Live webchat with Ed Balls

Ed BallsThis is an edited transcript of a live webchat with Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, on 9 Sept 2009. Ed is MP for Normanton, married to Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, and they have three children aged 10, 8 and 5. He loves cooking and is a Norwich City supporter.

Starting-school age | Childcare provision | Home education | Primary curriculum | League tables and targets | Special needs | Gifted and talented | School admissions and standards | Wrap-around care | Academies | Twins | Taking children into care | Faith schools | Class sizes | School meals | About him

Ed Balls: Hi everyone, just arrived...

Let me start by thanking Mumsnet for inviting me to come here and join you in this live webchat. On my way here, I was reading through some of the posts that mums (and some dads too) have made on the site. And I think it's fair to say that this is going to be a really lively discussion – perhaps a bit more lively than I was expecting!

I'll answer as many of your questions as possible in the next hour and I hope we'll have a really good and constructive discussion about a range of subjects that are important to you – including summer-born children, home education, childcare and extended services.

Starting-school age

Letter QMoonlightMcKenzie: Do you not think that age is a arbritary and meaningless basis for putting children together in a class? Would it not be more sensible to do so on a basis of either social and emotional maturity, academic level, parental preference etc?

Letter Qlingle: I would like to urge the Government to override the report of Sir Jim Rose on the issue of allowing summer-born children to start school at five, not four. I have recently taken advantage of Bradford Council's enlightened policy of allowed year-deferment of summer-borns. My teachers, speech therapist and paediatrician all told me that my son, aged four, who has a severe language delay, which he is outgrowing, is simply "not ready for school". Bradford will incur costs this year by funding an extra year of nursery for my son. But it (and the NHS) has saved far greater costs: had he started reception this week, he would have needed input from speech therapists, educational psychologists, and a one-to-one learning support assistant. Please, please will you reconsider adopting this sane common-sense solution?

Letter Qfatzak: Has there been any consideration about changing the August 31st cut off point, to some point in June/July? This would at least ensure that every child turned five during their reception year and not during the summer holidays.

Letter QFayrazzled: I'm another parent of a summer born boy who is unhappy with the inflexible attitude towards birth-date cut-offs allocating children to school years. My August-born son starts reception next week and I send him knowing he is already at a disadvantage compared to his classmates: emotionally, socially and academically. So, my question for Mr Balls is: "When really will Every Child Matter and England move to a more flexible school start system like the Scots"?

Letter AEd Balls: For the record, our children (now five, eight and ten years old and in Years 1, 4 and 6 at our local state primary school in Stoke Newington) were also all born in the summer so I've got some experience of what that means. It would be great to hear the views of Mumsnetters and Mumsnet have said they will start a thread on this after the chat has finished.

Some of the parents I talk to want their children to be able to start later in the school year in which they are five. But others feel it's right for their children to be at school earlier and don't want to wait until January or April.

I think that allowing parents to choose what is best for their child is the most important thing. And that's why I accepted Sir Jim Rose's recommendation that parents should be able to choose to start their children in reception in the September after their fourth birthday if that's right for them. If not, parents can also keep their children in nursery for up to 25 hours a week for free for all or part of that year until they start year one.

It's true that they won't be able to start reception after they turn five, as some of you have asked – Jim did look at that option but he advised us that it wouldn't be a good way to support their learning and progress.
 

Childcare provision

Letter Qpecanpie: If the government is so set on getting mums out to work, why isn't there more affordable childcare available? Please don't say that it is available - what is provided is exceptionally limited and the majority of us have to rely on private nurseries. Also, why are childcare vouchers/salary sacrifice schemes limited to only £243 per person per month? This barely has an impact on my monthly nursery fees.

Letter Qhotmama: I would also like to ask why salary sacrifice schemes are limited to £243? Why aren't they increased in the Budget? Also, some of us might actually live in what are deemed affluent areas and therefore have no access to Sure Start centres and the like, including nursery grant for over-twos - so don't bang on about all this provision for parents when it is not universal.

Letter QISeeDadPeople: I'm a self-employed mum and would like to know why there can't be a system like the childcare voucher scheme for people who are self-employed?

