Obituary: Sir David Hancock

Civil servant who helped bring in the GCSE exam

Sir David Hancock was regarded as one of the outstanding civil servants of his generation, distinguished in the Treasury and Department of Education and Science. He had a hand in ushering in the era of the GCSE, played a major role in the introduction of training days for teachers – “Baker days” – and was the driving force behind the controversial 1988 Education Reform Act, considered the single most important educational legislation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since the Education Act of 1944. Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State for Education from 1986-89, saw Hancock as “very reliable… He delivered. I never had to worry about the department's support.”

The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had herself had served four years as Education Minister in Edward Heath's government, had become a figure of hate very quickly as she imposed education cuts, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged 7-11. The Reform Act was seen by many as an out-and-out attack, indirectly by Thatcher, on the core values of state education and local authorities.

In the face of enormous opposition from the unions and the local authorities, Hancock's role cannot be understated; he rallied a suspicious department fully behind Baker's ambitious programme; his professionalism and diligence in preparing the legislation for its passage through Parliament was crucial to the Act's ultimate success, as was his whole-hearted support for what the Act was attempting to accomplish. He did, however, privately question the validity of replacing local authority control with direct Whitehall funding.

The main points from the Education Reform Act were the establishment of grant-maintained schools and City Technology Colleges, which later led to the establishment of Academies. The National Curriculum and Key Stages were introduced, as well as an element of choice for parents who could specify their desired school. Lastly, it abolished tenure in higher education for newly appointed academic staff.

Noted for his dry sense of humour, Hancock was viewed by all those he served and his peers, in his numerous departmental roles, as meticulous, intellectually gifted, well-informed, loyal and above all discreet. He had been tipped by many for the top job at the Treasury, having worked for a number of Labour and Conservative chancellors for 20 years. Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, described him in his memoirs: “knowledgeable in the ways of the Treasury and very Oxbridge, he was very much the mandarin's mandarin.”

Despite being the obvious successor as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury to Sir Douglas Wass, who himself supported Hancock's candidacy, Hancock did not get the most senior civil servant position. Many years later he said, “She [Margaret Thatcher] thought I wasn't 'one of us', and I can't complain because I wasn't. Her views were far to the right of mine on economic policy.”

Instead Hancock was offered a choice of Second Permanent Secretary at the Treasury or the top job at the DES; he chose the latter, a Whitehall department with which he had never had any dealings. Would the education system today have been different if he had not taken up the reins?

Born in Beckenham, Kent, in 1934, David John Stowell Hancock was brought up in a three-bedroomed terraced house. He attended the independent Whitgift School in Croydon, where he developed a passion for cricket and music. Completing his National Service with the Royal Tank Regiment, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he earned a first in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics).

After graduation Hancock went to the US as a Harkness Fellow, then in 1957 joined the Board of Trade, where he learned much about crisis management. A couple of years later he moved to the Treasury, working as private secretary to Roy Jenkins, Labour's Chancellor from 1968 to 1970, and was immediately involved in coping with the aftermath of the sterling crisis of November 1967; within a year he had to deal with another sterling crisis. The two men enjoyed a mutual respect and liking.

Hancock became under-secretary in 1975 and in 1979 wrote a paper that was instrumental in persuading the incoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, to follow the US, Canada, Germany and Switzerland, and lift exchange controls. Indeed, throughout his career Hancock left his mark. As financial and economic counsellor at the Office of the UK Permanent Representative to the European Communities he was at the heart of discussions around Britain's 1973 entry to the EEC. The early 1980s saw him, as head of the European Secretariat, accompanying Thatcher to meet other European heads of state to supervise the European budget negotiations. Over the many months of briefings and negotiations, the pair forged a relationship of mutual respect – although Thatcher did not quite succeed in keeping European hands off what she called “our money”.

With his arrival at the DES under Sir Keith Joseph, Hancock was immediately involved in helping to bring in the GCSE examination, introduced in 1986, which replaced the “O” Level and CSE qualifications and introduced coursework that contributed to the final examination grade; the GCSE was an idea initially planned by Labour's Shirley Williams in the late 1960s when she was at Education. Hancock also played an essential role in resolving a dispute between the Conservative government and teachers over pay and conditions, which had resulted in a number of detrimental strikes.

In 1989, aged 55, Hancock retired from the Civil Service and embarked upon a career in investment banking, becoming a director with the British bank Hambros (now owned by the French group Société Générale).

In his free time, Hancock continued his interest in cricket, music and theatre. He was a member of the National Theatre board for several years and chaired the Foundation for Young Musicians throughout the 1990s; he also supported the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. He later used his influence at the DES to aid schools that needed special help.

David Hancock, senior civil servant; born Beckenham, Kent 27 March 1934; KCB 1985; married Gill Finlay 1966 (one son, one daughter); died 5 September 2013.