Inconsistent, heavy with learning, occasional flashes of insight and shot through with controversy – that’s the essay written by Dominic Cummings, special adviser to Michael Gove.

Janet Downs's picture

I’ll confess. I haven’t read all 237 pages. It would need more than a tea-towel over the head and a gallon of caffeine to plough through the entire tract. So I’ve concentrated on one chapter: education.

Most education in the developed world is mediocre, Cummings claims. But there are exceptions. He praises US KIPP schools (but these performed badly in recent New York tests and Harvard research found the zero-tolerance approach favoured by KIPP hits minority students harder). US Charter Schools perform well, particularly in Massachusetts where the state regulates them. (But the latest CREDO research shows only modest progress after 20 years of investment and controversy). Academies, although no panacea, tend to perform better, he says, (but Henry Stewart’s research found they do not).

Cummings praises Finland’s schools for their “general excellence” without selection – a point made often on this site. The 11+ is too crude an instrument, he writes, but he’d still like specialist schools for the truly gifted.

Finland is also praised for its method of training teachers: top graduates undergo vigorous training before becoming qualified. But he says Qualified Teacher Status should be voluntary in England.

Universities should develop “T-shaped” students whose specialism is developed within a multi-disciplinary approach. He wants people to be self-critical, adaptable and empirical. I’d second that. He advocates a tutoring system whereby teachers use questioning to encourage pupils to think. (This is education in its purest sense – from the Latin educare "To draw out that which lies within” – and I’d agree with him.)

But he contradicts this by advocating Direct Instruction (DI) where teachers follow tightly constrained rules to deliver lessons. That’s because most teachers are mediocre.

In fact, most people are mediocre: politicians, civil servants, educators and the poor, especially the poor whose predicament, he implies, is caused by their inferior genes.

And this is where Cummings becomes controversial: “Most of the variation in performance of children in English schools is accounted for by within school factors…of which the largest factor is genes”. He cites The Sports Gene which shows how genes influence sporting prowess: physical traits can be inherited*. But how far can research into sport be applied to the brain? Nature and nurture may be interlaced”** but saying “scores in the phonics test show ~70% heritability” and “Chinese, like Jews, may have evolved genetic advantage” is skewing the balance too far towards inheritance.

Cummings cites a Science article. The abstract says:

“In circumstances where the teachers are all excellent, the variability in student reading achievement may appear to be largely due to genetics. However, poor teaching impedes the ability of children to reach their potential.”

The second statement of this paragraph is obvious – research isn’t necessary to come to that blindingly evident conclusion. But the first statement is tentative. That didn’t stop Cummings from saying the Science research found when teaching was good “the variance [in reading achievement] that remains is more due to genetic differences.” Cummings rules out all other factors such as pre-school education, child health and nutrition. When children are exposed to a good teacher of reading any variation that remains MUST, Cummings argues, be down to genes.

Cummings ends by claiming, “The widespread realisation that the dominant models for schools and universities are failing offers some hope that change will be fast and effective”

But the “dominant models” for schools in England are motivated by league tables. Cummings was right to condemn the “equivalent exams” scam but his idea of measuring improvement by “raising average performance” will only increase the excessive emphasis on results. He talks of the effectiveness of a “decentralised system” but the move is towards more centralisation. He is for the personalisation of education but the Secretary of State he advises pushes a particular curriculum for all and tells teachers how they should teach.

Cummings said he’s a fan of Thucydides. In which case, he should be familiar with the historian’s opinion on how Athens fell headlong into defeat:

“Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence.”

This could be manifesto for the Department for Education.

UPDATE 14 Ocobter 2013.  The above article has been changed.  I have added brackets around the sentence about "educare" to make it clear that this point was mine (and it appears I should have used the Latin "educere" not "educare").  I also changed a sentence where I got the words in the wrong order. I had written, "The second paragraph of this statement is obvious".  But the statement was in the paragraph not the other way round.

*For example: Donald Thomas became world high-jump No 1 after only eight months not the recommended 10,000 hours. Analysis revealed he had inherited an unusually long Achilles tendon which acted as a springboard.

**The Times, 7 September 2013, Mike Atherton’s review of The Sports Gene.


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