You ask the questions: Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
Why can't we see the Baby P report? And should married couples be in the Cabinet?
Monday 12 January 2009
After last year's fiasco, can you guarantee that SATs results won't be delayed again? Will you take personal responsibility if they are?
We were all badly let down last year by ETS Europe, the American contractor, and I have said to all the teachers, pupils, parents and markers affected how sorry I am for all their inconvenience, stress and frustration. This year must be better and it is the job of the new contractor, Edexcel, and the QCA to deliver the tests on time. I am doing everything I can to ensure there is no repeat of last year's problems.
You scrapped SATs for 14-year-olds. Why is that the right decision for them but not 11-year-olds, who still have to take the exam?
For secondary schools, GCSE results (published this week for each school) give parents, teachers and governors an objective assessment – externally marked – of the progress of every secondary school and every young person. SATs at 11 do the same job for primary schools. The current system is not set in stone. But I don't think many parents want to go back to the old days, when there was no objective measurement of how their child's school was doing.
Do you still believe your new diplomas could replace A-levels as the main qualifications for youngsters? Are you satisfied with the take-up?
I believe diplomas are this generation's best chance to break the historic two-tier divide between "first-class" academic and "second-class" vocational qualifications. I'm really pleased that so many of the country's top employers and universities are backing them. We have deliberately started with low numbers in the first years – the first five diplomas are only available in a third of the country and we'll be steadily extending all 17 diplomas to the whole country over the next five years. Only then can we start to assess whether they are likely to sit alongside or replace A-levels. But it's important to be open-minded – not like the Conservatives, who've said they will oppose our new diplomas no matter what.
Are you anticipating many schools missing the benchmark of 30 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English by next year? What will happen to them – especially if they are one of your new academies?
I don't want excuses, I want all schools to get above this benchmark by 2011 – including academies – and we will do what it takes to get there. Last year there were 638 National Challenge schools below that benchmark – down from a massive 1,610 in 1997. I expect more than a quarter will get above the target this year, but we won't know the exact numbers until the school-by-school GCSE results are published later this week.
In new year 2010, what achievement would you most like to be able to recall from this year?
That social workers feel the hugely difficult job they do is better understood, and that their professionalism is being properly supported and challenged in every part of the country – which is what our Social Work Taskforce and new leadership training is all about.
Why do you think it is reasonable for children in Britain to be educated at schools where the criteria for entry is that they subscribe to Islam?
Faith schools can give priority to children of their faith, but they must abide by our strengthened admissions code, as well as the national curriculum. Over a third of all our state schools are faith schools. Well over 6,000 are Church of England, Catholic or Methodist schools. Just 11 are Muslim schools.
Who was right, Keynes or Friedman?
I think the late Milton Friedman would have said Keynes – and I would agree with him.
In 2006 you said "our system of light-touch and risk-based regulation" had "provided us with a huge competitive advantage". Do you stand by that statement now?
Of course. Regulation must be risk-based: light-touch when risks are low; heavy-handed when risks are high. In retrospect, banks round the world under-estimated the risks they were running and, despite British pressure, there was not enough international monitoring of investment and capital flows. We are living with the consequences now – but it's interesting that two years ago it was the Tory party and right-wing commentators who thought British financial regulation was too tough and undermining London's competitiveness.
The expensive cut in VAT has had a negligible impact on consumer spending. Wouldn't it have been more effective to write low-income families a cheque?
The VAT cut was the fastest and most effective way to inject a huge fiscal stimulus into the economy, one which benefits every household and business in this country and which works throughout the year and not just for one month. Child benefit, tax credits and pensions are going up by more than inflation and boosting family incomes, too. And we have increased spending on things like transport projects and school buildings. Governments round the world know now is the time to put money into the economy to get through the downturn. Only the British Conservatives seem to be against it.
Only five MPs have seen the official report on Baby P – and they had to sign non-disclosure agreements. Why won't you let it be made public? What do you have to fear?
The problem is that the full report contains detailed personal information about other vulnerable children as well as detailed reports from police officers and health professionals. The NSPCC and Lord Laming have both publicly supported my approach – both in this tragic case and in future reports. But the executive summaries of these reports, which are always made public, must in future be a better and more comprehensive overview of the full confidential report – and that will be the case for the new independent serious case review which I have ordered into the death of Baby P.
Sharon Shoesmith is fighting for compensation after you fired her from Haringey Council over Baby P. If she wins, won't your judgement be called into question?
I read the damning report on Haringey Council's children's services submitted to me by the team of inspectors and then used my powers to remove Sharon Shoesmith from her post as director of children's services with immediate effect. I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do – legally and ethically. Haringey Council clearly took a similar view.
Why should private schools enjoy charitable status?
They can't just enjoy it, they now have to earn it.
How exactly does having a Cabinet meeting in Liverpool help you serve the public better?
By not just sitting in Whitehall – and for me personally, I visited a hugely impressive new school in Knowsley and discussed our school building programme with local leaders in that borough and in Bury.
Even if the appointments are entirely on merit, doesn't it make Cabinet too narrow if it includes husbands and wives and siblings?
The Miliband brothers are very close, but they can still take different views on policy. The same is true of me and Yvette.
Do you and your wife, Yvette Cooper, argue about politics at home?
See above – but we have more important things to argue about at home, like whose job it is to put wet towels back in the bathroom (an ongoing issue in our household, as regular readers of this Q&A will know).
Was getting on a rope swing with Andy Burnham the stupidest photo op you've ever taken part in, or can you think of a worse one?
Yes probably, but it's a close-run thing. Have you seen the video of me trying to break the MPs' skipping record? I guess it's swings and roundabouts.
You were a member of the Conservative Association at Oxford. How did you find your fellow members?
Quite odd, to be honest ... I joined all the different political societies in my first week at Oxford so I could go along and see the speakers. But in 1983, while I was still at school, I joined the Labour Party and I've been there ever since.
Did you take advantage of the price cuts to buy anything at Woolworths over Christmas? If not, where did you do your Christmas shopping?
Yes – two DVDs, a Christmas music CD and a bag of wine gums. I did most of my shopping in Argos, but I have always shopped in Woolworths and I will miss it.
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