Unmasked: Gove attack dog Dominic Cummings who turned schools into a war zone

In a rare public appearance, Dominic Cummings joined The Independent’s Richard Garner on a panel to discuss the future of education. So was his bite as bad as his bark?

The offer to share a conference platform with Dominic Cummings, the man who became a hate figure to many in education, seemed like too good an offer to refuse.

Michael Gove’s former policy adviser gained a formidable reputation as a ruthless and passionate champion of his master’s education reforms and was not above claiming that those – especially journalists – who criticised the reforms were either lying or had mental-health problems.

He once responded to a comment piece I had written by suggesting that I seek advice on a “good therapist”. Labour called for a formal investigation into claims in the Observer linking him and fellow adviser Henry de Zoete to the @toryeducation Twitter feed which had attacked the paper’s political editor Toby Helm as a “Labour stooge”. The former Financial Times education correspondent Chris Cook was described as a “stalker” and a Walter Mitty-type character.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was at Downing Street Mr Cummings was vetoed as unsuitable to be Mr Gove’s adviser – only to move in to help Mr Gove immediately after Mr Coulson resigned.

We were to take part in an Any Questions session at the Northern Rocks education festival at Leeds Metropolitan University. Others on the panel included Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, and Mick Waters, formerly in charge of the national curriculum – both of whom could probably qualify for membership of “The Blob”, as Mr Gove often dubs his opponents. (For what it’s worth, the Blob is a human-eating amoeba in a 1950s science fiction film starring Steve McQueen).

 

This would be the first time I and the audience of teachers would have heard him speak in public. His previous role did not give him that opportunity – special advisers are not supposed to become the news story, as Tony Blair’s equally infamous spin doctor Alastair Campbell once said, allegedly.

Mr Cummings did not disappoint in terms of controversial comments. The panel was asked how teachers could keep up their morale in view of the constant “talking down” of their professionalism by the education standards watchdog Ofsted and the Department for Education.

“On Ofsted – I think it is clear Ofsted needs a fundamental reform,” he said. “Ofsted needs rethinking from first base.”

It was a popular choice for politicians wanting to court publicity. He cited the incident of a photo-call organised by Downing Street between David Cameron and Olympic athlete Mo Farah, to highlight school sport.

Mr Gove’s Liberal Democrat Schools Minister David Laws, he added, was constantly asking Ofsted for help – particularly over his “pupil premium” (giving schools more cash for taking in disadvantaged pupils) where he wanted Ofsted to find out if the cash was being wasted.

“Ofsted has very profound problems,” he said – one of which was that it faced too much political interference.

“Ofsted is the ‘go-to’ organisation for MPs when they’ve got a speech to make and they want to get on the TV and the newspapers,” he added, “It is a default mode [for MPs] and it is very damaging.”

Perhaps not surprisingly he struck a common chord here both with the audience of teachers – who clapped him – and with Mr Courtney of the NUT, which also wants fundamental reform of school inspections.

The devil, though, comes in the detail. He admitted he had not spent much time on devising an alternative to the current system while in office, “because it is politically untenable”, even though everyone “except the three major parties and Sir Michael Wilshaw” agreed that change was necessary.

“I would strip the whole thing right back – my approach would be simplicity,” he added. Ofsted’s function would be as a “finder of failure”.

The NUT, Mr Courtney said, was in favour of schools carrying out their own self-assessments which would then be moderated, to make sure they were being carried out effectively.

Mr Waters added: “There have been so many changes of policy [in the way Ofsted carries out inspections] that it would be in special measures [ie failing] if it was a school.”

At first sight, Mr Cummings seemed on equally solid ground over a passionate plea to take as much power over education away from Whitehall and Westminster as possible.

“There is an overall argument about the nature of the education system – expecting politicians and Whitehall to solve all the problems,” he said.

He cited as “ridiculous”, for instance, the idea of politicians deciding on the regulations for Qualified Teacher Status. “Don’t look to London and Whitehall to solve problems like Qualified Teacher Status,” said Mr Cummings.

However, he counselled against setting up some kind of Royal College of Teaching to determine such matters “because all the unions would want representation on it”.

He said his years in Whitehall had made him realise how many millions of pounds were wasted with unnecessary meetings and bureaucracy – and that many functions could be transferred away from it.

Again the idea was well received by the audience but Mr Courtney cautioned: “What Dominic is really talking about is the privatisation of the education system.”

For good measure, Mr Cummings also recommended taking powers away from ministers for determining the content of A-level and GCSE syllabuses. This follows controversy over the exam boards’ decision to drop books such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird after advice from Mr Gove to place more emphasis on English novelists.

“I still think it would be a very good idea to get Westminster and Whitehall out of the business of setting exams,” he said. The present system was “intrinsically corrupt”.

However, Mr Cummings argued that such a move would not be supported by teachers’ leaders. “The trade unions want control of the exam system to remain because they think if we get a Labour government we can control what’s on offer,” he said.

His performance bore the hallmarks of a man more relaxed now that he no longer had to deal with 2am emergency meetings to discuss affairs of state, and who had got his life back.

Controversial? Yes. Acerbic? No. Most of the audience probably would not have equated him with his former reputation.

It was the kind of performance one could have associated with a Secretary of State… But don’t go down that road. That involves giving up your life again.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas