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Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Sunday, 7 September 2008 10:42 UK

'We can come back'

On Sunday 07 September Andrew Marr interviewed Ed Balls MP, Schools Secretary

Schools Secretary Ed Balls tells Labour colleagues to concentrate on fighting the Conservatives.

Ed Balls MP, Schools Secretary ...photographer JEFF OVERS/BBC
Ed Balls MP, Schools Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Now, after another hard few weeks for Labour, conference looming talks of plots, coups, electoral disaster, I'm joined by the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls.

Welcome...

ED BALLS: Good to be here.

ANDREW MARR: ...thank you for coming in. Let's...

ED BALLS: Time to get serious after Rory.

ANDREW MARR: It's quite hard to do this without, without giggling...

ED BALLS: Exactly.

ANDREW MARR: ...but we'll try.

ED BALLS: We will.

ANDREW MARR: Particularly given the political situation. Let's start with some education.

ED BALLS: Yeah.

ANDREW MARR: The SATs tests. I mean clearly a bit of a disaster. The company involved in marking them had to be sacked. Are SATs really for the long-term now? I think there's a one year contract up for the next one.

Are we looking towards the end of this? It may have brought schools a certain way forward, but perhaps it's time for them to be put to one side?

ED BALLS: I think testing's here for the long-term and it's really, really important that parents and governing bodies and also the government too knows the individual performance of children but also of schools.

And I don't think anybody wants to go back to the old days where we didn't have that kind of information because I think it's been really important for driving up standards. But, as I said, actually on your programme...

ANDREW MARR: Not necessarily SATs though.

ED BALLS: As I said on your programme back in December, the current system is not set in stone. We are looking currently at a way in which we can assess progress child by child with an individual level test where the test would be, would be chosen in a way which is right for the child rather than just everybody doing the same test on the same day. What I've done...

ANDREW MARR: So this presumably would have to happen more inside the school than externally because you'd have to have people who knew the children?

ED BALLS: I think it's important to have external marking at Key Stage 2 certainly, and I also think that it's really important that we have that kind of objectivity for parents.

But what the level tests do is they allow... It's a bit like a music exam. You wouldn't say to everybody age 11, you've all got to do Grade 5 piano regardless of whether you've been playing for years or only just started.

The teacher and the school could choose the level of the test to enter for the child to make sure that it's suited for every individual child, but at the same time you could have the information for parents and for governing bodies about how the school is doing. What I've said is the current system is not set in stone.

For 2009, we're going to do the same kind of tests as in previous years, before the problems with ETS, but for the long-term I'm really keen to get this right, to listen. It's not set in stone, but I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water and go back to the old days where we didn't have the information.

ANDREW MARR: But to be clear, 2009 next year could be the last year for what we've come to know as SATs?

ED BALLS: Well what we're going to do for 2009 is do a one year contract based on the old methods, so we can make sure that it works in a simple way and we don't have the fiasco of the summer...

ANDREW MARR: Right.

ED BALLS: ...which we've had with this American contractor. But beyond that, it's really important we get this right. I'm not going to rush on making good progress on the single level tests, to do it before we know it can work. The current system is not set in stone.

I want to back the professional judgement of teachers, but not in a way which doesn't give parents the information they need about their child and the government and governing bodies the information about the individual schools.

ANDREW MARR: So less so-called test... teaching for the test, perhaps?

ED BALLS: Well I think teaching for the test is the wrong thing to do...

ANDREW MARR: Yeah.

ED BALLS: ...and in my experience the best head teachers aren't doing that.

ANDREW MARR: But you can understand why, why schools have done that - because it's so important to them.

ED BALLS: Well I do think it's important at age 11, and then in secondary school, that young people learn how to do an exam and get used to the pressure of that. It's part of learning, it's part of life, so you don't want to lose that. But at the same time, if all you're doing all the year is not teaching creativity and excitement and learning but just doing test paper after test paper...

ANDREW MARR: Yeah, grim.

ED BALLS: ...in my view that would be the wrong way to actually get the best results. It's certainly not going to inspire the young people. So that shouldn't be happening. And in my view that is not what the best head teachers are doing.

ANDREW MARR: Now what about secondary schools, in particular failing schools? You've introduced this National Challenge thing a few months ago to look at how to get these schools out. We've had the GCSE results. What's your view?

ED BALLS: The GCSE results were really good this year. It's really important for me to say and if you like to pick you up. We don't use the phrase 'failing schools'. I have never called these schools 'failing schools'.

But to put it in context, in 1997 over half of our secondary schools, over 1600 schools were not getting to the basic benchmark.

ANDREW MARR: Yeah. I think you did use the phrase 'failing schools' when you launched this project.

ED BALLS: It's not a phrase that I've used and I don't think it's the right word to use.

ANDREW MARR: Okay.

