Jonathan Slater: I learned PM wanted me to leave DfE via the press

Education secretary told ex-perm sec his job wasn't under threat days before he was asked to leave, he tells CSW in exclusive interview
Photo: Baldo Sciacca for CSW

Jonathan Slater, the top civil servant who was asked to step down as Department for Education permanent secretary following a row over A-Levels this summer, has said he first learned of his impending departure via a query from a journalist.

In late August, DfE announced that Slater would leave the department because the prime minister, Boris Johnson, had decided it needed “fresh official leadership”.

The announcement came days after The Times reported that Slater was to be forced out following a backlash to the use by qualifications regulator Ofqual of a controversial algorithm to award A-Level and other exam grades. Ministers ordered a U-turn after some students were awarded much lower grades than expected, losing out on jobs and university places.

In an exclusive interview with CSW, Slater said he first heard the rumours that he could be told to step down from the DfE press office, which called him after a Times journalist asked for a comment on the story. Education secretary Gavin Williamson assured Slater he had no plans to sack him.

He told CSW: “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, he’s expressing confidence in me.

“But at the end of August, I got a message that the prime minister had decided... that the department needed new official leadership, a phrase I hadn’t heard before.” Slater, whose five-year term as perm sec was due to end next spring, left the department days later.

Slater is one of several permanent secretaries to have left the civil service this year. He said it was “obvious that No.10 wants to make some changes” at the top of government.

However, he said he was given no further information about the reason for his own departure, “so anything I say about why they're doing it would inevitably be speculation. All I know is that they obviously want to make changes.”

Slater did say he did not believe reports that Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings – who has called for major reforms to civil service recruitment, and for more scientific expertise in government – was forcing out perm secs to replace them with scientists. “Well, I’m a mathematician.... They clearly didn’t want to get rid of me due to a lack of scientific knowledge.

“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,” he said.

His permanent successor has yet to be announced, but Susan Acland-Hood, the former head of HM Courts and Tribunals Service who was drafted in as DfE’s second perm sec in August, is leading the department on an interim basis.

Slater added that he accepted the PM’s decision to replace him. “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,” he said.

But despite describing himself as "sanguine" about his exit from the department, he added: “I guess it is very unusual to be asked to leave as quickly as I was asked to leave."

He also said he did not feel it is now more difficult to be a permanent secretary than in the past, given the level of criticism levelled at civil servants in the press and by MPs. “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,” he said.

Asked what he believed went wrong in the A-Levels fiasco, Slater said that question should be answered by an independent review.

“Clearly, things went badly wrong. 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,” he said.

But he said ministers’ decision to use an algorithm to award grades was “legitimate”, and that there was “plenty of evidence” that relying on teachers’ predictions would lead to grade inflation.

Read the full interview, including Slater's reflections on leading DfE's work to tackle to coronavirus crisis, in the November digital edition of CSW.

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