Controlling the Controllables

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

This last year in particular has highlighted many of the things which are fundamentally wrong in our society. From requiring a well-known and passionate footballer to get those in power to sit up and take notice that children were going hungry, to needing to provide meals for children in them in the first place, the stark realities of the inequalities in the society in which we live are staring us in the face. Many people too seem have done well from the horrors of the pandemic and many others continue to sit comfortably on their privilege, safe in the knowledge that little will topple them from their thrones.

Does this make me angry? Hell, yes! Do I look to do what I can to change this? Without a doubt. Have I managed to kick those in power up the backside so they realise what matters? Sadly, not as yet, however much I jump around on my tiny platform.

Having raged and railed for many years about these very things which seem to be somehow getting worse and not better, I decided instead to focus my actions on where I could make some difference in my little world.  And that has been through teaching and working in education.

Throughout my career I only worked in areas of high deprivation. The schools I often now support are often working with some of the most deprived communities in this area too. The closest I came to working in a ‘leafy school’ was a Church of England one, but the previously low intake and the shifting demographic in the area meant that this wasn’t as selective or clear cut as one might image. Most of the students came from the local estates, PP and SEND numbers were high, and they were no different in terms of the challenges they faced on a daily basis to those I worked with elsewhere. Outcomes weren’t exactly sky-high, although rising, and some missed their exams due to things like court dates, just as others did in less ‘selective’ schools I worked in. Behaviour and attitudes to learning and motivation to succeed can all seem like insurmountable problems, areas which only can be controlled by the students themselves. Especially so when you are faced with them every day. A Sisyphean task.   

It can be easy to become despondent about all this and start to think ‘what’s the point?’ Add to that seemingly punitive accountability measures focusing on what we, the teachers, aren’t getting right, and a sense that student outcomes are attributed to us unfairly (exam results based around norm referencing or nonsense assessment being a case in point) and we could have a perfect storm leading to a further decline in recruitment and retention. When you are constantly swimming up tide and trying to do your best with limited resources it is not surprising that even those who stick around can frequently feel at the end of their tether.

That’s why to me it is even more important to focus on the evidence around great teaching. We know it can make a difference. Report after report suggests that the biggest factor in student outcomes is the quality of the teaching in the classroom, closely followed by, or more likely knitted alongside, the quality of leadership. The Great Teaching Toolkit is built on the premise that teaching can and does make a different, and there is a wealth of evidence, to show that high quality teaching really makes a difference to what students can do. Variations to outcomes with similar contexts and even the same school, with the same students, further supports this. Whilst we know that ‘personal, family, and cultural factors contribute to learners’ academic performance’, there is also ‘a large body of research indicates that teachers matter more to their achievement than any other aspect of their education.’ This means that we can have much more agency over these things that we can sometimes think.

There are of course no silver bullets or absolutes (what exactly does great teaching mean? Ask 10 teachers and potentially get 10 different answers), there are commonalities in how we learn. That means we can still have a lot of influence over the learning, outcomes, and lives of the young people we work with and that can be empowering too; having high expectations of all regardless of background and starting point; understanding how learning happens on a granular level; being able to evaluate what learning has taken place and support students to fill any gaps mean that we can do things which will make a difference. Remaining focused on how we can develop our practice to make the most of these can only be time well spent. It really is what we do minute to minute, day by day, as Dylan Wiliam says, which can have the highest impact on the young people we work with. Some of the rest is merely tinkering round the edges.

So, whilst I understand the frustrations we may have about not being able to enact huge societal changes, we need to remember those working in schools and education are making a difference. Whilst I also understand the concerns of around how performative education has become, with the desire to measure many things which are simply immeasurable, we need to remember that when done well, even some of those poorer proxies for learning can prompt some interesting conversations which could lead to improvements in learning. That’s why I keep looking to what is working. I keep looking to what might need to be removed. I keep looking to control those key factors I can control and, whilst’ accept’ might be pushing it, finding a way to balance that with what I can achieving day by day has always helped to keep my head in the game.   


Rob Coe., et al ‘The Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review’

*Jack Deveson ‘The Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review’ (blog)

Dylan Wiliam ‘Teacher Quality: why it matters, and how to get more of it’

Dylan Wiliam and Marnie Thompson ‘Tight but Loose: A Conceptual Framework for Scaling Up’

Zoe’s book The CPD Curriculum is available now.

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