MPs call for revival of UK’s abolished National School for Government

By on 29/06/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Northcote House, part of the former NSG at Sunningdale, Berkshire (Image courtesy: "Richard, for it is he"/Flickr).

A committee of UK MPs has called on the government to reopen the National School for Government (NSG), a civil service leadership college closed in 2012 as part of austerity measures.

The school provided classroom-based training and development courses for officials and hosted the Sunningdale Institute, designed to channel academic research and expertise into the civil service. The government claims that the closure of the school and its replacement by a greater emphasis on online training, coaching and other materials to support workplace learning has saved the taxpayer more than £100m.

However, the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Sir Bernard Jenkin, said his committee wants to “reopen the question of whether the UK needs its own National School for Government”.

Noting that “all other comparable countries have an equivalent body,” Jenkin said: “Ours was abolished in 2012 for some understandable reasons, but it was a mistake to lose, rather than to improve, this vital capability.”

Evidence of loss

During evidence-gathering sessions for a report on the relationship between ministers and officials, some witnesses said that the closure of the NSG has led to a loss of tangible benefits. Dave Penman, general secretary of senior civil servants union the FDA, told the inquiry: “There is growing recognition across the civil service that the decision that was taken around the National School of Government is one that they regret and that they are striving to find ways to replace it, both in its capacity and in the breadth of what it delivered for the civil service”.

Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School, told the inquiry: “We desperately need an institution that looks at the work we do, from leadership to operational levels, and provide[s] an integrated service to government.”

The PACAC report concludes that “it is clear that key aspects of professional development of civil servants which used to be provided by the NSG are missing”. It finds that there is no single point of responsibility for learning and development, and a lack of coordination between the different bodies responsible for current delivery. PACAC now intends to conduct a new review of the case for a revived NSG.

The Cabinet Office, the report concludes, should consult academics to ensure any new institution “provides civil service leaders with effective access to conceptual, reflective and experimental learning”.

Halfway there

Since the NSG was abolished under then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the civil service has quietly gone about rebuilding some of its functions – last September opening a permanent base hosting residential courses at the Ministry of Defence’s Shrivenham base, which also houses the MoD’s Defence Academy. Senior officials decamp there for training provided by the Civil Service Leadership Academy, including scrutiny of case studies covering both successful and flawed civil service projects – from the response to Ebola, to the invasion of Iraq.

Speaking in the last issue of the FDA’s magazine, Public Service Manager, Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Stephen Lovegrove said the Shrivenham base reflects a need for residential training to provide “a really intense focus over a couple of days in order to get the value out of [courses], which is why we decided it was important that there was a place where people could stay.”

Lovegrove, who is chair of the Civil Service Learning and Leadership Board, conceded that within the MoD training “is one of the areas that people are rightly dissatisfied with.” He added that “I think we have been guilty of squeezing learning out of people’s work plan. We need to insist that people take time out of their professional lives for it.”

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.

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