‘I didn’t make it to cabinet secretary but I got close’: Jonathan Slater on leading – and leaving – DfE

Jonathan Slater was one of the nation’s top civil servants until he was asked to leave by Boris Johnson in August after the A-Levels grades row. In an exclusive interview with Beckie Smith, he reflects on his time in government.
Photo: Baldo Sciacca for CSW

There are many demands on a permanent secretary’s time, as Jonathan Slater well knows. Until he left the Department for Education in September, ministers, officials and education bodies were all vying for the perm sec’s ear.

But lockdown brought more stakeholders into Slater’s working day, which for his last few months on the job was spent – like most civil servants – at home. He recalls one memorable phone call over the summer, when chief medical officer Chris Whitty called to talk about reopening schools while Slater was in the garden with his daughter. “I hoped it would be a short conversation, so I tried to play French cricket with her and speak to Chris at the same time,” Slater says. “I thought I was doing a pretty good job but she thought I wasn’t concentrating enough, so she went and sat with her back to me until I finished the call.”

Those breaks in the garden, trampolining or playing French cricket, were precious – because the enormity of the challenges coronavirus presented for Slater’s department meant he was soon seeing much less of his family than he would have liked.

“We’ve all been struggling during lockdown to balance work and home life. That is true for me and for anybody,” Slater tells CSW over the phone. He is waiting to meet a former colleague at a club near his old stomping ground in Whitehall – something that until recently, he has had very little free time to do.

It is only a few weeks since he left government in what he calls “difficult circumstances”, following months of 14-hour days leading DfE’s response to the pandemic.

Issues the department had been grappling with during Covid included whether – and when – to close schools; which children should stay in school; and how to calculate grades for students whose exams had been cancelled.

Of course, DfE had its critics – who were especially vocal when schools closed to most pupils in March. Parents were given just two days' notice that only children of specified key workers could remain in class.

Does Slater think the criticism was fair? “So it was certainly being done in a hurry, absolutely. No doubt about it. We had less than a week to close all the schools in the country. Everybody was having to scramble to operate as quickly as possible, in circumstances where we hadn’t expected to have to work at such speed.”

He says agreeing the key worker list took time. “Do you include shopkeepers, for example? If they don’t get to go to work, then how do we get food? But equally, there’s a lot of them.”

Slater personally recommended to the prime minister that schools remain open to vulnerable children. “It seemed to me we should provide continued education, if we could, to support those children with an education, health and care plan that needed it because of the risk to their safety. And also there were children in care who would really struggle if they were at home all the time.

“I was proud of that, actually. There were very few countries in the world that kept their schools open for such children.”

“Everybody was having to scramble to operate as quickly as possible, in circumstances where we hadn’t expected to have to work at such speed”

Slater was also responsible for ensuring DfE staff could tackle these challenges while coronavirus wreaked havoc on their own lives. “In particular, it was my job to make sure that everybody felt properly connected with the department and with each other – in circumstances where, like for the rest of the population, there was lots of anxiety, isolation, people not being able to work as well as usual.

“I thought they would look to me as the head of the department to show that I cared, and that we would do everything we could to help them be as effective as possible.”

Slater quickly got used to addressing thousands of people remotely – some 5,000 attended his last Teams call – to give updates, reassure them, and share his own experience of life in lockdown, including the French cricket incident.

“I needed them not only not to feel guilty about time with their children or their parents or whoever, but they needed to be encouraged to do it. Everybody’s got to look after their own wellbeing; families are important,” he says.

And while he’d never wish for the circumstances that necessitated it, Slater says he enjoyed the work. DfE carried out staff surveys throughout the pandemic and the department’s employee engagement score – already the highest in government in the annual Civil Service People Survey – climbed.

“That was a sign that even in these challenging times people could feel properly supported, connected, that they were doing their best,” Slater says.

