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DfE staff churn endangers next government’s reforms

The number of civil servants leaving the Department for Education has almost doubled since before the pandemic, prompting concerns about its capacity to carry out the reforms of the next government.

Data shows that 1,087 staff left the DfE in the 2023-24 financial year, up 18 per cent from 919 the year before, and 83 per cent higher than the 592 who left in 2018-19.

It means that around 13 per cent of DfE staff left in 2023-24, an increase in turnover from just 7 per cent in 2018-19. “Most” employees leave to join other departments, the DfE said.

Jacob Rees Mogg

But former civil servants warned of a loss of “organisational memory” and said “serving the government of the day” was now seen as more important than “speaking truth unto power”.

Others blamed the government’s back-to-the-office diktat, and union leaders pointed to stagnating pay.

One former official, who spoke anonymously, said the relationship between ministers and civil servants had “deteriorated dramatically”, pointing to attacks from Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg when he was minister for government efficiency.

“Why would you work somewhere where the people who run your organisation are denigrating your profession, are publicly humiliating you? Would you go and work for Barclays if the CEO said in the press every day how shit his staff were? Probably not.”

The findings come as political parties gear up for the general election. Based on current polls, a Labour victory looks likely.

Labour’s delivery challenges ‘underplayed’

Reza Schwitzer, who worked at the DfE between 2013 and 2021, said the “delivery challenges” facing an incoming Labour administration had been “underplayed”, with “not enough attention” paid to how reforms would be implemented.

Reza Schwitzer
Reza Schwitzer

He said Bridget Phillipson was “right” to praise Michael Gove’s “sense of energy and drive and determination”.

He added: “Everyone involved knew what he was trying to deliver, but also, crucially, how we were to go about delivering it – what I would call the theory of change.

“The ‘what’ is important, but ‘how’ is potentially the real challenge given the state of the department and of the system.”

Gareth Conyard, who worked at the department from 2003 to 2022, said he “loved being at the DfE”, but it had “not felt like a happy place for a while before I left. ‘Serving the government of the day’ over-rode the importance of ‘speaking truth unto power’.”

Following the Brexit decision, he said that civil servants “became wary of saying things that were factually true but politically inconvenient for fear of being ignored”.

Problems across civil service

Other departments also saw an increase in leavers. Between 2018-19 and 2023-24, the number leaving the Department for Work and Pensions rose 15 per cent, while the number of leavers from the Ministry of Justice increased by 54 per cent.

However, while both departments saw bigger increases in 2021-22 and 2022-23, leaver numbers dropped last year.

Some of the DfE’s recent leavers were also the result of a “voluntary exit” scheme. Accounts show that this resulted in 384 exit packages in 2022-23.

But Tim Leunig, a former senior policy adviser, said departments “grow and shrink all the time, and when department’s shrink obviously the proportion of people leaving rises”.

“The civil service grew a lot for understandable reasons during Brexit and covid and it is equally understandable that it is shrinking now.”

Another former official, who asked not to be named, said there was “no organisational memory, so stuff is just perpetually being kind of repeated and rehashed, which slows down progress because no one remembers what had been done a year before because they weren’t there”.

David Thomas, who served as a policy adviser between 2021 and 2023, said the “challenges in our education system are deep and complex”.

“We need people with experience and expertise steering the system so that we can make progress and not reinvent the wheel.”

‘Bizarre’ back to office edict contributed

Officials said a key driver of some departures was the government’s insistence that civil servants work at least three days a week in the office after the pandemic.

The “push to get officials back into the office to prove what felt like a political point” was “damaging”, Conyard said.

He added: “It just felt bizarre, and that cannot help but have an impact on trust in decision making.”

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said 65 per cent of its DfE members had reported not seeing a “long-term future with the department”.

Helen Kenny, the union’s national officer for the DfE, warned that “with sub-inflation pay offers and an absence of pay progression, civil servants are left with no option but to move roles to seek higher pay”.

She added: “Recruitment costs are significant to departments – the capacity lost by each vacant post and the time taken for each recruit to get up to speed impacts the department’s ability to deliver for the public.”

But data from DfE staff surveys shows that employees’ “engagement index” – which rates experiences at work across nine themes – has actually increased from 63 per cent in 2018 to 65 per cent last year.

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