ED BALLS: It's come down from 1600 to 638 schools who are not getting to that basic benchmark.

ANDREW MARR: Of GCSE passes?

ED BALLS: Yes, which is 30%, including English and Maths, which business and universities say is really important. The results from this summer show that about 260 schools of the 638 have gone above the threshold.

They're now out of the National Challenge category and I say to them congratulations, that's brilliant. I always said...

ANDREW MARR: But this is not because of the National Challenge presumably?

ED BALLS: No. But I always said that of the 638 schools, there was about a third of the schools who were high performing. They were low risk. They were going to get there anyway. That's happened. Of course there'll be some schools who'll drop into the category.

So we think that overall it will be about 638 down to 475 schools. It shows that we're on track to get to our target; that every school should be a good school for parents by 2011. But it's going to get harder because the schools which are below the level are going to need more intensive support and help. I'm not saying these are failing schools. Often they can get there with great leadership, with more intensive support, and I've got £400 million.

But in the end, we do have to take action - and that could be radical action like an Academy. In order to make sure that they can get there. We should do that because it's not right there should be some children going to school where they can't get the kind of qualifications they need.

ANDREW MARR: Sure, sure. You say radical action like an Academy. How many Academies are we going to see?

ED BALLS: Well we've actually increased the number, and the National Challenge programme allows me to have 80 more Academies over the next two or three years. We're certainly going to get to 400 and I think we can go beyond...

ANDREW MARR: Andrew Adonis has said with time.

ED BALLS: Yes and I... I think we can go beyond that.

ANDREW MARR: You can go beyond that?

ED BALLS: I think we can go beyond that. The reason is... Because what Academies do is they go into often the most disadvantaged communities. They take often a tougher intake than the catchment would require and they show faster rising results in recent years. And they're doing so by bringing in university sponsors and often stronger leadership. They can really raise standards. What they do is break the idea that poverty means low performance.

They show that with strong leadership and great teachers, you can drive up standards. That's happening in many other state schools as well. What the National Challenge says is let's not have excuses. Let's do that in every school for every child in every community. It's a really radical and difficult goal, but I think it can be done.

ANDREW MARR: Is this part of a sort of process of changing school after school into an Academy? Could we end up with almost all schools being Academies?

ED BALLS: I don't think so because the Academies are often... they're expensive, they are a particular intervention which works for some schools.

We've also got a thing called the National Challenge Trust where we'll put three quarters of a million pounds in for a National Challenge school which links up with another high performing state school in the area to form a partnership, if you like, so that the leadership and the excellence in that school can help the National Challenge school.

And that kind of partnership and collaboration - bringing in universities, bringing in PCTs, bringing in business - can help. It doesn't only have to be through Academies.

ANDREW MARR: Ex... expensive but important. Let's turn if we could to politics generally. We may, we may disagree about some of the details, but let's, if we could, at least agree one thing before we start, which is that from the point of view of the Labour Party things can't go on like this.

ED BALLS: No and it's really important that we improve over the next year and a half, and the economy needs to improve - and it will. And of course we're behind in the polls...

ANDREW MARR: Will it?

ED BALLS: ...and we want to see that turn round.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think it will?

ED BALLS: Course I do.

ANDREW MARR: Because you know looking at the OECD, we were told not so long ago by the Labour government that Britain was uniquely placed to weather this storm. Now the OECD puts us as the only one of the major economies in recession.

ED BALLS: Well I'm not... I'm not on top of the detail of what the OECD have said, but what I know is the latest figures show that America grew - on the latest figures; Britain stayed about flat; France, Germany and Italy all were contracting, they were getting smaller. The fact is we are in a strong position because inflation's low, interest rates are low.

We have a more flexible economy. Our national debt is low. I'm not denying things are going to be tough. And, as Alistair Darling said, they're going to get tougher. But over the next year to 18 months, if we make the right calls and the right decisions and we do things to help the economy work well but also to keep the stability we need and to back families, there is no reason why the economy can't strengthen over the next year to 18 months, and I think it will. And that is why...

ANDREW MARR: I don't want to mimic or ventriloquise what, what viewers are thinking, but a lot of people with their houses plummeting in value, facing unemployment, facing a collapse in orders, looking at the huge rising cost of food and fuel will think this sounds like a kind of Panglossian fantasy. This is far too comfortable.

ED BALLS: The thing I said was that things were difficult now and it's going to get harder, and there's no doubting that. It's tough in the housing market. Fuel bills are going up for families. There's no denying that. People are worried about their jobs at the moment.

ANDREW MARR: People are really hurting at the moment.

ED BALLS: Of course they are. That's absolutely right. But people also remember what it was like when inflation was above 10% and spiralling, when interest rates went to 15%. We've actually got a record high level of jobs at the moment.

ANDREW MARR: Well food inflation is at 10% and rising.

ED BALLS: And food inflation is a real problem for families.

ANDREW MARR: Exactly.

ED BALLS: Of course that's the case.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think, therefore, that Alistair Darling was being realistic or was he being too pessimistic when he talked about it being the worst crisis around the world, he says, for 60 years?

ED BALLS: Well Alistair said - and he's clarified this this week as well - he said that in financial markets in the global economy, it's the worst for decades, and in fact you can go back to the 1930s to find this kind of credit crunch. At the same time, we've had high oil prices.

That is a really difficult combination. But at the same time - and he said this - think about the 1970s when you had a Conservative government in 1973, 74. Inflation at 25%, the 3-day week, the miner's strike, the fabric of our nation breaking down. Think about 1989, 90, 91. We had twice the number of repossessions, interest rates of 15% and 3 million unemployed. There is no doubt we're in a much stronger position to deal with difficult times and governments that test us...

ANDREW MARR: So he mis... he mis-spoke?

ED BALLS: No because Alistair said it's really difficult times - as hard as they've been for decades and they're going to get worse - but also we are better placed to deal with difficult times. Governments are tested in good times but also in tough times.

ANDREW MARR: So you say that things will be better economically in a year's time or 18 months time if you take the right decisions now?

ED BALLS: Yes.

ANDREW MARR: What are the right decisions that the government has to do now to get us to that position?

ED BALLS: Well what we've got to do is make sure that we keep inflation low and stable, and we've got an independent Bank of England to do that. We need to make sure we continue to have discipline in pay, and we've got that and that's hugely important.

ANDREW MARR: That's more of the same though. What has to change?

ED BALLS: Well but more of the same is what's delivered stability, low inflation, low interest rates, the highest level of jobs we've ever had.

ANDREW MARR: Well you've said... you've admitted we're in a deep hole at the moment, so what do we have to do extra to get out of it?

ED BALLS: And this week we've seen direct action to help families in the housing market, to help with stamp duty, to help with direct...

ANDREW MARR: Small-scale stuff. I mean that's... everyone has said that.

ED BALLS: But important things, important things.

ANDREW MARR: Yuh.

ED BALLS: And I think families out there who are going to benefit from this won't think it's small. They're going to think it's important. There's the Crosby Report coming to Alistair Darling soon.

ANDREW MARR: So is there more... is there more to come?

ED BALLS: As I understand it, the Crosby Report is on Alistair Darling's desk, which is looking at the supply side of mortgages. We've got the pre-Budget Report. We've got in this month a tax cut of £120 for every family in the country, for 22 million families in the country. A tax cut this year overall of about £4 billion for families...

ANDREW MARR: But...

ED BALLS: ...so things are being done...

ANDREW MARR: Sure, but...

ED BALLS: ...and they'll impact in the next year.

ANDREW MARR: But given... given where we are, none of that is going to really turn things around, is it?

ED BALLS: Well...

ANDREW MARR: It's... it's fine, but it's small-scale stuff compared to the plight the economy is in. What I'm asking is do you have, as a government, some big plans still to unveil?

ED BALLS: Well there's not a magic wand which can stop...

ANDREW MARR: Don't know.

ED BALLS: ...global food prices rising or oil prices being high. But at the same time the oil prices have been coming down.

There isn't a magic wand which can stop us having difficulties in our economy, but at the same time because we're more flexible, because we start from a stronger base, I think we can get through this.

ANDREW MARR: So we started off by saying that things can't go on like this from the point of view of the Labour government, so what has to change?

ED BALLS: Well I think it's really, really important that we are confident, look to the future, and see the kind of things which need to be done. But also be clear about the politics of this.

David Cameron wants us all to believe the economy and the country is going to the dogs and the election is a foregone conclusion. Neither of those two things are true. We can get through a difficult time in the economy...

ANDREW MARR: How? What do you have to do as a government to change?

ED BALLS: We've got the pre-Budget Report coming up, we've had a housing package this week. We've got...

ANDREW MARR: What about the Prime Minister's performance?

ED BALLS: Well the Prime Minister is doing well in a really...

ANDREW MARR: That's not what the polls say, that's not what the country thinks.

ED BALLS: ...in a really... Well in a really, really difficult time. And if you look at President Sarkozy, if you look at leaders around the world, it's a difficult time to lead because of the state of the economy. But things can change really fast. If you go back a year, Andrew...

ANDREW MARR: Don't... don't you think that he has to change his tone, that he has to address the country in a slightly different way?

ED BALLS: If you go back a year...

ANDREW MARR: No, come... Please, answer the question.

ED BALLS: On that particular... Well you know I think it's really important that you have a leader in difficult times who's tough, who's resilient, who's determined, who's got experience, who doesn't sort of get pushed around by the day to day media but instead sticks to the task in hand.

And the task in hand is doing the right thing by the British people on the economy, on jobs, and also backing the kind of long-term reforms we need.

ANDREW MARR: But given what the British people seem to think about that performance, do you not think the time has come for him either to step aside, let somebody else have a go?

ED BALLS: Of course I don't. And as I was saying, David Cameron's line - he and his friends want everybody to believe the economy's going to the dogs, Gordon Brown's fault and the election's a foregone conclusion. And none of those things are true.

ANDREW MARR: So... so Gordon, Gordon Bown needs to stand up at the party conference and deliver the same sort of speech as he delivered last year and the year before? There's no change in tone, there's no mea culpa, there's no addressing of what appear to be his problems?

ED BALLS: What Gordon Brown has got to do is cut taxes for families, which we're doing this month; to have action in the housing market, which we did this week; to have help for families with energy bills, which is coming up in the coming days and weeks; to make sure on the long-term reforms in education or in health that we keep taking those forward; to understand that in politics things change pretty quick. I mean it was only a year ago...

ANDREW MARR: So by... by and large steady as she goes.

ED BALLS: ...well it was only a year ago, Andrew, that John McCain and Barack Obama were both written off as presidential campaign hopefuls and now they're the two candidates for this year's election. There is nothing which says we can't come back and win this election. What we've got to do though, in my view...

ANDREW MARR: Well you say steady as she goes. Caż

ED BALLS: I'm not... I'm not saying... No, I'm not saying that.

ANDREW MARR: Well... Yes, you are saying that.

ED BALLS: If there's one thing that I really regret in the last year, it's we've given David Cameron too easy a ride because what the public want to know is...

ANDREW MARR: Okay, so you want to be nasty to the Conservatives?

ED BALLS: No, no.

ANDREW MARR: But in terms of your own party, it's steady as she goes. A lot of your colleagues in the Cabinet and elsewhere think that's steady as she sinks; that you are heading for electoral catastrophe.

ED BALLS: And I think that that is...

ANDREW MARR: Which could mean the end of the Labour Party.

ED BALLS: And I don't believe that's what people in the Cabinet think and I think that's complete nonsense. If you look in 2004, in 1991, in 1986, Tony Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher were all behind in the polls at a difficult time for the economy...

ANDREW MARR: No-one has been behind like this and come back and won.

ED BALLS: And they...

ANDREW MARR: Nobody has been in this position and won.

ED BALLS: And they stuck to their nerve and they stuck to the long-term and they came back and they won. And we can do the same. But we can only do so if we show - and this is really important and it's something which we all have to do, you and me - we have to focus on the choice in British politics between the parties.

We have I think to take the gloves off and take the fight to the Conservatives. In the short-term, they have nothing to offer getting us through a difficult time on the economy. In terms of their kind of measures to help families, they are opposing...

ANDREW MARR: But what about...

ED BALLS: ...the things we are doing...

ANDREW MARR: Okay.

ED BALLS: No, but it's really important this. On the long-term reforms for our country on education, on GPs and opening hours, on Europe, David Cameron is opposing the things which we need to do for the long-term future of our country and it's really important we get this...

ANDREW MARR: Okay, so whack... whack David Cameron, but as far as your party's concerned, steady as she sinks.

ED BALLS: Set... Look, it is not steady as she sinks because, as I said, I believe we can go on and win this election if we have determination and steel and unity. The thing which in the past has lost governments elections is if they mis-managed the economy, divided internally as a party and lost touch with the long-term aspirations...

ANDREW MARR: Well all of those things people would say is your condition at the moment.

ED BALLS: Well and I think that is wrong and that is why we as a party...

ANDREW MARR: Alright.

ED BALLS: ...have got to work... No, but it's really important.

ANDREW MARR: Okay.

ED BALLS: We have to go out and make... On the economy, we are the best people to manage us through this time.

ANDREW MARR: Okay.

ED BALLS: On education, we have policies and long-term reforms the Conservatives are opposing. But the key thing: there's got to be unity, there's got to be discipline, there's got to be confidence.

ANDREW MARR: One final point, a further catastrophic mistake: the loss of more data, this time involving prison officers. A lot of people out there think what is going on, why does this keep happening?

ED BALLS: Well this happened in 2007. Jack Straw just found out about it yesterday and launched the inquiry. We're told there were no security implications for the prison service. That's the MOJ judgement.

But clearly, in the modern world of data, organizations -government and possibly the BBC, certainly private organizations - we're dealing with how you manage these huge flows of data, often in small data sticks.

ANDREW MARR: Mistakes happen.

ED BALLS: In the last year we've made huge reforms to improve the position. We've got to keep making it better...

ANDREW MARR: Alright.

ED BALLS: But it's a reality of modern life and I think it's true of governments round the world.

ANDREW MARR: Alright. Ed Balls, for now thank you very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.


NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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