The front line, the back office, and the long corridor in between

Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week every month

Michael Gove, easily the naughtiest boy in the class in many teachers’ eyes, got himself into trouble again last week. But this time he might be feeling a bit unfairly treated as he was taking the rap for a colleague’s misbehaviour.

The Education Secretary was hauled back in front of the Commons education committee over concerns about his special advisers’ alleged bullying attitudes towards staff at the Department for Education, and if the defensive tone of his letter to the committee’s acting chair, Pat Glass, is anything to go by, he wasn’t entirely happy about it.

The bullying issue is clearly important. But other than that it’s difficult, perhaps, to work up much interest in this story. Outside the Westminster-Whitehall village, ministers’ special advisers – or SpAds – seem pretty irrelevant.

It’s easy, in fact, to agree with Sir David Bell, once permanent secretary at the department and now Reading’s vice-chancellor, who said last year that he “cannot get excited about the issue of special advisers, having worked with quite a few.” He argued that they are “an important part of our system” but are “only small in number compared with the department as a whole”.

Sir David is undoubtedly right, but SpAds are, as he noted, “very powerful”, which might lead – as Gove’s recall suggests – to them getting a little big for their boots. Concerns exist, too, that SpAds might be part of a growing ‘politicisation’ of the civil service.

But of arguably more concern is the provenance of whatever advisers are closest to ministers. Are the political advisers closest to our own political servants (let’s not go with masters) and experts in the fields they advise on? Are the civil servants involved? And, most important, what should the balance be?

Concerns exist, too, that SpAds might be part of a growing ‘politicisation’ of the civil service”

Sir David has argued that the current system ‘requires’ that civil servants are generalists, and there are plenty of advantages to this. It means that experts bring a useful degree of outsiders’ scrutiny to issues; further, it means that civil servants are recruited not for specialist knowledge, which arguably ought to be condensed at the front line where it is needed, but for more general skills that are transferable between departments and jobs. In theory this means the system is efficient and well-organised.

This said, though, Sir David’s former colleague Jon Coles – now heading the United Learning Trust – argues that a strength of the department is “its ability and willingness to bring in very senior practitioners from outside and to have civil servants going outside… so that there is a proper understanding of life in the education system in the department”.

The department itself lists several such appointments in a recent report – including ex-headteachers Charlie Taylor and Elizabeth Sidwell – and has promised to consider “how to increase secondments into the department”.

This opportunity might provide particular scope for FE, offering as it does a breadth of provision rarely found in schools, sixth forms or universities, and which might prove useful to the department and its (rightly generalist) civil servants.

And yet the department rejected the call of the Commons education committee, in 2011, to appoint chief advisers on education and children’s services, and its first round of non-executive directors following the election included more representatives from the financial sector than the world its policies impact on.

At a time when politicians themselves are so mistrusted, these questions of the gap between the front line and the back office are critical, particularly if – as I pleaded in my last column – we are serious as a sector when it comes to engaging with the policy development process.

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