On the Politics Show, Sunday 7 December 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed Ed Balls MP, Secretary of State, Children and Schools.
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls. Mr Balls, thanks very much for being with us on the Politics Show. Two grotesque cases. How do we ensure that they don't happen again.
ED BALLS: As you said, they are both in their different ways, terrible. The Baby 'P' story was harrowing, it was awful and the truth is that as time passes we all read about this again and again in the newspapers. It still doesn't make any more sense that parents could do such a terrible thing to a little boy. In the case of Karen Matthews, she set out, over a period of time to deceive the press, the nation, as well as social workers, whilst she, for financial gain, was doing terrible things to her daughter and once again it's impossible to understand how a mother could think that she could do that to her child.
JON SOPEL: We'll come to some of the detail and the changes you want to make to the social work system but a lot of people will be thinking: How is it possible that you can have someone who uses children as benefits vouchers and what are you going to do to tackle that, so that this woman can keep herself in booze and fags?
ED BALLS: Well, in the case of Shannon Matthews first of all, there is now an independent review in to what happened in that case and whether or not there were signs which were missed by social workers. We'll look … (interjection)
JON SOPEL: I'm talking about the idea that a mother has seven children by five or possibly six different fathers and they essentially are just there so that this particular person can gain more benefits. What is the State going to do to tackle that.?
ED BALLS: I don't think that in the case of Shannon Matthews, we can say that this was simply because she was getting benefits as if that's somehow an excuse for Karen Matthews. In that case, she set out and did terrible, terrible things to that child and that's wrong and I think people find it very hard to explain. The idea that there are … (interjection)
JON SOPEL: But there are people working the system aren't there. There are people working the benefit system who have never done a day's work in their lives.
ED BALLS: Well, and if there are people who are working the benefits system and who are not trying to seek work and are just doing - are acting in the way which you say, that is completely wrong and James Purnell's welfare reform, which he'll be launching this week, is there to put a stop to that. But I don't think that you can say to the millions of people in our country who are receiving benefits, and many of them, who are looking for work or trying to get back to work, the idea that you can say as has been said today, that these are all on the verge of becoming a Karen Matthews, that's completely wrong. It lets off the hook Karen Matthews and also it, I think does a terrible dis-service to the many people in estates all across our country, who are volunteering, who are trying to get to work and often who are working on public services. The idea that you can tar them with the Karen Matthews brush is completely wrong.
JON SOPEL: Let's talk about the structural changes that are needed then to the way social workers are managed. How do you do that?
ED BALLS: Well, in the particular cases in Haringey and in Kirklees, we just - to look in to exactly what happened and we'll have an independent serious case review but I think there are some wider issues here and I'm talking about them today and will be doing this week, as we launch our children's plan, one year old, which is a one year report on our children's plan from a year ago. It's clear to me in the case of teachers, the standing of teachers in the last ten years has been transformed in the public eye, in terms of their training, in terms of the number of people coming from university and going in to teaching, and that's reflected in the quality of our head teachers but also in rising standards. The thing I want to do now is do the same thing for social workers, as we have done for teachers. To improve the training, to improve the quality of leadership, to improve the incentives for people who rise up through the system and to do that in a way that raises the standing of social workers, who in our country, often on a daily basis, do terribly, terribly difficult jobs and make very hard judgments every day.
JON SOPEL: But having listened to your news conference in the wake of Baby 'P', where you know, the Director is sacked and whatever else, who is going to want to become a social worker? I bet you it's a very, very demoralized profession.
ED BALLS: Well, there are twenty thousand plus social workers in our country at the moment. As I said, many of them, with teachers and the police, do a really difficult job in very difficult, sometimes quite dangerous circumstances every day. I think we have to celebrate, praise them for what they do, support them and invest in their training. But that doesn't take away from the fact that when something goes wrong, in the case of Haringey, things went very badly wrong, it was a devastating report, in that case you have to act, to intervene. I've done that, I've changed the management, I've sent in new leadership, I've called for a new independent look in to what happened in Haringey. Of course, if things go wrong, there must be accountability, but that doesn't take away from the fact we also need the social workers to be supported, they do a very, very difficult job.
