During my six years as a permanent secretary, my government department changed its name three times. Functions would come and go, with officials spending endless hours working out who was moving where. Erstwhile colleagues would find themselves acting like parties to a divorce.
In 2007, a major restructuring led to further and higher education being removed from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Despite the legendary power of Whitehall mandarins, I had no say in the matter.
Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown loved to tinker with the machinery of government, or “MoG” as it was known to insiders. It played to a sense of the administration doing things and “reforming”.
Of course, few people in the outside world noticed, and members of the public were constantly bemused by the new acronyms that emerged. It was expensive, too, despite “cost-neutral” claims from the Treasury.
David Cameron, to his credit, made very few departmental changes when prime minister. To some extent, he was constrained by the politics of coalition government and he may have acted differently if he had won an outright majority in 2010. But as with avoiding too-frequent ministerial changes, his instincts were, well, conservative.
Nearly a decade on, we are back to where we started – or at least to where I started when I took over at the DfES in 2006. Further education and skills, along with universities, are back in the fold.
With the astonishing speed of events in early July, I suspect that civil servants had little time to prepare for all the education-related changes. But Whitehall adapts, and already the new department is up and running.
Despite my scepticism about all this tinkering at central government level, there are grounds for optimism for those working in FE and skills. And, dare it be said, could Brexit have a silver lining, in this area at least?
The stakes have just got higher and a slowdown in growth is a real possibility as uncertainty bites. Theresa May’s government will have to put in place a coherent plan to respond, as voters will have short memories if their personal economic prospects decline. Right-wingers might froth at the mouth as talk about an industrial strategy re-emerges. Yet growing a low-tax, export-led economy could have appeal across the Conservative Party.
But if free movement of labour is restricted, then the government will need to redouble its efforts to develop a workforce to service all parts of the economy.
Everyone talks about the need for “high skills”, and that is undoubtedly an important part of the mix. But what about all those lower-skilled jobs where there is compelling evidence that migration from the European Union has been crucial in filling the gaps?
Whether it likes it or not, the Department for Education will have to address that point, alongside all the talk about the more glamorous job of upskilling the workforce. One might argue that successive governments over the past 15 years have not had to worry about this – now this one does.
None of this is to underestimate the need for further development of high skills. Indeed, if more foreign direct investment is to flow – as the Brexiters claimed – then it is hard to see how this will happen if we are not producing more people with the right skills.
Here, education secretary Justine Greening can make common cause with Liam Fox, at the Department for International Trade, and Greg Clark, at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Indeed, an industrial and skills strategy could form the centrepiece of a compelling domestic policy programme; one that also addresses post-Brexit concerns.
Let’s hope, too, that Sajid Javid, at the Department for Communities and Local Government, remembers how important FE colleges are in meeting local needs and adding to a sense of place. They are often the first port of call for those facing redundancy or wanting to take up new jobs.
Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and was permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills and its subsequent incarnations from 2006 to 2012
This is an edited version of an article from the 12 August edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents.
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