Jan 042010

Apart from his stupid name, the first thing I really learned about Ed Bollocks is that his modi operandi are, primarily, lying and intimidation. Which tactic is he employing in his most recent Guardian piece, I wonder?

True Statements:

The Tories and their media friends want the election to be a referendum on the government.

That’s what an election is, no? That’s certainly what Labour wanted the elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005 to be: first, a referendum on the Conservative government (which many people hated), and then a referendum on the succeeding Labour governments (which Balls and the rest of his party claimed had been so successful that there was no need for change). Is it really necessary to cry foul now?

[The Tories] don’t want any scrutiny of their policies and they don’t want the election to be a choice.

Of course. None of the main parties wants any scrutiny or choice. That’s why they’re all working so hard to pump out the blanket statements, bland platitudes, and vague reassurances (as we shall see in the rest of Balls’s piece).

False Statements:

That’s why [the Tories] dismiss talk of policy differences or dividing lines as “false”, “partisan” or, ludicrously, as “class war”.

But it’s only in the last few weeks that the Tories have called this “class war” in a bid to stop any scrutiny of their policies.

Oh – so it was the Tories who came up with this ‘class war’ movement? Not to mention I have trouble imagining the Tories really want to publicise their policies as not being different from Labour’s and not as dividing lines. This statement is rubbish.

And, while the leaders’ TV debates will inevitably draw the attention, I hope we will see the cabinet and shadow cabinet debating too.

I bet this is the last thing Balls hopes for, if for no other reason than that he is supremely un-telegenic.

Now, as in 1997, our education policy is driven by the core New Labour idea of opportunity and aspiration for all, not just some; improving standards and expanding opportunity in every school, not just a handful in each area.

Balls to that one, too.

[The Tories’] proposal is that, regardless of local need, those parents with time on their hands should be given taxpayers’ money to set up and run a new school for their children, including those now in private schools.

Misrepresentation. From what I understand, their proposal is that, actually, anybody with ‘time on their hands’ could set up and run a new school – meaningfully, this includes teachers, who not only know how to do such a thing better than random parents, but many of whom would also love the chance to free themselves from the shackles of state-school regulations, paperwork, and bureaucratic oversight. Many private-school teachers would jump at the opportunity, too.


And this year, Britain faces the starkest choice for decades – on the economy, public services and our relations with Europe.

Sure, sure. Every election is the starkest choice for decades, every election is the most important since the last big crisis. And yet some party or other wins every election, and shit always happens, and we always need another election. Give this overblown idea a rest.

Tory education policy is an elaborate con trick on millions of parents and pupils. Just like the Tory assisted places scheme, or the “pupil passport” proposed by Cameron in 2005, they want to take resources from the many to fund the education of a few.

Yes, that’s exactly what the Tories want to do! Screw 90% of the electorate; they’re only out to help the richest decile! Because, obviously, that’s a great strategy for winning elections. Seriously, what is this man on? And why does he imagine it’s perfectly fine for the minority (whatever kind of minority) to suffer for the good of the majority?

Oh yeah – because that’s the political philosophy his ‘core’ supporters cherish:

This, after all, is the tragedy of political decision-making: sometimes some people just have to lose and it’s up to the political decision-maker to choose which.

All politics is struggle and conflict; the sacrificing of some values and people in favour of those you prefer.


Do we guarantee one-to-one tuition for children falling behind, and education and training up to 18 for all young people? Do we stop treating vocational qualifications as second class? Do we give parents more information on how local schools are performing by introducing new school report cards?

With a national shortage of teachers, the barriers to entry into the teaching profession being raised ever higher, and powerful teachers’ unions, where is the country going to find one-to-one tutors and teachers to guarantee a further two years of education to everybody? How is the country going to pay such people? How will the government force employers to consider vocational qualifications as ‘first class’? In what way is a ‘school report card’ different from a league table? How is such a thing going to make one bit of difference when most parents can’t choose their child’s school anyway? Labour have not considered these questions; these policies are plainly unfeasible.

But we would never forgive ourselves if we allowed the Tories to emerge from [the election] claiming by default a mandate for their policies to wreck our economic recovery and frontline public services.

Actually, I think the Labour party would adore to lose the next election, and see the Conservatives reap the unpopularity from the disaster Labour have sown. They will crow as the country falls to ruin and blame it entirely on Tory policy. They will campaign in four years’ time as the party who presided over boom and prosperity, hoping that everyone forgets they caused the national budget collapse, and they will absolve themselves of all responsibility for whatever pain and austerity the British people face over the course of the next five years.

