Gillian Keegan will lose a third key policy adviser this summer after long-serving government adviser Dr Tim Leunig announced plans to join a think tank.

The former Department for Education chief scientific adviser, who has been back at the department part-time since January, announced this week he will join Public First.

It comes after Schools Week revealed that David Thomas, a senior adviser on schools policy, left the department last week to run a fledgling maths charity founded by a finance billionaire.

Patrick Spencer, who advised Keegan on social care, left the DfE at the end of April and is now director of The Jobs Foundation. It means three of four senior policy advisers to the education secretary have either left or announced plans to leave.

Nigel Thomas, who covers further education and skills policy and splits his time between the department and the Gatsby Foundation, remains in post.

This all comes as the DfE is moving forward with key reforms, including its academies regulatory and commissioning review, its SEND improvement plan, and its response to the MacAlister review of children’s social care.

Earlier this year, Schools Week reported that Indra Morris, a senior civil servant overseeing the SEND review, is leaving just as implementation of the long-awaited reforms begin. Andrew McCully, the DfE’s director-general for schools, retired in March.

Leunig joined the DfE as a policy adviser in 2012, becoming its chief scientific adviser and analyst in 2014. He left in 2017 to advise the environment department, before returning to the DfE as an expert adviser between 2018 and 2019.

After three years at the Treasury he joined the Department of Health and Social Care last July. Since January, he has split his time between health, education, environment, and the levelling-up department.

Working in government ‘a huge privilege’

Leunig said “working in the centre of government is a huge privilege, but it is time to move on”.

“I am grateful to all my civil service colleagues, and the ministers that we have worked for over the last 12 years.”

It is understood that both Leunig and Thomas had to have their appointments signed off by the government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which considers whether jobs for former ministers and senior civil servants meet appointment rules.

David Thomas
David Thomas

Thomas, a co-founder of the Oak National Academy, left the department to become chief executive of Mathematics Education for Social Mobility and Excellence (MESME).

The charity aims to help double the number of PhD students in the mathematical sciences at a UK university by 2035. It was founded by Alex Gerko, a Russian-born financial trader who was named as the UK’s largest taxpayer this year – contributing an estimated near £500 million.

A job advert for Thomas’s replacement at the DfE offered an £80,000 salary and the opportunity to “work on the development and delivery of the government’s flagship policies”.

“This role has a particular focus on schools and including the school system, school improvement, multi-academy trusts, funding and accountability, literacy and numeracy, attendance and edtech.”

Leunig’s appointment at Public First adds to the think tank’s slate of former government education advisers. Founder Rachel Wolf and head of education Jonathan Simons both worked in Downing Street, while co-founder James Frayne was head of communications at the DfE.

A DfE spokesperson said Keegan was “grateful for the dedication and expertise her senior policy advisors continue to bring to the department and wishes those leaving the Civil Service the very best in their future endeavours”.

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