Academy school conversions cause surge in central government headcount – but civil service staffing down 3.6% year-on-year

Suzannah Brecknell crunches the latest Office for National Statistics figures on public sector employment

By Suzannah Brecknell

16 Mar 2016

The number of people employed by central government is at its highest level since 1999, due in part to the growing number of academy schools reporting directly to the Department for Education, according to the latest official figures on public sector employment.


According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2.94m people were officially counted as central government employees in December 2015 – an increase of 32,000, or 1.1%, since December 2014. As well as academy conversions, this has been caused by an increase in NHS employment, which is up 1.7% since 2014.

Total public sector employment was 5.3m, a 0.9% reduction since December 2014, and the lowest number since 1999. The NHS employed 1.6m people.

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There are currently 4,500 academies in England, and staff in these schools are counted as central government employees since the academies report directly to the education secretary. Since December 2014, 40,000 people were re-classified from local to central government employment due to academy conversions.

Chancellor George Osborne is expected to announce in his Budget today that all schools still controlled by local authorities (around 16,000 in total) must become academies by 2022.

Civil service employment has fallen by 3.6% since December 2014 – the total civil service headcount is now 423,000. Although headcount has consistently fallen since March 2011, this number is still higher than an estimate set out in the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan which said:

“It is estimated that by 2015 the civil service will be around 23% smaller than it was in March 2010, operating with around 380,000 staff – the lowest since the Second World War, with departments ranging in size from around 400 to 80,000 people.”

Almost all of the 1,900 employees who left the civil service between September and December 2015 were temporary or casual staff. In fact, taking into account headcount increases in some departments, the net number of permanent staff who left the civil service was just 100.

Part-time staff also appear to be bearing a greater brunt of headcount reductions: the total number of part-time permanent employees across the civil service fell by 3.7% from December 2014 to December 2015, compared to a 3.4% fall for all permanent employees.

Part-time workers now make up 24.9% of permanent civil service employees, a proportion which has been falling year-on-year since 2013.

The largest headcount change in the last months of 2015 happened at HMRC, where the number of permanent staff grew by 1,560. The number of temporary staff at the department fell by 80% from September to December 2015, with 1,180 temps leaving the department.


The largest absolute reduction of headcount was reported by the Scottish Government, where the merger of two agencies meant that 1,200 staff left the civil service. However the largest proportional decreases happened at the Cabinet Office and Defra which reduced headcount by 19% and 17% respectively.

Source for charts: ONS

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