Narrowing attainment gap stopped being ‘main focus’ of DfE in 2015, says former permanent secretary

attainment gap

Efforts to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers ceased to be a “main focus” for the Department for Education in 2015, its former top civil servant has claimed.

Jonathan Slater, who served as permanent secretary at the DfE from 2016 until last year, said until the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the department’s “main effort” in recent years was on completing its academies reforms.

It was revealed last year that the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their better-off peers had stopped closing for the first time in a decade.

Slater made the comments during a discussion with other former civil servants and special advisers at the Foundation for Education Development summit this morning.

He said that although expanding the academies programme had also been a priority between 2010 to 2015, there was also a “parallel effort to try and reduce the attainment gap”. Both efforts “achieved results”, he said.

“There was a huge increase in the number of academies, and there was a significant reduction in the attainment gap between 2010 and 2015.”

But after 2015, the focus on the attainment gap, which Slater said was “more the contribution of the Lib Dems” in the coalition government, diminished.

“I don’t think there was anything like the focus inside the department on that question post-2015. I don’t think it was the main focus anymore, and I think it’s probably not a coincidence that the attainment gap stopped falling.”

Slater also said the failure of the government’s 2016 white paper, which sought to legislate to force all schools to become academies, left a “mess”, with the department trying to find an “end state” for its academies reforms.

“I would say that until the coronavirus came along the main effort as far as schools were concerned in the department under four different secretaries of state that I was lucky enough to work for was creating more academies and completing one-way or another the system.”

His comments come after education secretary Gavin Williamson told the summit on Monday he wanted to see “far more schools” in multi-academy trusts by 2025, and was “actively looking at how we can make that happen”.

The DfE was approached for comment.

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