'We must help the failing fifth'
ED BALLS is back from holiday and he means business. His mission is to help the bottom fifth of young people make the grade.
The letter Mr Balls sent to head teachers this week began with a cheery "Welcome back!" But its message was deadly serious, though probably more than a little familiar.
"We can't rest, we can't be satisfied until every child with the capability to do so is getting to the required standard," the new Secretary for Children, Schools and Families said firmly. The Government wants to focus on the three Rs, a more personalised approach in the classroom and an "unrelenting" drive to improve behaviour.
The reason? "If we look at the facts, we know there are still a fifth of young people who aren't learning effectively in school."
That means ministers, councils, social workers and schools all doing more and working together better to help the bottom 20 per cent of pupils "make the grade".
It means teachers as well. But if they think they will be rewarded with a pay rise in line with inflation, they can think again.
The 40-year-old speaks in calm, measured tones. But his answers are peppered with words such as "focus" and "ambitious". Mr Balls insists his solution is "not simply more of the same". His job puts him in a far more powerful position than previous Cabinet ministers responsible for schools.
He is responsible not just for education, but for virtually every aspect of young lives, including health, sport, child poverty, social services and offending.
It is this broader approach that he believes is the key to achieving that final boost in standards.
Many children are not getting the right support from their parents and home, said Mr Balls. They are not encouraged to do well, do not eat properly and are not inspired to do exercise.
"This all has an effect on their ability to learn," he said. "They are only in school 14 per cent of the time, on average. We have to look outsidethe school gate."
Every Child Matters and the Children Act should have meant this joint working between schools and other social agencies was already well-established locally.
But Mr Balls believes there is still a long way to go, with the most forward thinking schools and local authorities often frustrated by their counterparts' inability to keep up. The Children's Plan, which the Government begins consulting on this week, is designed to ensure there is a much closer working relationship between schools and children's social services throughout England. This week he said all secondary schools will follow the Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) programme, which helps pupils' behaviour and emotional development.
But those who thought his Treasury background would be useful when negotiating pay must think again. Teachers' salaries were behind inflation for most of last year and are set to fall even further behind, with the Government proposing a new two per cent deal.
Despite recognising the need to "properly reward and respect" teachers, he is completely against setting public sector pay to match unexpected rises in inflation.
Mr Balls is also firm on testing, dismissing any suggestion that the regime may be narrowing education by encouraging cramming. "As a parent, I don't apologise for supporting testing. I am keen to know the test results," he said.
Despite once revealing that his children had received MMR jabs, he has decided, with his wife, Yvette Cooper, the housing minister, to keep them out of the media.
So when asked to compare the education they are receiving at a north London state primary with his own, he instead draws on his observations as "a normal member of the public".
Mr Balls, who attended private Nottingham High, recalls his time at Crossdale Drive Primary in Nottingham in the late 1970s, where he rarely experienced whole-class structured lessons.
Today, he says, they are commonplace. Not only that, but more support staff and technology mean that teachers can differentiate between pupils of varying abilities within the lesson.
It is this "impressive" approach that he wants to see more of. "You need to have a greater focus on the needs of every child and identify early when they fall behind. We are making progress but not fast enough."
Mr Balls will today visit a primary school to mark the beginning of the school careers of the first children to benefit from child trust funds. Under the scheme, all children born from September, 2002, receive a pound;250 voucher to start a savings account which cannot be used until they turn 18.