Letter Qhoneydew: I chose to have three children in quick succession but have found childcare provision so appalling and so expensive that I gave up work altogether. It was far too expensive to put all my children into private nursery care. I was a teacher for ten years in secondary education (a good comp) and became head of dept until I had my second child and my wages still did not cover the childcare costs for two. When, oh when, is the Government going to sort out early-years pre-school provision so that well-qualified and experienced women like myself with more than one child can go back to work? Oh yes, and the 'free' childcare for three years olds at pre-schools? It costs us £100 per term to send my son to a local pre-school four mornings a week becausue the state only pays for £8.00 out of the £11 per session it costs.

Letter QScottie22: Due to the ridiculously high cost of housing, redundancies, cost of living etc, how is the government planning to help parents who are both forced into work in order to survive? It seems that 'middle income' families are being squeezed ever tighter and so many parents are faced with leaving children in childcare from a very young age. The fallout for children who are being left in childcare for ever longer days and hours as a result will be a sad reflection of how this goverment has allowed the greed of the few become the downfall of the country.

Letter QALWGreenwich: Why is the cut-off point for assistance with childcare provision based on a crude maximum household income of £60k? Why do they not take into account the cost of childcare? In London, where mortgages and childcare costs are both high and as parents of a (now) two and three year old and with joint salaries of £70k we have not had any assistance with paying childcare fees of £18k pa in order for me to keep my job! Although my salary is £50k pro-rata'd, there is little financial gain in me returning to work until they are in school; I think this is deplorable in a society which is supposed to encourage and assist working women after having children. Our childcare costs and mortgage take up our entire take-home pay; where is the incentive and encouragement for us to continue working?

Letter QHobnobfanatic: Why does the childcare aspect of Tax Credits discriminate against self-employed parents? I'm a single, self-employed mum who sometimes needs oodles of childcare and sometimes very little, depending on deadlines and family support. I had been told that I could work out an annual average for childcare and divide by 52 - but now I've been told that's wrong and because my childcare hours are not regular for four weeks on the trot, I'm not eligible!

Letter AEd Balls: I understand that childcare is a tricky issue for many parents who want or need to work. It's an area we've made huge progress on in the last 12 years, with free early entitlement for three and four year olds, tax credits and children's centres with Sure Start, but of course there is always more to do.

I am disappointed to hear some of you haven't been able to use your early education entitlement – it is your local authority's responsibility to make sure there are enough places. We try to make sure they are fulfilling that responsibility but you should also complain where you are not getting what you should. I hope many of you are finding your local children's centre is helping to provide services you need and that there is more childcare available through extended schools for older children where I know there can be real difficulties finding after school care and covering the holidays.

(I'm afraid I can't answer specifically on the tax credit issues you are raising, because it's not my area of expertise but I'll make sure I pass on your concerns.)
 

Home education

Letter QQueenOfFuckingEverything: I want to know about the Badman report. Why, when it found no evidence that HE was being used as a 'cover for abuse', are umpteen recommendations being considered that will interfere with HE-ers right to a private and family life? The proposals, if implemented, will give LEA officials the unprecedented right to interview our children without parents present.

Letter Qommmward: Why on earth is the DSCF pushing forwards with an uncosted (but it's going to be costly) universal screening programme for child abuse among home educators when:

  • There is not even a hint that it would be effective
  • It is disproportionate to the perceived problem
  • The report on which the plans are based is just embarrassingly poor
  • Children's services are already struggling to recruit adequately trained staff, and fail to support families who are at risk

Are they really going to be happy about this extra and pointless workload? And the Badman report was supposed to deal with welfare issues. Why did he conflate education and welfare, and why did you accept all those recommendations which remove responsibility for educating children from the parents and place it in the hands of the State? Do you have any idea how many people are going to sue the State for failing to provide the suitable education, which the law says must be provided to every child?

Letter QShrinkingViolet: Ed, with reference to the Badman report: why did you accept all the 'monitoring' recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible, but all of the 'support' recommendations were 'oh, well, we'll have to think about that'?

