Susan Acland-Hood took on her dream job as Department for Education permanent secretary amidst a pandemic and following a national row over A-Levels. Ten months on, she tells Beckie Smith how the department is working to move from a reactive mindset to a long-term one
Last September, Susan Acland-Hood was offered what she says has been her “dream job for quite a long time”: leading the department where she began her civil service career. Just over two decades after joining the Department for Education as a fast streamer – and just a couple of days after being taken on as its second-highest ranking official – she was named permanent secretary.
But despite her excitement at getting the role, Acland-Hood says it wasn’t her dream set of circumstances that led to the appointment. When she moved from leading HM Courts and Tribunals Service to become second perm sec last August, it was to help deal with, among other things, the aftermath of a huge row over A-Level results. Two days later, it was announced that the prime minister wanted “fresh official leadership at the Department for Education”, and that then-perm sec Jonathan Slater would step down in September.
Acland-Hood admits that taking on the top job under that cloud, and with all the challenges that DfE was facing at the time, “was difficult”. She says: “I think it would be ridiculous to pretend anything different. [But] you have to stand back and say, who gets their dream job in their dream circumstances? You have to make the best of situations.”
And she says that while coronavirus posed an “enormous challenge” for the department, it was “incredibly focusing”. Back then, officials were planning for the full reopening of schools after months of closures; gearing up for the return of students to university; and working with the Department for Work and Pensions on the government’s Plan for Jobs.
“We were in a reactive space where we never quite knew what was coming next. There was a sense we were never quite as ready as we wanted to be”
DfE civil servants had been under constant pressure since the beginning of the pandemic – from navigating school closures and drawing up key worker lists to managing meal voucher contracts and providing guidance to universities. All of this was under intense scrutiny from parents, educators, students, and the public.
“My job coming in was to try to keep people well through those things that we all had to do together, and keep reminding people what a good job they were doing – but also what a big job we had to do, and that we had to keep going at it,” Acland-Hood says.
She says it’s difficult to describe exactly what all this felt like to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. “We were in a reactive space where we never quite knew what was coming next, and there was a sense that we were never quite as ready as we wanted to be for the next thing.”
People were also working incredibly hard “doing things they couldn’t have conceived of doing at other times”, while also “feeling a bit beleaguered” amid the intense scrutiny – and often criticism – of their work, Acland-Hood says. Her job was to support them, while working to move the department out of that “reactive space”.
“One thing I’ve been trying to do over the last 10 months is to try and keep lengthening the time horizons we’re thinking about: recognising that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and stuff is still going to happen that is unpredictable. But we want to be in a place where we’re responding rather than reacting,” she says.
To do this, the department has been working on a piece of work on future insights, intended to think about long-term trends in education and how the system might change. “This is partly about reminding ourselves that we’ve got this long-term role, and partly about trying to make sure that we didn’t lose sight of some of those strategic things we need to do,” Acland-Hood says.
Among those things, DfE published the Skills for Jobs white paper in January, as well as launching a review of children’s social care. “We’re really thinking about the future of the system, not just about what needs to be done in the moment,” she says.
She also points to the £1.4bn education recovery plan the department unveiled last month, which she says has focused on the “best-evidenced” interventions. It includes £1bn for tuition and an extra £150m to train early-years staff.
“We know that fundamentally, teacher quality is the single biggest determinant of what happens in the classroom. And we also know that where you’ve got children left behind... one-to-one or small group tuition that’s well integrated with what happens in the classroom is really powerful.”
The plan’s announcement was in no small way overshadowed by the resignation of education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins, who just four months earlier had been tasked by the prime minister with overseeing a “comprehensive programme of catch-up” from the pandemic. Collins said it was not “credible” the £1.4bn package could do that, and later confirmed the funding was a tenth of what he had asked for.
Does Acland-Hood think Collins was right to call the funding “inadequate”? “I think funding is always part of the story,” she says.
“For me, the critical thing is always spending it well… that we try and keep on working on the things that help everybody in the system spend their whole budget as well as they possibly can on the things that are going to make the most difference for children and for young people.”
She adds, noting that her press officers might prefer she didn’t, “I’ve definitely been involved in things in the past where the government has managed to throw lots of money at things without [it] necessarily working.”
Acland-Hood argues, too, that it’s “mildly artificial to totally separate out education recovery – which is fundamentally the business of trying to help children learn as well as they possibly can, having lost some learning – from the business that the education system is in every day of every week, which is trying to help people learn as much as they possibly can anyway”.
And she quotes the often-repeated ministerial claim that schools funding has just seen the “biggest uplift in a decade” even before the uplift. (Shortly after the interview, the NAO found the proportional increase in per-pupil spending was much lower than it appeared, because pupil numbers have increased, and that schools in deprived areas have actually seen real-terms funding cut.)
While all that is going on, Acland-Hood says, “I think there’s something really important about not declaring the pandemic over too soon.”
She says DfE is now in a phase of “action learning”: looking at what it’s done well and poorly so far during the pandemic, and trying to improve on that each day, rather than waiting until an unknown endpoint to learn lessons.
Indeed, many would agree that the department has lessons to learn.
The decision to use an algorithm to award A-Levels and other qualifications after the pandemic forced exams to be cancelled – and a lack of transparency around the algorithm itself – has been fiercely criticised. It sparked protests when students who were awarded lower grades than expected lost out on university places and jobs, before a U-turn when it was decided they could opt to use teachers’ predicted grades instead.
