Ed Balls: You Ask The Questions

The Secretary of State for Schools answers your questions, such as 'Are you in the Cabinet on merit?' and 'Have you ever seen Gordon laugh?'
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The Independent Online

Do you believe you were appointed to the Cabinet on merit? Martin Foster, Hampstead

I hope so! .In the end, that will be for you and everybody else to judge.

Do you still have as much influence over Gordon Brown as you did when he was Chancellor? Simon Jones, Swansea

He's always been open to new ideas, the latest thinking. But at the end of the day, he's the boss.

Were you pleased to see Margaret Thatcher back in Downing Street, or did you think it was a cheap political stunt? Kate Darling, by email

I am told it is custom and practice for every PM to invite their predecessors round to Downing Street.

No Labour Party member wants to see her back in control of No 10. But even if you disagree with her politics, at least she was able to lead her party.

Wasn't Gordon Brown's speech about 'British jobs for British workers' playing up to the racist far right? Angelique Timar, by email

What's racist about wanting everybody in Britain to have a job and a skill?

If we are going to have citizens' juries, why can't they decide what subjects to raise, such as immigration and capital punishment? Or are they just a cheap fig leaf for a Stalinist PM? Mike Davies, Sevenoaks

I don't think Stalin had much time for citizens' juries. Listening to the public and debating tough issues like immigration is a good idea.

Would you be in the Cabinet without the benefit of your private education? Or do you share my view that private schools are the biggest cause of class division in Britain? Justin Gordon, Lincoln

I had a great education – and my job now is to ensure that every child has the best education. That's why we want to raise the level of spending per pupil in state schools to the level of today's private schools. And I want more personalised learning, with small group and one-to-one tuition for those that need extra help. That kind of support should be available in every school, not just fee-paying ones.

Should the compulsory age for secondary education be lowered? Ben Diamond, London

No. In fact we're about to legislate to raise the education leaving age so that everybody up to 18 can stay on at school or college, get training or an apprenticeship.

Do you feel proud that your Government has overseen the closure of more than 100 special schools, making life even more difficult for disabled pupils and their carers? Jon Rackham, by email

I want parents to be able to choose what is best for their child. Kingsland special school in my constituency [Normanton, West Yorkshire] does a great job, but some parents of a child with disability want their child to be educated for some or all of the time in a mainstream school. It's worth noting that the biggest closure of special schools happened when the Tories were in power – 234 between 1986 and 1997, compared with 134 since then. We do need to do more to help disabled children. And as a result of the review I led at the Treasury, we're investing an extra £340m over the next three years to improve services for disabled children and their families, particularly to provide many more short breaks.

Why are you handing over swathes of our education system to segregating, minority faith institutions? Sheila Kinsella, Bath

I'm not handing over anything. The Government has no policy to increase the number of faith schools. But the fact is 1.7 million children are already being educated in nearly 7,000 faith schools. That's one third of all our schools, of which 99 per cent are C of E or Catholic, and many have existed for centuries. It's my job to make sure all schools, including faith schools, have fair admissions and promote community cohesion which is why I have challenged faith leaders to work with the Government to ensure that all faith schools properly reflect the communities they serve and do not favour the rich of the faith over the poor of the faith.

In secondary schools we are now asked to teach according to a formula. Surely the pupils deserve better than identikit lessons? Stephen Roberts, Worcestershire

I agree. That's why the new Key Stage 3 curriculum will give teachers more flexibility, while ensuring we keep a focus on basics in literacy and numeracy as well as history and science.

Shouldn't something now be done about class sizes in this country? Susie Rogers, by email

We have done something. Ten years ago one in five infant classes had 31 or more pupils – today's it's just one in 70. They have fallen because we now have 36,000 more teachers than 10 years ago as well as many more teaching assistants. Of course there's more we can do, but it's a dramatic change.

What were you doing at the Bilderberg meeting in Turkey this year and why are you a member? Ray Neal, by email

Sorry, it's a secret!

Seriously, I didn't go this year – I couldn't make it. They don't have members, but I've been a few times to meet government colleagues from round the world and I've always made that public.

What's it like being married to a fellow minister? Sue Craig, by email

I guess that depends which minister you're married to. Luckily, I'm married to Yvette.

How do you feel about the name 'Balls', which doesn't seem ideal for a politician? And what was your nickname at school? Ian Thompson, Harpenden

Unsurprisingly I never really needed a nickname at school. Although it was bad for me it was much worse for my sister, Ophelia ...

Your father spent much of his life fighting against the use of animals in medical experiments. Do you agree that such a practice is immoral and should be banned? Daniel Quinn, Newcastle

No and neither does he. He has campaigned for reduction, refinement and replacement of animal experiments. That is the right approach. My dad's got a worldwide reputation and I'm proud of what he's achieved.

I heard you came up with Gordon Brown's famous "economic tests" for entering the eurozone while at the pub. True? Harry F, by email

Hang on, I thought the story was that we came up with them in the back of a taxi.

The tax credit system is a mess, with more than £9bn paid out in error or fraud, to take just one of your cock-ups in the Treasury. So why have you and your master been promoted? In the private sector you would have been sacked. Andrew Lawrie, Edinburgh

Tax credits are one of the Government's proudest achievements. They've helped millions of families and lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.

Are you pleased that at the end of your time in the Treasury, Britain's individual debts were higher than the national GDP? P Dutti, Brussels

We have low inflation, low interest rates and a lower level of national debt than the US, France, Germany or Japan, and British families are better off thanks to the stability our economic reforms have delivered.

British troops seem on the verge of leaving Iraq. Do you wish they had left sooner? Heath Cook, SW22

Those judgements are best left to the military.

Have you ever smoked cannabis or taken other illegal drugs? Mike Rowley, Cornwall


Aren't the British people sick of seeing young, well-groomed, privately educated men like you and David Cameron queuing up to run the country? Helen McCormick, by email

That's the first time I've been described as well-groomed. As for David Cameron, he is not running the country.

You're a cooking fan. Can we expect to see you on the next series of Hell's Kitchen? Felicity Salter, Edinburgh

For me cooking is about being at home and relaxing away from work – I can't see anything relaxing about Hell's Kitchen.

You have worked closely with Gordon Brown for a decade. Could you tell me a funny anecdote about him? Stephen Collins, Bournemouth

I could, but I want to keep my job!

Have you ever seen Gordon Brown laugh? Dominic Hatton, West London

Of course. I don't think you can survive at the top of politics unless you can laugh at yourself.