23 September 2005
They call him the 'smiling assassin' and he's certainly ruthless about improving education. DfES permanent secretary Sir David Normington talks to Maria McHale about his role and rumours of an imminent move to the Home Office
Ask anyone in the know to describe Sir David Normington and they come up with something more akin to James Bond than a top civil servant. For a start, the nickname of the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills is 'the smiling assassin'. He is also described as 'extremely charming', 'civilised and urbane' – and a 'tough nut'.
Sitting in an armchair in one of the Department for Education and Skills' glass-walled offices, Normington, 53, is the man of the moment. The rumour mill is in overdrive and whispers abound in Whitehall that he is about to make a leap to the Home Office, where he will rejoin former education minister Charles Clarke, who is keen to work with him again.
He is typically diplomatic on the subject of the move. 'Of course, the way the senior civil service is set up, there is an expectation that there will be a four-year tenure in senior posts and, at the end of that time, there is a review of whether you are to stay or to go. I have been doing this particular job for four and a half years now.'
He admits that he applied for the Cabinet secretary post and didn't get it – it went to then Treasury chief Sir Gus O'Donnell. 'After that competition, there was the expectation that there would be a number of retirements, which there are, and there would be a bit of a turnover in those jobs. We will have to wait and see.'
He believes that refreshing the leadership is essential. 'If you leave someone in a job for ten years, they can get stale. I don't feel stale in this job, but there will come a point when I will have been here too long and someone will take my place.'
For now, he is concentrating on the never-ending push for better standards in education across the country. He admits to being fed up with the backbiting and negativity that continue to surround education – the GCSE and A-level results, in particular, and the claims that these exams are getting easier.
'I do get a bit depressed each year by the way people, often very ill-informed, criticise the results. Is everything perfect in those results? Of course not. But I feel that any time anyone has looked at it, they believe that the way in which we set standards in this country – and try to maintain those standards year after year, through the exam boards and the QCA – is one of the best systems in the world. Is it perfect? No, but it is probably the best for maintaining standards of marking year on year.'
He is bullish about the outcome though. 'When we report that there is improvement in the performance, that is real. In fact, the GCSE results have seen quite a significant improvement in performance this year, probably one of the biggest we have had in 20 years or more. Last year, though, we had a very, very small improvement indeed.'
So there is no fix. It is simply a matter of improved standards. 'I do believe that we are involved in the most sustained rise in educational standards that we have ever had, and given that we and this government and the teaching profession have spent nearly ten years trying to bring that about, it is possible that there is some connection between the two.'
'We could not have been more focused on raising standards and, lo and behold, standards are rising. It is everything we focus on here, all the time, and a lot of money has gone into that and a lot of effort. All the inspection processes are focused on that. It is possible, isn't it, that this is a real rise in standards? There are a lot of people who seem to want to deny that. Why would you do that?'
Normington speaks from experience. Before he became permanent secretary in 2001, he was head of schools at the department and has heard it all before. The talk of dumbing down and easier exams comes from people who hark back to an elitist system, he claims.
'I know it was a different time because it was my time too, when the system of education was much more elite and when the top group of people did brilliantly and the rest got a pretty average-to-poorish education. Now we are engaged in trying to provide the best education for everyone'.
According to Normington, the country can no longer survive on a smaller academic elite. 'University is now a very different thing, it is much broader and you can do so many different types of courses, and you can do more part-time courses too.
'Those who say university is devalued should look to Singapore where almost 70% go on to higher education. Why should we think it adequate that only 43% go at the moment? And Singapore is one of the tiger economies. Higher education has to be thought of as a much broader range of opportunities.'
So the department still has some challenges ahead. Normington presides over more than 4,000 civil servants responsible for England's schools, colleges and universities and he stresses that the policies are not made in an ivory tower. One of his main achievements, started by his predecessor Sir Michael Bichard, was to open up the department to the outside world.
With almost 40% of the senior management recruited from the education system, complaints that the DfES does not know what goes on in the real world seem a little outdated.
'Yes, there are a lot of people here who have not been lifelong civil servants. The person who is responsible for schools here was a teacher, chief education officer and the chief executive of a local authority before coming here,' says Normington. 'And the recently departed head of lifelong learning was a college principal who came straight from the college to the DfES board, while two of her four deputies are from that sector. We have a much better base of experience now.'
Clearly, the policy wonks have been banished to make way for two-way secondments, which Normington claims are a great success. 'The initiative which is close to my heart, because I set it up in my previous job, is the schools immersion programme. We get our staff to spend time in schools, long enough to shadow the school head teacher, say. I wanted people to stay long enough to build up a relationship. This becomes a permanent relationship between them, and often we have the head teacher back here.
'It has been interesting and we had someone who wrote back and said that if we could get every head teacher in the country to come and see us, they would realise we are all working on the same agenda. I think that is superb.'
Education policy is rarely developed without input from the ground, he adds, involving practitioners through consultations in groups, through conferences and by bringing them into the DfES.
And it helps to cut out the rubbish too. 'We have head teacher reference groups to check policies with. We have a group of head teachers who are our bureaucracy busters and vet everything we are putting out and are very tough on us.'
Like the rest of Whitehall, the department is in full modernisation mode and Normington has a challenge for the critics. 'It is comfortable for a lot of people out here to say we are stuck in ivory towers. I would invite anyone who believes that to come and spend time here and see what it is like. That doesn't mean to say they will like the policies. I will have an argument with anyone about policy. What I won't be accused of is not understanding the system. Because I think we do understand the system and we are passionate about opportunities for people to learn.'
He agrees that there is a lot of pressure for change to be implemented quickly and he concedes that schools find the pressure hard to deal with.
But he is unapologetic: 'Actually some of the pressures come from the urgency with which we – and politicians – want to see progress, because every generation of children gets only one chance. We know it will take time, but we want it as fast as possible. It really is no good saying to the children who are there now that it will be fine in five years' time. We always want to go faster.'
The pace of modernisation in Whitehall is unavoidable too but Normington is unfazed by the expectations. 'Change is inevitable and you can't stand in the way of it. The thing one needs to understand about the DfES is that it is quite a small department and almost everything we do has to be delivered by other people. We have almost nothing we do which is centrally managed. We don't have a great field operation and it is all about our leadership of the system. It is a different sort of challenge from managing things directly.'
As Normington is halfway through a programme to reduce the size of the department by a third under the government's rationalisation programme, he knows what makes a good mandarin and what makes a good department.
He says: 'One needs to have a much more flexible and fleet of foot group of people here, but you have to balance that out to ensure that you hold on to the accumulated knowledge and experience. There is a balance to be struck here. Before I took this job, I was head of schools, so I have had seven years of experience and I think that was a good thing. I brought the history with me and obviously that helped and informed my approach.'
Very pragmatically, he believes talent needs to move on, but he concedes that a move to a new department would be a steep learning curve.
'If I went to another department I would have to immerse myself first in what it was like. And the first thing I would do is go out there, just like I have here, and find out what people think about the issues and then bring that back and see if what we were doing matches what people are saying. That is crucial.'