Sir Gav’s £17k golden goodbye, and 6 other things we learned from the DfE’s accounts

Bumper payouts for sacked ministers, staff retention issues and fears over SEND performance all revealed in annual accounts

Bumper payouts for sacked ministers, staff retention issues and fears over SEND performance all revealed in annual accounts

22 Dec 2022, 5:00

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The Department for Education has published its annual accounts, revealing the scale of its ministerial payouts, retention issues and deteriorating performance on absence and council SEND provision.

With no press announcement, much of the sector and country winding down ahead of the festive season and industrial action dominating the headlines, the DfE may have hoped its report would go unnoticed.

But Schools Week found time to pull out some of the more notable aspects of the 342-page tome, so you don’t have to:

1. Sir Gav’s £17k payout after missing meetings

Accounts confirm that (now) Sir Gavin Williamson got a payout worth almost £17,000 after being sacked by Boris Johnson. He has said he would not take a payout for his more recent cabinet exit under Rishi Sunak.

Nick Gibb – who was also sacked as schools minister but returned to the department just over a year later – got nearly £8,000. Meanwhile former academies minister Baroness Berridge received just under £18,000.

The accounts do not cover the ministerial merry-go-round period at the DfE this year, so more interesting findings will be in accounts published next year.

But our investigation in November found 19 politicians had held office at the DfE in just over a year – with those who resigned or booted out entitled to nearly £110,000 in severance pay. Payment levels are set out in law after being introduced in the 1990s.

An unnamed civil servant also received a severance payment of between £100,000 and £150,000.

All that is known about the case is it was for a reason other than compulsory redundancy. The previous year’s accounts showed former DfE boss Jonathan Slater got a £278k payout.

They show too that Williamson only attended one of three possible meetings as chair of the departmental board, which “provides the collective strategic and operational leadership” of the DfE.  

His replacement Zahawi attended four out of of four. Non-executive board member Nick Timothy, a former Downing Street chief of staff, also attended every main board meeting – but none of six possible implementation committee meetings.

Its role is to “scrutinise the Department’s performance and delivery”.

The accounts reveal separately that the DfE has worked this year and last with Yonder Consulting Limited, led by Nick Gibb’s partner Michael Simmonds.

2. DfE staff leave in droves

More than one in 10 staff left the DfE or its agencies in 2021-22, the highest level in at least four years. It recorded an 11 per cent turnover rate, up from 8 per cent a year earlier.

It compares to a 5 per cent exit rate across the civil service – which stayed flat year-on-year. But the report says what “causes the gap in the figures” is the fact most DfE departures are to other posts within the civil service, rather than leaving it altogether.

Separate recently released data shows the teams with the highest vacancies as a proportion of staff include post-16 funding, with 11 of 29 roles vacant, and its “transformation” team, as well as higher education and skills teams.

However, the DfE’s workforce is due to shrink even further. Schools Week revealed last month that ministers had launched a voluntary exit payout scheme for DfE staff, as they seek to cut around 10 per cent of its workforce.

It also comes after an edict to return to in-person working in government departments left the DfE without the deskspace necessary for returning employees. Staff were forced to work in corridors and canteens, and even reported struggling to evacuate during a bomb scare at one office due to overcrowding.

3. Concern over services and absence for children with SEND

The DfE’s report reveals a deteriorating picture against some of its own performance metrics, including for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

One metric is the percentage of councils issued with written statements of actions for SEND services – a sign of significant weaknesses.

It increased to 55 per cent last December, the most recent period listed, up 11 percentage points on mid-2019. The proportion of those deemed to have shown sufficient progress afterwards has also slipped from 55 to 39 per cent over the same period.

Several official absence figures are another performance metric. Overall recorded absence in 2020-21 was the joint second lowest in a decade.

But absence rates for pupils who have either education, health and care plans or receive free school meals both reached their highest since records began in 2012-13. Persistent absence reached its highest level since 2013-14. 

The DfE noted Covid had “especially” impacted attendance for children with EHCPs and staff availability in alternative provision, pupil referral units and special settings.

4. £500m buildings underspend due to Covid delays

Schools Week recently revealed the government’s new £500 million pot for school building energy upgrades was actually “repurposed” cash from an underspend in its capital budget.

The DfE would not say more at the time about the underspend. But accounts give more detail.

By March 2022, there was already a £469 million underspend “primarily due to slippage of school building programmes driven by challenging issues in the construction market”, including a lack of “both manpower and materials”.

“The recent uplift in inflation has added to delays as projects are re-appraised for costs and contractors,” accounts added.

£190 million of last year’s underspend was spent on Covid response measures, such as laptops for pupils and CO2 monitors.

5. DfE claws back Covid over-payments

While the government seems less bothered about clawing back the billions it handed to fraudsters during Covid, it has been much more vigilant on school handouts.

It detected £283,554 was either paid out in error or fraud under the free laptops, free school meal vouchers and exceptional costs schemes (just 0.02 per cent of overall grant spend). Of this, a total of £208,825 was recovered.

By contrast it wrote off £2.4 million in Turing Scheme grant overpayments “to ensure no student or provider was negatively or unfairly impacted” by a reported delivery partner error. 

6. Worsening record for data breaches and correspondence

The DfE recorded 204 incidents involving the loss, unauthorised disclosure or insecure disposal of protected personal data in 2022 – up 43.7 per cent on the 142 incidents a year earlier. 

Nearly half involved data being emailed to the wrong recipients, while other cases included similar postal errors or failures to redact data.

Seven incidents were reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office, up from four in 2021-22 and two in 2018-19.

Meanwhile figures suggest growing problems in sending timely responses. The Cabinet Office expects departments to reply to 95 per cent of correspondence within 20 working days.

The DfE said Covid again resulted in “fluctuations in volumes” in 2021-22.

Only 64 per cent of correspondence by officials to the public or organisations hit the 20-day target, and only 74 per cent of ministerial correspondence did so. Freedom of information response rates hit a four-year low, with just 73 per cent sent within the target.

Figures also show a drop in whistleblowing cases, with nine raised in the past year versus 17 the previous year. Most recent cases were closed “with no case to answer or no evidence of wrongdoing”, the DfE said.

A DfE spokesperson said: “This year more disadvantaged students than ever have got a place at university, we have delivered our pioneering T levels and announced record levels of funding in to the school system.

“Our focus is to continue to deliver on our successes and our mission to make sure that every child gets a fantastic education, that we protect the most vulnerable and ensure the sector continues to deliver excellent training to level up opportunities for all.”

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