‘Voluntary exit’ scheme launched as DfE seeks to lose 10% of staff

Staff without 'skills the department needs for the future' to be offered three weeks’s salary per year of service to leave next May

Staff without 'skills the department needs for the future' to be offered three weeks’s salary per year of service to leave next May

Most schools have taken at least one measure to reduce spending in the last year, a new survey shows

Ministers have launched a voluntary exit payout scheme for Department for Education staff without the “skills the department needs for the future”, as it seeks to cut around 10 per cent of its workforce.

Staff were told about the “selective voluntary exit scheme” on Monday. In a message seen by Schools Week, the DfE said it aimed to get staffing numbers “closer to” 2020 levels, when it employed around 7,000 people. 

The department will offer eligible staff three weeks’ salary per year of service to leave next May. Managers will “robust and fairly” assess civil servants’ applications to the scheme.

A voluntary exit scheme is not the same as voluntary redundancies, and as such can offer different terms. The DfE told staff it has no plans to make redundancies, but has also ruled out simply not replacing those who leave through “natural attrition”.

According to official figures, the DfE and its agency the Education and Skills Funding Agency employed 8,294 people as of September. In pre-pandemic February 2020, the two organisations had a joint headcount of 7,489.

If numbers are cut back to this level, this would mean a 10 per cent reduction on current levels, though the DfE today insisted it was not a target-driven scheme.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak recently axed plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs over three years, saying he did not “believe that top-down targets” for headcount reductions are “the right way” to save money.

But he said the government would ask every department to look for “the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets, so that we can use taxpayers’ money sustainably in the long term”. 

Union expresses fears over voluntary exit scheme

Helen Kenny, national officer at the FDA senior civil servants’ union, said her organisation was “concerned that there is no real waste to be cut and ministerial priorities still need to be delivered”. 

voluntary exit

“We need to see concrete proposals regarding how the department will match commitments to resources – bluntly what work is not going to be done – otherwise our members’ health and wellbeing is being placed at risk.”

In documents sent to staff, the DfE’s leadership team said the department had “grown a lot” over the last few years, but its spending review settlement meant “we need to get a bit smaller again”. 

Last year’s spending review allocated £77 billion to the department for this financial year, an increase of almost £7 billion on 2021-22. However, the vast majority of the budget is distributed to schools, colleges and universities, leaving around £5 billion.

The DfE said it had ruled out losing staff only through natural attrition, where employees are not replaced when they leave, as this “would mean an extended period of slow and difficult recruitment constraints”. 

The exit scheme will allow the department to “move quickly, to be more confident that those who are leaving aren’t taking our best skills with them, and, when it is done, to operate with more freedom and flexibility than a long, slow attrition”.

The department said it would have a “robust and fair selection process”. But not everyone who wants to leave can take up the scheme, as it is only “for those who don’t have the skills the department needs for the future”. 

Managers could use a “range of factors” to assess the applicant, including their “core skills” and “future operating models”. DfE said it would be unlikely to support an application for someone with “hard-to-replace specialist skills” which they “continue to need”.

No staff should ‘feel pressured’ into applying

DfE insisted the scheme was “entirely voluntary” and “no one should feel pressurised into applying or taking a voluntary exit package”.

In the documents, the department said it had no plans to make voluntary or compulsory redundancies. 

Staff will have two weeks to apply later this year. If they accept the package of three weeks’s salary per year of service, they will leave in May next year. 

If a staff member leaves and is not replaced, the management team will “readdress priorities based on capacity and adjust workload accordingly”. 

It comes as ESFA staff have been moving over to the department as part of a reorganisation. 

In 2020, DfE had a total of 5,307 employees and ESFA had 2,182. In September, this had moved to 7,480 at DfE and just 814 at ESFA.

The scheme also comes at a time when DfE’s workload looks set to increase amid ambitions for every school to become an academy.

The DfE was approached for comment.

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