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).
In pictures: Michael Gove's most controversial policies
In pictures: Michael Gove's most controversial policies
1/5 Free Schools
Free schools, which operate independently from their local authority but receive state funding, continue to fuel controversy. Alongside the closure of a flagship free school amid quality of teaching concerns, critics have said that free schools are not being set up in areas where there is a demand for school places
2/5 GCSEs and A Levels Reform
In a move away from coursework, schoolchildren will no longer take AS levels but sit their A Level exams at the end of the two year course. For GCSE students meanwhile, only their first attempt at an examination will count towards a school's performance table after Mr Gove said that schools putting pupils forward early for their exams was a 'damaging trend'
3/5 Teachers' working conditions
At the heart of the ongoing dispute about pay and working conditions lies the policy of 'performance related pay', where teachers get paid more if they meet certain standards
4/5 Phonics Check
The Phonics Screening Test is a compulsory assessment for children in year one where children are asked to decode a mixture of real and made-up words. The government sees the test as a way for schools to spot slow readers, while teachers say that even the brightest fail it
Sweeping changes to the national curriculum are to be introduced in September 2014. Among the changes, multiplication tables will be at the centre of the curriculum for six- to seven-year-olds while history will be taught chronologically. Mr Gove says that he wants to have the 'sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own'
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.