News & Insights 18 October 2019

Imagine you’re Gavin Williamson, how would you “Do Good Better?”

Suppose you’re Gavin Williamson right now. 

Get into character, you are Secretary of State for Education (at time of writing), MP for South Staffordshire (at time of writing), you (allegedly) once owned a tarantula that you kept on your desk and are (allegedly) a big fan of the original UK House of Cards series. We’re going to concentrate on the first of these facts. What do you do with the power you wield? There are any number of things you have responsibility for, including:

  • early years.
  • children’s social care.
  • teachers’ pay.
  • the school curriculum.
  • school improvement.
  • academies and free schools.
  • further education.
  • apprenticeships and skills.
  • higher education.

So, where to start? Holding the position of Secretary of State for Education (or equivalent roles, as the name and exact responsibilities have varied over the years) can be seen as a place to make your name in politics. It has been held by a number of heavy weights (politically), including Ken Clarke, David Blunkett, Shirley Williams and who could forget Margaret Hilda Thatcher? If you want to delve into more detail on previous politicians who have held the post, I would recommend the excellent website: curated by Laura Mcinerney. 

I was only a secondary maths teacher for a few years and yet, thanks to Michael Gove, managed to experience a fair amount of change in the curriculum. This year we have had a new Ofsted Inspection Framework launched and party conferences are full of promises on how to improve education, including a policy from Labour which would abolish Ofsted. 

As part of my role involves creating the resources and training for Action Tutoring I know from first hand experience the temptation to continually make changes and tweak things. I have hundreds of ideas of my own and then when you open it up to our team and tutors we could probably collate over a thousand suggestions of things to change. With so many things to change, we’d better get started! 

But wait. 

Hold on a minute…

Are these changes always good?

Are these changes all effective?

Do these changes make a difference in what we’re really trying to achieve or do they just keep us busy and look good on the surface?

If you haven’t heard of Effective Altruism or the book Doing Good Better, I want you to go away and look at least one of them up right now. Go on, I’ll wait…

Back? Good, I told you I would wait, didn’t I?

I first read Doing Good Better in June 2018 in Uganda. I then re-read it when visiting Ghana in November that year (I promise these holidays are the exception not the rule, I’m usually found in Bristol or London working very hard). Ironically, I gave my copy away when I was in Ghana last year and had to buy another. I would really recommend you reading it too… here… have my copy. 

Here is a brief introduction to the book from

Do you care about making the world a better place? Perhaps you buy ethical products, donate to charity or volunteer your time in the name of doing good. But how often do you know what impact you really have?

William MacAskill, Research Fellow at Cambridge University, has spent the last five years developing the philosophy of effective altruism, which applies data and scientific reasoning to the normally sentimental world of doing good. In the course of his research he’s come to the remarkable conclusion that most ways of making a difference achieve little, but that, by targeting our efforts on the most effective causes, we each have an enormous power to make the world a better place.

Such was the impact that reading the book has had on me, I managed to persuade the team at Action Tutoring to make it our theme and focus for the year.

Part of the reason for this is that over the last year, I’ve become more involved in working on our impact planning. This has been a mix of carrying out a piece of work on quality assurance, working with The Centre for Education and Youth (formly LKMco) and attending Impact Forums with other charities, run by our funder Impetus. 

One of the outcomes of this is working with our Data and Evaluation Manager to come up with an Impact Improvement Strategy for Action Tutoring. I already know this piece of work isn’t perfect, but it’s a step towards being more effective and having the biggest impact with the resources we have. 

Hold on, Gav! Gav! Pssst, that’s you… you’re Gavin Williamson, remember? 

What are you going to do to have the biggest impact on education in this country? 

If you’re still not sure, one suggestion that piqued my interest this week was from Becky Allen 

It ties into some of the ideas that Doing Good Better raises. Whatever activities we’re doing, we will almost certainly change how we carry them out by how those activities are judged. To ensure we’re having the biggest impact we can, maybe we shouldn’t focus only on the activities we’re doing, but what and how we’re really trying to measure at the end of the process. 

Or if we’re more interested in our personal ‘success’ we could all get tarantulas for our desks and rewatch House of Cards to pick up tips from Francis Urquhart on how to make our way to the top.