By Suzannah Brecknell

27 Aug 2020

Moving to the education department brought Jonathan Slater back to a policy area he knows and loves. He speaks to Suzannah Brecknell about his key role in helping the frontline function


This article was first published on 18/10/18 and has been republished following the news that Jonathan Slater will step down in September after a row over A-Level results.

In years to come, some of us will remember the summer of 2018 for the long weeks of heat and sunshine. Others for the few weeks when football was coming home. Still others for that strange and unlikely interlude when civil servants – specifically Department for Education civil servants – began cropping up all over our favourite reality TV shows. The DfE officials’ stints on Love Island and Great British Bake Off may have been shortlived, but when CSW meets the department’s permanent secretary Jonathan Slater as the Autumn begins to bite, there’s a question at the front of our minds: if Slater were to go on a reality TV show, which one would he pick?

The perm sec doesn’t need to think before answering: Strictly Come Dancing. It’s a family favourite, he explains, and he has not only been to see ‘Strictly on Tour’ but can often be found dancing along to the show’s tunes in his living room with his daughter. Avid CSW readers will not be surprised by this answer – they’ll have read about Slater’s participation in the annual DfE Strictly Dance Show. Of this event, he wrote in our 2017 permanent secretaries round up: “It’s a great opportunity for the department to get into the Christmas spirit and have some fun. More importantly, it’s an opportunity for me to humiliate myself in front of staff for charity – I am very excited at the prospect of taking part again this year.”

Slater has clearly taken to life at the DfE with gusto. He joined the department in the spring of 2016 after six months as head of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat in Cabinet Office. Before that he’d held senior posts in the defence and justice ministries, as well as working in the No. 10 Delivery Unit under Tony Blair. Prior to joining the civil service he worked in local government, including three years as deputy chief executive and director of education at Islington Council.


He has described joining the education department as being like coming home – and not just because of his policy experience. “My father was a teacher, my mother was a social worker and these are the two professions that we oversee,” he says. “So I’ve done different sorts of jobs in the civil service and I’ve done my best to learn and be useful in justice and defence – but education, I know.”

Nevertheless, joining a new department is always a learning curve, especially as permanent secretary, and, just a few months into his new job, Slater found himself on another learning curve as DfE took over the further and higher education teams from the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Despite this baptism of fire Slater is positive about the change: “Clearly it makes it much better to have an oversight of the education system from cradle to grave. That’s what the DfE used to be and everybody was very pleased that we got the chance to do it again.”

“It did change the dynamic in the department,” he says, “because if our focus is simply on getting people through school and then that’s our job done, it doesn’t invite us to ask the question: ‘Are we giving them the skills they need for the workplace?’”

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, isn’t convinced that the department is yet taking full advantage of this new remit. Speaking to CSW, he describes the DfE’s policies as “clothes pegs without a line” – suggesting that although good work is being done, there is no clear overarching narrative. That’s a question for politicians, of course, and for Slater himself Halfon has strong praise. “I found him very down to earth and he cared deeply about education,” Halfon says. From his time as a minister, Halfon recalls that Slater “got where I was coming from and what I was trying to do – my blue-collar approach, he understood that completely, even if it wasn’t his world.” And Halfon notes that when Slater appears before the Public Accounts Committee (an experience that Slater has said he “relishes”) he is “pretty incredible [in] his knowledge and everything – I don’t think he has any notes with him, so that’s where his expertise [shows].”

Are we helping?

Whatever the strategy set by politicians, Slater is determined to shape the department to create and deliver policy as well as possible. So his senior leadership team has introduced four reform principles to create, according to its most recent annual report, “a department that is more user-centred, empowered, evidence-based and focused on end-to-end delivery”.

Slater says the first principle – being user-centred – is particularly important in a department like DfE where frontline staff aren’t always in the room as employees. “[Listening to users] has always been a theme of mine, but I think it’s particularly relevant in the Department for Education where we don’t provide the service ourselves,” he says. “We’re not teachers. We’re not the social worker. So the question is, it seems to me: ‘Are we helping them?’ If we didn’t exist, would it be better or worse for people like my parents?”