With this summer’s round of A-Level exams also cancelled, the grades announced on 10 August were be determined by a combination of mock exams and coursework. Speaking to CSW ahead of the announcement Acland-Hood said "it would be appropriate to be at least mildly nervous" of a repeat of last year’s dismay. "These are things that matter and so we should care about them enough to worry about them,” she replies.
She says DfE staff have worked with organisations across the education sector to plan out the department’s approach to this summer’s exams. “As you would completely expect after last year, we’ve put in place quite a lot of safeguards and checking mechanisms and ways of trying to give ourselves assurance,” she says.
But she admits awarding qualifications without the normal exams is “tricky – and what we’ve tried to do is face into the trickiness and accept that it’s not going to be perfect and immaculate”. She adds:
“But I’ve got a lot of confidence in the work that has been done.”
Another major furore for the department over the last year has been over free school meals. Last summer, the footballer Marcus Rashford forced the PM’s hand on providing meal vouchers for poorer pupils through the holidays, days after No.10 said otherwise, by spearheading a public campaign.
But further controversy followed in January. Schools had been given the choice of providing supermarket vouchers for pupils eligible for the meals or food parcels using their existing caterers.
The worst examples of those food parcels quickly emerged on social media – revealing opened and amateurishly-rewrapped pasta, bread and even tuna, meagre handfuls of vegetables and shoestring budget custard creams – and quickly became the symbol of hardship for families already struggling through a pandemic. The offending contractor, Chartwells, later said the woefully-overpriced parcels fell short of its standards and blamed “short notice” for the lapse in quality. Parents were quickly offered vouchers instead.
“We have to think about our accountability for real people. I’ve never been a slopy-shouldered person who says ‘that’s someone else’s business’”
Perhaps the biggest criticism of DfE at the time was that it shouldn’t have taken parents complaining on Twitter – their voices amplified by Rashford, food writer Jack Monroe and others – for the department to know there was a problem.
Acland-Hood says DfE set up a hotline for people to report subpar food parcels soon after the first images emerged. “The numbers [of reports we got] were absolutely tiny,” she says. “So there wasn’t a massive, endemic problem across the system, though there was some incredibly bad practice in some particular places.”
But she says she regrets DfE did not set up the hotline earlier. “It really did make us think about assurance mechanisms. That was a school contract, but we still have to think about our accountability for real people. I’ve never been a slopy-shouldered person who says ‘that someone else’s business’.
How do we work with schools to make sure that there are routes for people to say ‘I’m not very happy about this’ before they take to social media to get it fixed?”
The voucher scheme, too, was criticised after the National Audit Office concluded DfE did not know if the supplier, Edenred, was making a profit and had not elected to look at its books. Acland-Hood told MPs in January that DfE had not sought to renegotiate the contract during the pandemic and had found no “strong market alternative”.
The NAO also noted difficulties at the beginning of the pandemic, when only a limited number of supermarkets accepted the vouchers, but said the department and outsourcer had “worked hard to get on top of these issues”. Acland-Hood adds that Edenred “worked really hard to try and sort out the issues last spring, but they were moving at this extraordinary pace”.
She adds that while there wasn’t a competitive tender for the contract because of the speed at which the scheme was set up when schools closed last March, Edenred had gone through a tender to provide employee assistance vouchers for the civil service, under a separate contract. This made them the only voucher provider that had been through a competitive process with due diligence checks. “In that moment, that was the best balance between... we haven’t just picked them out of thin air, and we can get them running really quickly,” she says.
DfE could have attempted to negotiate when it extended the deal to cover the summer holidays last year – but Acland-Hood says this would have required a competitive process and left people without vouchers. The PM’s U-turn on funding meals over the holidays only came in mid-June.
The department did, however, “get a somewhat better deal” from Edenred when it extended again in January, Acland-Hood says. It’s now going out to tender to put a longer-term arrangement in place that can be called up if needed.
“I think there’s lots to learn, but I think the department made a reasonable judgment at each stage of that process, and then tried to keep learning and improving at each stage,” she says.
Acland-Hood gives the air of someone who approaches these challenges with cautious optimism – or maybe optimistic determination. But she is always quick to temper that optimism with a reminder that things rarely go exactly to plan.
The proudest moments of her career – which has included stints at the Treasury, Home Office and Cabinet Office, as well as advising then-PM David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg under the coalition government – have been seeing the difference her work has made. Early on, she was a deputy director in the Cabinet Office’s social exclusion task force. One paper she worked on there, on transitions to adulthood, shared evidence that the most disadvantaged people in society are forced to make “much more rapid transitions with much less support [than other people]”, she says. “That influenced the debate that was raging at that moment about raising the care-leaving age to 18 – that feels like quite a big thing.”
Another career highlight was working on the national fair funding formula for schools during a stint at DfE from 2013 to 2015. “Everybody thought we were going to have a school places crisis, and we didn’t. Some of the things you’re proud of in your career, I think, are the dogs that didn’t bark and the bad things you stopped happening.”
But the flipside to those successes, she says, has been “managing the fact that when you set yourself to do really big and hard things, you hardly ever totally succeed”.
“There’s almost always something where you think, ‘oh, I wish I’d just managed to do a bit more of this’. So you have to learn to accommodate yourself to the good things about keeping on working to make things better every day without beating yourself up in an unhelpful way when it’s not exactly how you wanted.”
She adds: “You have to care to be in this business. But if you care too much, there’s a risk it’s destabilising, or it actually makes you less able to go on and do the next thing. And so [you have to try] to find a way of channelling the things you really care about. It’s not that you don’t care when things aren’t as good as you want them to be, but you care in a way that is productive, and is taking you forward, and it’s helping you learn and grow.”