Dr. Who? Behaviour, science and the sonic screwdriver.

“Science, however, is not just a matter of making mistakes, but of making mistakes in public. Making mistakes for all to see, in the hopes of getting the others to help with the corrections.”
― Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life


A couple of weeks ago I wrote the idea that It Takes A Village To Raise A Child. Many of you were interested in the idea and thanks for your responses from across the UK and beyond.

At the time I didn’t make clear why I mean by this Village idea. It came out of a conversation with the physicist and special school headteacher Jarlath O’Brien about the role of trained experts, like scientists, in how we teach children.

I’ve been in “behaviour” for twenty years, working as a teacher and interacting my own Ph.D. research and with my practice in CAMHS, schools and allied services. In general and until recently, good people have gone about getting children to behave based on their own childhood experiences with a bit of behaviourist theory thrown in during initial teacher training.

The Age of the Tzars

Then we moved into the age of the Education Tzars and everything changed, with science being dragged in to support ideology. I didn’t know much about Tzars so I did some research, simply looking for what is publicly available on the internet. I can’t guarantee it’s true.

In the UK since the late 60s hundreds of Tzars have been appointed by governments with the recent Coalition government ramping up the numbers. Ministers like to appoint Tzars because they operate outside existing rules or procedures which suits politicians with a strong personal agenda. Terms and conditions are agreed informally between Tsar and Minister, contrasting with the position of official advisors on a temporary civil service contract, bound by an established code of conduct and practice. There is no such code for Tzars.

Tzars tend to be white (98%), male (85%), over 50 (71%) and titled (40%). Often working over a short time with a small team of civil servants they commission research, they hold meetings, draw in other advisers and publish non-peer reviewed articles. Some work entirely in private. Tzars may be paid and may claim expenses from the public purse but there is no systematic record of past appointments and expenditure or of Tzar’s activities. Recent Tzars have promoted the algorithmic objectification of education, in so doing removing the need for human experts (see Footnote). That’s what Gove was leaning on when he said he didn’t need experts; he’d been hooked by the Tzars.


Being professionally engaged with “behaviour” I’m interested in the role of the current Behaviour Tzar, Tom Bennett. He has rightly prioritised scientific research as the means of producing evidence but as a non-scientist he seems to make the common mistake of assuming the only real science is quantitative; if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. He makes another mistake in elevating Randomised Controlled Trials as the sole methodology capable of providing the evidence base and he called in Dr. Ben Goldacre, a medical researcher, for support. Why him?

It puzzled me why Bennett would put qualitative science so firmly to one side, when methods of investigation developed by social scientists are designed to match the social nature of education and schooling. Science is about reducing uncertainty and scientists go about that in many different ways, some not even entitled scientific. A philosopher says;

“But if it is true that human minds are themselves to a very great degree the creations of memes, then we cannot sustain the polarity of vision we considered earlier; it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth. There is a persisting tension between the biological imperative of our genes on the one hand and the cultural imperatives of our memes on the other, but we would be foolish to “side with” our genes; that would be to commit the most egregious error of pop sociobiology. Besides, as we have already noted, what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes— thanks to the lifting cranes of our memes.”
― Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

The Sonic Screwdriver

Reading David Didau’s recent forays into behavioural genetics I wondered where the numbers came from. Claiming that the scientific consensus was firmly in favour of genetic control of traits, the 70% heritability factor, meant he must have read something he believed, to go that far out on a limb, saw in hand.

I tracked the source down to Dominic Cummings, and his manifesto of 2013.

Why do I think Bennett/Didau is reworked Cummings? Because identical references are a sure sign of cut-and-paste.

Cummings was associated with Michael Gove for many years, leaving in a blaze of notoriety in 2013. David Cameron’s former director of communications, Andy Coulson, barred Cummings from becoming a special adviser immediately after the 2010 general election but on Coulson’s departure in 2011, Gove signed Cummings as his private right-hand man. In 2014
Cameron called Cummings a “career psychopath”.

Cummings, an Oxford ancient and modern history graduate asserted in his 250 page manifesto that individual child performance is mainly based on a child’s genetics and IQ rather than the quality of teaching, citing the work of Plomin, as did Didau later.

I read the whole thing yesterday while I was making balloon animals with my two little boys, an exercise in mindfulness and metaphor.

Ballooning and over-inflation 

Cummings said; “There is strong resistance across the political spectrum to accepting scientific evidence on genetics. Most of those that now dominate discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless.” He claimed that research demonstrated that 70% of a child’s performance is genetically derived, opening up the difference between heritability, a population-based statistical estimate of variability, and inheritance.

In Note 121 p.64 Cummings said he never met a single person who talked about Plomin’s work on education, genetics and schooling so he invited Professor Plomin into the DfE. where he gave four presentations, one of which Gove attended. But Plomin’s real interests seem to be far away from Bennett’s interpretation of Cummings’ tract. Plomin advocates teachers being trained in genetics to emphasise children’s individual potential; personalised learning with the abandonment of labels of dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and gifted and so on. Every child has special needs, Plomin argues and therefore schools should offer the widest possible choice of subjects and extra-curricular activities. Cummings called in Dr. Ben Goldacre, an authority on the use of RCTs in medicine. And Goldacre was later invited in by Bennett.

The section of Cummings’ manifesto on education was squarely aimed at justifying genetics as the basis of intelligence. He made only two passing references to teaching itself, on Lemov and charter schools and Direct Instruction. These relate to the scripting of behaviour management and knowledge-based education.

On page 13; “for example many natural (e.g.height, IQ) and social (e.g.polling) phenomena follow the statistical theorem called CLT and produce a ‘normal distribution”. This looks like solid claim rather than an assumption, until you look at his bracketing of height and IQ as natural, i.e. biologically based. In support of bell curve statistics he quotes the mathematician Professor Terry Tau,‘ the essence of universality; ‘the macroscopic behaviour of a complex system can be almost totally independent of its microscopic structure’ but Tau does not include IQ or free schools in his list of complex systems.

Cummings’ project is been to shunt education into a new direction in line with his neoliberal beliefs. His brand is carried though by a number of prominent people pulling quotes and data from the manifesto as justification for selecting children for removal from mainstream because of their behaviour and the bell curve. This selection is ignorant of their educational needs because ‘observed behaviour’ takes priority, while proper professional assessment successfully places children with additional learning needs together with specialist support that meets those needs as part of comprehensive provision.

But what would happen to the Cummings/Bennett project if it could be shown that these same children given appropriate teaching thrive in the mainstream? That’s what I’ve been showing over the last twenty years and have written in my 2016 book. Probabilities give way to needs-based teaching and learning.

Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, says: “Hundreds of different genes have been found behind the variation in height. But put them all together and you still explain only a fifth of the variation. There’s no way you can make a gene-chip for height. So how the hell can you make one for IQ?”

Multiple voices and what Dennett’s talking about is the Village in action. Non-partisan, scientific, collaborative, self-correcting and above all, kind to children.


‘The new randomised controlled trials (RCT) movement in public policy: challenges of epistemic governance’ by Warren Pearce and Sujatha Raman, published online: 7 November 2014, Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014.
“Since 2012, a new movement of government departments, think tanks and high- profile individuals within the UK has sought to promote the increased usage of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in public policy. (……) They promote RCTs as an evidence-based corrective for the inappropriate certainties of experts. Producing evidence for policymaking is a hybrid activity that necessarily spans both science and politics. Presenting RCTs as naively neutral evidence of what policy interventions work is misleading.” The paper concludes by calling for more work on how the new RCT movement might engage with its own history in social and policy research on the value of experiments for policymaking.”