Top education civil servant steps down amid ongoing exam fiasco

26 August 2020, 15:25

Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater will step down on September 1
Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater will step down on September 1. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater will step down on September 1 after the “Prime Minister concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership” in the department.

The senior civil servant will stand down at the beginning of next month ahead of the end of his tenure, which would have been Spring 2021.

Susan Acland-Hood, currently interim second permanent secretary, will take over as Acting Permanent Secretary, before a permanent replacement is announced.

The move came just one day after Ofqual chief Sally Collier stepped down after the A-level results fiasco.

The Government was forced into a U-turn on A-level results this year, after hundreds of thousands of results were downgraded due to a controversial algorithm brought in due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier on Wednesday, Boris Johnson blamed a "mutant algorithm" for the A-level results fiasco as he welcomed children back to school.

The Prime Minister, addressing pupils at a school in Coalville, Leicestershire, acknowledged that the situation had been "stressful" for those awaiting A-level and GCSE results.

"I'm afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm," he told them. "I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country.

"I'm very, very glad that it has finally been sorted out."

In a statement, the Department for Education said: “The Prime Minister has concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership at the Department for Education.

“Jonathan Slater has therefore agreed that he will stand down on 1 September, in advance of the end of his tenure in Spring 2021.

“Susan Acland-Hood, currently interim second permanent secretary, will take over as Acting Permanent Secretary.

“A permanent successor to replace Jonathan Slater will be appointed in the coming weeks.

“The Cabinet Secretary would like to put on record his thanks to Jonathan for 35 years of public service, culminating in over four years as Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education.”

Ms Collier's resignation comes amid calls for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to also resign following the scandal.

She will be replaced by her predecessor Dame Glenys Stacey, who held the role from 2011 to 2016.

In a statement, it was said she decided the "next stage of the awarding process would be better overseen by new leadership".

Ofqual, the regulator of exams in England, added its board supported Ms Collier's decision to stand down.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the senior public servants' union FDA, said: "If it wasn't clear before, then it certainly is now - this administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment's hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability.

"Those who have dedicated their lives to public service are being discarded without hesitation to keep scrutiny from the Government's door.

"Whilst the origins of the exams fiasco may be complex, the solutions for this Government are simple: scapegoating civil servants.

"Ministerial accountability is dead and the message to civil servants is that they are expendable the moment life gets tough for a minister.

"After this Government's continuous anonymous briefings to the press, trust between ministers and civil servants is already at an all-time low and this will only damage it further."

Labour has accused Mr Johnson of trying to avoid taking responsibility for a "shambles" caused by his Government's "incompetence".

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "Boris Johnson is shamelessly trying to avoid taking responsibility for the exams fiasco that his government created.

"Responsibility for this shambles lies squarely with Downing Street and the Department for Education, who set out how they wanted the algorithm to work and were warned weeks in advance of issues, but repeatedly refused to address the problems they had created.

"It is this Tory government's incompetence that is to blame for the exams fiasco."

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "It is brazen of the Prime Minister to idly shrug away a disaster that his own Government created.

"Parents, students, teachers and heads will be horrified to see the leader of this country treat his own exams fiasco like some minor passing fad.

"The public will not easily forget the emotional rollercoaster of this year's results season. It is certain to put a long-lasting dent in the Government's reputation on education."

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