Powerhouse of key social policy

6th July 2007 at 01:00
Brown splits the DfES and brings three education ministers to the Cabinet, but teachers will notice little change, reports William Stewart

GORDON BROWN claimed he was "passionate about education" and he appears to have proved it. The new Prime Minister has tripled the number of education ministers allowed to sit in cabinet.

The Department for Education and Skills is no more. Instead its schools, 14-19 education and children's functions, and much more, become the duties of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, headed by Mr Brown's trusted lieutenant, Ed Balls.

Higher education, skills training and the rest of further education go to the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, presided over by John Denham.

The third education minister at the Cabinet table is Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, who can attend social policy discussions.

The bold changes last week took most people completely by surprise. Even David Bell, the DfES permanent secretary (who is set to play a similar role at the new schools department), described it as "a bolt from the blue", sources say.

Seasoned departmental observers noted a sudden flurry of activity from officials and a spate of cancelled meetings just a week before the split was announced, suggesting the notice was extremely short. But Downing Street insists "the changes had been planned for some time".

Those who were in the know a tight cabal around Mr Brown seem to have included Alan Johnson, the last education secretary, now heading the Department of Health. In the run up to the reorganisation he predicted the DfES would become "the new Treasury". It is now easy to see what he meant.

The old education department may have lost some of its further and higher education responsibilities, but the new one's expanded children and families role means that, like the Treasury, its tentacles now stretch all over Whitehall. Its responsibilities overlap with eight other departments and in many areas it takes the lead role, making it a social policy powerhouse.

One area is the 10-year youth strategy aimed at tackling problems such as homelessness and drug ab-use, which also involves the Department of Health and Home Office.

Other joint policy areas will operate under a dual key system, with both departments involved having to sign off budgets and policies. For example, on childhood obesity, agreement will have to be reached with the Department of Health before the Department for Children, Schools and Families can act.

The wider responsibilities echo changes that have already taken place at local council level, where education and social services have been merged to create children's services departments. It should be joined-up government at its best, although with so many overlaps there is always a danger that turf wars could get in the way.

There has already been a spat over whether it makes sense for the new department to take over the so-called respect agenda, aimed at combating anti social behaviour, when responsibility for Asbos stays with the Home Office.

Crucially, what will the changes mean for schools? In most ways things should stay the same, as they will remain the responsibility of a single government department.

Some headteachers have had concerns that within Government the wider children's policy has conflicted with the drive to improve academic achievement. But John Dunford, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, believes that is in the past. "The lessons have been learnt," he said. "I am sure the new secretary of state will ensure that the children's agenda and the standards agenda have the support of each other."

One area that will change is funding for sixth forms and sixth form colleges. That will now, like most other school funding, come via local authorities instead of the Learning and Skills Council. This change, together with a parallel transfer of FE colleges' 16-19 funding, will mean the quango handing over about pound;7 billion of its pound;11 billion budget.

Mr Dunford says schools will appreciate receiving funding from one source, but they have also enjoyed the simplicity of the LSC's national funding formula and there will be concerns that funnelling the money through local authorities could lead to variation and complication.

The need for new legislation means the funding changes will not be completed until early 2009 at the earliest. It has yet to be decided whether the schools department or the Department for Communities and Local Government will be responsible for distributing the money to local authorities.

With adult learning now the domain of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and 14-19 education coming under the schools department's wing, colleges face a future of looking both ways.

This is probably the most radical reshuffle of education in Whitehall yet, but not the first rebranding. What was the Ministry of Education from 1944 to 1964 morphed into the Department for Education and Science, then the Department for Education and Employment, before becoming the DfES in 2001.

New names are expensive. The Liberal Democrats say the Government has spent at least pound;2.6 million rebranding and reorganising 11 departments since 1997, not including Mr Brown's latest changes.

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