Letter Qrexer: Why it is that Scotland has managed to successfully work with the home education community to formulate leglislation regarding home education and create a mutually beneficial working partnership and yet his government's handling of the Badman review has created widespread anger amongst home educators, with over third of MPs having been contacted over the matter? Isn't it time for the government to admit they've gone about it the wrong way, apologise and start again, this time genuinely working in partnership with the home education community?

Letter Qflamingobingo: Why is Mr Badman so strongly against autonomous learning - a way of learning which fits the current law more perfectly than anything else ie providing an education that is suitable for a child's age, aptitude and ability? This is something that will change day on day and providing a year's worth of planning will effectively be breaking this part of the law.

Letter QPurpleRayne: Why did you accept the recommendations of the Badman Report, on behalf of the Government, on the very day it was published, and before the public consultation? Are you concerned about the volume of complaints coming in regarding the faulty methodology and analysis used by Badman? Are you concerned that there is now to be a select committee looking at this? If you are concerned, why are you so intent still on implementing these extreme measures, which are uncosted, draconian, and impact upon the rights of all parents, not just home-educators? If you are not concerned, please explain why.

Letter Qmusicposy: I would like to know why, in answering the recent Badman report, all the measures that would help home educators (such as free access to exam centres) were put on the backburner as being too costly, whereas all the recommendations concerning safeguarding are to be implemented, despite the fact that there is no evidence for a need for them, and despite the fact that they too will be extremely expensive to implement. I would like to know why home educators seem to be the only section of society who seem to be able to be discriminated against by being thought guilty until proven innocent.

Letter AEd Balls: I can see home education has come up a few times in your questions and I thought it would be helpful to explain our thinking. Firstly, I want parents to continue to be able to home educate their child if they want to, and I recognise that the majority of home-educated children receive a good education in a safe and loving environment.

However, its my responsibility to make sure that all children educated at home are getting the good education they deserve and are safe in their home. I think it was right to review home education as concerns had been raised about a minority of home-educated children who might be suffering abuse, and Graham Badman's report found problems with the current arrangements.

I think his report is good news for children who are home educated and their parents - for example, the report made recommendations (which we've accepted) to make sure that home-educated children with special educational needs (which is quite a number of them) have access to the services they would otherwise get through school. We'll be saying more in the next few weeks about how we will make this happen.

Letter QLouThorn: I'd really like the chance to speak to Mr Balls about the Badman review in person. We're having a picnic in Chelmsford on 16th September. Mr Balls, would you care to join us and meet our (not hidden) children?

Letter AEd Balls: LouThorn and others. I know that many of you feel very strongly about the Badman Review and are passionate about home education. My job is to support home educators and that's what I am going to do including by responding to Graham Badman's call for extra support for home educators, especially where a child has SEN.

But it is also my job to do everything I can to make sure children are safe, including from abuse or neglect. And that includes home educated children, too. There have been high profile cases of 'home educated' children who have been very badly neglected.

Graham makes clear that this is a small minority, though disproportionately larger among home educated children. Every child has a right to have a happy and safe childhood.

 

Primary curriculum

Letter QHassled: The sign-off of the new Primary National Curriculum is this month. How happy have you been with feedback you've received from the trials? I am very much in favour of a curriculum which promotes enquiry-based learning – do you feel the same?

What are your thoughts re the increased birth rate – are plans in place to cope with the pressure the increase will put on education? Already, preschool placements cannot meet demand in some areas, and this is coupled with a lack of joined up thinking prevalent in many LAs. As an example: our Pupil Admission Number, being a new school following re-organisation in the area, was set at the same time as a large patch of quite dense social housing, aimed at families, was being built. While you would have thought the LA could have predicted a change in the demographics given the building project, it appears they didn't. Our 105 intake had 175 applicants last year.

Oh, and football. Are you optimistic following the appointment of Paul Lambert? Where do you see Norwich City FC at the end of the season? How often do you get to Carrow Road? Are you in the Barclay?

