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The education policy odyssey of Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings is now Boris Johnson's de facto Chief of Staff at Number 10 Downing Street. But who is he really, what is an "Oddysean Education", and what might that mean for the sector. David Kernohan finds out.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe.


Oxford-educated former DfE policy person gets big political job. Writes incessantly about changes to the machinery of government. Is alternately praised as an otherworldly genius and castigated for a kind of maniacal oddness.

It’s a tale as old as time. And a tale that perhaps describes OfS chair Michael Barber and Number 10 Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings equally well. For both, the civil service is there entirely to deliver ministerial goals, but where Barber would nudge and measure compliance into being, or maybe bring in consultants – Cummings would start a fight. In his own words:

 Barber’s ‘deliverology’ is better than government by spin and gimmick, but is only a recipe for forcing a few priorities through routinely incompetent bureaucracies.

Some fights Dominic Cummings has started

Cummings’s first mainstream news coverage was a note in the Guardian diary that involved him starting an actual fight with the chair of the CBI’s small business council at an event in 1999. (He denied any fracas at the time, before admitting the two men “stumbled into each other”). This was while he worked for the Business for Sterling Campaign – such behaviour clearly marked Cummings out for great things, such as describing the Conservative party as being less popular than the Euro and lambasting them for being “in the shallow end of the talent pool”. While he was working for the party in 2004.

He spent some time “helping out” at the Spectator in 2006 – he never actually made it into the office, but instead “kick-started” the website by publishing the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Deputy Editor Mary Wakefield (for it was she), thought this “lunatic” was trying to get her blown up. Reader – she married him.

He was first linked to the germinating idea of a “Leave” campaign around the same time, during Blair’s phoney referendum period. As no one could make the idea stick to “Teflon Tony” such febrile talk fizzled out too, and Cummings became a skilled purveyor of outlandish colour quotes for journalists writing “whither the Tory party?” think pieces, once cautioning the Conservatives to avoid getting “side-tracked into extremely contentious issues for which they are unprepared”

The general public is incapable of abstract reasoning, so individual cases have a long tradition in politics. The Tories should be doing this kind of thing on street crime. You want examples of people who’ve had their heads kicked in on a Friday night and the police haven’t turned up for 20 minutes. (The Times, 2005)

Some more fights Dominic Cummings has started

As a Michael Gove SpAd his appointment was initially vetoed by none less than Andy Coulson. Some reports suggest he participated in DfE meetings before he finally joined in 2011, and had a hand in the establishment of the free schools charity “New Schools Network” (later employer of both Nick Timothy and Toby Young) with another Gove official, Rachel Wolf.

Gove’s reign at DfE was a particularly combative one. The secretary of state positioned himself in direct opposition to what he saw as the vested interests of teachers and education specialists (“the blob”). Free schools were just one facet of a campaign that also took in the cancellation and subdued restart of a school buildings repair programme, an ever increasing move towards academisation, Gove sending a Bible to every school in the UK, and a series of micro-level interventions into the minutiae of the curriculum.

In all this chaos Cummings managed to last until August of that year before sparking a scandal – with a leaked email demonstrated a keenness to keep discussions with Gove and others to private accounts only. Tales of selective deletions of emails within DfE followed – as did an £11k (performance-related?) pay rise.

A couple of years later rumours emerged that he (with fellow SpAd Henry de Zoete) was behind the @ToryEducation twitter account that focused on the hurling of inventive personal abuse at members of the press, Labour, and the Lib Dems. A suspiciously Cummings-like turn of phrase found its way as an anonymous quote into the Spectator – former Childrens’ Minister Tim Loughton was a “lazy, incompetent, narcissist”.

Meanwhile, a senior DfE official received a £25,000 payout after allegations of bullying by Cummings and others. This story wound its way through the Commons Education Committee – where Cummings’ “random acts of verbal aggression” and “use of obscene and intimidating language” entered the public record.

Dominic Cummings – visionary thought-leader?

Incredibly, he hung on at DfE until late 2013, at which point he resigned ostensibly to run a free school. Then a long, rambling, disjointed, draft essay entitled “On an Odyssean Education” was leaked to the Guardian.

This essay – and subsequent lengthy blog posts – are the root of his largely undeserved reputation as a thinker about education. The text instead focuses on how terrible politicians and civil servants are, and disguises a simplistic thesis (in essence, people should learn more about the stuff that Cummings thinks is important, then they could be as smart as he is) always with a torrential blizzard of references and quotations.

If you’d sat in as many terrible techno-determinist edtech keynotes as I have, you’d find the style familiar – at least until you spotted the familial resemblance to neo-reactionaries like Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land. To be fair, I don’t think Cummings (or even most terrible techno-determinist edtech keynotes) are alt-right fellow travellers – he, like many, had simply been fishing in some of the same ideological rivers.

