The testament of Dominic Cummings, adviser to Michael Gove

Sally Tomlinson's picture

Without wishing to give more of the  oxygen of publicity to education  minister Michael Gove’s soon –to-depart adviser Dominic Cummings, the  long  study he apparently presented to Gove last August is politically important. It gives some indication of the kind of  advice Gove has been receiving. before and after taking office, although Gove is well aware that his adviser has over the years caused some concern to civil servants and is  too good a politician to back some of the  views expressed in this study.

I read the version of “ Some thoughts on education and political priorities “ as I would the theses of the  125 doctoral students I have examined over the years, and had a version of 237 pages dated 25th August 2013 on my computer.  The comment in the summary that “ The education of the majority even in rich countries is awful to mediocre” was certainly enough to grab attention, and pages 62-83 were devoted to a critique of education with an Endnote on pages 194-223 elaborating on this critique.

The study certainly demonstrates a very wide range of reading, taking in  physics, quarks, complex systems, mathematics, predictive modelling, evolutionary biology, solar systems and space, biogenetic and biological engineering, and other areas, with a final philosophical section, and all of it indispersed with  information from his own Oxford degree  in ancient and modern history.  ( Thucydides is much admired)  The problem is that with such a wide range the  reading must necessarily be selective  and demonstrates the danger of relying too much on the views of a few ‘experts’.

The comments that have attracted most attention in the press has been his return to the century old debates on the relative contribution of genes and environment to  school performance, the ‘IQ’debate and heritability. If Cummings has indeed been advising his Minister on the superiority of genetic inheritance in test performance,  arguing as he does that “political pressure to spend money on such things as Sure Start” has resulted in “billions spent with no real gain”, then  teachers, parents and anyone with an interest in the education of future generations needs to be aware of this.

He appears to have missed the furore which ensued in 1969 when American Arthur Jensen, a former student of England’s Cyril Burt,  produced his essay on “ How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement” which argued that differences in IQ were largely inherited and that average differences between white and black children were largely determined by genetic differences between ‘races’. Cumming’s understanding of  the issues depend heavily on the work of Professor Robert Plomin, an American scholar now at Kings College, London, who has a long record in the psychometric tradition, especially carrying out with twin studies, and  who  is quoted on p73 as asserting that scores in national curriculum  tests at 7-9 and 12 show 60% -70% dependence on heritability. Phonics tests apparently show 70% of attainment depends on genes. Cummings also relies on the work of Professor Steven Hsu. Professor of Physics now at Michigan  State university and a successful  entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Both these Professors have links with the Beijing Genetics Institute.

Cummings wide reading has missed that modern genetics has moved on from what in a letter in the Guardian(17/10/2013) he called the ‘standard scientific definition of heritability’ to the new science of epigenetics in which studies are already finding that attempting to find genes closely associated with educational attainment is something of a non-starter.  Cummings also quotes as evidence a study by Lewis Terman from the 1920s to the 1950s  which took 857 men, women added later, who had been designated as ‘gifted’ by their teachers and who had  successful careers and lives. Critics of this study pointed out that the sample  consisted largely of upper middle class white males. Cummings presumable also missed that Terman produced an earlier study in 1916 which stressed the ‘racial dullness’ of Mexican American  and black  children, recommending that the latter be segregated  in education. as they could not master concepts. As noted above, even Gove would not find too many votes in telling the working class and minorities that they had inferior genes! But of course  there are still many voters who believe in fixed IQ and selective schooling.

Cummings study critiques a wide range of educational practice, especially in higher education,  castigating Oxford degrees and politicians who have no mathematical or scientific training, his answer to this being is to appoint more experts as Lords, who could then lecture the Commons. He moves on to explain“ Why markets work” in a section relying heavily on free-market guru Friedrich Hayek. His worries that our ‘fragile civilisation’ will depend on  new  modes of education and recommends an Odyssean education comprising maths, science including genetics,, social science, and humanities. I  would certainly go along with this although I fear the reading list he adds would prove rather too right- wing for me.





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