promising action?

"That isn't our role, this is not a centralised programme to decide school by school what support they need," said Mr Balls. It is up to local authorities to develop detailed action plans, he said.

Which begs the question: why categorise National Challenge schools as high or low risk at all?

Jim Knight, his schools minister, has already admitted that it was for the benefit of the media. So is Mr Balls really surprised that newspapers have described these as "failing" schools about to be closed, particularly when Gordon Brown used the word "failure" when he first announced the scheme?

"In some cases, no, I'm not surprised," he eventually concedes, before quickly going on to point out that while it may have given some heads a "jolt", the National Challenge has provoked the biggest focus on the links between poverty and educational standards for years.


Born: Norwich, February 25, 1967

School: Nottingham High

Degrees: First in philosophy, politics and economics at Keble College, Oxford. Masters in public administration from Harvard

Previous ministerial post: Economic secretary to the Treasury, May 2006-June 2007

Outside interests: music, supporting Norwich City, cooking and playing football with his three children


What do you think is the purpose of education?

You want children and young people to have fun, enjoy growing up and have their natural curiosity triggered and nurtured. Beyond that, you also want to make sure they are coming out of school with qualifications, that they are equipped with the kind of skills that universities or employers are going to need and which, therefore, give them the chance to do well - to get a mortgage and to pay their pension.

Why haven't you introduced anonymity for teachers until they are actually proven guilty of allegations made against them by pupils?

I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for a teacher who is put in this position, especially when it turns out to be unfounded. But you also have to see this from the point of view of parents and the school, where children could potentially be at risk. You can see why it is important that allegations are properly investigated.

My hope would be that the head and governing body would handle this sensitively and do absolutely everything they could to maintain anonymity. But if it is sufficiently serious and somebody is suspended pending investigation, word quickly gets around communities and schools. I don't, in the end, think that is something you can absolutely prevent.

Can you understand why teachers are so angry at having a real terms pay cut?

I think teachers understand that there has been a substantial rise in their real pay over the past 10 years. But at a time where there is real inflationary pressure around the world, it is really important that we have stability in the economy. Keeping the economy stable, keeping public spending flowing into education, keeping mortgage interest rates low, those are concerns for teachers - just as they are for chancellors.

Are you in favour of a national pay scale for school support staff?

It is a matter for the support staff working group to look at these issues and to do so at arm's length from ministers, so I don't think it would be sensible for me to start saying what the outcome of their work should be.

Do you realise you alienated many teachers through the National Challenge by condemning the hard work of hundreds of secondaries without taking proper account of contextual value added scores?

I understand that point of view, I respect it, but I don't think it's right. I haven't condemned those schools and I don't think that's how many teachers see this. I regret, and we all do, some of the local media reports talking about failing schools. That is not language I have ever used.

But contextual value added is not, in the end, a reason to explain persistent low performance, and I think head teachers accept that as well. There is not a single one of those 638 schools that hasn't got the potential to get above 30 per cent.

If you had waited two months to see how many schools passed the GCSE threshold, you would have spared many the bad publicity they have endured. How can you justify the timing of the National Challenge announcement?

Frankly, we just decided we were going to get on with it. It is true there will be a number of schools in August that come out of National Challenge, and that will be a good thing. But we wanted to move as quickly as we could so we could start to get the support and money flowing.

If every child matters, why are so many pupils with profound social, emotional and educational needs being wrongly included in mainstream schools when it is clearly detrimental both to them and the education of their peers?

What works best for children with learning or emotional difficulties is being able to spend some time in both a mainstream setting and with special help either in the mainstream school or a neighbouring partner school.

Inclusion that doesn't recognise the special needs of children and young people is the wrong thing to do. But recognising their particular needs doesn't necessarily mean they have to be placed in a different institution.

Why don't you make academies subject to national teacher pay and conditions?

The evidence I have seen is that academies are more than matching national agreements on pay, conditions and workload.

I have said to the teachers' unions that, if that isn't the case, I'd be very concerned and they should come to me with the evidence. But my understanding is that academies motivate the teachers precisely by more than matching what is in the national agreements.

Are you going to take the contract for national test marking from ETS?

That is a matter for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, not me.

Do you agree that you don't fatten a pig by weighing it?

That is obviously true. If the serious point is, do I think that children learn, do well at school and are educated for later life because they do exams? Well, of course not. But coming out of school with qualifications that are recognised by employers and universities is hugely important. And in order to make sure children are learning well and making the progress they should, teachers, parents and governing bodies need to know the progress of every child. So assessment and testing is an integral part of effective education.

If coursework grades are the teachers' responsibility, is it surprising that we spoonfeed students?

I think teachers know that, if you start playing games with coursework, you will quickly be found out by the examining boards. I don't think spoonfeeding the class and then regurgitating it back up is the right way to learn and assess what you teach. And I don't think many teachers do that, not in my experience.

Having failed to meet some of its targets, should the Department for Children, Schools and Families be labelled as "failing" and have external advisors sent in?

If we were failing to meet our targets consistently, I think I'd be out of a job long before external advisors arrived.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today