The new comms chief will take charge at a delicate time for the department, which is attempting to improve public confidence in the schools system and gain support for reforms, particularly in secondary education.
Government handling of education took a battering last year when thousands of children were unable to start school because police checks on teachers had not been completed in time.
Public confidence was further eroded when hundreds of A-level papers had to be regraded.
The communications director will oversee a comms budget of £24m, one of the largest in the country, and has responsibility for around 250 staff.
Wanless is remaining within the civil service, taking a non-PR role as director of the DfES's Secondary Education Group.