‘Vote Leave. Take Control.’ Who wants to take control?

Welcome to the ‘mad, bad’ world of Dominic Cummings.

For me the two biggest stories in recent months have been the introduction of a much debated new testing regime (SATS) for for 6 and 10 year olds, and the Euro referendum.

Whilst you might have heard, and made views on most of the main players in those debates, there is one man who has remained largely in the shadows who intrinsically links the two debates. And his role has been pivotal.

His name is Dominic Cummings, and whilst you might not have heard of him, you will definitely know his work. As Campaign Director for Vote Leave, it was he who coined the catchphrase “Vote Leave, Take Control”. He is also pretty much responsible for the ‘£350m a week’ line, more of which later.

Between 2007 to January 2014, he also worked as special advisor to Michael Gove, first in opposition and, and then in government when Gove became Education Minister. (Though he was considered so toxic that Andy Coulson blocked his appointment until his own resignation).

During this time he is widely credited with simultaneously being the intellectual powerhouse, and pitbull enforcer of Gove’s education reforms, including new curriculums for primary and secondary schools, more frequent and rigorous inspections, free schools, and the new tough testing regimes.

Gove liked him, because as well as providing the intellectual fuel to fit his political views, he was also great at getting stuff done. As one observer put it: “If you look like you are continually on the point of shouting, and a bit of a nutter, you can be very effective at getting things to happen. And government departments are not usually very good at making things happen. It’s remarkable what you can achieve if you don’t give a f***. Cummings has zero interest in pleasing anyone, even the Prime Minister. He has enough confidence in his own abilities”.

He has been described variously as :

‘A career psychopath’ David Cameron

‘Odious’ Nick Moon, British Polling Council

‘Either mad, bad or brilliant — and probably a bit of all three’ Patrick Wintour

Having ‘no grip on reality at all’ , Helen Goodman MP

And ‘of playing “fast and loose” with the facts’, Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of Commons Treasury Committee.

Indeed that last comment came after he appeared in front of the Treasury Committee to face questions about Vote Leave campaign. His response to questioning was a fair mix of rudeness, petulance and tortuous evasion, that would have made Rambo proud.

Famously he came under a grilling over that £350m a week figure from the Conservative Chair. It’s an almost comical exchange, made more serious by fact that for many voters, this figure has stuck. You can watch the exchange below. (More edited clips on other topics of the session are here)

It was his responses to the committee that led to the ‘ no grip on reality’ and ‘playing fast and loose with the facts’ comments. Indeed when questioned on his numbers, he muttered under his breath that Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies”. What does that even mean? As the reality of Leave bites, I think we are starting to find out.

But this is perhaps a good illustration of Cummings’ modus operandi. He is not a careerist, (indeed he has frequently sabotaged his own career), he’s a genuine idealist and believes deeply in his world view, and woe betide if you take an alternative view. Never mind the facts — the ends justify the means. When Clegg wanted to bring in free school meals, DC did his best not to just destroy the measure, but at the same time Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.

However, it would be dangerous to write this man off as a fool. He has a fascinating character and background. More akin to an evil genius cartoon figure, plotting to wipe out anyone he regards as inferior, so he can impose his superior, ‘Odyssean’ way of running things.

Indeed, he has a proven track record of destroying institutions that don’t fit his worldview — bureaucracies, established thinking, and opponents, including infamously the ‘blob’ of the teaching profession. He successfully led the campaign against the UK joining the Euro, and against a North East regional assembly. Hence being considered a good person to fight membership of EU. (Indeed it is rumoured that Gove insisted on his presence on the Leave campaign as a bait to secure his support.)

He graduated from Oxford with a First in Ancient and Modern History. He spent a few years after college in Russia, trying to set up an airline. The airline only got one passenger, before he returned home. On his return he spent two and a half YEARS, in a bunker on his fathers farm, reading science history to try and understand the world.

He pretty much threw up all this reading into his magnum opus, a two hundred and thirty seven page essay, on ‘an ‘Odyssean’ Education’, innocuously titled, Some thoughts on education and political priorities’.

It is, as Patrick Wintour says ‘mad, bad, or brilliant’. It’s totally show offy intellectualism. Breathless spewing of high brow sources and wisdom, in a desperate graspy quest to develop a coherent world view. The kind of world view that you get when your over active mind is left alone without challenge with science books for too long.

The general upshot of his paper is that our politicians and institutions are too stupid to understand the complexities of the modern world. Only the appliance of maths, science and data can hope to make sense of the things ‘without requiring a deep specialist understanding of every area’, (see direct link to suspicion of ‘experts’). He envisages a ‘meritocratic technopolis’, a kinda super powered data driven world of science, competition and progress. Its aggressive free market libertarianism, or as someone put it ‘Thatcher on steroids’.

