Just six people applied to become the government’s new social mobility tsar by the original deadline, prompting ministers to reopen applications and personally approach potential candidates to ask them to apply, it has emerged.
New figures show 15 of the 21 applications for the role of chair of the Social Mobility Commission were submitted after the original deadline, prompting a senior MP to question the Department for Education’s handling of the appointments process.
The government began its search for a new social mobility tsar in February following the resignation of the commission’s entire board over a “lack of political leadership” in December.
Many will also wonder why it was not possible to get a strong shortlist in the first place
Dame Martina Milburn, who eventually got the job after she was endorsed by MPs, revealed last week that she was personally approached by the education secretary Damian Hinds after the first deadline had passed, and asked to consider applying for the job.
The revelation, made during her confirmation hearing with the parliamentary education committee, prompted a series of written questions from committee member and former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell, which have now been answered by the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi.
According to DfE records, the application process for the independent post opened on February 5, and just six applications were received by the original deadline of February 25.
The closing date “was subsequently extended to March 30 to ensure that applications were received from a strong field of candidates”, Zahawi said.
At this point, Hinds and his staff “agreed a shortlist of 11 potential candidate to make aware of the opportunity available”. Hinds called four people from this shortlist, including Martina Milburn, who he contacted on March 16.
However, “it would not be appropriate to publicly share the names of the other individuals contacted by the secretary of state as this is personal sensitive information that would identify those individuals without their consent”, Zahawi said.
A further 15 applications were received by the end of March, and Milburn’s nomination was announced on May 23. Of the 21 applications received overall, four were shortlisted and three were interviewed after one dropped out.
Interviews were carried out by Emran Mian, the DfE’s social mobility director, Ruby McGregor Smith, a non-executive board member at the DfE and Nick Markham, lead non-executive director at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Powell said the committee had endorsed Milburn for the role, but was concerned “about the manner of her appointment with the secretary of state calling her personally to encourage her to apply”.
“These answers show that more people applied to the role after the original deadline than before, raising questions about how well the DfE carried out this appointments process and why what should be an exciting and important role became an unattractive prospect.
“Many will also wonder why it was not possible to get a strong shortlist in the first place.”
Powell said Milburn “gave a good performance before the committee”, and said it was “now vital that she sets a clear direction for the commission and exerts her independence from government, challenging robustly measures that will damage social mobility”.
Zahawi said the process to appoint a chair “was run in accordance of advice from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education’s public appointments team, and fully in line with the governance code on public appointments”.
“One stage of interviews took place for the position and the panel recommended Martina Milburn as an appointable candidate. The government was pleased to announce her as their preferred candidate.”