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Top education civil servant out after exams fiasco as Boris Johnson demands ‘fresh official leadership’

Top education civil servant out after exams fiasco as Boris Johnson demands ‘fresh official leadership’

Jonathan Slater was due to finish his term as Permanent Secretary in Spring 2021 (

4 min read

The Department for Education’s most senior civil servant has been ousted following the exams fiasco as Boris Johnson called for “fresh official leadership”.

Jonathan Slater, who became the department’s permanent secretary in 2016, is set to stand down on 1 September, the Government has announced.

The moves came just a day after Sally Collier, chief regulator of England's exam body, Ofqual, quit amid the row over the way A-level and GCSE students were graded.

Labour and trade unions accused Number 10 of scapegoating officials, while Mr Slater's departure will take effect on the day schools in England are set to return after months of closures because of Covid-19.

He will be replaced on an interim basis by his second-in-command, Susan Acland-Hood, a former chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service who was brought into the  Department for Education as Second Permanent Secretary last week to help handle the crisis.

The top official’s successor is set to be appointed “in the coming weeks”, the Department said.

A statement announcing the move claimed that “the Prime Minister has concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership at the Department for Education”.

It added: "The cabinet secretary would like to put on record his thanks to Jonathan for 35 years of public service, culminating in over four years as permanent secretary of the Department for Education."

The move is likely to reignite calls for Gavin Williamson to step down after Labour demanded on Tuesday that the Education Secretary be "held responsible for exam fiasco" following Ms Collier's resignation. 

Responding to the removal of Mr Slater, Labour's Kate Green said: "Under this Government civil servants have time and time again taken the fall for the incompetence and failures of Ministers.”
The Shadow Education Secretary added: "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."

And Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil servant union, said: “If it wasn’t clear before, then it certainly is now – this administration will throw civil service leaders under bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability.

"Those who have dedicated their lives to public service are being discarded without hesitation to keep scrutiny from the government’s door."

And he added: “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."

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union accused ministers of overseeing a “scorched-earth policy for civil servants”.

“The ministers who should be resigning because of their political decisions have just refused to take responsibility and are laying into these civil servants, the unfortunate fall guys and gals for ministerial incompetence,” she said.


The row came as Mr Johnson also came under fire for suggesting that a “mutant algorithm” was to blame for confusion over A-Level and GCSE grade estimates in recent weeks.

Speaking to Year 11 pupils at Castle Rock High School in Leicestershire, Mr Johnson acknowledged that the process must have been “stressful” for those involved.

And he thanked the teenagers for their “patience”, and for their part in bringing infection rates of Covid-19 “under control”.

But he said: “You couldn’t sit your exams which you yearned to do and, I’m afraid, your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm, and I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country.

"And I’m very, very glad it’s finally been sorted out.”

Labour's Kate Green said: "Boris Johnson is shamelessly trying to avoid taking responsibility for the exams fiasco that his government created."

The Shadow Education Secretary added: "Responsibility for this shambles lies squarely with Downing Street and the Department for Education, who set out how they wanted the algorithm to work and were warned weeks in advance of issues, but repeatedly refused to address the problems they had created.”

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