Our country faces hugely important choices. And on education, the Tories have made theirs: to pursue a reckless free market experiment with the state system, and to cut the frontline schools budgets relied on by millions to give an inheritance tax cut to the wealthiest few.

Ah, all the evil keywords: reckless, free market, cut the frontline, tax cut, wealthiest few. Yes, the Tories’ Swedish plan is a reckless experiment that has worked so poorly in Sweden that, if we were to try it here, we’d have to cut inheritance tax and favour the wealthy few over the ‘millions’ of poor.

The sad thing is, Balls doesn’t seem to realise that, after twelve years of Labour education and redistribution policy, many people are still poorly educated, and most people are still ‘poor’ (i.e. not rich). Nobody was talking about one-to-one tuition twelve years ago, because there weren’t that many pupils falling behind. Nobody was talking about extending education for a further two years, because 16-year-old school leavers could still get jobs. Nobody was talking about school report cards, because parents weren’t so dreadfully dissatisfied with their local state schools. And now these things are on Ed Balls’s to-do list, not because schools have got so much better under Labour, but because they’ve got so much worse.

He says Tory policy won’t work; fair enough, maybe it won’t. But Labour policy is trying to mend the giant rents they themselves have made since 1997. And that’s not exactly a great advertisement for the Labour party.

  20 Responses to “Ed Balls does not please me”

  1. Could be an Olympic sport, Balls-baiting, and one which could unite an otherwise fractious blogosphere. Is there anyone out there (save his nearest & dearest) with a good word to say about him?!

    That said, I was wondering if you could expand upon this bit:

    And now these things are on Ed Balls’s to-do list, not because schools have got so much better under Labour, but because they’ve got so much worse.

    I could certainly identify failings & failures in Labour’s education policy (and Balls has certainly been the worst minister in this regard), but I think it’s over the top to say that the schools in 2010 are, on the whole, worse than the schools in 1997. Wouldn’t it be safer, from a libertarian point of view, to argue something along the lines of “insofar as improvements have been made in schools, they certainly haven’t raised so much that it would justify Labour’s lavish spending & obsessive centralisation”? Or can you demonstrate how there’s been a marked deterioration?

    • No, Neil, you’re quite right: although it’s quite a popular thing to say, there’s no actual proof (that I know of) that schools have become worse since 1997. Possibly they have simply become worse value for money.

      • Well, that’s certainly true – if only for the inefficiency of the PFI schemes which helped build quite a few new schools.

        This hits upon one of the biggest problems when talking about education: the difficulty of defining what success is, and the paucity of reliable methods for measuring whether it’s occurred. Sure, we can (and do) cite league tables etc, and when exam results show an improvement, whoever’s in power during the improvement can slap themselves on the back and take the credit. But there are two problems with this:

        1) Your political opponents, quick to slam and slow to praise, may suspect that said exams have been made easier to give the government the impression of success. There’s not much conclusive evidence that this has occurred, I don’t think, but it still erodes confidence in the system as a whole, demoralises teachers, devalues students’ hard work & freaks employers out etc.
        2) Can your government really take the credit? I took my A-Levels in 2002, so maybe Blair could take credit for my 3 As. But then I also received an education, during my more formative years, under Thatcher & Major governments, so should they get the credit, too? Because of the length of time we spend in the education system, however exam results look in 5 or even 10 years time, Brown’s government will undoubtedly deserve some share of the blame/credit.

        So it’s rather complicated, and whenever people like Balls or Gove fail to acknowledge this (for they never acknowledge it), I end up feeling like I’m being patronised by a really lousy teacher!

        • It may well be that one of the problems is the desire to have success that is measurable. The state sets the standards and then measures itself according to them, and they may not be an accurate reflection of the true quality of education, either in its usefulness to the people who receive it, or in the way it broadens and enriches the mind. Exams are all well and good, but what they measure is how well the student has absorbed and relayed the information on which the exam is based. Whether or not that means a student has been educated well is open to some doubt. Frankly, especially when dealing with students who learn at a slower pace, the primacy of the exam means that a teacher hasn’t the time to delve into interesting, related aspects of the subject which do not appear on the exam. This is perhaps why people feel that the quality of education is decreasing: passing the exams is the most important thing to both the students and the schools, and much that is interesting and valuable in its own right is left out.

          • Sure, but then we have the accountability problem, don’t we? If the state is writing the cheques, it needs assurance that the money isn’t being squandered. So what to do?

