A few responses to comments, misconceptions etc about my Times interview

On Monday, I wrote a blog: The Hollow Men (Part I). I will finish Part Two shortly but in the meantime here are a few comments regarding responses to my interview.

1. The silliest error is to think MG knew about or ‘approved’ my interview. Michael’s a friend of mine but since I left I don’t work for the DfE. I make my own judgements and have my own priorities. I did not tell him what I was planning. MG is an old friend of DC. Obviously he does not agree with my views on Cameron. The issue of Cameron’s qualities is probably the thing we most disagreed about over the years.

2. The second silliest error is to think that it is connected to a plot by me to make Gove leader. I’ve said hundreds of times off and on the record – MG would be a bad leader, he knows it, and so do his best friends. People in Westminster are (understandably given the extreme vanity everywhere) so hardwired to think of everything through the prism of leadership struggles that if I published photos of Gove in bed with a live boy or a dead girl, someone would write ‘Cummings launches pre-emptive strike to lower expectations as part of secret Gove leadership plot…’

3. A misconception. ‘Cummings has gone mad dog and he’ll keep going until the election.’ Wrong. My motives are in my essay. I told MG I was leaving in September 2013 and I left in January 2014 partly because I did not want to be involved with the election. I dislike gangs and I am not a club joiner (‘nobody would have you!’ I hear echoing across Westminster). I make judgements about people and ideas individually – for me parties are just a vehicle of convenience, not something that define my choices, likes, and ideas. I’m not saying this is better than being a committed party member, I’m just explaining motives.

I want people to understand the barriers to serious government in order that more people take action. I also want to discourage No10 from their habit (growing since summer 2013 as Clegg sank more and more rapidly) of seeing the DfE as a piggy bank from which they can buy off Clegg. If No10 gets serious and stops trying to force DfE to do stupid things, I’ll go back to my history books and rocking chair.

As I explained in my essay, I think the answer to Dean Acheson’s famous challenge is to make our national goal: to be the best place in the world for education and science. Obviously, I do not expect Cameron to think deeply about such a subject. But he will think hard about his own survival. And he may think: ‘NHS – got to keep quiet, bloody Lansley. Universal Credit –  not happening, bloody IDS. Schools. Mmm. Only thing that the Right is happy about. Only thing I can claim to be a mega big bang public service reform. Sort of fits with the long-term economic plan gizmo from Lynton. Fed up of people saying Tories don’t care about poor people, need something for the election. Mmm. Promising a load more cuts for schools won’t go down too well Lynton says. Ok, well I’ve got to make some cuts somewhere but I won’t force the DfE to make more cuts to the wrong things [e.g. 16-19] because of Cleggy’s dopey priorities.’

The most worrying words in the DfE were ‘No10 is interested in doing something on schools’. Without exception, this meant trouble – never progress. All I ever wanted from No10 was for Cameron to say to Heywood ‘I agree with Gove’ and keep his trap shut. Sadly, he wouldn’t do it. But one can hope…

4. The Macmillan issue. In the Times interview there are little dots after my Macmillan reference because my original quote was something like ‘… picture of Macmillan on the wall and he gave that Keith Joseph speech in 2004, that’s all you need to know’. My point was the combination, not just Macmillan. (I’m not blaming The Times, they had to make some cuts and that was an obvious cut.) A few people such as Tim Bale have suggested Macmillan was quite a good prime minister. While I don’t think he was ‘good’, I do think he was a more serious character than Cameron – he was actually a prime minster whereas as far as one can tell Cameron seems to regard his role as the nation’s uber-pundit. (This is particularly odd since Osborne brought in Crosby to provide a focus for Cameron that Cameron cannot provide for himself and Cameron agreed to this, yet he continues with his uber-pundit role anyway.) Anyway, I can see why some people think ‘just saying Macmillan doesn’t mean he’s terrible’ and I agree, but read the 2004 speech too – when read in the context of how he mismanages No10, what I mean will be clearer. (The CPS do not have it on their website so I can’t quote from it but my memory is it was awful.)