Letter AEd Balls: On the new primary curriculum, I'm really pleased that the initial analysis shows extremely high levels of support for our proposals. More than two-thirds of those asked agree the proposed curriculum is less prescriptive and gives schools more flexibility to meet the needs of their children while providing a solid foundation for primary education. I think it provides lots of opportunities for discussion, experiments, field work, physical activities and visits as well as developing essential knowledge and skills in English and maths.

On the increased birth rate, I know that some parents have been disappointed with the primary school place they've got for their child this year because there has been more demand for places than local authorities expected in some areas of the country. I know just how important it is for parents to have a local school place for their child, in a school they are happy with. I don't want to see children going without places or having to travel miles to school and that's why we are working to make sure every local school is a good school. As part of this we are working with local authorities and offering them a share of £200m to increase the number of primary places available in the next couple of years.

(I should say for the for the record that I am happy to answer questions about football and to answer Hassled's question I'm optimistic about Lambert, my season ticket is in Block A of the upper Barclay stand and while it has been a bit of a mixed start I'm still optimistic.)
  

League tables and targets

Letter QLadySharrow: I believe that many of the problems in the education system today are an unforeseen consequence of league tables and other statistical systems. Everything that a school does is governed by its impact on the statistics; real education is drowned out by this. Do you consider the statistics, target and league table culture of education to be a good thing or a bad thing?

Letter AEd Balls: I agree that league tables present a very narrow view of a school based on the performance of the average pupil only. They don't recognise whether schools are stretching their best pupils or helping those who have fallen behind catch-up, what they are doing to promote good behaviour or support a child's wider development, or all of the good work that schools do in their communities.

That's why I am introducing our new School Report Card, which will give parents all of the same clear and easy to understand information they get from league tables at the moment, but also information about how the school is improving standards: discipline, attendance, sport and healthy eating.

The first pilots of the School Report Card are beginning this month and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it goes because I think it can make a real difference for schools and in particular for parents.

 

Special needs

Letter QKeysinthetoilet: The current system of SEN provision aims to ensure that funding is addressed to need by means of the statement system, yet effectively screens by reason of parental ability, motivation and energy. This is not a question, just a fact.

Letter A

Thanks for your message Keysinthetoilet, you like some others raise the issue of SEN. I think we have made progress in this area and schools are continuing to improve the progress made by children with special educational needs, but more does need to be done. That's why we are strengthening inspection law so schools are assessed on how they support children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities.

I also want to give greater rights to parents who are unhappy with their child's statement of SEN so they can have more say over the objectives set for their child and appeal the local authority's decision.

Letter QMoonlightMcKenzie: Ed, my daughter is one today. As a birthday message, please could you tell her that she won't have to continue to be neglected due to the fact that her parents have to spend so much time teaching and tutoring her autistic brother because Hertfordshire are only offering one hour autism specific support for which the authority has conceded there is no evidence for its effectiveness.

Letter A

Ed Balls: Happy birthday to your daughter, there is nothing quite like a birthday party for a one year old. I hope you have a good time! We always found the best solution was to put a tablecloth on the floor and let them get on with it.

I have huge sympathy for the balancing act that you are managing, it is really important that we do everything we can to make sure that siblings of children with disabilities don't lose out. But I know how hard that is. That is one reason why we are investing a massive sum in providing short breaks for families with a disabled child. I don't know the details of why Hertfordshire are only offering one hour autism specific support. Have you talked to them about short breaks?

Letter Q

MoonlightMcKenzie: Thank you for your birthday message, Ed. We have requested an initial assessment and a reassessment and, despite clearly meeting the eligability criteria in our opinion for support, we have been told that because our son is not as disabled as other children they cannot offer any support. We have six months worth of written correspondence with the Local Authority plus one to two hours per day phone conversations to try to get some support, but we are told at every turn that there are not enough resources. The one-hour autism specific support is also down to resources, as is the refusal to transport us to the support group given that we don't have our own transport. I would be interested in your suggestions as to the next step I should take? Thank you. 

Letter Qlottiejenkins: I'd like to ask why the Labour Government has closed so many special schools since they came to power? A lot of children, my son included, cannot attend mainstream school and I think it is wrong to close so many special schools.

