Dominic Cummings’ essay, Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities reads like an answer to the mythical examination question, ‘Write down everything you know.” It is 237 pages long (A4, not paperback) and ranges over human intellectual experience from Thucydides to modern maths and genetics, via Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, and whoever else springs to mind.

It slams into what Mr Cummings sees as mediocrity, not just in the school system but in universities, including Oxford’s precious course in philosophy, politics and economics, which he sees as giving future MPs a smattering of philosophy and too little knowledge of maths to tackle the complex problems they face. 60 per cent, he says, could not solve the simple probability question of the odds against two heads in a row when tossing a fair coin (I make them 3-1).

Most students, he says, do not work hard enough, or, perhaps more accurately, do not do enough academic work. This is probably true – it’s difficult to keep up with the reading when you have to spend all your spare time working behind a bar. “One or two essays per term” may be an exaggeration, but my wonderful ex-Oxford tutor at UEA in the seventies told us how she had written two essays per week, or three per fortnight, which was a sight more than we did. Many arts students outside Oxford are indignant about the lack of teaching they receive in return for their fees, and Mr Cummings has a fair point here.

As indeed he does elsewhere. This essay is not spin.  Some free schools / academies, he says, will fail and be subject to fraud. This has happened, and was always a likely consequence of knocking down education’s Berlin Wall. Fortunately, Ofsted is equipped to identify such things and to close places down if they don’t shape up quickly, though Mr Cummings does not acknowledge this. He is similarly frank about academies – Ark and Harris excellent, but others just as bad as other schools in “gaming the system” to make themselves look good.

Similarly, some teachers  are excellent, but excellence will never be the norm. This is absolutely true, and it was downright stupid of Labour to remove from Ofsted reports the cameos on excellent teaching that put them in the spotlight so that we could all learn from them. His point on academies is more dubious, as he does not take time to consider the full spectrum – such evidence as we have shows academies improving at a faster rate than other schools, and Theodore Agnew and Rachel de Souza made an impressive case for Inspiration East academies, not connected with Ark or Harris, on Look East this Sunday morning.

People claiming to understand the whole of Mr Cummings’ paper, particularly on a first reading, probably need to look more closely. Some of the maths is genuinely heavyweight material and much of my own work in maths is at the humbler level of the two times table because too many children don’t know it. Hardly Fields medal material. However, Mr Cummings is sometimes impulsive. For example, he seems to
accept the view expressed in the paper “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics” that we are governed by universal rules.

I don’t believe it, or, at least, not always. For example, the old Bell Curve approach at A-level, which allocated grades to fixed percentages of candidates around the mean, was made to work by manipulating grade boundaries so that there might have been only two or three marks between an A and a C. The outcome was too much emphasis on one or two small points, inaccurate grading and frequent injustice. It’s a bit like finding a piece of a jigsaw that fits nearly but not quite, and then banging it with your fist. Most of us have done it, and it doesn’t quite work.

Mr Cummings is also too keen on randomised controlled trials as the only valid source of knowledge. This misrepresents the nature of medical research by identifying the whole of it in terms of one branch – clinical trials of new drugs. Randomised trials will help choose between two clear alternatives, but have limitations in education. You can’t run a blind trial, as teachers need to know what they’re doing, and partially-sighted trials are not a valid scientific method.

The real gaping hole in the argument lies in surgery. Two of the greatest advances in history, anaesthesia and antisepsis, were made in the course of clinical practice and  Lister’s papers in The Lancet, 1867, are not the result of controlled trials. More on this issue, here.

For the Left, of course, Mr Cummings’ offence is the g word.  Steven Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at UCL , recently told the Saffron Walden Literary Festival that roughly 120 separate genes might be involved in intelligence, and that average IQ had increased by around 30 points over the past 100 years.

We can assume that genetics influence intellectual capacity, as they do everything else, but we don’t yet know how, or how they interact with other factors.  However, the mention of the word in an educational context leads to accusations of fascism and comparisons with Heinrich Himmler. This is why Mr Cummings’ paper has drawn a record number of comments from furious Guardian readers, and even broken the record for my own little site (547 hits on Saturday). His critics’ attempt at a fatwa has not worked.

22 comments for: John Bald: The impulsiveness of Dominic Cummings

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