            I suppose you could rely on Ofsted reports, but given (a) those reports aren’t all that reflective of ‘normal’ school life, and (b) Ofsted itself has formalised a process which was meant to be qualitative, taxpayers probably aren’t going to be satisfied by that.

            A more radical solution would be to re-design the system so that schools are directly accountable not to government, nor even necessarily to local authorities, but to parents. Of course, this would then lead to a considerable downsizing of the DCSF.

            Now, as someone who hopes to have his teaching qualification in 6 months, this is obviously a conclusion I couldn’t possibly endorse, lest it appear on my next CRB check…

          • Accountable to parents?! I shall have to report you to DCSF for thought-crime…

          • But seriously – if the parents were writing the cheques, the schools could be accountable to them instead of the state, no? (Of course, the independent schools are still subject to state oversight via Ofsted inspections.)

            I’m not trying to blather on about this ad nauseam, but the Swedish system really does seem to operate well. I can’t think of any practical reason (including religious fundamentalism) why it wouldn’t also work here.

            Plus, I’d adore to set up my own school…

          • Yeah, that’d be pretty fun. It’s sure as hell the only way I’m going to get a school named after me.

            I’m still ambivalent about the Swedish system, mainly due to a distrust of how a Tory government would implement it. The appeal for me is the freedom it could give to educators, the increased participation you could get from parents, and the potential benefits that could all give to children’s learning.

            But I’m sceptical for three reasons: 1) I doubt the Tories’ commitment to academic freedom, 2) Swedish system advocates rarely mention that Sweden also spends much more on education as a percentage of its GDP, and there are more teachers per pupil. It might not just be the structure of the system which is helping the Swedes do well. Lastly, 3) under Gove’s voucher plan, aren’t we just creating another unweildy bureaucratic system? I mean, I know lefties aren’t supposed to moan about things like that, but even we’ve got our limits!

            All that said, the Neil Robertson School For Worthier-Than-Thou Chin Stroking does have a nice ring to it…

          • I’m totally with you on point (1) there – so far I’ve seen no indication that the Tories plan to do anything about the national curriculum etc. Point (2) is easily solved, although probably the easiest way would be to pay teachers less while ending the PGCE requirement, LEAs, and most of the DCSF. Getting rid of the last two would also reduce the bureaucratic burden of a voucher system. I mean, in theory, all you need is a small department to disperse the vouchers to parents – probably this could be phased into the child benefit system that already exists – and to keep a list of registered schools where the vouchers could be redeemed. (Of course, the problem with that is that the state would immediately create all manner of ridiculous criteria for registration.) I’m not really sure what the ins and outs of reforming the education system here would be – I’m not entirely against spending lots of money on education – but it certainly seems, at the moment, that we’re spending a comparable amount to other countries, with poorer quantifiable results.

            P.S. I like your Rap Fan’s Guide to Political Blogging.

          • Thanks! They’re not *entirely* analogous, of course. I mean, if rap and blog wars really were so similar, we probably wouldn’t have been allowed to have this nice chat!

          • Oddly, I was making the exact same remark to the Devil’s Kitchen this very moment.

        • How to judge ?

          If such a large % of “graduates” leave without even being able to read and count, That might just indicate failure ?

          If the only criterium for “success” is the ability to regurgitate stuffed-in “knowledge” that too migh indicate waste of time and money ?

          If “inclusiveness” means one disruptive child can effectively prevent the rest from trying to learn, and Labour seems to think it desirable to spread the disrupters equally, one to a class, then blah blah ….

          Neil, for someone who is coming through the teacher’s training college system, you display quite a remarkable awareness of the problems. However, I do not think you go far enough in your thoughts. I was amused to see you worried about the “tories’ plans” – man, I am worried right now about Labour’s actual PRODUCTS, or lack of. NO education would be better than what so many are offered over the last 13 years.

          I have a friend who took her 2 out of school (a quite good school) when her son went from being the teacher’s favorite on year to being the class teacher’s butt the next. She home-educated them, which effectively meant 6 weeks of intense education by her just before the inspection. Both are now late teens and excellent members of society, doing well and caring for many around them.

          Oh, and whatever innovation the Labour system does have seems to be how to “fairly”distribute the best places around. Have they ever thought of increasing the number of best palces available ? I am thinking of Brighton’s places lottery, which results in kids being bussed all over the place so “middle class strivers” don’t grab all the best places. Insanity. Just improve all schools, then endless and thin distribution would not be needed.