Pretty much every education reform by Gove and his successor can be traced back to this paper. He is fiercely critical of what he saw as the mediocrity of our education system. He advocates tough discipline, extended school hours, a heavy focus on maths and reading, empirical data driven performance, breaking the influence of unions, economies of scale, academisation and so on. Sound familiar? These all became government policy. It’s all there. (P62–83 is about Education).

It’s selectively sourced and referenced, and I can see how it could be used to influence decision makers. But much of it is pure, dangerous, destructive, nonsense.

When the reforms to the primary-level national curriculum were being developed in 2011, an Expert Panel was assembled featuring the great and the good of the education world. Weirdly it was chaired by a Director of an exam board, Tim Oates, someone with no hands or academic experience of early years education. During the process several of the experts tried to resign when the changes were been steered towards been too ‘prescriptive, unworkable, narrow and unrealistic.’

When the final proposals came out, it was clear that many of the Expert Panel’s recommendations had been replaced altogether by text produced by Tim Oates and ‘nominees of the Minister for Schools’, widely thought to be Dominic Cummings. The Expert Panel had been bypassed, refused to endorse the outcomes, and several of them did resign.

One of them, Professor Robin Alexander, an expert of some 40 years, went as far as to say the proposed reforms were “neo Victorian”, “educationally inappropriate and pedagogically counter-productive”.

Others wrote about the the lack of curriculum breadth with little room for the Arts; ‘the curricular constraints placed on teachers with the changes being far too “prescriptive”; the lack of emphasis on the oral development of children; the lack of detailed aims for the curriculum as a whole, indicating that the curriculum has no sound philosophical or theoretical basis’. Ouch. Damn experts…

But perhaps the best illustration of the mad and the bad of his thinking (leaving aside his interesting views on education, intelligence and genetics), is his views on the teaching profession.

He acknowledges Finland’s brilliantly consistent (test and league table free) education system, and the roots of its success being in recruiting, and training the best graduates to a high level. However, he says the concept of hiring and training brilliant teachers is not scalable in the UK:

‘Perhaps we should also stop discussing schools as if we are going to have a quarter of a million ‘brilliant’ teachers and instead think about what to do with tens of thousands of roughly averagely talented people.’

Nice..feeling valued yet? And what might that mean?

‘We need schools in chains that spread proven approaches…. without relying on innovation, inspiration, and talent.’

I kid you not…

In Cummings’ world this means ‘Direct Instruction’ (DI), in which teachers follow tightly constrained rules to deliver lessons,…. instead of reinventing square wheels.’

And there you have it… teachers as automatrons, teaching kids like robots, all controlled and measured by numbers. What he calls ‘A scientific approach to teaching practice…’. Welcome to education in 2016.

Not once in the paper does he talk about the needs of children, the value and importance of empathy, emotions, literature, art or music, (unless in the the context of advancement of science).

And the result of the reforms has been the biggest teacher recruitment and retention crisis in a generation.

The figures are staggering and a national disgrace. 50,000 teachers left the profession last year, that’s nearly 11% of the workforce. Four in 10 new teachers quit within a year.

Turns out Direct Instruction doesn’t provide much job satisfaction. Who’d have thought? One of my friends, a primary school teacher describes her work now as like living under a dark cloud. A joyless tick box sausage factory.

The point is, you can force teachers and pupils to do well in tests. But the chances are you going to fail them in terms of providing an good education, if the tests and narrow and inappropriate. Narrow curriculum, narrow tests, performance judged on the tests, narrow education, narrow minds.

And now he has turned his fire on the EU. It’s a perfect Cummings target. In his eyes, bloated and remote, a bureaucracy more interested in spending money, than making a measurable difference. Another ‘blob’.

Despite having set up and being Campaign Director for the Vote Leave campaign, he turned out to be such a difficult divisive figure, that he was removed from its board earlier this year.

He retained operational control however, prepping the lead Brexiters in his kitchen before the BBC’s Big Debate. And he again showed how he was willing to use any means necessary to try and destroy something if it doesn’t fit with his world view. Truth seemingly being a mere inconvenient restraint, and hate and fear of others a legitimate weapon.

As an example he tweeted one of his campaign posters.

Aside from the foggy truth of whether Turkey is set to imminently to join the EU or not, what is this poster really saying? Let’s be honest it’s saying if you fear foreigners coming to live amongst us, (especially brown ones), the EU is going to make that happen in massive numbers. It’s actually no better or worse than Farage’s poster for which he got rightly and roundly lambasted for.

So for all those who voted leave to take control, these are the people who will take control. A world where data outweighs humanity; creativity and inspiration are relegated to footnotes in the support of the progress of tests, maths and science; and empathy, warmth, and love are replaced by psychopaths intent on producing robots.

Good fucking luck.