Letter A

Ed Balls: I understand your concern, although I do not think this is a party political issue - the fact is that more special schools closed in the ten years tbefore 1997 than in the last ten years. These are local decisions and should be based on what parents want.

I have an outstanding special school in my constituency - for children of primary age with severe learning difficulties - but unfortunately it has had a number of empty places because some parents are choosing to send their children to mainstream schools.

On Monday I was in Birmingham visiting a brand new building which has a mainstream and special primary school on the same site, so parents know their child can have both specialist attention and be part of wider school life. I think that kind of flexible provision is probably the way forward.


Gifted and talented

Letter QFluffySaysTheDailyMailsSh...: I am the parent of an incredibly bright boy. It's clear from what's been happening to him that the gifted and talented policy doesn't work. You say that state schools can educate very bright children but in reality they can't. My son has been severely bullied, his work has been ripped up and thrown in the bin, he has been sworn at and his life has been made a misery. At school he is more than a couple of years ahead, yet there really is no provision for him. It would make our life so much easier if you could bring back the assisted places scheme. I'm a single mum, there are no schools where we live that offer bursaries for junior schools. The gifted and talented programme is designed to stretch the top 10%; what happens to those children who are in the top 2%? They are bullied, it's evident from some of the threads on here. Surely to have schools with such a mix of attainment levels then resentment plays a huge part in bullying. Isn't it best to help these children? State schools can't cater for all children. There are special schools for children with special needs, why can't there be something more for children who are exceptionally bright?

Letter AEd Balls: Fluffy, I have visited hundreds of state schools over the last couple of years and invariably headteachers boast to me about how they are supporting their most talented musicians, gymnasts or mathematicians. I am really sorry that you have had a bad experience, bullying of any kind is wrong.

FluffySaysTheDailyMailsSh...: Well, can you point me in the right direction of one because there isn't one where I live! My son was assessed at nine as having a maths age of 14 and a literacy age of 16+, which was off the scale. There really is no support for him. It's obvious that these provisions are hit and miss but children at the schools that miss are the ones that are missing out. Surely it shouldn't be this way? He's at home at the moment and it's just taken him five minutes to do a whole section in a year eight maths book. You can't seriously expect a school to cater for him when I can barely do it myself? Thanks for replying, Ed.


School admissions and standards

Letter Qronshar: Could you please help me to understand why I have to choose for my daughter a secondary school which at best only gets an average pass mark of 60%. That is the best state school in town. If we had lots of money, however, we could choose from any number of fantastic private schools locally, which feature in the top 100 every single year. My daughter is in the top groups in all her subjects in middle school, and I really feel sad that we will be letting her down by not giving her the opportunity of a top-class education. Why are our state schools so bad? I mean terrible, not bad. Please can someone be brave and say they got it so wrong and give our children the chance of an education to be proud of instead of having to apologise for.

Letter QMadsometimes: I think most people agree that primary schools have improved greatly under labour. However, I would like to second Ronshar's post about the state of our secondary schools.
I live in Greenwich, and most of our secondary schools struggle to reach 50% A-C, including maths and English. In fact, only the faith and private schools exceed this. How can it be acceptable that more than half of the children educated by my local authority fail to reach the standards set? Yes, I realise that Greenwich's standards are slowly improving, but it is still not good enough. Poor results such as these are being replicated by education authorities all over the country, they are not specific to my area.

Letter QBoffinMum: The new Schools Admissions Code (2007) is very specific about the basis upon which places in maintained schools must be allocated if a school is oversubscribed. One of the criteria is that priority should be given to siblings of existing pupils, which makes sense for primary schools where parents need to be able to deliver children personally to school within a limited time frame each day. However, for secondary schools this criterion is a lot less necessary, as by then children should be making their own way to school anyway, and it has the unintended consequence of making admissions policies unfair to local families who may not have been able to get their first child into a particular school because families who have moved out of the area but who benefit from the sibling rule continue to have privileged access. Does the Government have any plans to remedy this situation?

