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date: 29 January 2020

Cassels, Sir John Setonfree

  • Josh Hillman

Cassels, Sir John Seton (1928–2016), civil servant and educationalist, was born on 10 October 1928 in Singapore, the third and youngest son of Alistair Macdonald Cassels (1885–1931), a banker with the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and Canada, and his wife, Ada White, née Scott (1891–1967). On both sides the family was of Scottish descent, although his father had been born in India. The family returned to England after his father’s sudden death, at Medan, in the Dutch East Indies. Cassels’s eldest brother, Alastair Scott (Sandy) Cassels (b. 1916), who had followed his father into banking before joining the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force as a lance-corporal during the Second World War, died in Kuching prisoner-of-war camp, Borneo, in 1945. His other brother, James Macdonald Cassels (1924–1994), was a distinguished particle physicist, for many years professor at the University of Liverpool, elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1959.

John Cassels went to Sedbergh School and, after national service, Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a double first in classics in 1951. From 1952 to 1954 he held a scholarship in classical archaeology at the British School at Rome, by the end of which he had decided to abandon an academic career. However, he retained a deep and life-long interest in archaeology and the classics and, as a particularly avid reader of the Roman poet Horace, was actively involved in the Horatian Society, often giving learned papers.

In 1954 Cassels passed the civil service examinations and elected to join the Ministry of Labour. His views and skills honed in the ‘Butskellism’ era, he was secretary of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations (1965–8), then under-secretary at the National Board for Prices and Incomes from 1968 until its abolition by Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1971. Meanwhile, on 18 February 1956, at the Church of the Holy Rood, Holybourne, Hampshire, he married Rosemary (Mary) (1926–2008), daughter of Philip Raymond Whittington, stockbroker, of Holybourne. They had two sons, Alastair and Robert, and two daughters, Lucy and Jessica.

After a brief spell in private industry at Dunlop Holdings Ltd, Cassels found his true vocation in a series of roles through the 1970s and 1980s in which he was able to exercise transformative leadership in national policy and provision for skills and training. Indeed, throughout this period he was a central figure in creative Westminster and Whitehall thinking based on the view that Britain’s prosperity and competitiveness would depend on training and retraining a flexible and adaptable workforce. Sparks for his passion came from such earlier career experiences as involvement in drawing up the 1964 legislation that created the Industrial Training Boards and serving as secretary to the Donovan Commission (1968), which made recommendations about training reform. As chief executive of the Training Services Agency (1972–5), he developed and oversaw retraining and apprenticeship schemes, and then in 1975, as director-general of the newly formed Manpower Services Commission (MSC)—a tripartite body overseeing both training and employment exchanges—he had a more strategic role, developing a more comprehensive and ambitious manpower policy.

At a time of economic crisis and industrial change, including sharply rising unemployment, Cassels needed to deliver both shorter-term politically driven measures to alleviate youth unemployment and longer-term and more systemic policies to address what he and his colleagues argued were structural problems with the labour market and education and training provision. He straddled this dichotomy by injecting characteristics from a more strategic reform agenda into the various new and innovative job-creation and training schemes orchestrated by the MSC. This approach, for example, broadened the base of education and training providers to include private and voluntary organizations, moved away from ‘time-serving’ participation measures to objective certification of standards, and made training available to a wider range of target groups. This work laid the basis for government skills policy for the next decade.

From 1981 to 1983, Cassels was second permanent secretary at the new Management and Personnel Office, which during this period was absorbed into the Cabinet Office. For the last five years of his civil service career (1983–8), he was director-general of the National Economic Development Office, a difficult time in the life of the corporatist economic planning body, mistrusted as it was by the free-market Conservative government. One of his proudest achievements there was the establishment of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, a small but influential body that brought business and universities closer together. Appointed CB in 1978, he was knighted in 1988.

Freed from the civil service, Cassels entered an extended period of ‘retirement’ in which arguably he was just as active and influential as he had been as a public administrator. He had a particular and enduring interest in the role of good-quality vocational education in improving life chances for those groups of young people he was concerned were excluded from provision. This reflected both his compassionate values and his recognition that competitiveness for business and social cohesion could feed off each other. Within a couple of years he became chair of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders; was founding chairman of UK Skills, a not-for-profit organization set up to promote high quality in vocational training through high-profile international competitions and awards; and wrote a book, Britain’s Real Skill Shortage—And What To Do About It (1990). But perhaps his most powerful contribution came as director of the National Commission on Education (1991–5), established as an alternative Royal Commission by Sir Claus Moser. Cassels held the pen on the book it produced, Learning to Succeed (1993), aimed at and successfully reaching a general audience. It made far-reaching recommendations for improving education from the early years, through schooling, into higher and vocational education, many of which were influential in the years that followed. He also served as chairman of the Independent Inquiry into the Role and Responsibilities of the Police (1994–6), set up by the Police Federation; its recommendations led to the introduction of police community support officers.

Following that, apprenticeships became a dominant concern for Cassels. Despite his influence on the development of ‘modern apprenticeships’ in the 1990s, he remained driven by a view that the system still required radical overhaul in order to ensure quality, profile, take-up, and completion. In 2001 he was invited by the government to advise on reform of the system, as chairman of the Modern Apprenticeship Advisory Committee. Its recommendations were accepted and formed the basis of government policy for several years thereafter, including the National Modern Apprenticeship Taskforce, inaugurated by the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, in 2003 and advised by Cassels; and further reform of the apprenticeship system in 2004. Cassels was a founding member of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network in 2006 and was given its honorary apprenticeship award in 2009.

Cassels served on the governing bodies of a wide range of other public and professional organizations, too long to list but including the Institute of Manpower Studies, from 1994 the Institute of Employment Studies (1982–2009), of which he was president from 1989 to 1995; the Policy Studies Institute (1983–8); the Industrial Society (1984–93); the Association for Consumer Research (1989–94); and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (1993–2009). He was chairman of the Sussex Careers Service (1995–8) and of Richmond Adult and Community College (1996–2001). From 1998 he chaired the steering group for OnSide (later Milestones), a scheme helping the hardest-to-reach young offenders coming up for release; and from 2000 he was a trustee of the KPMG Foundation. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and of the Institute of Personnel Development, received honorary degrees from Sussex, Heriot-Watt, and Brunel universities, and was made a companion of De Montfort University.

There is great consistency in accounts of Cassels from those who worked with him across his career. He had a genial and often jovial charm with a dash of twinkling humour, but this belied a tough, inquiring, and wise mind. He had little patience with those he saw as over-theoretical, unnecessarily complicating, or inclined to pomposity or showboating. Rather, he respected and went out of his way to support those whom he perceived as sharing his endeavour to improve society through the sort of approach he had long developed and exercised. This involved judicious analysis of sound evidence, attentive listening to experts, patience in coming to conclusions, clarity of proposition, realistic assessment of implementation and timescales, and a reflex to monitor against clear and achievable targets—all peppered by a belief in the power of passion, positive thinking, and clear expression. Despite his many achievements, he was a modest man. He was never interested in promoting himself, but rather the causes for which he travailed.

Cassels lived latterly in Beverley Road, Barnes, but also had a house in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where he was able to indulge his passion for sailing, a hobby from which he regularly used metaphors in his working life. In later life he developed Alzheimer’s disease. He died on 27 February 2016 at Atfield House nursing home, Isleworth, following a stroke. He was survived by his four children.




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British Film Institute, London
British Library, National Sound Archive
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
marriage certificate
death certificate