And there must be a conscious effort to do this, he says. Whereas in departments like justice or defence, frontline delivery staff are likely to be in the room when decisions are made, in education the voices of teachers and social workers aren’t “instinctively as clear” because they aren’t direct employees. So listening to users needs to be “an explicit part of our reform agenda,” Slater says.

Staff in the department are now expected to spend time shadowing the frontline – those working on schools policy, for example, take part in a three-day immersion programme (one day with a teacher, another with a pupil and a third with a headteacher). There are similar schemes for further education, higher education and children’s services, and the department is also trialling a tool to measure the impact of changes on schools: “I want people whenever they’re putting advice up to ministers to share with ministers what users think,” Slater says. “We need to know before we ask [frontline staff] to do something, whether it’s going to help or not.”

It seems this approach is having an impact. Writing in May this year, TES editor William Stewart said of a new focus on teacher workloads in the DfE: “Those visiting the department report that officials really do get it. When changes and policies are discussed they will apparently go out of their way to consider any implications for teacher workload and by extension recruitment and retention.”

Stewart’s article was in response to a speech given in the same month by education secretary Damian Hinds, in which Hinds announced a range of changes to the school accountability system –  including simplifying who would be inspecting schools and ending forced academisation –  as well as measures designed specifically to improve teacher retention. Hinds said that he was focusing on the burden placed on schools because “one of my most urgent tasks is…to look at the barriers that can drive teachers, and leaders, out of the profession and may put people off in the first place.”

The urgency the secretary of state places on this task is unsurprising – an NAO report published in September 2017 found that although teacher numbers had grown since 2010, they had not adequately kept pace with rising pupil numbers – and in secondary schools teacher numbers had fallen while pupil numbers are set to rise. The NAO also noted that many schools were struggling to recruit teachers with the right experience, and an increasing number of teachers were leaving the profession before retirement.

Reducing the burden on schools is one way the department hopes to improve recruitment and retention rates. So, it will conslut this autumn on the new accountability principles Hinds set out as well as outlining a “simpler, more accessible system of school improvement support”. At the same time it will release details of a parallel regime that will allow for more rigorous oversight and challenge on academy trusts financial performance. Slater suggests that this shake up of academies’ accountability is part of a normal process of ensuring clear rules for a system that has grown quickly over recent years. “In the last parliament – 2010 to 2015 – the academy system was being established, and there was massive growth from 200 academies in 2010 to 7,000 now. So it is a very complex model. My task now is managing that system properly and making sure it operates effectively.”

He gives a practical example: just before the summer holidays Hinds announced that DfE would take on responsibility to ensure that all “related party transactions” carried out by academies were legitimate. “Schools need autonomy and to get on and teach in the best way possible,” Slater says, “But not, obviously, to spend money with related parties or, to use a non-technical phrase, members of their family. So we have stopped that.”

Unlocking contribution

This chimes with the second principle that the DfE is focusing on – empowerment. While re-considering schools’ accountability is about empowering teachers, in the DfE the aim, Slater says, is to cut through the civil service’s 11-layer hierarchy and ask: “How we can we unlock more of the contribution from more junior staff?” This might mean having fewer checks from people above them, he says, citing as an example the process for approving updates to the PAC on progress towards MPs’ recommendations.

“The typical system involves the senior responsible officer for the programme drafting something which they are then happy with and it comes to me,” Slater explains. “I’m happy with it, so it goes to the minister, are they happy with it? Well that’s ridiculous and a bit disempowering for the SRO of programme. I’ve appointed SROs who I’ve got confidence in: I’m just not going to clear this stuff anymore.”

He’s asking team leaders across the department to be thinking about what they can devolve to their own teams, on the principle that those closest to the job are most likely to have the expertise to do it. He attends all induction meetings for new staff, and tells a story about an old boss – “the cleverest person I ever worked for” – who would correct all his drafting. “It was really irritating and I meant that I never got better at it because she was always going to do it for me.”

