The Division for Training’s former director of colleges was within the scorching seat through the free college meals voucher fiasco. Now an academy belief boss, she talks about by no means making assumptions
Every week earlier than Christmas, Sarah Lewis was sitting down in entrance of the general public accounts committee for a grilling.
In entrance of her was formidable chair Meg Hillier. Sitting beside Lewis was Susan Acland-Hood, the Division for Training’s comparatively new everlasting secretary, and Johann Vaucanson, chief govt of the corporate on everybody’s lips throughout lockdown – Edenred, the meal voucher agency.
Lewis was there because the DfE’s director of early years and colleges technique, to reply questions on one thing that occurred on her watch: the free college meals voucher ‘fiasco’.
The voucher scheme was beset with technical points when it launched, leaving some pupils with out meals. The multi-million-pound contract to run the scheme was given to Edenred with no regular tender course of.
Lewis defended the choice to the committee. She tells me: “We might have tendered, however then there wouldn’t have been a voucher scheme for a number of months. That was the selection.”
However, with only a contact of frustration, she provides: “We’re not listening to concerning the free college meals vouchers scheme now, as a result of it’s working brilliantly. That’s the identical staff within the division.”
What no one on the committee knew was it was her final day. After the proof session, she despatched her thanks emails “popped as much as say ‘bye’ to ministers and colleagues, put my equipment on my boss’s desk and walked out the door”.
Lewis had been on the DfE for 12 years. She’d held deputy director roles within the Alternative Areas and schooling requirements directorate and oversaw the roll-out of free interval merchandise.
In January, Lewis took up the publish of chief govt on the five-school Langley Park Studying Belief in south London. It was the one job she’d utilized for in all her time on the division. “I mentioned to colleagues, I’ve beloved working within the DfE – how attention-grabbing and fast-paced the work is.” However she was beginning to really feel “very distant” from coverage on the bottom and “fairly distant from the actual world”.
Lewis was born in Derby and grew up in Medway the eldest of 4 kids. Her mom was a housewife; her father was an engineer and later a vicar. She “can’t actually put a finger on what my background is – we by no means had any new garments however we had a piano”, she smiles. However the “uncommon factor” about Lewis’s childhood was the household had no tv. “It broke and my dad and mom simply by no means received spherical to changing it,” Lewis laughs. It made for an upbringing stuffed with performs, studying, speaking, “numerous music, and dangerous singing”. She remembers feeling assured a few music take a look at at college, solely to be requested to match TV jingles to their merchandise. She scored zero.
At grammar college she did nicely however “wasn’t superb at respecting guidelines if I didn’t perceive the explanation for them”. Aged 16, she needed to break the information to her household that she was pregnant. Her head of sixth kind mentioned she might are available in for A-levels, however added “don’t ever go to sleep in school and don’t give me any excuses’. That taught me it’s important to crack on.”
After A-levels, she studied social coverage at Kent College earlier than getting a job at Kent County Council. She labored on schooling coverage, similar to anti-bullying and intercourse and relationships schooling initiatives, earlier than becoming a member of what was then the Division for Kids, Faculties and Households, below Ed Balls, in 2008.
I believed earlier than I joined the DfE it could be filled with very posh folks, nevertheless it wasn’t
“I believed earlier than I joined the DfE it could be filled with very posh folks, all from personal college and London, however that was not what I skilled. The DfE has an enormous variety of former lecturers, quite a lot of governors and plenty are dad and mom.”
She says she has taken an internet political compass take a look at and falls “fully within the centre”, including that her vote can find yourself “not fairly wherever, however virtually wherever”. However on this level, she speaks with actual feeling. It’s maybe a results of being one of many few individuals who will get a ringside seat to look at the secretary of state make choices. “It’s an enormous privilege being the one that truly places recommendation to the ministers,” she says.
She loved working with former schooling secretary Justine Greening on Alternative Areas, as a result of her ardour about social mobility made the initiative “very easy to get folks behind”. However then she provides, to my shock, that she “loved working with Gavin [Williamson] on the pandemic – that sense of all the time being listened to by him. I all the time discovered Gavin respectful, and considerate.”
Cancelling exams was the hardest resolution she was concerned in. “These have been choices nobody ever thought they’d be making and also you’re having to make them at such a quick tempo. To decide like that you simply’d need weeks to take a look at the proof.”
She was sitting downstairs realizing exams can be cancelled, together with her daughter revising upstairs. However she mentioned nothing, ready for it to be publicly introduced. It’s one space by which she concedes the DfE might have carried out higher. Choices weren’t all the time communicated “as shortly as we’d have preferred, or the sector would have preferred”.
Williamson has been extensively lambasted for his choices through the pandemic. However Lewis says private assaults are unacceptable. “I’d say to anybody outdoors authorities that governing is loads more durable than it seems to be. I’d by no means wish to get defensive and say every little thing was excellent on a regular basis [but] individuals are human. To some extent once you put your self up for election you’re opening your self as much as scrutiny, however I can not perceive why our fundamental methods of treating colleagues, associates and neighbours can’t be prolonged to politicians.”
As an example her level, Lewis explains that she started volunteering at a meals financial institution in September 2019. She remembers studying indignant tweets concerning the DfE’s dealing with of the pandemic. “One I noticed had an image of individuals working in a meals financial institution, saying ‘these are the actual heroes’. And I believed, what am I then? Hero or villain?”
There’s a purpose Lewis affords these warnings. Her first daughter died two and a half years in the past aged 24, throughout a psychological well being disaster. An NHS inquest discovered there had been a “gross failure” by providers to deal with her daughter correctly. It has deeply reconfirmed her view that criticisms of others ought to by no means grow to be merciless, and likewise that public leaders mustn’t get defensive, and as an alternative admit to “human frailties”.
Making certain leaders and workers really feel correctly supported is considered one of Lewis’s essential priorities in her new position. “Being a head could be fairly a lonely job, and I would like everybody to really feel they’re a part of a wider staff and that we’ve received their again,” she says, explaining she’s going to have a look at what’s working “brilliantly” in every college and search to “share that experience extra extensively”. She herself already feels supported: “I’ve seen how beneficiant MAT CEOs are with their time. I used to be anticipating to stroll into fairly a aggressive world, and I’ve walked into a really collaborative world. It’s a pleasing shock and it’s proper up my road.” With time she would love the belief to be a “capacity-giver”, both by increasing, becoming a member of one other belief or teaching different college leaders.
In contrast to Jon Coles, one other former senior DfE civil servant who leads a belief, Lewis doesn’t have a PGCE or QTS. However she is obvious a civil servant brings sure qualities. “It’s about having the ability to increase your head barely above what’s occurring and looking out strategically down the road. That’s kind of inbuilt into civil servants.”
She’s each an emblem and advocate of motion between schooling workers and the civil service. To keep away from personalised anger, maybe all civil servants, and lots of extra lecturers, would profit the entire system by spending extra time in each camps.