5. My job. Understandably, the media story about spads is that they are ‘spin doctors’. However, my role in DfE was not this. Less than one percent of my time was spent dealing with journalists. The vast majority of my time was spent a) thinking about how to operationalise our core goals (reversing the devaluation of exams, simplifying funding, stripping bureaucracy, improving teacher training, building Academy chains, getting a functioning Free School process etc), b) managing officials and processes by hour, week, month, and quarter to achieve these priorities, and c) reducing local entropy (e.g. every financial model being wrong) and squeezing time scales (no this won’t start in 2014 it will start in September 2011, here’s how etc). I focused on priorities, keeping a weather eye on the umpteen mini-disasters per day, trying to stop them becoming big problems, while spending most of my time on (b). (NB. Zoete was the media spad yet he also spent a huge amount of time doing a similar role.)

Formally, spads are not supposed to manage processes and operations. In practice, if you do not do this you may as well be on the beach because government departments are so dysfunctional that even the great officials who could manage things properly are seldom allowed to by the system. At the start of 2011 there was massive resistance to this. By September 2012, it was normal. (Also, we were greatly helped by exponential improvements in the Private Office – the unsung heroes, often women 25-35 working in the early hours to fix errors made by middle-aged men (on 2-3 times PO salaries) who left at 4 not caring if something works or doesn’t.)

Part of the reason No10 does not work is that senior people issue airy instructions (usually in response to a column rather than as part of a serious plan) but, not understanding management, they do not know how to follow through and ensure things are done. (Some of the junior people do do this and helped us.) By the time it realises its instructions have been ignored, months can pass. (I remember one very senior No10 person saying to MG and me one day ‘good job I fixed the planning law changes for you’. In fact, they had told their officials to do that, then forgot about it, their officials did nothing except say ‘the ECHR makes everything impossible’, and to the extent we made progress with DCLG it was despite No10 and because of help from Sheridan. But – thanks to Olive on TUPE!) Given Campbell and McBride et al it is a convenient media stereotype to assume I am some sort of crazy figure who spent all his time on the phone arguing with hacks – but it is not true. The media naturally focus on the media but the important lessons about the DfE for people who want to change things are about project managing priorities in dysfunctional bureaucracies.

Nothing I did from a management perspective would be regarded as special or interesting by anyone who really understands management. The only interesting thing about it is that it needed to be done, is unusual in Whitehall, and nobody senior does it in No10. (There are other aspects of ‘how we got things done in the DfE’ that were not conventional but they do not fall into the ‘management’ category and are for another day.)

6. Gaby Hinsliff and pragmatists v kamikazes. For Gaby, MG and I are ‘the Westminster kamikaze tendency, those so passionately convinced of their own rightness that they are willing to go down in flames for it, and if necessary to take others down with them… For the kamikaze tendency, there’s always something bigger at stake; always a burning reason to blow stuff up… People who don’t need to see the evidence to know they’re right… It’s just that occasionally, when considering the alternatives, you wonder if a little woolly pragmatism isn’t the main thing keeping politics sane.’

A few points…

A) After reading the physicist Richard Feynman’s famous speech on education research as ‘cargo cult science’, I got Ben Goldacre into the DfE to do a report a) to spark a debate about evidence-based policy, and b) revamp the DfE’s analysis division. All the people who write endlessly ‘Gove’s an ideologue who ignores evidence’ never mention or refer to this. It was attacked by many (inside and outside DfE) including the unions. Many are cross about it because the thought of randomised control trials proving that their pet theory is rubbish is not appealing. (Many of the social science academics who write letters attacking Gove – often Marxist economists still in the pre-1989 jungle, ‘literary theorists’, and others from the lowest ranks of academia – are appalled at the idea of techniques from the hard sciences invading their domains and exposing their frauds. For them ‘cargo cult science’ is a lucrative business.)