There are concepts grounded in cybernetic theory, modern (for 2013) thinking about predictions, John Boyd’s “to be or to do?” ideas, and lots and lots of technology. The intellectual scaffold spans Pericles and Sun Tzu, via Google Scholar. If you are thinking this sounds like semi-scholarly work you’d be right. Like Boris Johnson, Cummings is reliving his undergraduate heyday, but as a library-dwelling tryhard rather than a raconteur and character.

Dostoevsky and determinism

What is an Oddysean education, in a nutshell? Integrated multi-disciplinary problem based learning at scale. The following quote encapsulates both the idea and the sources.

We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling, who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project.

The education sector needs urgently to develop “synthesisers”, but this feels like a Yamaha DX7 where nobody gets beyond the presets. Transdisciplinary thinking is presented as a (literal) list of Great Men and Great Works, sophistication as spotting links between them – Kim’s Game in footnotes, if you like. But on education, there’s the reliance on empiricism, biological determinism, and “what works” that belies a man that’s never run a serious educational research project.

Many would go with him on the need for more, and better considered, funding for science – the class of 2010 obsession with DARPA is present and correct as it is for many (including Barber) who go in for ahistorical anecdotes about government failures and silicon valley success.

But on education per se, Cummings falls short. We’re back to the old disruptive menu – standards are slipping, exams are easier, only private schools are any good. We need more rote learning (now with a fashionable neuroscientific gloss) and fewer educational fads (like, er, problem-based learning). A recent blog post sees Cummings recommend an honest-to-god digital flashcard app.

All undergraduates should take science and maths courses – the old “T-shaped” student stuff. Lectures are terrible, but a MOOC “tsunami” is coming to sweep away the long tail of “third tier” university courses that are “wasting their time” on social sciences (Cummings has a degree in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford) so we can all have more – guess what? – oxbridge tutorials. The march of technology will lead to “generally useful, occasionally damaging, reform”.

And everywhere there are quotes. Great men, great books, great equations. All to build more people with the skills Cummings believes sets him apart.

Take back control

Not even Benedict Cumberbatch could make a man who stands accused of, at best, unethical use of data into a sympathetic character. But the massively popular portrayal softened his generally nasty edges and gave him an air of supernatural insight (yes, like Sherlock – or Moffat-era Doctor Who) that cemented a largely undeserved reputation as a wizard with his finger on the pulse.

Rewatching An Uncivil War, you note how many beats are borrowed from horror films – but “the hum” or “the groan” that sees Cumberbatch lie on a Jaywick payment makes him as much a victim as a visionary.

But it fits him, however uncomfortably, into a popular nerd hero mould – a man who sees further than others, hamstrung by an abrasive interpersonal disregard and a deep, if ill-defined, personal tragedy. Hugh Laurie as House MD. Cumberbatch (again!) in The Imitation Game. Alexander Armstrong, frankly, as Danger Mouse.

This conflation of data with demonology, mathematics with magic, sets many dabblers up as something they are not. Cummings, to give him credit, got where he is by listening to people who have done astounding things. He’s not the Leave messiah (though he is, clearly, a very naughty boy) and leaving the blame for the rends in the nation at the door of his digital divination undersells the sustained genuine nastiness from politicians and commentators who should have known better.

He’s not the cause of all our problems, and sadly for Boris he’s not a solution either. Cummings is a project manager, and if he stopped getting into trouble he’d be a good one. To manage a Brexit that solves more chaos than it causes would require the hero (or villain) that some build him up to be. But he’s absolutely likely to break lockdown restrictions during a pandemic, probably by driving to a small northern market town like Bishop Auckland or Barnard Castle with his family in the car. Of that we can be certain.

6 responses to “The education policy odyssey of Dominic Cummings

  1. This is a very insightful analysis and sort of confirms my views on him since I first heard mention of his name as an education adviser to Gove back in 2008 or 2009 I think. I had been working for 6 or 7 years in maths ed policy for the Royal Society and we’d managed to stem the flight from A-level Maths precipitated by Curriculum 2000 changes etc. I’ve tweeted that I hope he focuses on Brexit and leaves education alone, which would probably be best for him and the rest of us, but has he been known to listen to others if they don’t agree with his first principles? That takes maturity of course …

  2. Yudkowsky isn’t a neo-reactionary, in fact he’s explicitly opposed to them, was the reason they all left LessWrong. Neither is Nick Land, who’s an accelerationist. Cummings may be one though, it’s hard to pin his politics down, he seems to hate the Tories, but also everyone else.

  3. What the article describes is the profile of a talented fan boy. Oddly enough I was talking to someone earlier today whose partner thinks Cummings is working for some Russian agency – that time spent in post-perestroikadom etc. Yet another weird take on the story.

  4. Any bets that the continued school chaos over the summer and into the new school year will feed into a government narrative for a simplified “catch-up” curriculum that focuses on the very subjects Cummings believes are important – delivered by a seamless public/private partnership? No doubt delivered via digital flash cards. Nothing like a pandemic for getting the dirty work done.

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