It was, Ed Balls said, a “particularly difficult” speech for him to make.
It was not part of the cut-and-thrust of a House of Commons debate; nor was he having to defend his controversial appointment of a new Children’s Commissioner against the wishes of a Parliamentary select committee.
Instead, the Schools Secretary was launching a new guide for teaching children who stammer – and pledging £500,000 of government funding for a new centre to help them. After his speech, at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in Islington, north London, he let it be known that he himself had been a stammerer.
“It is not something you can catch, and it is not something that gets cured,” he said. “You have to deal with it. I have never denied it – but this is not about me. It’s about getting help for the hundreds of children who need it. With it, you can go on to become a top singer like Gareth Gates, a journalist or a politician who makes three or four speeches a day.”
He said he had been moved by today’s launch of a short DVD, in which 30 children with stammers explained the help they needed to overcome their speech impediment.
“Getting frustrated and people trying to speed you up – that’s probably the worst thing to do, because then the pupil starts to stammer more as they try to rush through what they’re saying,” said one pupil. “If you’re in the middle of a sentence, they either finish it for you or talk over you,” said another.
The pupils had this message for teachers: please leave us time to finish our sentences in our time, do not rush us and talk to us and listen to what we have got to say.
Mr Balls echoed their thoughts that it was “frustrating” for the children if this message was not listened to because they “had a determination to succeed”.
He also announced that the Prince of Wales, whose grandfather King George VI had a severe stammer, had agreed to be patron of a fund raising drive to help build a second specialist unit for stammerers in the north of England, to complement the work of the Michael Palin centre. The drive is expected to be launched just before Christmas.
“There are times when pupils are different but they’ve got hopes and fears and aspirations like anyone else,” he said. “Our job is to make sure these fears can be overcome.
“There aren’t enough children to provide a bespoke centre in their own local area. We can;’t have 150 centres of this kind – one in every local authority but we can improve upon what we’ve got.”
Part of the money raised will be used to improve facilities at the Islington centre, which caters for more than 300 children from all over the country.
Michael Palin, who played a stammering villain named Kevin in the film A Fish Called Wanda and whose father had a severe stammer, said: “Sometimes it (my father’s stammer) was bad and sometimes it was bearable but it was always there ready to ambush him in the middle of a joke or story.
“If this help had been there for him, his life might have been a very different story.
“This is a major step forward in the way that stammering children are dealt with in this country.”
He praised Mr Balls’ determination to push through extra funding for specialist help.
King George VI
The monarch managed to coach himself so he was able to make addresses to the nation without stumbling.
The novelist’s mother believed his stammer was created when she dropped him on his head at the age of three, but friends said it was a result of his domineering father. H.G. Wells, however, was convinced it came from a sexual shock experienced in his youth.
The Labour MP and founder of the National Health Service gained a reputation as the finesty orator the House of Commons had ever known. Asked how he had cured his stammer, he said: “By torturing my audiences.”
The Pop Idol star has spent time as an instructor on a course aimed at helping people conquer their speech impediments.
The playwright thought that regularly drinking red wine was necessary in order to overcome his stammer.