Letter AEd Balls: We've made a lot of progress in raising standards in secondary schools but there is still more to do. And I know how stressful it is for parents when their child is in Year 6 - some schools are always going to be over subscribed and I know how frustrating it is if you can't get your child into your first choice. The only way I can deal with that is by pushing hard to ensure every parent has a choice of good local schools.

Our basic benchmark is 30% of pupils getting five good GCSEs, including English and Maths. Ten years ago half of schools where below that level; now it's just one in ten but I won't be satisfied until every school gets above that basic standard.
 

"Wrap-around" care

Letter QTitchy: A question about before and after-school care: a few years ago the government assured us that by 2010 every school would provide wrap-around care for working parents. You seem to have now back-tracked on this, and now only promise it if there is sufficient demand. Whilst I appreciate it may not be economic to offer wrap-around care if there is little demand, by subsidising it and guaranteeing all parents such care, demand will surely increase, thereby getting stay at home parents back to work. Can you make an assurance that all parents who need wrap-around care will have access to such?

Letter AEd Balls: All good schools are already providing before and after school clubs and every school must be by 2010. We've given them the money and they should get on with it. It is true that part of the purpose of before and after school clubs is to make things more flexible for parents and that schools can only provide that kind of childcare for parents who are asking for it, but these clubs are also about helping children to learn and have fun - and every child deserves those chances.
 

Academies

Letter Qonebatmother: Are there plans to roll out the academy model to primaries? Building costs have been massively underestimated - how is this going to impact the project?

Letter AEd Balls: I was visiting an academy a few months ago in Bristol, in a tough area where the results are shooting up, and I asked a group of teachers how things had gone. They said that, yes, they were sceptical to begin with that a new building, a new uniform and new leadership would make a difference, but that a year later the sense of pride and aspiration that the children had in their school confounded their expectations.

The fact is that Academies are being established in disproportionately disadvantaged areas, taking a more disadvantaged intake than their catchment area and outstripping other schools in their increase in GCSE results year on year. It works and that is why I am anxious to have more universities, schools, charities and businesses sponsoring academies.

We have a number of academies that are now 'all-through' ie from five to 18. My experts advise me that the primary -nly academies would not be the right way forward given the investment, cost and complexity of setting up an academy.
 

Twins

Letter QMaiakins: Hi Ed. I would like to ask a question about school admissions and twins/triplets. Do you agree that it is ridiculous that many local authorities are placing twins in separate schools? Surely there should be an exemption to the maximum class size of 30 for twins/triplets?

It is logistically impossible to have young children at different schools and emotionally damaging for many multiples to be apart at such a young age. Our local authority doesn't even have a space on the admissions form to ask if your children are twins/triplets. It would be really helpful if the government could provide some guidance on this.

Letter AEd Balls: I completely agree with you Maiakins that it is ridiculous to split twins and place them in separate schools. I have asked the Schools Adjudicator to look at this issue and make crystal clear in guidance and in the admissions code that splitting up twins when parents don't want them to be split is the wrong thing to do.

Letter Qcuriositykilled: I believe the pressures of twin pregnancy are being overlooked by the government currently. I would suggest the following:

  • Increase maternity leave entitlement for women pregnant with multiples to 78 weeks (39 paid) with the option to begin maternity leave sooner than the 29th week of pregnancy
  • Educate employers about the very different pressures, burdens and requirements that are being placed on their employees during a twin/multiple pregnancy
  • Increase paid paternity leave entitlement to tow weeks per baby for fathers of twins/multiples.
     

Letter QJerin: I'd like to second the questions about twins. But would also like the issues of premature babies and maternity/paternity leave looked into. My babies were born prematurely and so my maternity leave was started from their dates of birth, however it means I'm due back to work when they are 39 or 52 weeks old, but corrected they are 2.5 months younger. I'm due back in a month's time and my twins are still tiny and unlike full-term nine month olds. Paternity has to be taken within eight weeks of birth and all together. My partner tried to take emergency leave following their early arrivals but was forced start his paternity. We wanted it to be taken when they came home but instead I was left home alone with tiny twins and a 17 month old. Twins are so much more costly and when premature there are even more costs associated. I don't want to return to work so early but have to for financial reasons. Luckily, we have family to help with childcare as a childminder can only have one baby under one year so we would need to find at least two.

