Control the Controllables

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What new policies and procedures may be forged in the twelve months ahead?

So, it’s the start of a new academic year.

I remember many of them for differing reasons both as a pupil and later as a teacher. However, one that really sticks in my mind was when, at the age of eleven, I moved from primary to secondary school. I clearly remember the mix of excitement and anxiety that I felt in those six weeks when I was between schools and a member of neither. On the one hand, I was looking forward to trying new subjects (such as Chemistry) that I had never been taught before. I was also looking forward to the smart, new uniform and the new-found independence of being allowed to make my way to school.


On the other hand there was a lot of uncertainty and that made me uneasy. Would I be able to find my way around the huge school site? Would I get on with my new teachers and was there really any truth in the rumour that older pupils would flush the heads of new pupils down the toilet as a bizarre initiation ceremony?

The frustration was that during that break between finishing one school and starting another, I could do nothing significant to shape my future and so, my anxiety levels grew.

Fast forward to the modern-day: we teach and students learn in very uncertain times. We have voted to leave the EU. We have had a change of Prime Minister and the last two incumbents of the post of Education Secretary have been dropped from the cabinet all together. The shadow Education Secretary has also been dropped too! We will also have a new Head of OfSTED in a few month’s time when Sir Michael Wilshaw stands down. All these changes come at a time when schools are dealing with the aftermath of the bizarre changes to the testing regime in KS2 SATs.

This year saw the percentage of pupils achieving the required standard in reading, writing and Maths plummet to 53% despite the fact that OfSTED judge 88% of schools to be ‘Good or Outstanding’. How are we to reconcile this? Clearly, this year’s tests are not a credible measure of the standards achieved by our pupils, overriding the teacher’s expert knowledge of their pupil’s abilities and replacing it with a box-ticking exercise.

Surely there will be further changes made in the way that teachers assess in the twelve months?

shutterstock_405309067 Thoughtful worried young boy biting his nails in trepidation as he stares at the ground with a serious expression, profile head shot on blue with copy space

Image: Shutterstock

With so much unclear about the direction of education policy, many teachers may be approaching the new term with the same mixture of excitement and trepidation as I did that summer as an eleven year old boy. Who knows what new policies and procedures may be forged in the twelve months ahead?

You can’t wait!

In times of great uncertainty, there is a temptation to sit tight and wait and see what happens before planning our next moves within school, but truthfully, we know that is not a sensible option for two reasons.

Leading from the EdgeFirstly, inactivity in times of change can leave us feeling fretful and anxious. Some years ago, when I was Headteacher of a very large primary school, we received our budget for the forthcoming year. It was not good news. Along with many other schools, we had received a significant cut in funding which would result in us having to lose two teachers.

At the time, we had four bright, energetic and highly motivated young teachers in their first year of teaching. All four were on temporary contracts and as such, two of them would have to go. Breaking the news to them was one of the hardest things I ever did in teaching. They were all excellent and I did not want to lose anyone. Once the tears had dried, the following day I met with them again.

The previous evening, two of teachers had started to prepare their CVs and application letters ready to apply to other schools over the coming weeks. The other two had not yet embarked on that journey. The two teachers who seized the initiative were by far the calmest over the weeks to come.


Because they had seized control of what they could in an uncertain situation. They were taking action to determine their next steps which reduced their sense of anxiety.

The second reason, is waiting to see what happens next in education is not desirable, is because the pupils we teach can’t wait. Pupils only have one chance at education and we cannot afford to wait for policies to be made and systems to be determined by politicians. They need the best teaching we can give them and they need it now.

This is why teachers all over the UK will return to work, refreshed, ready to control the controllables, with a positive mindset, ready to do what is right by the pupils they teach.

This is a guest post by James Hilton. You can buy his book from Bloomsbury.

James Hilton



2 thoughts on “Control the Controllables

  1. Excellent post James! I particularly like and totally agree with the sentiment that, in times of uncertainty and stress, the best course of action is to manage the things you have control over. Anything else is folly and hoping might be understandable but achieves nothing. If you are taking action, it gives a real sense of direction and can take a huge amount of stress out of our professional lives.

    Pragmatism is also the good friend of a teacher working in a constantly changing landscape. I’ve experienced 35+ years of political shenanigans and negligent tinkering in education by those who either couldn’t do it, understand it or had had enough of it and wanted simply take a critical position – the easiest way out while looking clever (guess which one is an Ofsted inspector).

    Great advice though James.

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