With the end of 2016 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top officials to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2017 – and shed some light on their festive favourites. Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, takes part in our annual perm secs round-up...
What was your highlight of 2016?
Can I choose two? First, sitting in the assembly at a primary special school (for children with emotional and behavioural challenges, often having been excluded from mainstream schools), watching in awe as each pupil waited patiently for their turn to say thank you to another pupil for helping them in some way since the previous day’s assembly. When I asked the head how she managed to maintain such good behaviour, her answer was simple: “Relentless positivity.” What a great message for me to take back to my department.
And secondly, hearing the US Ambassador Matthew Barzun talk about the conversations he has had with 20,000 sixth formers right across the UK during his three years over here – in which he resisted the temptation to lecture at them, and instead took his president’s advice: “Listen to what they have to say to you.” When someone asked him what he’d learned that would be of use to us in DfE, the answer was rather profound: “Policy is listening.” How right he is – our policymaking is so much better when we listen first to our customers and to the evidence, before deciding what to do. I have just launched our change programme at the department, and listening is at the heart of it – thank you, Matthew!
What has been the most significant change in your department this year?
Again, two things stand out above all else, both of which happened at the same time. A new secretary of state [Justine Greening], with an inspiring ambition to ensure that people – whatever their circumstances – are able to develop the skills they need to achieve their potential. And a new department, now incorporating higher and further education. Once again we are responsible for education from cradle to grave, meaning we’re really well placed to support our new secretary of state to meet her ambition.
What will be the biggest challenge of 2017 – and how are you preparing to meet it?
Justine Greening and I have just launched our change programme for the department, aimed at changing and improving the way we work. The messages of opportunity for all, listening to customers, doing the right thing, having the right tools needed to do the job to the best of our ability, and plenty more besides, went down really well with staff across the country. So now we need to make it a reality.
What was the best Christmas present that you’ve ever given or received? And the worst?
I spent a day a few years ago visiting the “real Father Christmas” in Lapland with my young daughter – we met the elves, the reindeer and everything. No present for me, but he gave her a brilliant magic trick, just like the ones I used to cherish when I was a kid myself.
More: Perm secs round-up 2016 – Britain's top civil servants review the year and look ahead to 2017