“So I say to these starters and to the managers: don’t do that for your staff – I don’t do it for my SROs.”

A single team

The third reform principle – evidence-based – means ensuring that analysts are in the room when decisions are made. After a review of their analytical function, the department found that although it has many good analysts they have not – in Slater’s words – “been as influential as they could be”,  thanks to the way teams were structured

“If you put the analysts over there and the delivery people over there and the policy people over here, what happens is that when the policy people are coming up with a plan, they’re not getting enough input from the analysts. But if they’re all working in one team, then the analyst is in the room when the thinking is being done about whether it makes sense to do x or y.”

The department has a new director of analysis, Osama Raman, who has joined from Ministry of Justice and is making sure that analysts are embedded into teams based around specific projects and policy areas. Creating these teams is part of the final principle in the department’s reform agenda: creating end-to-end delivery teams.

“We’re not teachers. We’re not social workers. So the question is: ‘Are we helping them?’”

Reflecting on what end-to-end delivery means, Slater quotes former Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin. “He was being quizzed on this by Bernard Jenkin’s select committee and he spoke about the need for multi-disciplinary teams of people, who bring different skills to one challenge, with one person in charge. That’s what we are doing.”

Removing the split between policy and delivery is a challenge which goes across the civil service, he says, “and it’s often a frustration for ministers.

“I remember David Cameron saying when he was prime minister, ‘what the civil service needs to get better is implementation.’ Well, the time I’ve spent here in the civil service [shows me that] it’s not that we can’t implement things, it’s that we’ve created barriers between different bits of the organisation. Bringing people together just makes [things] a little more straightforward, so people don’t think of themselves as either policymakers or implementers. They’re all working on ‘the thing’ – that’s what end-to-end delivery means in practice.”

An example of how the DfE is creating this single-team approach has been the decision to bring parts of the National College for School Leadership into the department, uniting the people responsible for teacher recruitment policy with those who will deliver it. Similarly on the key policies of apprenticeships and T-Levels, Slater has recently appointed single SROs responsible for both policy and delivery, rather than having different officials leading each of those areas.

Slater is conscious that this sort of change requires support for people to adopt new approaches and responsibilities: “You can’t just ask people to do new work without training them.”

So the department’s 200 senior civil servants, including Slater and his senior leadership team, have recently been through what he describes as a “significant upskilling programme”. In groups of about 15 they’ve spent three full days on leadership training, one on commercial and another on digital. “We’ve been doing that on a cross-team basis because I was trying to get people to see themselves as working collaboratively on apprenticeships, or teacher recruitment or, whatever it was,” Slater explains. Having piloted this with senior officials, the department is now rolling out a version of this leadership training for Grade 6 and 7s.

Seeking a direction

Thinking carefully about how to bring people together is particularly important for T-Levels – a major reform intended to boost the provision of technical education in the UK. The new qualifications, due to start in September 2020, will complement work-based apprenticeships for students who want to develop work-related knowledge and skills, but are not yet clear about the specific occupation they want to work in.

The speed of reforms is so ambitious that earlier this year Slater requested a ministerial direction because of his concerns that it would not be deliverable. In his letter to Hinds, Slater said that a large amount of design and delivery work had already been done, but advised the education secretary to delay the first qualification by a year as it was now clear the original timetable was “very challenging”.

In reply, Hinds said he recognised Slater’s advice but added: “As you say I am able to draw on a wider range of considerations than the guidance to accounting officers, and I am convinced of the case to press ahead.”

Speaking to CSW, Slater says: “The point I was making to the secretary of state was that if you look ahead there are quite a few risks that you can’t control in advance. It’s just the nature of the programme. Could I be confident that none of these risks would materialise? No, because, you know, stuff happens. And [Hinds] said to me, ‘okay, fair enough, but I want you to give it your best shot anyway’. And so that’s what we’re doing. We’re giving it our best shot. And so far we are absolutely on track.”

