As possible Lords revolt looms over academization plans, has DfE spokesman broken Civil Service Code on impartiality?

Janet Downs's picture
We’re used to Department for Education spokesmen (or women) trotting out clichés about sponsored academies, academy freedoms, academy improvement rates ad nauseam.

But one spokesman, commenting on the possibility of a Lords rebellion over Government plans to make academization easier, seems to have gone too far:

‘The Labour Party just doesn’t understand our commitment to making sure no child has to spend a day longer than necessary at a failing school. The measures in this Bill will ensure all children have the same chance to fulfil their potential, extend opportunity and bring real social justice to our country.’

This is more like a politician’s soundbite than a comment from a supposedly independent government department.

The Civil Service Code, which binds all civil servants, has these four values enshrined: impartiality, honesty, integrity and objectivity.

But the comment above is neither impartial nor objective. It’s also dishonest because the ‘measures’ in the Education and Adoption Bill are based on the false premise that converting to an academy especially with a sponsor is the only way to improve schools. But that’s no so. The National Audit Office found informal interventions such as local support were more effective than formal interventions such as academization. Henry Stewart’s analyses for this site show how sponsored academies do no better than similar non academies and may actually do worse. And yet academy conversion is being promoted as the only way to ‘ensure all children have the same chance to fulfil their potential…’

It’s possible, of course, that the DfE spokesman isn’t a civil servant at all but someone else supposedly speaking on behalf of the Department. If this is so, it should be made clear if it’s, say, a special adviser or a junior minister. But when a comment attacking an opposition party is made by a departmental spokesperson, it gives the impression that the comment is the view of the department as a whole. And that’s against the Civil Service Code.

There’s an interesting comment under an article on the Civil Service blog (25 November 2015) which expresses concern about ‘the seepage of political content into Departmental documentation.’

This ‘seepage’ appears to be spreading to departmental comments to the media. This is how the spokesman ended his comment:

‘Rather than being on the side of young people and their parents, this demonstrates yet again that Labour will prioritise their own vested interests, rather than focusing on raising standards in failing schools.’

It’s a comment worthy of Gove. Anyone who opposes Government plans for education is painted as being against ‘young people and their parents’, ‘enemies of promise’, the Blob. It’s a blanket smear against all opposition however well-argued (one might say – especially when it’s well-argued).

This kind of black-and-white simplification can be expected from politicians but attacks on opposition parties should not be coming from departmental spokesmen – it’s against the Civil Service Code.

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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 14/12/2015 - 17:43

Thanks, agov. Very interesting - especially this:

'And SpAds may not formally represent the Government or their Minister.'

Would that extend to acting as a spokesperson?

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 15/12/2015 - 09:34


No, I think that probably relates to things like cutting the ribbon on the new science block, making speeches at events and representing the government at memorial services.

According to the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers (Oct 2015, para 3) they may:

represent the views of their Minister to the media (including a party viewpoint)

agov's picture
Tue, 15/12/2015 - 10:02

Yes, the point of Spads is that they are not normal civil servants. The latter may formally represent the Government or ministers and therefore, in a sense, the nation. Spads are political appointments to provide political advice to the minister and also to do things like liaising with the press and interested parties. As such they may and do informally represent their Minister to, amongst other things, explain and promote the Minister's policies and intentions.

As chance would have it, this -

includes a not entirely uninformative rant about other things Spads do.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/12/2015 - 09:04

agov - you're confusing the DfE press office (ie the official one linked to the Department for Education which is run by Civil Servants) and media announcements by SPADS. I did the same (hence this article) but have been reliably informed by a source (who shall remain anonymous) that the DfE press office would not release a biased quotation like the one cited in the Independent. My source says the quotation would have been misattributed to a DfE spokesperson.
That said, there have been rather too many DfE spokespeople banging the drum for sponsored academies (ie trotting out the official line) and it was the DfE press office which was responsible (along with Nicky Morgan) for the embargoed press release suggesting opponents of academy conversion were like rabid mobs. The press release was softened before it was published on the DfE website.

agov's picture
Thu, 17/12/2015 - 10:39

I'm saying it doesn't make much difference. There wasn't a written press statement, there was a reported verbal comment. Whether it came from a Spad or someone in the press office wouldn't make much difference to what could be proved and what could or would be done about it, which would likely depend on whether it was in line with what the government wanted said.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/12/2015 - 11:38

Thanks, Barry. Very useful. But there's still a ambiguity surrounding the 'DfE spokesman'. What is the role of the DfE press office which is, I believe, run by civil servants? If the Independent quote came from the DfE press office, then this could be a breach of the Civil Service Code because the spokesman is attacking Labour. Or it could be misuse of the DfE press office by, say, a SPAD. If it does not come from the press office then should it be made clear that the views being quoted were those of the Minister?

The Code of Conduct you provided said SPADs 'must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks, and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department.'

Not sure the Independent quote expresses comment with moderation. It could be argued that it's a personal attack on Labour although it doesn't name any one individual.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/12/2015 - 13:39

It's likely the source was a SPAD whose comments were misattributed to a DfE 'spokesman'. The DfE Press Office doesn't issue comments as political as the one in the Independent.

agov's picture
Wed, 16/12/2015 - 17:53

Unlike, perhaps, Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.

I'm not quite sure who you suppose government press offices serve. If you consider a breach of the Code may have occurred you could complain to the Civil Service Commission if you are a civil servant. Otherwise you could complain to the department and if you don't like the department's answer you could complain to your MP and have him/her refer it to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Good luck with getting anywhere with any of that.

agov's picture
Mon, 14/12/2015 - 17:02

"attacks on opposition parties should not be coming from departmental spokesmen – it’s against the Civil Service Code"

Not quite -

"They are exempt from mainstream civil servants’ obligation of political impartiality".

I bet 50p the guilty party is a Spad.

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