The Department for Education is "not capable" of handling a national crisis like the pandemic in the way the NHS does, its former permanent secretary has said.
Jonathan Slater, who was the DfE's top official until his August sacking over the exams grading crisis, contrasted his former department's delayed distribution of laptops with the NHS organisation of the national vaccination programme.
He also said there had been an "absence" of a "clear strategy" at the DfE in recent years.
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Mr Slater suggested that part of his former department's problem might be overreach, saying: "The DfE tries to be responsible for things which it’s very difficult for an organisation to be responsible for."
His remarks were made in apparent support of a withering assessment of current DfE capacity – and education secretary Gavin Williamson – from Sam Freedman, a former senior policy adviser at the department under Michael Gove.
Mr Freedman said: "The department simply isn't capable of doing what it's being asked to do at the moment, and when you have a less robust secretary of state that's an even more visible problem."
Mr Slater said: "Speaking as an ex-permanent secretary, I’ve got a lot of sympathy with the way that Sam pointed out that the current system is not capable of managing a school system as well as it needs to in a crisis.
"An obvious answer to the question 'Why's the NHS been so good at rolling out a vaccine programme?' is: it is a national health service, it’s been doing it for 75 years.
"The school system is not set up to manage a national crisis, getting 1 million laptops very quickly into children’s homes, and so how one organises the school system is secondary to the question about what it’s there for…but the current system is a bit of a mess."
Mr Slater said that civil servants were "much more effective if we’re working to deliver a clear strategy or working on the development of a clear strategy and the ministers are really clear what they want us to achieve, we can get on and do it".
"We’re saying the department is less effective as a consequence of the absence of that which is for any number of different reasons," he added.
"I worked for four different secretaries of state in four years…three prime ministers. We’ve been through extraordinarily turbulent times and that was before coronavirus. So we definitely need a clear strategy and vision, and then there’s the second question about that being driven centrally or locally."
Mr Slater and Mr Freedman were speaking at a Foundation for Education Development conference today.
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.