The people survey has been one of the ways Slater tracked progress in the department. By the time he left, DfE was ahead of any other department in five of the nine metrics it measures; joint top in two; and second in the remaining two. “I felt very proud of that. It was about trying to give people the confidence they could achieve things.”

All this was brought to an abrupt end when Slater was asked to leave the department after the national row over A-Level results. Ofqual’s use of a controversial algorithm to calculate grades after ministers opted to cancel exams amid Covid-19 meant some students fell afoul of the calculations and lost out on job offers and university places.

“Clearly, things went badly wrong. And when things go wrong, it’s important to look dispassionately at the whole process”

Following a massive backlash, ministers ordered a U-turn, allowing teachers’ predicted grades to be used. The head of Ofqual Sally Collier quit, and days later, Slater was told to step down.

Where does he think things went awry? He says that question would best be answered by an independent review. “Clearly, things went badly wrong,” he admits. “And when things go wrong, it’s important to look dispassionately at the whole process, to identify what went wrong and whether people should be taking accountability, and to learn lessons for the future.”

But he says ministers’ decision to opt for a mathematical calculation of students’ grades was a “legitimate” one. There is “plenty of evidence” that relying on teachers’ predictions would lead to grade inflation, he says.

He says no one was surprised that some students ended up with lower grades than they had hoped for – but says the headline-grabbing cases where students fell by several grades represented a small minority. He recalls a chief executive of an academy trust “tweeting her consternation” that her students’ algorithmically-awarded results were lower than expected. She later privately admitted the grades were similar to the previous year’s but she had felt she needed to defend her students publicly.

“Actually, she thought we’d done the right thing under the circumstances,” Slater says.

There’s no question some students did get unfair grades – with experts noting that disadvantaged pupils were among those who drew the shortest straws. The UK Statistics Authority has announced a review into the algorithm and the process that led to its use. 

But with education secretary Gavin Williamson still in post, there are many who feel Slater has been the scapegoat for the row.

The first time he was confronted with the rumours that he was to be ousted was when the DfE press office called him about a forthcoming story in The Times. A similar story followed soon after, suggesting he was in line for a payoff. Slater recalls: “Of course I’m wondering where this is coming from and doing my best to stay focused on the task at hand, which is hard enough as it is. I’m speaking to the secretary of state and he’s expressing confidence in me.

“But at the end of August, I got a message that the prime minister had decided – as was made public – that the department needed new official leadership, a phrase I hadn’t heard before.”

He was given just a few days to leave. But he accepted Boris Johnson’s decision to replace him without quarrel – “that’s his right, he’s the prime minister,” Slater acknowledges.

And, he adds, “Nobody forces you to apply to be a permanent secretary... you have to take the risk that the politicians you’re working for lose confidence in you or want a change. And I wasn’t being accused of having done anything wrong.”

So while it was disappointing, he says he’s “sanguine” about his departure, “because in the end, if you have the honour of working for the prime minister, you have to take the risk that goes with it and there’s no benefit in being resentful. If they had stopped me doing it after six months, no doubt I would be less sanguine.” Slater’s five-year term was due to end next spring.

“Nevertheless, I guess it is very unusual to be asked to leave as quickly as I was asked to leave,” he adds.

“I got a message that the PM had decided the department needed new official leadership, a phrase I hadn’t heard before”

In August, the announcement of Slater’s exit from government became the latest in a list that has become increasingly like a wordier version of the poem recalling the fates of Henry VIII’s wives (ministry closed, resigned, retired; left before their term was up, retired; ministry closed, sacked, resigned). All have been criticised in the press and blamed for failures in their departments, and most have been labelled part of an anti-Brexit cabal.

But despite all this, Slater isn’t certain it’s more difficult to be a high-level civil servant now than it was a few years ago. After all, he says, “those of us who’ve left this year, we’re not the first permanent secretaries to have anonymous briefings against them. Permanent secretaries have left in difficult situations before.

