A new class in Whitehall;Briefing;Analysis

12th June 1998 at 01:00
In the 13 months since Labour took office the Department for Education and Employment has undergone major changes due mainly to the introduction of non-civil servant political advisers. Geraldine Hackett reports

The extent of Labour's cultural revolution at the Department for Education and Employment can be guessed at from the scale of the changes among senior civil servants and the appointment of external advisers.

Across Whitehall the Government's determination to control its programme is provoking tensions - and ministers at the department may be exerting no more pressure than exists in other ministries of state.

However, there have been radical changes in the way the DFEEoperates. In particular political advisers, notably Conor Ryan, special adviser to David Blunkett, and Michael Barber, play direct roles in the development of policy.

At the department's centre in terms of ministers' priorities is the standards and effectiveness unit that Professor Barber heads. In just over a year his empire has grown from a division of 35 run by Michael Stark, a senior civil servant who is on secondment in Staffordshire, to a unit that employs more than 100 people.

The intention has been to develop new ways of working and attempt to directly influence what happens in schools - particularly the development of literacy and numeracy strategies. Professor Barber appears to hold a unique status in that he heads up the unit - a post that would normally be held by a civil servant - but does not have any management responsibility. In terms of the department's hierarchy, he reports to the director general of schools, but as a political appointment he has direct access to ministers.

The unit is managed by Sandy Adamson, a career senior civil servant who has returned to the department from a senior post in the Funding Agency for Schools.

Referred to by one official as the "cuckoo in the nest", the unit has expanded rapidly. Some 18 professional advisers have been recruited and given oversight of such significant areas as education action zones.

According to Michael Bichard, the permanent secretary and top civil servant at the DFEE, the new arrangements have everything to commend them. "We are blessed with the quality of political advisers. They are easy to work with and very talented," he says.

For a permanent secretary, Mr Bichard is probably more at ease with such changes than is usual - he was the first permanent secretary to be appointed who had not come up through Whitehall's ranks. He has spent most of his career in local government and entered the civil service in 1986 as chief executive of the social security benefits agency. He was put in charge of merging the departments of employment and education and believes that the service needs to change and draw in a wider community.

The officials traditionally responsible for education, he suggests, were more used to devising a policy framework within which local education authorities were responsible for running schools. Those drawn from employment tended to be more interventionist and have greater impact on the delivery of the service.

Mr Bichard rejects the suggestion that any particular significance can be attached to the recent reshuffling of the pack within the DFEE. One key official, the director general of schools, Peter Owen, who was responsible for producing last year's Excellence in Schools White Paper, will take early retirement later in the year.

In terms of promotion, the civil servants that were formerly dealing with the employment sector of the DFEE's work are moving in greater numbers to the schools sector - a trend that may be a symptom of greater integration across the department.

As in other state departments, ministers have been particularly exercised about the way the Government's message is transmitted through the press office. The director of communications, Jonathan Haslam, who left for a lucrative jon in the private sector only months after taking up the post, (he was formerly John Major's press secretary) has not been replaced. Media relations have now been subsumed into a strategy and communications directorate headed by Peter Wanless. Conor Ryan retains the links with the press that he built up as Mr Blunkett's press officer before the election.

Mr Bichard insists that the department has not become more politicised. The traditional values of integrity, fairness and objectivity are still important, he says, but there also needs to be greater focus on achieving targets and measuring outcomes.

"Not everyone who has been moved comes in here (his office) and says that it is the best thing that ever happened to them. There is a need to balance the needs of the individual against the needs of the organisation," he says.

There may also be a tougher tone to the management style. The new director general of schools, David Normington, has sent a note to his staff suggesting that ministers are not getting the level of support that they require. "It is clear, for example, that we are not yet fully meeting ministers' needs ...Since we exist first and foremost to support ministers, we need to put that right," says the memo.

Mr Normington, who at 46 is younger than most of those at his level, remarks on his surprise at the number of people in other parts of the DFEE who believe the schools directorate is "somewhat closed and unwelcoming to the rest of the department."

The more frequent accusation that seems to be being levelled at civil servants who express reservations about the direction of policy - those, for example, who did not share ministers' enthusiasm for the "naming and shaming" of schools that dominated events in the first weeks of the Labour administration - is that of negativism.

More publicly, Mr Blunkett has spoken of the problems encountered in changing the perceptions and practice of the civil service. There is a need for civil servants to be more outward-looking, he says.

There is little evidence of resistance to a changed political administration. The problem may lie elsewhere in that ministers take advice on policy from other sources and then expect civil servants to produce briefings on its implementation.

Not only has the DFEE three political advisers (Hilary Benn advises on the employment side), but No 10 has its own education adviser, Andrew Adonis, answerable to Tony Blair's policy chief, David Miliband.

Decisions taken by the previous Conservative government have also had an impact on the DFEE's ability to provide intelligence on the state of schools and the most effective means of intervention.

The professional advice available from the presence within the department of Her Majesty's Inspectorate was removed with the creation of the Office for Standards in Education as a separate government agency.

In part, the standards and effectiveness unit is intended to redress that deficiency, but it has an uneasy relationship with other parts of the DFEE. Neither does it yet command the same level of respect as the traditional HMI.

According to the permanent secretary, strains and tensions exist in all organisations and there is little that crosses his desk to suggest that he needs to be concerned. "This is a department that delivers. It is at the cutting edge," he says. The pace of work has been relentless. The DFEE is managing an education Bill that will set a new framework for schools; it has set out new funding arrangements for schools and negotiated a set of rules to govern relations between schools and local authorities.

Mr Bichard is about to conduct his annual survey of morale among his civil servants; he is not expected to find that it is high.

Nevertheless, in the pecking order of departments of state, the DFEE's star is rising. That may owe a great deal to the close working relationship between Mr Blunkett and his permanent secretary.

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