Saturday 12 October 2013

Dominic Cummings Thesis on Education reported @patrickwintour in The @guardian: A response

I have a thesis about education ministers: if we connected the personal biographies of successive Secretaries of State for Education with their political actions in office we would be able to identify strong correlations between family circumstance (household income, emotional stability or upheaval, social capital, schooling, career development) and political orientation. (Actually, the same could be said of all of us who hold an opinion about education.) In defending my thesis, I would argue that it shows the difficulty in arriving at any kind of objectivity about education. It might also highlight the patterns of early attachments which give rise to politicians who are convinced that they are privileged with not only a unique objectivity about education, but also a sense of entitlement to lead the country's teachers and students along the right path towards the golden future - whatever the consequences. Political opinion about education has an ontogeny which we can inspect in hindsight and which we ought to be aware of in our challenge to ministers in office.

Dominic Cummings is a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Education. Shortly before his departure from Mr. Gove's office, he has written "Some thoughts on Education and Political Priorities". I haven't read this report - but I will rely on the account of it written in by Patrick Wintour in The Guardian.

According to Wintour, Mr. Cummings doesn't appear to like education very much. Cummings complains that "there is widespread dishonesty about standards in English schools and low aspirations" - a critique which drives his main point that we are letting the cleverest children down. "The block to higher performance is the management and quality of teaching in the school," he argues - the solution being the reduction of government regulation, reducing the Department for Education to "the employment of accountants and inspectors". He also complains about "useless" courses in "third-rate universities".

Cummings exhibits the rationalistic ingenuity of an engineer as he talks about militaristic reforms to the civil service which would make the firing of poorly performing civil servants much easier. But his engineering ambition is most eloquently expressed as he compares the UK to Apple Corp, arguing that Britain needs to reshape its product line. Bring on the iPhones (and let's not talk too loudly about the conditions under which they are manufactured). It's the kind of language that ought to make him ineligible for running any organisation (but apparently he wants to run a "Free School" - one wonders what sense of the word 'free' he has in mind!)

People like this are a problem - not just because they are powerful and many of us find these views objectionable, but because in objecting, we ourselves are caught in the same "objectivity" trap that debates in education and social policy expose. What ought to be a critical debate is reduced to journalist brickbats. The deep problem is that education ministers of all political colour treat the "education debate" as a vehicle for their own career ambitions and not as a genuine attempt to create the conditions for the cultivation of the future (to be fair to Cummings, he explicitly identifies this tendency in others - but chooses not to see it in himself!). It may be that our political system is to blame for this - after all, educational interventions are a slow-burn: an economic policy decision may see GDP rise or fall within a parliamentary term with electoral consequences. Educational interventions (for example, Comprehensive Schools) may take 20 years, and perhaps in the context of political careers, it is inevitable that there is merely a 'mock seriousness' about policy.

But Cummings laying his cards on the table like this is an opportunity for which we should be grateful. But we have to engage in a different kind of political debate. Instead of objecting to his points, we need to ask the 'powerful questions' both of Cummings and ourselves that will expose the deep differences in how he and we think the world works. We should see Cummings as opening a debate about "social ontology". That sounds grander than it is: it simply means saying "Given that these things you say may be happening in education (e.g. poor schools, etc) what do you think the world is like?"

We all have a metaphysics sitting beneath our opinions of education. This is because the study of mind, of intellectual life, learning, teaching and daily experience (all of which belong to education) are not things which belong to the domain of naturalistic inquiry. Behind any educational opinion, one can find metaphysical ontologies ranging from religious fundamentalism, cognitivism to solipsism. The differences between these are fundamental and, one would hope, their exposure ought to encourage greater humility, practicality and humanity in our approach to the messy business of education. Cummings has a fashionable metaphysics that underpins his educational opinion: 'genetics'. Without articulating exactly how he believes specific genes exercise causal powers in the biological morphogenesis that turns cells into embryos and embryos into education ministers, Cummings says "it's all about the genes".

He should be challenged about this. He should be challenged to articulate his genetic metaphysics. He should be confronted with the logical consequences of the mechanisms he describes (if he can describe it). If he can't describe any mechanisms, he should be challenged to try. He should be challenged to explain the gaps between a logically-emerged social world from his abstract genetic principles and the real world he sees around him - even those aspects of that world which he likes. And perhaps, on seeing the explanatory deficiencies of his ontology which can be exposed for all to see, he might be given cause to think again.

Education is the domain where critical scientific inquiry, political discourse, democratic legitimation and practical operationalisation meet. We need clever people like Cummings (I'll stop short of saying we need Gove!). But we need them to think harder. But they will only do this if there is a space for them to be effectively challenged. The onus is on all of us to think better about education.


Anonymous said...

Read the report.

Mark Johnson said...

Working through it now. Will I change my mind do you think?

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, well said.