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DfE puts 40 staff on Sunak’s ABS ‘vanity project’

The Department for Education has 40 civil servants working to develop prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Advanced British Standard qualification “vanity project” even though it is unlikely to see the light of day.

Pepe Di’Iasio, incoming general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said it was “beyond frustrating that – at a time when recruitment, retention, funding, SEND and many other issues are under enormous pressure – there is a platoon of civil servants” having to work on the qualification.

Developing a “British baccalaureate” was a key pledge in Sunak’s leadership bid in 2022.

The prime minister announced last year that his government would replace A-levels and T-levels with the qualification, which will see pupils study English and maths to 18 alongside “majors” and “minors” in other subjects.

However, the reforms are expected to take at least a decade to implement and, with the Conservatives mired in the polls and Labour focused on early maths education rather than post-16, the policy is unlikely to come to fruition.

Despite this, the government last year published an 80-page consultation on its plans and set aside £600 million for implementation.

Staff time costs could be in the millions

In response to a freedom of information request, the DfE told Schools Week that 40 civil servants were “currently working mainly on the development of the ABS”.

The government said it did not hold data on the amount spent on its development but, if 40 civil servants on the average salary for the department worked full-time on the policy for a year, the cost would be £2.6 million.

Pepe DiIasio

However, those working on policy development are likely to be more senior, and the figure of 40 staff provided by the DfE does not include staff from other teams who have contributed, so the true cost is likely to be higher.

A DfE spokesperson said they did not “recognise these figures and these calculations are purely speculative”, adding that they were “taking the long-term decisions to continue to improve our education system for generations to come”.

Di’Iasio said: “It’s a qualification that will not be offered for another 10 years, if it happens at all, and seems more like the prime minister’s vanity project than a workable policy.

“To say this is the wrong priority is an understatement, and smacks of rearranging the deckchairs while the Titanic heads for an iceberg.”

Staff not ‘re-assigned’ from other things, DfE insists

The DfE said that, alongside the “core directorate”, there are a “number of teams across the wider department who are contributing to the development of ABS alongside other priorities”.

Bridget Phillipson
Bridget Phillipson

These include members from legal, commercial and finance units, “as well as wider schools- and skills-focused policy teams”.

The department also insisted that staff “have not been re-assigned from other projects to undertake this work, as the department operates a flexible approach to staffing in order to ensure that it can meet priorities.

“This means that staff responsibilities can shift depending on needs. As part of this we also operate flexible resource teams, particularly to manage surge policy and analytical projects. As such, a list of projects from which staff have been re-assigned is not held.”

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, told journalists at the ASCL school leaders’ union conference on Saturday that “reform in the 16 to 19 space is not my priority”. Labour will instead focus on early maths skills.

Paul Whiteman, leader of the NAHT union, said: “Given the number and sheer scale of the challenges facing schools, this simply should not be a major priority for the DfE.”

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