Not-so-civil servants reveal crisis of confidence in DfE

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
A survey exposes officials' loss of faith in vision and policy

Less than a quarter think recent changes are "usually for the better", less than half have confidence in decisions from senior Department for Education officials, and the numbers who believe there is a "clear vision for the future" are plummeting.

Worryingly for education ministers, these are not the views of bolshy trade unionists, angry anti-academy activists or bitter local councillors. They are from an official survey of the very people ministers are relying on to make their policies reality - DfE civil servants.

And they come at a very difficult time. The opposition this week accused education secretary Michael Gove of running a "dysfunctional department" as allegations surfaced about the improper use of personal email accounts.

A National Audit Office report, quoting the internal DfE survey released earlier this month, shows that the confidence of DfE officials in their own department has dropped in 11 out of 13 categories since the Coalition took over. The research has led MPs to suggest an official external review of the DfE's capability, and a union spokesman who works in the department to warn of a "climate of fear".

Just 55 per cent of DfE officials "feel the department as a whole is managed well" - down three percentage points from the previous year. Even less - 46 per cent - "have confidence in the decisions made by the department's senior civil servants".

Chris Waterman, a commentator on education parliamentary affairs, said: "If a school got this sort of rating from Ofsted it would be in special measures."

An official from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), who works at the DfE but wishes to remain anonymous, said colleagues were scared to speak out. "There is a lot of fear," he said. "Staff feel that if they put their heads above the parapet they will be seen as an awkward character who could be got rid of."

The survey was conducted in the autumn of 2010, several months after the Coalition took power. The PCS spokesman predicted that the results of this year's survey, currently being carried out, would be even worse.

"Since then about 160 people have been shunted on to academies and free schools without being consulted," he said. "There was a feeling that they didn't have the chance to finish the jobs they were doing."

Staff, he added, believed that the DfE had departed from evidence-based policy since the general election. "Before, if we were going to change anything, the department would prove there was good reason for it," he said. "Since the new Government, it has been a case of `we are going to do this' without there necessarily being the evidence to support it."

A DfE spokesperson challenged the extent of staff dissatisfaction. "A lot of the `drops' were from a high base," he said. "But we take morale very seriously and that's precisely why we not only carry out these detailed surveys, but also act on the findings." He added that it was "nonsense" to suggest policies were not evidence-based, and gave the example of free schools - "based on the best of what works from around the world, backed up by extensive research from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development)".

The Labour party is unimpressed. Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham called for an investigation into the conduct of the DfE, following this week's allegations that personal email accounts were being used to conduct government business in an attempt to avoid public scrutiny. The claims have prompted the DfE to conduct an inquiry into a series of leaks.

It has, in short, been a tough week for the department's public image. But Mr Waterman thinks he might have a solution that would fit with current Government thinking: "Should we be turning the DfE into an academy?"


41% of DfE civil servants feel change is managed well in the department

49% believe the actions of senior civil servants are consistent with the department's values

40% believe the DfE board has a clear vision for the future of the department

23% think changes made in the department are usually for the better

34% feel they have the opportunity to contribute their views before decisions are made that affect them.

DfE forum


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