Boris Johnson has been accused of “throwing civil service leaders under a bus” to protect himself and his ministers, after he sacked the Department for Education’s top mandarin in the wake of the A-level exam grading fiasco.
Permanent secretary Jonathan Slater became the latest in a long line of Whitehall figures to be ousted since Mr Johnson was re-elected in December with his top adviser Dominic Cummings intent on a fundamental shake-up of the civil service to centralise power in the hands of the prime minister and trusted allies.
Labour said parents would view with dismay the “complete chaos” at the heart of the government’s education operation just days before children in England and Wales return to school after five months’ absence due to lockdown.
Mr Slater hands over to temporary successor Susan Acland-Hood – who was drafted into the department just a week ago to deal with the fallout from the exams crisis – on 1 September, the very day on which most schools reopen their doors to all pupils in one of the most sensitive moments so far in the nation’s gradual relaxation of coronavirus restrictions.
And there were questions over why education secretary Gavin Williamson has hung onto his post when his top official and the head of exams regulator Ofqual Sally Collier were both forced out. School leaders’ union ASCL said it was “unsavoury” that officials were paying with their jobs while ministers and advisers escape unscathed.
The head of the FDA senior civil servants’ union, David Penman, said trust between officials and ministers was at an “all time low” after Mr Slater’s ousting, which follows the early departures of cabinet secretary and national security adviser Sir Mark Sedwill, Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald, Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Richard Heaton and Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam.
“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,” said Mr Penman. “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.”
Mr Johnson was already facing a furious backlash from Tory MPs over his 11th-hour U-turn on the use of face coverings in English schools, with senior backbencher Huw Merriman declaring that the treatment of young people during the pandemic had been an “absolute disgrace”. Calling on Mr Johnson to “get a grip”, he said the public was “sick and tired” of seeing advice constantly changing in a way that made it appear the government was “making it up as we go along”.
The vice-chair of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Charles Walker, said that an “increasing number” of Tory MPs were “very worried” about the frequent U-turns and “government by edict” under Mr Johnson’s leadership.
“The government just cannot make this stuff up now on the hoof... saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday,” Mr Walker told Times Radio. “It’s just not acceptable.”
And the prime minister came under fire for “shamefully” attempting to dodge responsibility for the A-level debacle, as he told an audience of schoolchildren in Leicestershire that a “mutant algorithm” was to blame.
National Education Union joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said the summer’s “disaster” – which saw thousands of pupils awarded results far lower than teachers’ predictions, in a system which favoured private school students over those from state comprehensives – had its roots in “a decade of Conservative education policy”.
“It is brazen of the prime minister to idly shrug away a disaster that his own government created,” he said.
Announcing that Mr Slater would step down from his £165,000-a-year job ahead of the scheduled end of his tenure in spring 2021, the Department for Education said that Mr Johnson had demanded “fresh official leadership” at the department, which is reeling from a series of humiliating setbacks including the failure to take schools out of lockdown as promised in June, the botched exam announcements and this week’s U-turn on the use of face coverings by teachers and pupils.
Downing Street sources said that the decision to remove Slater was taken in July, adding weight to unconfirmed reports that he was slated for the chop because he did not “see eye to eye” with Williamson over education policy.
But shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Under this government civil servants have time and time again taken the fall for the incompetence and failures of ministers.
“Parents will be looking on in dismay at a government in complete chaos just a matter of days before children will return to schools.
“Leadership requires a sense of responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable, qualities this prime minister and his ministers utterly lack.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We now have a second public servant who appears to have fallen on their sword, following the departure of Sally Collier, the chief regulator of exams watchdog Ofqual, earlier this week.
“It is abundantly clear that things have not gone well at the Department for Education and Ofqual, culminating in the debacle over this year’s GCSE and A-level grades. But it is pretty unsavoury that civil servants appear to be carrying the can while ministers remain unscathed.
“The grading fiasco really does need to be resolved by a proper independent review of what went wrong and we have written to the secretary of state for education to request that this takes place immediately. We think this is a more productive way forward.”
Mr Williamson denied he had forced Ms Collier out of her post, insisting it was “a decision that Sally made ... in discussions with the Ofqual board”.
But he dodged questions over whether he should take responsibility for the failings of the department under his stewardship, telling BBC Breakfast: “Everyone takes responsibility for what they do and how they approach things.”
There was no shortage of Labour MPs lining up to demand Williamson’s head.
Frontbencher Jack Dromey said: “As the exams crisis deepens, first the head of Ofqual resigns. Then a top education department civil servant resigns. Guess who does not resign? The man responsible for the entire fiasco, Gavin Williamson.”
Meanwhile the NAHT headteachers’ union accused Mr Johnson of “passing the buck” by leaving it to school leaders in England to decide whether face coverings should be worn, unless they are in a local lockdown area
Advising all secondary schools to ask pupils and staff to use masks in corridors and communal areas unless there is a “compelling” reason not to, the union’s general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “Once again, many school leaders will feel as though the government has passed the buck and handed the difficult decision over to them. We will continue to lobby the government to take a clear and unambiguous line on this.”
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