What were the key risks that Slater was thinking of, and how is the department mitigating them? He starts by stressing to the importance of clear accountability and the right team, pointing to the appointment of Jennifer Coupland as SRO. “Jennifer is an expert SRO with a good team of people in support of her,” says Slater. To create that end-to-end team, Coupland has recently moved to work in the Education and Skills Funding Agency rather than the main department. “As we moved into delivery phase –  how do we make sure that every FE college has got the right staff with the right skills and all the rest of it – I thought it would be better for Jennifer to be working in the ESFA [with colleagues]who’ve got a lot of delivery experience, who work day to day with FE colleges.”

He points next to the different bodies that must work together to get T-Levels ready in time, particularly Ofqual, who will accredit the qualifications, and the Institute for Apprenticeships who will ensure new T-Levels meet employer needs, and the delivery team concerned with meeting ministerial timelines.

 “There are, inevitably, potential tensions between the body whose job is to make sure the employees are happy and the body whose job is to make sure that they are proper qualifications and the body – the civil service – that works for ministers who want to get it done now.”

“There’s obviously a risk that those three challenges don’t all come into alignment. And the best way of managing that risk is to ensure that all those three parties feel part of a team in which we’re working together,” he says.

So Slater has been working closely with Eileen Milner, head of the ESFA, Sally Collier who runs Ofqual and Gerry Barragan, chief executive of the IFA to build a sense of common purpose.

ESFA has just launched a procurement process to choose the organisations that will deliver the new qualifications, and Slater is positive – but realistic – about progress. “It’s good procurement and with a bit of luck we’ll get some really good bids from some competing organisations and we’ll be able to select the best ones and move on. But you don’t know until you get there.”

As well as fulfilling his responsibilities as accounting officer, Slater hopes his decision to request a direction on T-Levels will have a wider impact. After we finish our formal questions, and are making our way to the DfE’s plant-filled atrium to take some photos, he suggests that his decision to offer a minister honest advice in such a public way will encourage staff that they, too, can deliver such advice even if it may not be what the minister hopes to hear. His background in local government means he’s used to giving advice in public, rather than in private as in the civil service, so having his frank assessment of the programme published may seem less strange to him than to other officials. But now when he is urging DfE staff – or indeed other officials in his role as civil service integrity champion – to speak truth to power he can say: I did it – in public – and it’s fine.

His remarks echo what he wrote in a blog announcing his appointment as integrity champion: “Ministers can’t make good decisions without that advice, even when it may be thought unpalatable,” he wrote. He added: “I always find the discussion much more invigorating and productive when we get all the issues out on the table.”

Relentlessly positive

Those same avid CSW readers who remember Slater’s dance-off revelation in last year’s perm secs’ round up may also remember his declaration in 2016 that he wanted to be “relentlessly positive” about effecting change. So, as we wrap up our interview, CSW wonders: what is making Slater positive today?

“We have successfully managed to implement some really quite hard things,” he says after a moment’s thought. “Yesterday we were celebrating the first anniversary of the 30-hours free childcare. Now that was really hard, but a third of a million kids are now getting an extra 30-hours’ free childcare in circumstances where no nursery has to provide it at all.”

The roll-out wasn’t without hiccups, as the online system for checking and claiming eligibility struggled to cope with demand. Slater acknowledges this, though he deftly points out that HMRC, rather than DfE, was responsible for the systems. “To be fair to HMRC, they’ve got a lot of it stuff on their plate. I know the permanent secretary [Jon Thompson] well, I used to work for him. He was on it, and they sorted it.”

Overall, he says, the experience shows that “civil servants can get do stuff well if they are given the time and the space.”

Slater is by no means a blind optimist – his decision to request a direction on an issue of feasibility shows that he recognises challenges and isn’t afraid to face up to them. But he is indeed relentlessly positive, and clearly relishes helping his staff – in whom he has great faith – to deliver hard things, even if there are hurdles on the way. Or to put it another way, he believes that even if there may be trouble ahead, the best thing to do (once you’ve got yourself the right partners), is face the music, and dance.

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