Peter Housden, 50, will lead the department's schools directorate, responsible for the development and implementation of policy on early years, childcare and schools. He will be one of the key advisers on schools policy to the secretary of state Estelle Morris and will have a critical role in implementing proposals put forward in the education white paper due in September.
Mr Housden will begin work in October, taking over from David Normington, who is now the DfES permanent secretary.
Mr Normington said: 'Mr Housden brings deep knowledge of the education service as both a former teacher and chief education officer, plus the wider leadership skills of a chief executive. This is the first time we have appointed someone to this post from outside the civil service and his appointment is an important part of opening up the DfES to a wider range of skills and experience.'
'There are of course real challenges to be overcome, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to carry forward this agenda at national level.
'There is no more important task in public service.'