Letter AEd Balls: Curiositykilled and Jerin, I have a number of friends who have had twins and I know how tough it is in the first few months. Of course, if you have twins you get two lots of child benefit and if you get tax credits that depends on how many children you've got, but to give parents with twins double the length of maternity and paternity pay would be pretty expensive and most people would think it was pretty unfair.
 

Taking children into care

Letter QStewieGriffinsMom: What do you think of the recent statement by Martin Narey, the chief of Barnardos, that more young babies should be taken off abusive and addicted parents and placed for adoption? It seems only common sense now that some families simply can't be saved whilst the children remain with abusive parents or those with drug and alcohol dependency issues. Surely, in these scenarios, children should be removed as early as possible and given stable families who will love them and nurture them, preventing the inevitable problem with attachment disorder that causes such a high failure rate for adoptions of older children? This does not preclude the children continuing relationships with their extended birth families (in cases where parents have addiction problems) but would ensure that children had stable families and were not bounced from foster home to foster home.

Letter QDoobyDoo: What is your response to Martin Narey's suggestion re 'broken families'. What exactly do you think social workers/society should do? I also want to know where his children go to school?

Letter AEd Balls: Thanks for your questions. Well, I have a lot of respect for Martin Narey and he's an expert in issues around children. But I have to say I don't think the right thing to do instinctively and quickly is just to put children into care. I think we should try, first of all, to see if we can get to the root of what's gone on.

I think in the Doncaster case, it's clear there were real issues in that family around alcohol, around abuse and in that kind of case, we need to intervene and see if we can help the family to solve their problems first. In some cases, we're finding that working with families can reduce abuse, reduce problems around truanting, alcohol, often domestic violence, and get those children and those families back on track, which also prevents them causing problems for their local community.

But if this doesn't work, it's important to put the interests of the child first and where that means taking them away from the family and into care, then that's the right thing to do. (Think you will have picked up by now that my children go to our local state primary school near our house in Stoke Newington.)
  

Faith schools

Letter Qslug: Mr Balls, while it is admirable that you want every school to be a good school (don't we all?) you haven't addressed what happens when local children are denied entry to local schools, good or otherwise, on the grounds of their parents' religion. And why the government funds schools that exclude on religious grounds?

Letter AEd Balls: The fact is that faith schools are a really important part of our school system. We have almost 7,000 state-funded faith schools, almost all of them Church of England or Catholic, and many of them have been providing free edcuation to disadvantaged communities for longer than the state has. I have been very clear with faith leaders - and they agree with me - that faith schools must abide by our tough fair admissions code and promote community cohesion.

But the reason why lots of parents want their children to go to faith schools is because there are lots of good faith schools with a strong ethos. The reason why we now have 200 academies open and driving up standards across the board is so that parents who don't want their child to go to a faith school have a wide choice, too.

slug: Well quite frankly Ed, I think the message is not filtering down to the schools. How is it socially cohesive to exclude children from schools on the basis of their religion (or lack of it)? I cannot send my child to a faith school because I am one of the majority in my local community who hold no Christian beliefs. Yet the five schools closest to me are faith schools. Any parent who belongs to one of these faiths can choose to send their child to a faith school or a state school. That choice is quite explicitly denied to me, as it is to the vast majority of parents in my area. The result of this illusion of choice is a heavily oversubscribed state school (excellent though it is) and large numbers of local children being bussed to other areas. The only choice here is for people who attend the local churches. The rest of us have to put up with what is left. Given that the UK is no longer a broadly Christian country, why is this situation allowed to persist?
 

Class sizes

Letter QAntoxo: My two boys are currently attending our local primary school, but my partner and I are looking into private education purely because we don't think they are getting enough individual attention because of the class sizes. This is particularly relevant to our younger son who is struggling with reading and writing. I know this is a big concern amongst a lot of parents. Has the government any intentions of reducing class sizes in primary and secondary schools?

