Consensus: but on whose terms?

When advisers to Ministers write long extended essays you wonder how they have the time on their hands to do so, and whether they are looking for a role once they leave the sanctuary of the Minister’s entourage.

Here are extracts from some of the claims about education in an essay by the education secretary’s adviser Dominic Cummings[1]

The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre. A tiny number, less than 1 percent, are educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the ‘language of nature’ and a foundation for our scientific civilisation and  only a small subset of that <1% then study trans-disciplinary issues concerning the understanding, prediction and control of complex nonlinear systems. Unavoidably, the level of one’s mathematical understanding imposes limits on the depth to which one can explore many subjects. For example, it is impossible to follow academic debates about IQ unless one knows roughly what ‘normal distribution’ and ‘standard deviation’ mean, and many political decisions, concerning issues such as risk, cannot be wisely taken without at least knowing of the existence of mathematical tools such as conditional probability. Only a few aspects of this problem will be mentioned.

There is widespread dishonesty about standards in English schools, low aspiration even for the brightest children, and a common view that only a small fraction of the population, a subset of the most able, should be given a reasonably advanced mathematical and scientific education, while many other able pupils leave school with little more than basic numeracy and some scattered,

soon-forgotten facts. A reasonable overall conclusion from international comparisons, many studies, and how universities have behaved, is that overall standards have roughly stagnated over the past thirty years (at best), there are fewer awful schools, the sharp rises in GCSE results reflect easier exams rather than real educational improvements, and the skills expected of the top 20 percent of the ability range studying core A Level subjects significantly declined (while private schools continued to teach beyond A Levels), hence private schools have continued to dominate Oxbridge entry while even the best universities have had to change degree courses substantially.

There is hostility to treating education as a field for objective scientific research to identify what different methods and resources might achieve for different sorts of pupils. The quality of much education research is poor. Randomised control trials (RCTs) are rarely used to evaluate programmes costing huge amounts of money. They were resisted by the medical community for decades (‘don’t challenge my expertise with data’) and this attitude still pervades education. There are many ‘studies’ that one cannot rely on and which have not been replicated. Methods are often based on technological constraints of centuries ago, such as lectures. Square wheels are repeatedly reinvented despite the availability of exceptional materials and subject experts are routinely ignored by professional ‘educationalists’. There is approximately zero connection between a) debates in Westminster and the media about education and b) relevant science, and little desire to make such connections or build the systems necessary; almost everybody prefers the current approach despite occasional talk of ‘evidence-based policy’. The political implications of discussing the effects of evolutionary influences on the variance of various characteristics (such as intelligence (‘g’) and conscientiousness) and the gaps between work done by natural scientists and much ‘social science’ commentary have also prevented rational public discussion.

Now Mr Cummings goes on to make many other claims in his 250 page essay, many of which I disagree with. However, I do think that many politicians have spent too much of the last half century dealing with issues about the organisation of education, and other relatively less important matters, while too often letting the big questions go unanswered, and sometimes even ignoring them completely.

I sense from his essay that Mr Cummings may be a deeply frustrated man after his period advising the Secretary of State, and I can sympathise with him. Those who made education a political football in the 1970s, mostly over the issue of non-selective secondary schooling, meant that I have spent my adult life in an environment that all too often thought if one side championed a policy it was obviously wrong, and should be reserved. It would be better if, we could create a new consensus so that as a country we can identify the key issues for change in our education system, and work towards improving them. Locally, all political parties have worked to improve standards in primary schools, but not together. For whatever Mr Cummings has to say about the secondary schools and higher education, it is in the primary schools that the foundations of learning are developed. Hopefully, this takes place alongside the child’s home and the work done within the family, but we have yet to tackle successive generational failure in this area. This is an aspect of schooling where focussed research should help by harnessing the benefits of those that achieve success with this group.

Mr Cummings has the wisdom of youth. I am reminded of that passage from Acts Chapter 2 where the writer says in the words of Mr Gove’s beloved King James translation:  ‘the young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’.  Sentiment similar to that found the words of the Old Testament prophet Joel.  Visions are necessary to replenish what we as humans strive for in the future. Personally, despite my no doubt qualifying for the title ‘old man’ in the mind of the writers of those Bible passages, I still have a vision of an improved primary school system based upon better teacher preparation and higher status for those that teach our young children. To achieve just that would be a major step forward.

Now Mr Cummings is keen on the importance mathematics, and also an understanding of statistics, so I offer him the following equation about education that I first wrote about in 2007 in a chapter I contributed to a book called ‘Reinventing the State’. My equation went as follows:

Performance = Pounds (for resources) + People (Sufficiently appropriately trained staff) + Premises (School buildings fit for purpose) + Pedagogy (An appropriate curriculum and learning methods).

To the original algorithm I added a fifth ‘P’ for Parents since, as I have already acknowledged, their role is vital. Now of course we can discuss the relative weighting of each element, but Mr Cummings is right to look for research evidence to drive success forward.

I have ignored the headline grabbing part of Mr Cummings’ essay about nature v nurture and the possible ‘showers of blood’ because others will focus on those aspects of the essay. However, the Select Committee is currently exploring the lack of achievement by White Working class boys in our school system, as this is a factor holding back a large group in society from future achievement in life, so perhaps Mr Cummings will let them know what he believes will work.

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