It is fashionable to say that we ‘ignored evidence’ but it is false. As Tim Oates, head of research for Cambridge Assessment said, ‘Michael Gove has been vilified for ignoring evidence, but I have never worked with a politician who listens to evidence as much as he does’. When I arrived, the DfE did not even subscribe to either Science or Nature – the two most prestigious scientific journals. It took me six months of fighting but that changed. The idea that we dislike ‘evidence’ while the pure civil service or our opponents love it is a comical caricature. We often invited into DfE people who disagreed – often random bloggers or twitterers who had made interesting arguments or pointed out mistakes. In a large bureaucracy, it is vital to keep eyes on the grassroots as they almost always will give you warning of problems faster than official signals (which says a lot about official signals). Large scale RCTs of Sure Start or the Pupil Premium would be excellent. Who do you think oppose them? Not me – bring them on! I wish we had gone further on the Goldacre stuff but like everything else it was a victim of our limited bandwidth in the face of determined resistance. Only a huge restructuring of the DfE – inconceivable on any plausible current trajectory – would enable genuine evidence-led policy to become the norm. Lots of people internally would like it to happen but the obstacles are too high and the incentives won’t push things that way. But at least Goldacre was a start…

B) My objection is not to pragmatism. Our team was pragmatic daily as one must be to get things done. Action requires focus and priorities and these inherently require compromises and pragmatism. It is a tendency of political columnists to polarise every column so Gaby polarises to ‘pragmatists’ and ‘kamikazes’ but I would suggest that if one wants to over-simplify it would be more accurate to label the two sides ‘focused planners’ and ‘unfocused pundits’, with Cameron being self-evidently in the latter category.

C) We were not just wondering around ‘blowing stuff up’. We have been trying to deal with a terrible system and helping many new institutions to grow. E.g. Teaching Schools and School Direct, to give good schools more control over training. Obviously the bureaucracy / Labour / unions hate this as it disrupts DfE central planning (which itself is based on data that is massively and consistently wrong, but who cares about that!). You can disagree with the policy but it is not just ‘blowing stuff up’ – it is an attempt to build healthier institutions bottom-up.

D) Other pundits, encouraged by Clegg, have taken a similar line to Gaby – Gove has turned school reform into ‘an ideological battle’ etc. Let’s leave aside the word ‘ideological’ which often just means ‘different ideas to mine’. We have tried – within the severe constraints of Cameron’s nature, the Coalition, Whitehall dynamics – to take power out of Whitehall on the basis that nothing is worse than the dysfunctional central bureaucracy controlling things (a feeling strengthened exponentially by experience). E.g. When we gave power over A Levels back to Universities, everybody screamed (some Labour MPs were so confused by the sight of us giving power away they simply claimed we were lying – e.g. Barry Sheerman just said ‘I don’t believe it!’). When we tried to remove GCSEs from the accountability system in 2012 we were stopped by Cameron. (We did not try to bin GCSEs themselves – an important distinction.) Interestingly, all the people I have seen who complain about us being ‘ideological’ also opposed this move, as they like Whitehall controlling exams because they hope to capture control of Whitehall. When we got rid of ‘levels’ from the Curriculum – because great teachers told us they were rubbish and were used by Ofsted to enforce bad practices on schools – everybody with power in the school system complained. Why? Because few of those who are powerful in education really believes in decentralising power because they think that will lead to ‘a mess, chaos’.

The people who call us ‘ideological’ seem to me generally to have their own ideology – Whitehall knows best, keep power in the hands of the select few not the dopey parents or voters, aim to capture Whitehall to enforce your prejudices on schools.

E) One of the biggest misconceptions about Gove is ‘he doesn’t listen to argument’. His team argues with him non-stop. We say ‘you’re wrong’, ‘you cocked that up’ when we think it. I told every new person ‘in this team we are honest about our mistakes with each other and Michael’. In all the time I’ve known him, Michael has never said to me or anybody else in our team ‘don’t criticise me / you are wrong to argue with me’. Never. MG has various failings, as we all do, but being closed to criticism is not one of them.

F) Fundamentally, our message is an uncomfortable one. It is: ‘the exam system has been cheated, loads of schools that think they’re good aren’t, massive change is needed, Cameron won’t prioritise extra money.’ Even Reagan’s comms people would find this a challenge. Given Cameron’s team, it was obvious from the start that any sort of serious communication was impossible, which is one of the reasons the media was my bottom priority. (I never listened to the Today programme in my entire time in the DfE, other than occasionally in cars when someone had it on or specific interviews online. Its self-satisfied smugness is nauseating and ministers who change tune because of a bad morning on Today are idiots – it is a paper tiger that you can safely ignore as we did. Few things would do more to improve the quality of government than a mass switch-off of the Today programme and for MPs to spend the time on the Good Judgement Project instead.)

To avoid any confusion: the problem with Cameron is not that he is ‘pragmatic’, it is that he does not know how to get anything difficult done and his judgement of people is such that he cannot hire people to do this for him, so is at the mercy of the media and civil service.

7. Seldon. Seldon said something like – people like Cummings become advisers without ever having had proper jobs or having done anything then they criticise Cameron… Other defenders of DC have said similar things. This is ironic as I did have ‘proper jobs’ between Oxford and getting into the anti-euro campaign at the end of 1998. I’m not claiming I was good at anything but working in nightclubs and starting businesses in Russia counts as ‘the real world’. I also think that this experience was very useful in politics as I had an understanding of how large complex organisations work, both badly and well – something that Cameron has never had, his experience being limited to working in badly managed political organisations. This is one of the reasons he is genuinely baffled by criticism he gets. For Cameron, he’s dealing with an incredibly complex environment (true), in which some things are bound to go wrong (true), as well as could be expected (wrong!).

8. The Economist. It gets my job wrong (see above). Like quite a few pieces it wrongly says I’m a ‘libertarian’. As I make clear in my essay, I am not. (I don’t think libertarianism is consistent with evolutionary biology, for starters.) They think that because I think that a voucherised school system would be better, therefore I wanted Cameron to do this and am infuriated he did not. No no no! I very much opposed any talk in No10 of profits. Given my views of the competence of Cameron and his team, do you really think I wanted them to try to voucherise the school system and allow profits?! No way Jose. I think that if Cameron were to promise that his next government would allow profit-making schools (doubtless as an unthought out move to keep ‘the Right’ happy), it would be a disaster both for the Conservative Party and the idea of for-profit schools. The Economist also seems to think MG and I are ‘sound and fury’ while No10 is marked by ‘doggedness’!? Well, if they mean ‘dogged determination to switch course every time DC reads the papers’, we agree…

[Update. Clegg’s advisers, Reeves and Astle, did argue for profits. Clegg’s ‘I stopped Gove from doing profits’ speech was pure invention, dreamed up by Reeves in summer 2011, and was even more dishonest than a straight lie given his own and his advisers’ views.]

9. The two pieces I thought most interesting were by Janan Ganesh (FT) and Alex Massie (Spectator). The former is close to Osborne’s team (which is significantly better than Cameron’s). I think I’ve answered most of the latter’s points here.

10. Cameron. At the PolEx party (18/6), Cameron said that I am a ‘career psychopath’.

A) No10’s first reaction was to decide not to react to my interview, then one of his friends pleaded with me to ‘leave him alone because Miliband would be even worse’ and another threatened me (incompetently). The fact that Cameron then blurts out an insult reviving the story four days later is an example of my point about the lack of focus in No10. If they can’t decide a consistent line on me, what chance on ISIS?!

B) For Cameron, someone who focuses on priorities and gets stuff done every day according to a long-term plan stretching over years, while ignoring orders from Heywood, doubtless looks like a psycho! I’m not sure which of us would come out ahead on the Hare test, but I know who is better at getting stuff done and it ain’t the guy in No10 watching Netflix with a glass of red in his paw…

Although I’ve been critical of Cameron, I also think he need not be so rubbish – he’s cleverer and tougher than most in Parliament (admittedly a low bar). If his judgement about people were not so bad and he hired a deadly serious chief of staff and did what they told him instead of being the nation’s uber-pundit, then he could beat Miliband easily as Miliband seems to have an even worse operation than No10 and is failing to take advantage of the extremely favourable landscape. But of course Cameron won’t do this because he really does not understand all the criticism of his operation. He doesn’t listen to billionaires who have run things very successfully because he thinks ‘they don’t understand politics’ and because his only experience in life is working in dysfunctional entities – he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know…

So we beat on, boats against the current, towards an election that will be defined by a single question: are swing voters more scared of Miliband’s tax policies than they are of another five years of Cameron? And whoever wins, we’ll have five more years of Hollow Men stumbling from cockup to cockup. Unless those with power and money get behind my essay, of course!

The Hollow Men Part II next week…

A few thoughts on free school meals, Ofsted, and an answer to S Jenkins

Simon Jenkins has written a bizarre piece in the Evening Standard, here. As well as answering that, I’ll explain a few others things about it… (See

Unfortunately, he has completely misunderstood the basics of the universal free school meals fiasco.

He writes: ‘Gove decided, by a deal with Nick Clegg, that running every school meant insisting every child have a “proper meal”. The order went out over Christmas. Gove would be first to admit he has never run a whelk stall and was surprised to discover that schools were having trouble becoming Jamie Oliver academies overnight… Comrade Stalin himself would have warmed to the tears of gratitude.’

Where to start?! SJ clearly thinks that we did ‘a deal’ with Clegg because we wanted to do this UFSM gimmick. He must have missed the news all week. The whole point of what I’ve been saying is that a) the DfE was not told about the UFSM announcement by Clegg at his party conference (until hours before it became public) because it was a quad deal; b) after the announcement we  warned repeatedly that the way Clegg was trying to do the gimmick would cause big problems; c) his funding numbers were junk, his claims to the media of a DfE ‘underspend’ were fictitious since we actually had an overspend  of hundreds of millions, and finding the money for the gimmick from our maintenance budget, as we were told to do, would mean fewer collapsing school roofs fixed. We told Clegg these things before he told the media his tale.

When the Select Committee looks at the email traffic between the offices, it will see – and publicly confirm – the accuracy of the above paragraph. It will also show that Clegg’s claims that what I have said were ‘utterly, totally wrong’, and Laws’s claim that I am talking ‘utter balls’, were untrue. (I could prove it with 10 minutes effort now but it will be better to wait for the proper inquiry.)

Also, some basic logic confirms the truth of what I’ve said. Why did Laws have to hand out the money for the UFSM gimmick on the basis of ‘numbers of pupils per LA’? Because there was no time to find out which schools have no kitchen and therefore need the money. Why has the DfE had to add to the £150m? Because the original Clegg announcement was not enough, as we warned (e.g. on 4 December 2013). Why has Clegg had to drop his promise everyone will get a ‘hot’ meal? Because he made that promise without agreement with DfE then was told it was impossible to deliver by September 2014. (And why is David Laws in meetings about the effects on the Pupil Premium? Because they didn’t think before launching the gimmick about the knock-on effects, given the PP uses FSM as its eligibility criterion.)

Jenkins then writes: ‘Worse is the plethora of special advisers whom Cameron has allowed into government. These people have nothing to do except further their boss’s career. They leak and plot and lobby. In Gove’s case a “shadowy army” of schemers have done his reputation harm…’

If SJ knew what was going on in the lobby, he would know that I have consistently and repeatedly said the same thing on and off the record about Gove and the leadership – he would be a bad leader and nobody should encourage the idea. You will not find anybody in the lobby who says I have pushed that silly idea to them – I have knocked it down hundreds of times since 2007. So has Henry de Zoete. Understandably, nobody understands what our jobs were. I spent less than 1% of my time dealing with the media. My job was: what are our priorities, what policies can advance them, project manage them through the DfE, try to suppress the chaos-inducing entropic forces of Westminster/Whitehall. (One of the reasons our team could operate as we did was that MG did not want to be leader and we did not want to be MPs.)

Jenkins then writes: ‘Yet he wants to excuse “his” academies and so-called free schools from the same draconian inspection for discipline and curriculum that he imposes on local authority schools. This is a clear double standard.’

Completely wrong. Not just wrong – the opposite of the truth. The only ‘pressure’ we put on Ofsted was to reform itself quickly to avoid the many cockups. E.g. It is obviously bad for Ofsted to say ‘Outstanding’ then days later the school has a major sex scandal. Our ‘pressure’ on Ofsted was for  Academies and Free Schools to be treated in the same way as others – not the opposite. Why? Nobody in their right mind would think that trying to cover up problems was a successful way to embed the policy. Our main concern about Ofsted from the beginning was the gap between stated policy and actual practice. I think this was a reasonable concern given the evidence. (I will write separately about the Ofsted issue because there are many misunderstandings about it after Wilshaw’s unfortunate interview.)

Does SJ think that me raising this UFSM issue now helps Gove politically? It does not – it angers Clegg’s and Cameron’s team. Why did I do it? Because our team went to the DfE to improve schools. We did not go there to help politicians like Clegg try to buy his way into positions of power by bribing people with taxpayers’ money. We spent a huge amount of time trying to stop gimmicks from all over Whitehall, to limit Whitehall’s interference with schools, and to save taxpayers’ money. We tried to resist the widespread culture among ministers of – ‘I’m making a speech next week, I need a new announcement for the lobby, tell Gove to give me a hundred million for [summer schools, meals, nurseries, insert gimmick as appropriate].’ If Clegg gets a black eye on this gimmick, my hope is that it will be harder for them to push more silly gimmicks on schools over the next year. I will be similarly honest about gimmicks from the Conservatives if they come.

People tell me that SJ is a nice man and the only time I spoke to him at length we had a pleasant chat, but he should do some research before writing his columns – even just reading the papers! – to avoid spreading confusion. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to disagree with what Gove’s team did or is doing. SJ should focus on those since he clearly does not like Academies.

Note. Below is a transcript of an email exchange between me and the World At One that was played on Radio 4, 11 March 2014. 

WATO: How did the policy come about in the first place?

Me: Clegg’s team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused. So Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences, ‘you give me this and I’ll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference, Gove refuses to do it so you’ll have to force him.’ The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.

WATO: Did the Department for Education support the policy and did it believe it would work?

Me: Officials in DfE were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos. Officials were obviously right.

WATO: What warnings did the Department for Education give about the idea?

Me: We told Clegg a) it was a bad idea in principle as there were much bigger priorities for spending a billion quid; b) if he and DC were determined on it, do not rush it in, it would impose big demands on schools (e.g. new kitchens) at a time when they have a lot of really important changes to adapt to, that we wouldn’t be able to do it sensibly in time, and c) that all the figures bandied about were junk and he should not say them publicly.

WATO: What form did the warnings take? (emails? Meetings? Letters?)

Me: All three.

WATO: Where did the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms come from?

Me: It was a back of the fag packet number by Clegg’s spin doctors. We told them it was rubbish. It is based on a supposed DfE underspend that did not exist and they were told it did not exist. Because Clegg only thinks about politics – and starts every meeting saying ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’ – he assumed that our opposition was because it was a Clegg idea but it wasn’t. Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea badly executed that shows why politicians should have less power over schools, and although I had many disagreements with Whitehall officials and the methods of the civil service, this is very firmly the fault of Clegg and NOT CIVIL SERVANTS IN GENERAL AND THE DFE IN PARTICULAR.