Letter AEdBalls: In 1997 almost a third of children aged five, six and seven were in classes over 30, now it is less than one and half per cent and we have ten of thousands more teaching assistants, too. But if a child is falling behind in reading and writing they need one-to-one help, which we are providing through Every Child A Reader and other personalised learning for hundreds of thousands of children across the country, it sounds like your son needs this help. Email me some more details via Mumsnet and I will get back to you.
 

School meals

Letter Qjacquelinehyde: I was wondering if you could explain what the governments policy/thinking is currently towards inclusive education. This is after all what every school should be aiming for. However, it is very often factors outside of the schools control that affect a childs education. Poverty for example has massive implications on a childs and the schools educational attainment. How is this currently being managed, are there any new plans to tackle this.

Also on the subject of poverty, when will free school meals be rolled out to cover the masses of children who are officially below the poverty line, but don't qualify for them. The threshold for free school meals is a couple of thousand pounds lower than the governments own proverty threshold, which is just plain stupid.

Letter AEdBalls: The reason why we are investing so much in new kitchens, training cooks and raising nutritional standards for school meals is because having a healthy lunch is important for every child. I am worried that not all children who qualify for a free school meal are actually getting it but I am also anxious to find out whether spreading the qualification for a free school lunch to some more or all children will lead to more healthy eating and better school results. That is why we are trialling free school lunches for all primary school children this year and next in Newham in East London and in County Durham. And we are trialling extending eligibility for free school lunches to all children where the family gets tax credits in Wolverhampton. Then I can see whether it really does make a difference.

About him

Letter QLadyMuck: West Wing or Yes Minister?



Letter AEdBalls: LadyMuck, while I loved watching West Wing, nothing beats Yes Minister - although, in our house, I don't often get my hands on the remote so I currently have more detailed knowledge of High School Musical 1, 2 and 3.


Letter Qslug: Do you get used to people sniggering at your name?


Letter AEdBalls: Well, slug (and eveyone else who asked about my name), normally I reply: "If you think it was bad for me, think how much worse it was for my sister Ophelia." (The editor of a national newspaper once asked me whether my sister was really called Ophelia!) Seriously, of course there were times when it was hard, especially when I was ten, 11 and 12... To be honest, parents can sometimes be crueller than children. But it is very much part of whom I am and I wouldn't change it for a moment.

Letter QGivePeasAChance: I would like to ask Balls where his moral barometer sits on key family issues:

  1. What is your view on abortion?
  2. What is your view on marriage (being necessary et al?)
  3. What is your view on why people abuse children and what can be done about it?


Letter AEdBalls:
 

  1. I 100% support a woman's right to choose - within the law which I think is right.
  2. I am married, I think marriage is really important, but I fundamentally disagree with those who say that parents who aren't married or their children should be treated as second-class citizens, for example having to pay more tax. Pretty much all of us have a friend or family member who has been through a divorce, or been widowed, or sometimes had to leave a violent relationship.
  3. I spend time every day asking myself how adults can do some of the things to children that I have to read about. I'm afraid I have no answers.


Letter QmadameDefarge: I would be interested to know if you would be happy to send your brood to the new academies in Hackney? I understand that your children's education is a private matter, but you will, as you know, nevertheless be publically judged for those private decisions.

Letter AEdBalls: Our children go to a local state primary in Hackney and they will go onto a state secondary too. But, while Yvette and I are public figures, and have chosen to be so, our children have never made that choice and I would rather keep their lives private. I hope you understand.

Finally, good to see some positive comments about the Report Card, I think it will make a huge different for schools and for parents. Let's be honest we don't care simply how the average child is doing, we all want to know whether the brightest kids are being stretched, children who fall behind get a chance to catch up and whether our child will get the best chance whether they are academic or good with people or more practically minded.

I want our schools and teachers and our qualifications to ensure that whatever their talents, every child is helped to succeed and do well and get the best start in life. That is why I come to work every day.

Thanks for your questions. I know some have not been answered - we will get back to as many of you as we can over the next week or so.

Last updated: 11-Feb-2010 at 2:52 PM