Leadership, wrote Ed Balls in The Independent this week, is about making the right judgements under pressure. Unfortunately, he is in grave danger of flunking his own test. When he was put under pressure this week to announce spending cuts, what did he choose to do? Not cut the swollen education quango budget, or slash the administrative budget in his own department, but instead plans to sack 3,000 deputy headteachers: precisely the skilled and experienced frontline staff our education system depends on. This is not systemic reform; it is a failure of judgement by a government that has run out of ideas and is fast running out of time.
It's not just Ed Balls whose judgement has publicly failed under pressure. As the pressure built on the Government to take action on the spiralling deficit, the Prime Minister chose to treat the public like fools. While the Treasury was drawing up secret plans for 10 per cent cuts in public services, Gordon Brown continued to draw a dividing line between "Labour investment and Tory cuts". That is why only 14 per cent of the public trust the Government to tell the truth about the state of public finances.
By contrast, David Cameron and George Osborne have been honest with the British public, and consistently made clear that spending cuts would be necessary to deal with Labour's debt crisis. This was the right decision, which is why Nick Clegg has been scrambling to catch up with his call for "savage cuts" and why Mr Balls was pressurised into announcing his own flimsy proposals for making savings in the education budget.
On public services too, we have made the right judgements under pressure. While Mr Brown has consistently refused to reform them, we continue to develop detailed policies that will decentralise power, improve transparency and deliver better public services and better value for money. Only by introducing a new culture of professionalism and accountability to the public can we deliver more for less, and drive up standards in every area of the public sector.
Take education, for example. One in five children who leave school do so without a single C pass at GCSE, effectively deprived of any qualification an employer would value. And it is the poorest in society who are worst affected by this failure. More than 26,000 pupils got three As at A-level last year yet the number of free school meals pupils securing passes was just 189. Three times as many boys at Eton got three As than the entire male population eligible for free meals. Mr Balls's response? Instead of reforming the education system, he has gone in precisely the opposite direction, strangling academies by putting them under local authority control and imposing counterproductive new legal regulations.
Labour's plans to increase bureaucratic interference in education runs counter to the approach being taken by progressives around the world. Barack Obama has backed plans to get more schools outside bureaucratic control and use new freedoms to pay more for good teachers. Sweden has already shown how liberating schools from town hall bureaucracies encourages innovation, gets new talent into teaching and raises standards for all. This reform, successfully implemented as they emerged from a financial crisis of their own, has led to nine hundred new schools being established - by foundations, charities, co-operatives and others – and they have attracted pupils by offering better discipline and higher standards.
This is the approach a Conservative government will take. We will allow publicly-funded schools to be set up by a wide range of independent organisations, with a pupil premium for those children from deprived backgrounds. Parents will be able take the money the government currently spends on their child's education and spend it on the school they want. Parents who have been unhappy with existing local authority schools will be able to send their children to schools set up to give them a better alternative. This is our vision: an end to Labour's education failures, and a school system that trusts parents and liberates teachers.
Time and again, Mr Balls and his Labour colleagues make the wrong judgements under pressure. They were wrong to mislead the public about Labour's plans for spending cuts. They are mistaken in their plans to sack thousands of deputy headteachers and reverse education reforms. At some point in the next six months, the public will be given the chance to pass judgement on Labour's leadership. Mr Balls and his friends do not deserve to pass that test.
The author is the Tory spokesman on Children, Schools and Families