Like many government departments, the Department for Education is an anaemic institution; less powerful than its opponents believe, yet more unsure of itself than the civil service care to admit. It has had several identities over the last few years, none of which have stuck, but between 2010–2015 it was irreversibly changed by a small group of ideologues.
Those figures — Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings — are now key players in a government with a large majority. Understanding what happened in the Department for Education is to understand what is about to happen across this government, where a combination of dogmatic advisors, scheming consultants, and contempt for civil servants will dramatically reshape our public institutions.
When you speak to senior officials at the Department for Education there is often mention of a ‘hinge point.’ For them, the department ticked along nicely between 1997 and 2010 until Michael Gove became minister for education. Then it all changed.
Gove set about a revolution in education, introducing free schools, pushing through academisation, and hoping to break up what he saw as a ‘statist’ approach in order to introduce an American-style school choice system. He famously hung portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Lenin in his office, and committed to using a range of radical thinking to push through his agenda.
Gove regularly told officials that it was Lenin who invented the phrase ‘education, education, education’. Simplify, he said, and then act. He wanted the department to focus on only a few things, and work on getting them perfect from the start.
The new minister also believed in the necessity of advancing at speed — at a push, he had around four years to reshape the schooling system in his image, and he didn’t waste a day. In just seventy-seven days Gove introduced the most far-reaching and destructive reforms in decades in the Education Act 2010, embedded within it his own traditional pedagogical philosophy.
During the petty infighting of the Tory–Lib Dem coalition government, Gove’s department operated as almost a cell within a cell. David Cameron lost numerous plausible special advisors after the expenses scandal — when ‘talented’ Tories were prematurely promoted to MPs — but Gove was not so foolish. A now infamous special advisor, Dominic Cummings, was added to his team, and could be seen sashaying around the department in a grotty gilet barking orders at older staff.
What made Dominic Cummings different to most special advisors was that he realised the real opposition was the British state. Its inherent conservatism obstructed the radical changes he and Gove were proposing. Cummings knew that senior civil servants almost always filled the vacuum created when ministers didn’t have strong opinions, and that these senior civil servants built their entire careers on careful and incremental policy implementation.
For Cummings, government was bloated and wasteful, with very few knowledgeable people at the top. He mistrusted officials who had worked with Labour previously, and tried to quickly move partisans into apolitical roles. But he learned that you cannot just fire top civil servants in Whitehall, and that there are deep-rooted institutional issues that had to be confronted.
Instead, Gove and Cummings created a new vanguard. This so-called vanguard consisted of an elite group of management consultants handpicked to tackle the educational establishment. Positioned in the centre of the department, the group set the strategic direction for all civil servants.
The name they gave this group was the ‘strategy unit’. There were constant memos stating it would take three to five years to establish the UK’s first free school, but in just over a year the department had already opened twenty. The management consultants developed their own institutional logic in parallel to the department. Pretty soon, changes were happening far more swiftly than civil servants could keep pace with.
Strategy, Strategy, Strategy
The strategy unit was the core of a new public management ethos, pumping out business approaches to social policy with endless workshops on ‘user-focused public service redesign.’ The architect of this was Tom Shinner, a more illustrative, but lesser-known special advisor — formerly a management consultant and founder of one of Gove’s beloved ‘free schools’.
From his time at the consultancy firm McKinsey, Shinner wanted to apply business diagnostics and resource management approaches to the department. He knew you couldn’t reform one part of the system in isolation — you needed to think about it in the whole: school structures, governance, teacher training, assessments.
His team allegedly mapped out the entire system and identified their three core opponents — local authorities, the unions, and the universities — and went after them ruthlessly. It was similar in many ways to the plans drawn up by Nick Ridley before Thatcher’s assault on the miners: meticulously drawn up political strategies that identify where resistance is likely to come from and how best to neutralise it.
In order to secure this legacy, when Gove’s time was almost up, Shinner was appointed as a senior civil servant in the department — director of strategy, one of the youngest directors ever in Whitehall. He became the living, breathing embodiment of moneyed interests in our education system, but also the way Gove’s team pushed the boundaries of civil service structures in order to build a lasting legacy.
Breaking conventions and upending the civil service will be Dominic Cummings’ main focus over the next five years. As the prime minister’s chief advisor, he now has the clout to make it easier to fire senior civil servants and drastically reshape departments in Whitehall. He made no secret of his desire to cut the number of civil servants in the Department for Education from several thousand to a few hundred.
In that instance, Cummings was thwarted by recruitment rules that the government insisted upon abiding by — but he now has the ability to radically change these. It’s likely, therefore, that No. 10 is on a collision course with the Whitehall workforce reminiscent of Thatcher’s attempts to crush public sector unions in 1981.
Civil servants predict that our government will increasingly mirror the American model, where top officials are direct appointments brought in from the outside, hired and fired based on the prime minister’s priorities. And ministers will get the same treatment — do not be surprised if someone like Richard Branson ends up heading the Department of Transport.
Departments will be merged into one another and ‘super-ministries’ will emerge, such as the new business institution headed up by ex-investment manager Rishi Sunak. We should expect Cummings to deliver mass redundancy packages to thousands of Whitehall civil servants, reminiscent of those given to frontline staff post-2010.
The trumpeted savings from labour costs will be reinvested in private sector management consultants, particularly those focused on data, innovation, and science. If the professional services thought Brexit was a bonanza, wait for the privatisation of the British state.
A useful analogy is Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation of the US military. His tenets were modular ways of working (departments merged in pursuit of cost-cutting goals) and rampant outsourcing (mass redundancies and privatisation). The result was a ‘hollow corporation’, or the ‘Microsoft model’, where the centre remains under tight control but everything else is outsourced.
Cummings’ prized example is the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which does not even maintain its own staff or laboratories, and projects and roles are terminated at little notice. This process has been happening to frontline public services for decades, creating a hollowed-out state that delivers social policy through multinational corporations and third sector organisations.
This will now be accelerated in the heart of Whitehall. Cummings cannot do this alone though, and will need ministerial support. So it is fortunate for him that the minister responsible for administrative duties and policy implementation is none other than Michael Gove. The two of them cut their teeth in education, now it’s time to finish the job. Today’s Department for Education is an anaemic institution — the whole of government is about to become one too.