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Education shake-up threatens focus on early years, say MPs

By Richard Johnstone | 5 November 2012

Changes at the Department for Education could lead to a reduced focus on early years policy, MPs warned today.

September’s ministerial reshuffle combined with the abolition of several departmental quangos would both have an effect, the Commons education select committee said. It called for steps to be taken to ensure that early years education and childcare remained priorities.

Concerns had already arisen following the coalition’s structural reforms to the department, including changing the name from ‘Children, Schools and Families’ to ‘Education’, the MPs said in their report on the governance and leadership of the department.

This reorganisation meant that fewer senior civil servants were dedicated to non-school areas of the department’s remit. Departmental visits by the committee revealed significantly different staffing levels between, for example, academy schools development and family policy.

Following the government reshuffle, children’s policy also now had fewer ministers dedicated to it, the MPs found. From having one parliamentary under secretary and a senior minister of state, it now had one parliamentary under secretary and only part of another.

Also, since coming to power in May 2010, ministers have closed ten of the DfE’s non-departmental public bodies. Some, like the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, had ceased operating, while others had been transferred to four new executive agencies within the department. These included the Education Funding Agency, which provided the funding for academy schools.

Given the scale of the changes across the department’s functions, the committee recommended that a full evaluation of their implementation be undertaken ‘after a suitable interval’.

Committee chair Graham Stuart said this was essential that sufficient focus on the ‘critical’ children’s policy agenda was maintained, including attention from senior officials and ministers.

The committee welcomed the appointment of ‘four skilled and experienced’ non-executive directors to the department’s board since 2010. However, an additional board member with expertise in children's policy issues should also be appointed to ensure this area remained a priority.

Stuart said: ‘This inquiry has shone an important spotlight on how policy is implemented and managed. It has highlighted a need to ensure that children’s policy retains sufficient status alongside schools and colleges, which appear to occupy the majority of ministerial and officials' time.

‘Whilst we met many outstanding civil servants during our visits to the DfE, and have much to praise about the department’s new-look board, we have also identified a number of refinements that could ensure better governance and leadership in ways that would improve both delivery and management of policy.’



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