“And to be fair, I’ve only been a permanent secretary for the last five years. So it’s difficult for me to say that it’s harder now than in the past.” He cites conversations he’s had with former perm secs who were in post when Tony Blair came to power, who said they felt people were sceptical they could serve the New Labour government as loyally as they had John Major.

But he acknowledges that the number of perm secs who have left this year, and so many in difficult circumstances, is without precedent.

He says it’s clear No.10 wants to make changes – but guessing its reasoning is a fool’s errand. For one, the idea that there’s a move to push out incumbents so they can be replaced by scientists – driven by chief Downing Street spad Dominic Cummings’s fascination with science – doesn’t hold water in his case. “Well, I’m a mathematician. That shows the risk of speculating as to what is going on. They clearly didn’t want to get rid of me due to a lack of scientific knowledge.”

Slater adds: “What I do know is they’re typically replacing us with career civil servants. So it doesn’t seem to be that they want to replace us with different sorts of people – they’re not replacing us with people in the private sector.”

"What I do know is they’re typically replacing us with career civil servants. They’re not replacing us with people in the private sector”

However sanguine Slater may be about his lot, he doesn’t deny that recent events have been trying. Everyone he’s asked for advice has told him to take a break.

“I was working 14-plus hour days – not uniquely, lots of people are working fantastically hard to try and deal with very difficult situations. So in a way I’m lucky, aren’t I? Lots of people are working incredibly hard now and I’m having a bit of a break, decompressing.”

Slater recalls being asked about his goals when he joined the civil service in 2001, following a decade in local government. “Being British, people found it hard to be open about their ambition. They said they wanted to be director generals, one or two said permanent secretary. I said, ‘What are you talking about? I want to be cabinet secretary.’ Well, I didn’t make it to cabinet secretary but I got close.”

And close, it seems, is enough. Slater recalls Sir David Normington, the former first civil service commissioner and DfE perm sec who chaired his interview panel, telling him it was the best job in government. “I agree.” A former director of education in local government, Slater’s parents were a teacher and a social worker, and he says he has always felt a special connection to the role. “How wonderful to have had the chance to do that job for four and a half years, I loved every minute of it.” 

His proudest achievements have not been delivering on policies – he says while he’s pleased DfE managed to introduce 30 hours’ free childcare, he can’t take credit because it was simply delivering what ministers had asked for – but about making life better for other officials.

“Where I get to feel most proud of something I’m genuinely responsible for, rather doing it on somebody else’s behalf – I think it would be hard to beat encouraging civil servants to be more confident, and to offer their best advice, to really understand their subject matter,” he says. “Motivated people are much more productive and happy and effective, and serve ministers much better than unmotivated people.”

He is also pleased about the progress the department made in other areas. He remembers being aghast at a departmental conference for senior civil servants four years ago to be looking out “across a sea of white faces”.

“It seems to me that the most striking area of discrimination was in respect to race,” he says. “Within a mile of [DfE HQ] Sanctuary Buildings there were children speaking over 100 different languages at primary schools. I thought that was not acceptable.”

He therefore pushed for the department to become “more representative – not just on race, but it seemed to me that was a particular challenge – at senior level”. When he left, 10% of DfE senior civil servants were from a Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnic background. “There’s still some way to go but it’s a great deal better than it was,” he says.

As for his next move, he says “it would be difficult to find something to equal that as an executive” but he can see himself in a non-exec role. “I’ve always done work with a social purpose, so it would be good to have the opportunity to work with either a charity or find some other way in which I can do something that’s really valuable.”

But for the meantime, Slater is – he acknowledges the cliché – happy to be spending more time with his daughter and wife, who he notes has been bearing a “very heavy load” at home during the pandemic. “It’s very nice to be able to pay her back, helping Millie with her homework when she gets home from school – all in accordance with DfE policy, of course.” 

This article was first published in CSW's November digital issue. Read the full issue here.

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