Monday, 23 July 2007

Ed Balls, minister for children, schools and families

I didn't get all that close to the new minister for children, schools and families - Ed Balls - last week.

But I was pleased to get an invitation to hear him speak to members of the National Children's Bureau .

On a semi-tropical afternoon in North London, Ed Balls made a flustered-sounding key note address. He appeared to lose his place, stumble for words and generally sound ill-prepared.

Personally, I thought it was marvellous.

He spoke with compassion, and like someone who had been thinking about difficult things for a long time. The result of engaging with difficult stuff was not the usual "well-what-can-we-do" tone but an almost jaunty defence of what's good about childhood today in Britain. As well as an honest take on the barbarities in the systems that are supposed to help families and protect children.

After he spoke, there was the usual chimera of "questions". These are either (a) very poor mini-speeches from the floor which may or may not end with something to answer or (b) attempts at money-making.

Someone has something to say about outdoor play? Turns out he sells playground equipment. Someone else is worried about disabled children. His salary is paid by a lobby group for disabled children.


In general, nothing wrong with what any of them said individually. But each one only spoke on a narrow subject. Narrowly. Usually angling for money.

When money announcements were made, clapping broke out. I imagine that people clapped like that in the court of Louis XIV - the sycophantic, fluttering claps of the desperate. No hearty clapping or cheering here - and no honest rough and tumble in debate.

Despite all that, I'd say that (based admittedly on slim evidence) I am optimistic that Ed Balls will be the best minister in charge of schools we've had for many years.

Hope he can take on all those special interests (or at least ignore them) and keep thinking boldly and clearly about children.

One other thing: the line-up was all-male. Ed Balls, his permanent secretary, the 2 people from the NCB. What's that about? Coincidence? It used to be mainly (or all) woman - like the audience. As policy for children and families gets more important, will men increasingly take it over?

(But leave women to do most of the actual work).