JON SOPEL: Sure, and you say there's going to be a root and branch review and we're going to look at everything again. I mean it just sounds like déjà vu all over again, to coin a phrase. You know, Tony Blair, five years ago in the wake of Victoria Climbie saying, "Child protection must be our top priority. The failure of the existing system, to keep all children secure, is tragically illustrated."
ED BALLS: The expert view, for most of people who really look at these things is that since the Climbie tragedy there have been real improvements in the way in which children are kept safe in our country, but it is not yet good enough. It's not good enough in every area of the country, but it also the case in my view that we have not done enough as a society, including our government, to support and challenge and invest in social workers. This needs to be a very radical review. It needs to ask some very hard questions. In my view, the training of social workers is too theoretical. There isn't enough on the job training. There isn't enough challenge and supervision through the early years. We need our schools and our social workers to work more closely together. We need to boost leadership. There's lots to be done and you know, of course I wish that it could have happened earlier but in the end, in the Baby 'P' case, I don't think it would in the have changed it, because that was a particular and harrowing tragedy.
JON SOPEL: Okay, let's talk about your children's plan. Summer babies. Are they at a disadvantage going to school at the age of just four years old and should they be kept out of school?
ED BALLS: The evidence suggests the opposite is the case. I asked Sir Jim Rose, who's an expert in these matters, to do the first review of the primary curriculum for ten years and I said to him that I wanted to make more space for maths, for English, for the key learning, building blocks in primary school. But I also asked him to look at this issue because some people fear that if children start school later because they're born in July or August, they never catch up. The thing he is saying is that the evidence shows that that is true. That it's better that children, even if they're born in August, start reception in September, but he's saying that there should be flexibility and that therefore parents should have the option to start part time, but it's better to start even part time, than to wait until January or Easter to start reception class. If not, the kids never quite catch up.
JON SOPEL: And the other things the review apparently is going to recommend is that education, teaching in primary schools should be themed, so well-being, health, social attitudes. Why not just theme it around reading, writing and arithmetic?
ED BALLS: Well that's already what happens in primary schools, that themeing and one of the key things that he's going to say is mathematics and learning maths. Also English and literacy and communication, so there are very clear themes, but the important thing is, you can learn maths or English, right throughout the primary curriculum. If you're doing history, you can learn about maths or English as you do that. The thing he's wanting to do is to make sure that our kids have got the skills they need when they go in to secondary school, so they can learn and do well and get good qualifications and that's what the children's plan is all about.
JON SOPEL: What about access to computers?
ED BALLS: The really interesting thing which he's saying in his report is that if you look at the quality of computer skills amongst our young people these days, they're actually well-ahead, not only of us, because to be honest we had no computer skills when we were at school, but even probably ahead of where the teachers and parents are understanding it. He's saying we should actually take the curriculum which children currently learn in secondary school, age eleven, twelve and thirteen and start that in primary school so that you can actually get those skills earlier and use that to learn maths and literacy, even better in primary school. It's a very interesting proposal.
JON SOPEL: Okay, I just want to, while we've got you here Mr. Balls, ask you about one other matter and that is the position of the Speaker.
ED BALLS: Yeah.
JON SOPEL: Viewers to the Politics Show in Northern Ireland are about to hear David Cameron say that he wants to have confidence in the Speaker. Do you?
ED BALLS: I can only speak from my personal experience as a Minister. I've always found the Speaker to be challenging, to be tough and to be demanding of me and other Ministers in protecting the House of Commons. So on the basis of my experience, I do have confidence in the Speaker. And I have to say, I don't think it's sensible for MPs or Ministers, or Leaders of the Opposition to make these kind of comments. I think, in the end, drip, drip, drip is undermining the office of the Speaker and the office of Parliament.
JON SOPEL: So David Cameron is undermining the position of the Speaker by what he's said?
ED BALLS: I think he is, yes.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Ed Balls, thank you very much for being with us.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH ED BALLS
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The Politics Show Sunday 7 December 2008 at 1200 GMT on BBC One.
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