Mr Blue Skies : how not to be a good DFE civil servant

On my Harris piece, Margaret Tulloch rightly commented on how a banded admissions system could be made to work fairly. It reminded me of another old story dredged up from my time in DFE. In essence it’s a cautionary tale about policy-making and how to bugger up a career in the civil service.

I was a high-flying civil servant, making a name for myself in the department as a young team leader after doing my time in Private Office, and was invited, along with a bunch of other bright young things, to a special “blue skies” group to discuss school improvement. The purpose was to consider anything and everything which impacted on school performance, particularly those schools with serious problems of behaviour or achievement.

The group met in the office of Rob Smith, the very senior director of schools branch. Discussion went back and forwards, talking about the role of LEAs (bad, apparently), the importance of specialist status (good, you might have guessed), G&T, exclusions, curriculum and so on. I grew increasingly frustrated as the other bright young things all suggested that the best way to tackle persistently difficult schools was, as it turned out, to push forward all the great policies the department was already pushing forward. Who knew that we were so clever that we’d already diagnosed the problems and prescribed the solutions ?

Finally, unable to sit on my hands any longer, and reassured that this was a “blue skies” meeting where there must be no taboos, I cracked.

“But what about admissions policy ?”

Heads turned towards me, and someone coughed nervously. The Big Cheese invited me to continue.

“Well all these policies are fine, but we’ve had them in place for some time, and the evidence for them is patchy at best. Also, their impact can only be tangential. The primary determinant of school outcomes, according to all the evidence, is the nature of the intake.”

The temperature in the room seemed to have dropped, but I ploughed on.

“Given that socio-economic background is the best predictor of outcomes for individual students, and strongly related to prior attainment, then schools with much poorer intakes are going to always struggle when up against schools with wealthier intakes. For a school to succeed academically, you need a critical mass of well-behaved, motivated students alongside those who are perhaps struggling with more difficult issues.”

Rob Smith was now simply staring at me, whereas all the other bright young things were now staring anywhere except at me. I’m sure I heard chairs scraping and suddenly my colleagues seemed a little further away. Still, in for a penny..

“So if we are serious about addressing difficult schools, then it seems to me that unless we seriously get to grips with the importance of admissions, we’re really just moving deckchairs around on the titanic.”

After a pause, Rob wrote something on his pad of paper, and thanked me for my contribution, which he described as “very interesting”. Discussion then returned to how the latest government initiative to invite more businesses on to governing bodies would really nail those troublesome sink schools.

A month later, I was talking to one of the other bright young things present at the meeting, and I commented that I thought it was a shame that the group hadn’t met again, as it was a good idea to have an open forum in which people could really test the policies and identify priorities. She looked very embarrassed briefly, and then muttered quietly that the group had met twice since that first meeting, and perhaps my name had fallen off the email invitation list by accident.

True story.

I was a terrible civil servant.


2 thoughts on “Mr Blue Skies : how not to be a good DFE civil servant

  1. Good work. That line didn’t wash with Ofsted at their last visit to my school either. Be assured, however, that the memory of your suggestion will haunt Mr Smith until, one sunny day, probably well into his richly remunerated retirement, perhaps even as he draws his last breath, he realises you were right. Wish I could say the same about anyone at Ofsted.


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