Dominic Cummings invites specific criticism: what does he get?

The former adviser to education secretary Michael Gove trawls for constructive criticism on policy, but will not stand for general whining

July 31, 2014

During his time as Michael Gove’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings elicited almost as many controversial headlines as his boss. So a post on “Dominic Cummings’s Blog” is always likely to pique interest.

In a departure from politicians’ and civil servants’ traditional staunch defence of policies, he offers an “Open Policy Experiment”, “specifically [inviting] criticism of what we did” in relation to the Department for Education’s changes to initial teacher training (ITT) and the introduction of the controversial School Direct policy.

Given the amount of condemnation the changes evoked, Mr Cummings is quick to issue a disclaimer that he is not inviting “abuse, praise, general whining” but “specific criticism that can be used to improve things”.

A “curse”, he writes, of being in the DfE was “generalised whining” and the fact that, when asked about the specificities of complaints, “<1% of people had an answer”.

Mr Cummings points out that “DfE ministers, spads, and officials watch this blog” – as well as his former boss, the now ex-education secretary Michael Gove – so the impact could be substantial.

“Gove is going to be involved in writing the next Tory manifesto,” he says. “Therefore if you can show why something is wrong/stupid, you have a chance to influence him and give him ammo to head off the appalling stream of gimmicks that are…being cooked up.”

Unfortunately, the first poster to the discussion does not seem to take Mr Cummings’ comments on board about the need for specifics. “Shut down all the PGCEs,” declares ollieorange2. “Teaching is a very practical subject that you learn by doing.” Mr Cummings replies that “I’ll OK this comment this time but only to use it as an example of what I do NOT want to see”.

Later comments stay better aligned with Mr Cummings’ brief, but it’s not long before a defence of universities’ involvement in ITT appears. debrakidd offers a lengthy comment on the reasons educational research is key to teacher development. “I disagree that teaching is an entirely practical process – it is also an intellectual one and we should have a professional responsibility to keep up to date,” she writes.

Amid toing and froing about the relative merits of school- and university-based training, huntingenglish asks for more transparency in ITT.

“Ensure all core literature from ITT courses, such as lesson plan templates and course outlines, can be accessed publicly to ensure transparency and quality,” he writes. “More generally, transparency about recruitment of trainees and retention etc. should be shared by all SD [School Direct] schools.”

Mr Cummings responds, probably to the chagrin of higher education institutions: “Before I left I was working on a plan to get all ITT providers to put their materials on the web. There was a lot of resistance and bleating about IP from HEIs but I was hopeful it would happen. It has not. I’m told that lawyers have, as usual, kicked up a fuss.”

However, divisions aside, Mr Cummings is praised by many respondents for addressing the thorny issue of ITT so openly. “Pleased to see this and guarantee this will not be wasted time on your part,” says @TeacherToolkit.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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