Results day and staff cuts: DfE chief Susan Acland-Hood's post-pandemic highs and difficult decisions

The Department for Education perm sec tells us about tough choices – both personal and corporate – she’s had to make over the past 12 months
Watching pupils' happy faces of GCSE, A-level, T-level and vocational students as they got their exam results was a highlight. Photo: Mark Waugh / Alamy Stock Photo

By Civil Service World

13 Dec 2022


What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?   

 It’s hard to choose a highlight – I enjoy my job, and particularly working with the dedicated, brilliant and thoughtful people who make up the department, and the wider education and children’s social care sector – I work with people every day who care deeply about what they do.  

But if I had to pick one, then, after the difficulty of exams during the pandemic, it’s got to be getting things in the right place this summer and watching the happy faces of GCSE, A-level, T-level and vocational students as they got their exam results. It was great to see so many young people take their next steps in life, largely free from the restrictions of Covid.  

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?   

Two difficult decisions – one professional, and one more personal – come to mind.  

The Department for Education, like many other departments, has been through a lot of change this year, and one of the recent decisions I’ve had to make – together with my excellent leadership team – is to introduce some more change.  

“After the difficulty of exams during the pandemic, my highlight of the year has got to be getting things in the right place this summer and watching the happy faces” 

We have grown a lot as a department in recent times and we launched a prioritisation and voluntary exit scheme so that we can take steps to get back to a more normal size. I am sure it’s a better alternative than long, slow attrition, and we are determined to make it work well both for those for whom leaving is the right decision, and for those who want to stay, whose skills we are going to invest in for the future. But it wasn’t an easy choice to add more change now, when everyone has worked so hard and well through an extraordinary year.  

A more personal one was earlier this year. I was on holiday in Sweden with my family during a reshuffle this summer, and I had to make the decision to come back early to greet our then secretary of state. The journey (via car, boat, plane, and train, with various video meetings from unlikely places along the way) aside, it is important to me to protect family time as much as possible, so that was a difficult moment.   

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how will you meet that challenge?   

To keep on closing the gap for children and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially after the pandemic.  

And personally, as a leader?  

Choosing how to spend my time when everything we do matters – and I want to do my best for the organisation because what it does is so important – now more than ever before.  

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?   

The Covid Christmas of 2020 has to be both the worst and the weirdest – as it was for many. Work was relentless and the rapidly rising rates of Covid meant the decision-making environment changed from hour to hour; and the priority given to education meant that we were right at the frontier of those difficult decisions.  

My best Christmas-working experience was probably helping with Christmas lunch in a shelter a few years back. It was good to make human connections. Though it did remind me that Christmas isn’t joyful for everyone – and for some families and children it can be profoundly difficult and even dangerous – I always think of children’s social workers at Christmas (and when I was at HMCTS, of the family courts).  

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