          Alan Douglas

          • Alan,

            Thanks for the comment, and apologies if my rushed response doesn’t adequately respond to everything in it – I only have the time to write this because our ‘severe weather’ has led to cancellations of various appointments I had.

            At this stage of my career (6 months as a TA, 1 month of ‘proper’ teaching) it’s quite difficult for me to separate my own experiences from the state of the education system as a whole. My own experiences of my teaching, other people’s teaching and school management have so far been positive, and I find it difficult to reconcile that with some of the more anguished, angry responses you get from others. I realise this is subject to change; I’m not long into the job and – perhaps more importantly – I’m not a parent. It’s probabley that I’ll become either more or less criticial of the system the longer I’m working within it.

            On the broader point of policy, being both a vested interest and an incurable lefty, I obviously think our country’s best served by spending lots and lots of money on education. But, of course, we’re already spending lots of money on education, there’s no more money around, and obviously there’s been a lot of waste. We may differ from each other about where that waste is located, but we can at least agree on the basic point. On top of that, I’m interested in reviving community action, particularly in more deprived communities, and that’s why there’s something appealing about decentralisation. Good schools are focal points for communities, and communities should be able to feel like they’re included in school life. There are plenty of instances where this is already the case, of course, but it’s dependent on the school’s management to go out of the way and do it.

            The instructive example for me was of the prospect of a closing school. Near where I’m from, there are two well-liked schools which are due for closure and are to be merged on a new, purpose-built site. It seems that parents of children at both schools are unhappy about this, and have campaigned against the closures. Who to side with; the state/LEA or the parents? I personally think it’s a no-brainer, but rather than actually creating competition, the wishes of parents will get bulldozed.

            And with that, I really ought to do some work. Hope some of it was of interest.

        • Try this for evidence that exams are easier now than before – and not just under labour governments:

      • The opinion of the better universities, and the opinion of industry, would seem to suggest that there has been a SERIOUS deterioration on educational standards thanks to NL. The fact that Unis now have to filter competing kids all with three As shows that, In 1968 I got entry to Oxford with two Bs and a C. Sure, I was a year younger than most, but you wouldn’t get a sniff at Rutland Metro with that.

        ICL now offer a ONE YEAR intro course for their students, so ill-equipped are most of them to study science at Uni level.

        Personally, I think the politicisation and destruction of the education system will prove to be NL’s biggest disaster; simple really – we are no longer producing the type of young adults who can drive a dynamic economy. Those who could, emigrate (if they have any sense).

        UK FUBAR

      • On the topic of lack of evidence for falling academic standards (howling understatement) look no further then the number of first year undergraduate readin, ritin and rithmetik courses at the “old universities” – I have sat with many dispirited lecturers with a far away look in their eyes droning on a bit about this.

        That said, they will admit that it’s a process that had it’s roots pre-NL but accelerated immeasurably with NL’s “universal university” policy which plunged to the risible depths of a 16% pass mark in A Level mathematics early on. It’s woeful.

        Balls is almost beyond the insult capability of the English language – some literal, innovative directly translated insults from other languages might apply – perhaps you might have a little competition?

  2. […] I have a chat with Bella Gerens in which I almost suggest the abolition of the Department for Children, Schools & Families. […]

  3. That’s Labour policy across the board: destroy stuff that works and replace it with something unworkable based on ideology, then spend ensuing years applying sticking plasters, spinning it and protecting their behinds.

  4. Education….Education….Education? Deterioration….Administration….Disintegration


    I hate Ed Balls with a passion that surprises me – from a cast of hundreds – he personifies why Labour have destroyed Britain.

  5. Balls is a prime example of the fact that if you polish up a turd and put it in a decent suit it won’t automatically become a supreme leader of men, nope, it’ll more than likely just become a well dressed turd. If there’s one thing that I know already is going to have me clawing out my own eyeballs long before the election is even in sight it’s this tiresome business of abandoning publicising your own policies and ideas in favour of just slagging off the opposition for shitty irrelevances like where they went to school, where their kids go to school or what their wife does for a living. I don’t fricking care. I really don’t. I couldn’t give a toss if the shadow transport secretary drank claret and bogwashed upper thirds, what I want to know is what both parties are going to actually DO. All the main parties are bad for this but given recent performances I suspect that this time Labour are going to take it to new heights. Mind you, given that their policies mainly consist of trying to fix the mess they’ve made I can’t say I’m surprised. “Labour – we’ve broken it and frankly we’ve now got no idea how to fix it” is not the greatest election slogan ever.

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