Is the Department for Education fit for purpose?

The Department for Education Image copyright Getty Images

Yesterday evening, the Department for Education announced that it was cancelling a school test for half a million primary school children in spelling, grammar and punctuation. It emerged that the DfE had uploaded some test papers online. Indeed, they were presented as practice material, which meant the maximum possible number of test-takers would have seen them.

It's not been a good week at Sanctuary Buildings. The DfE also received a roasting from the National Audit Office, the body which assists parliament in assuring value for money. And there are criticisms of it that should be career-ending for someone senior in the civil service. It is simply not permitted that the Department should breach "three of its expenditure limits authorised by Parliament".

In fact, it's been a while since they had good news. The DfE had previous sought to introduce a new test that would allow us to establish which primary schools were taking in more challenging children. Rather than setting a single test for all children, they elected to use three different providers who would each set their own test. The hope was the tests would end up giving comparable answers. They did not.

Earlier this month, the DfE announced its finding that similar children, presented with different tests, were giving a different pattern of answers - so much so that the results from them could not be compared. The plan has now been kicked into the long grass. If school intakes could not be compared, there was no point to it. The scheme failed because of a problem that was not just predictable, but likely. Millions of pounds and many hours have been wasted.

Image copyright Evening Standard / Getty
Image caption Pupils at Holland Park school in 1976 - then an icon in the English local authority school system, now an academy

A longstanding weak link

This streak of mistakes is long. A reason why the coalition's converter academies programme grew so fast was because it accidentally paid lots of schools a massive premium to take part in it. At the outset, the DfE did not notice that it was losing hundreds of millions of pounds a year because it was overpaying individual schools in error by as much as a million pounds a year.

Earlier this year, the Department introduced a system for deciding which universities should be allowed to run teacher training courses by allocating the places to universities who made offers the fastest. It partially reversed its mistake only because the well-liked Cambridge course in history teaching was too slow to get any students whatsoever.

Some of its decision-making is baffling. Early on in the free school programme, the DfE approved the Michaela Community School for Lambeth. They agreed that the school proposer had demonstrated a need for new provision in south London. Unable to find a suitable site in a suitable area, however, it opened in Brent - 45 minutes and two boroughs away on the far side of the Thames.

In the latest accounts, we learn of the case of the Tauheedul Islam Boys High School in Blackburn where the DfE acquired a prospective permanent site for the already-open school, but failed to get planning permission. As a result, £1.6m has been written off as "fruitless" spending. For schools struggling with leaky roofing and rammed classrooms, that's probably all quite irritating.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Chris Wormald, the DfE permanent secretary, is being moved to the Department of Health

Whitehall and the White Paper

The department, in May 2010, had direct responsibility for 217 schools, almost all of whom had better-than-average governing bodies. It also managed, at arm's length, school rebuilding programmes. But its job was mostly all big pictures and blue skies. It ran committees, wrote rules and guidelines for school leaders and signed cheques to the 150 local authorities.

The DfE had problems with some of that: longstanding funding problems are only now being addressed. The design of measures for league tables was always a bit peculiar. Less central issues in its domain - such as adoption and special needs provision - were overlooked for decades at a time. It has never taken technical or alternative education provision terribly seriously.

Six years on, however, the DfE is still doing all of that. But it is also in charge of deciding which of the 5,000 academies expand and which do not, whose roof gets repaired and when school leaders need replacing. It is picking sites for new schools and signing off on who should run them. A strategic department has become an operational one. I am not confident its staff have the requisite skill set.

The DfE is replacing its permanent secretary. Happily, the new candidate has a lot of operational experience. He will need it. A critical question for education today - facing teacher shortages and a wave of curriculum changes - is whether the DfE itself has the capacity to administer the system, let alone drive improvement. There is good reason to be sceptical that it has.

This is a live political issue: the recent White Paper said the remaining local authorities 15,000 schools should be divorced from their current overseers and added to the DfE's workload. There's been political pressure to drop that pledge. I can tell you that the mandarinate is nervous about it, too. That White Paper needs a working Whitehall.