Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over the death of ministerial accountability after No 10 removed the most senior civil servant in the Department for Education (DfE) from his post in the wake of the exams fiasco.
Jonathan Slater will step down as permanent secretary within days after Johnson decided there was “a need for fresh official leadership” in the department, the DfE said. His departure was announced a day after the resignation of Sally Collier as chief executive of the exams regulator Ofqual.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has faced calls to quit but has remained in post and repeatedly declined to say whether he offered his resignation.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the senior civil servants’ union, said Slater’s abrupt departure was proof that “ministerial accountability is dead and the message to civil servants is that they are expendable the moment life gets tough for a minister. This administration will throw civil service leaders under bus without a moment’s hesitation.”
Slater will depart on 1 September, just as the DfE is overseeing the return to school of millions of children in England.
A Downing Street source said the decision was made last month and claimed it was unrelated to the exams row. “The prime minister has very ambitious plans for education and it was important to have the right leadership in place,” the source said.
Slater, a public servant for 35 years, is one of several senior mandarins to have stepped down in recent months. Others include the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, and the Foreign Office permanent secretary, Simon McDonald.
In June Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, reportedly warned of a “hard rain” hitting the civil service.
Mary Bousted, a joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It’s just a scorched-earth policy for civil servants. The ministers who should be resigning because of their political decisions have … refused to take responsibility and are laying into these civil servants, the unfortunate fall guys and gals for ministerial incompetence.”
There is a longstanding convention in British politics that elected politicians rather than unelected officials make decisions and are accountable for their department’s failings.
The idea is enshrined in a section of the ministerial code, the handbook for government, that says: “Ministers have a duty to parliament to account and be held to account for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments.”
Williamson initially sought to blame Ofqual for the exams debacle, in which nearly 40% of A-level results were initially downgraded, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged pupils. He then issued a statement supporting the regulator after its chair, Roger Taylor, threatened to resign.
The education secretary paid tribute to Slater on Wednesday, saying: “I would like to thank Jonathan Slater for his commitment to public service, including over four years spent as permanent secretary in the DfE. Like the prime minister, I appreciate the hard work of officials across government, particularly during this unprecedented time.”
But Slater’s departure was viewed in Westminster as part of what one Tory MP called a “general purge” of officials whose approaches clash with that of No 10.
The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said: “Parents will be looking on in dismay at a government in complete chaos just a matter of days before children will return to schools. Leadership requires a sense of responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable – qualities this prime minister and his ministers utterly lack.”
Earlier on Wednesday Johnson prompted ridicule when he told pupils at a school in Leicestershire that the exams fiasco was caused by a “mutant algorithm”.
When A-level grades for England were first announced, Johnson said the results were “dependable” and “robust”. Even after the U-turn in which the algorithm was dropped, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said: “The model was a good model, and we continued to refine it.”
The statement issued by the DfE on Wednesday included a tribute to Slater from Sedwill, whose successor has not yet been announced. “The cabinet secretary would like to put on record his thanks to Jonathan for 35 years of public service,” it said.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We now have a second public servant who appears to have fallen on their sword following the departure of Sally Collier. It is abundantly clear that things have not gone well at the DfE and Ofqual, culminating in the debacle over this year’s GCSE and A-level grades. But it is pretty unsavoury that civil servants appear to be carrying the can while ministers remain unscathed.
“The grading fiasco really does need to be resolved by a proper independent review of what went wrong and we have written to the secretary of state for education to request that this takes place immediately. We think this is a more productive way forward.”
Slater replaced Chris Wormald as permanent secretary at the DfE four years ago and has worked for four education secretaries in his time at the department.
His role will be covered on an interim basis by Susan Acland-Hood, who was previously chief executive of the courts and tribunals service. It was announced last week that she had been drafted in to the department as a temporary second permanent secretary.