Sidrah Chowdry, head of special educational needs policy, DfE, London
When and why did you join the civil service?
After graduating in 2001, I decided I needed an immediate and regular income to fuel my shopping habits while deciding what on earth a Biochemistry graduate does. I decided to sign on to buy some time – and some “essential” clothes. The adviser at the Jobcentre decided I was overqualified (I’m not sure she was allowed to say that) and offered me a role at the Jobcentre that very day. I started as an adviser, telling other 18-24 year olds just how easy it was to find a job!
I was bribed into staying longer than I had ever intended when DWP agreed to pay for me to do an MBA part-time. Hungry for experiences, I decided to apply for a secondment to a regeneration programme. Those two years were an incredible opportunity, and gave me some policy and delivery experience which I then used to apply to become a policy and planning lead at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in North London. The deciding factor to take that job was the higher salary rather than anything else because at that point I still hadn’t worked out what I wanted to do.
How did you end up in DfE?
Quite by accident – story of my life. The LSC became the Young People’s Learning Agency which morphed into the Education and Skills Funding Agency which was then swallowed up by the DfE and I went along for the ride. When I joined the academies team in the ESFA, I started to realise I was really interested in the work of the department and in education in general.
Over the years I’ve held a number of different roles in the schools/academies/funding space and further developed my knowledge and skills to the point where I was then able to feel confident enough to feel like I could do a hard job, really well. Which was just as well…
What is your role and how does it help citizens?
I am head of the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Policy and Operations Team in the DfE. My team develop all of the programmes and strategies to help local areas improve their SEN services to children, young people and their families. I view this job as the most important I have ever had. Work that I am directly responsible for will in some shape or form deliver a more positive experience for young people accessing the SEN system.
How did your role change during the pandemic?
Funnily enough, I started my role on 9 March 2020, and you all know what happened round about then. Whether that was a blessing in disguise or not, I didn’t need to change anything given how new I was. I simply built up a team, focused on the need and the rest as they say is history.
What motivates you?
My faith – I’m in this world to do good things as I pass through. My daughters – they need to see a woman in a hijab doing great things. Money – I still like to buy clothes!
This profile is part of a series looking at the huge diversity of people and roles that make up the modern civil service. Read more here