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Made for Manchester

Mick Waters leads by example: Manchester's education chief insists on teaching in the city's schools himself and wants his staff to do the same. In fact, he believes standards would rocket nationally if administrators - and Ofsted inspectors - had regular stints in the classroom. Elaine Williams met him

There's not a trace of irony in Mick Waters's voice or facial expression as he sums up his feelings about his new role as Manchester's chief education officer. "It's a lovely job," he says. And he sounds as though he means it.

He could be forgiven for feeling otherwise. Not long after he took up his post last November, pound;7million was lost from the city's budget in the great national funding fiasco. Some Manchester secondary schools have found themselves pound;350,000 short; some primaries are pound;50,000 adrift, the equivalent of two teachers' salaries.

This in a city that struggles to cope with massive deprivation. More than three-quarters of Manchester's 33 council wards are in the 10 per cent of most deprived wards in England and Wales. Thirty per cent of pupils belong to ethnic minority groups, twice the national average.

The number of children of refugees and asylum seekers is rising sharply but overall the pupil population continues to fall. In 2001 there was a 14.5 per cent flight into independent schools and neighbouring authorities.

Despite having one of the largest student populations in Europe, the city sends only 7 per cent of its youngsters to university.

For Mick Waters such factors make the job more pressing, but also richer and more rewarding; he is in love with the "intense urban experience" that is Manchester. The greatest challenge, he says, is not to think in terms of problems; it's about doing things differently. And that might mean some radical lateral thinking and risk-taking. But he's up for the challenge and he's out to make everybody else up for it as well: advisers, teachers, lunchtime organisers and, not least, pupils. "I want to be a hypothesising LEA," he says. "By that I mean we take the approach, 'How about if we try that? or 'What if we do this?'

"Learning is about taking risks, and if you take risks you will sometimes break through. It's about self-belief. If you are forever looking over your shoulder for criticism, you will not see what's ahead."

So what about those "what ifs"? If, for example, Manchester education authority is to work alongside its teachers, why not get its officers doing, as well as telling?

Since taking over at Manchester, Mick Waters has been visiting schools regularly, taking classes and assemblies; much of it has been videotaped for inclusion on training videos. He does not ask others to do what he is not prepared to do himself. His aim is to gather advisers and other officers with teaching qualifications into teams that will go into schools and teach.

"What better way to influence schools than to get alongside them and teach?" he says. "Everybody in the education department with a teaching certificate should teach. These teams will go into schools on a Monday to allow teachers to draw breath.

"In education so many organisations talk about teaching but don't actually do any. We will never get anywhere if we look at teaching from a distance.

If every officer had a day a month in the classroom, standards would rocket."

Even more radically, he believes Ofsted inspectors should teach for half a term every year. "That way they would get masses of respect."

Mr Waters is also lobbying for recognition of "urban specialists", outstanding practitioners in schools struggling with deprivation who do not get the praise they deserve. "You might be a brilliant teacher in Manchester, but by league table measures you are going to be at the bottom," he says. "You might be in a failing school, but for the child you helped who has no one at home, or for that group of youngsters who performed Bugsy Malone, and working with the police as a counter to gang culture, you are certainly not failing. Such teachers are specialists and we must celebrate what they do."

To this end he is setting up the Manchester Teacher Academy, in collaboration with the General Teaching Council, which will formally recognise urban specialists and encourage their development by accrediting "context-specific learning" at various levels. Qualified specialists will visit other education authorities or other countries and supervise newly qualified teachers.

In another pilot project, lunchtime supervisors are to become mentors for GCSE students. The rationale behind this initiative is that students and their parents are more likely to bump into canteen and lunchtime staff out of school than they are their teachers.

"Few teachers in Manchester live in the same area as their students," he says, "but if families bump into staff on the streets who can talk about how their son or daughter is doing in maths or geography, then it shows somebody else is looking out for them besides teachers." It will help, he says, to foster a community interest in learning. It will also raise the status of supervisors.

Mick Waters has a relaxed manner, but underneath is a steeliness that makes him a powerful political operator. His vociferous opposition to government budget cuts brought the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, on a conciliatory mission to Manchester. Clarke can make a difference, says Mr Waters, but lunchtime organisers will have an even greater influence. "They will stay with us for many years. Charles Clarke will be promoted long before that."

Then there is the initiative to reward good behaviour by giving children access to the resources of universities. Pupils will gain recognition for core competencies such as controlling anger - working in a group or sustaining an argument without getting personal - which will allow them to research topics with university researchers. "It's a way of showing children that they can do this university stuff."

Mick Waters took over an authority recovering from a crushing Ofsted report in 1998 which highlighted deep fractures and a profound lack of trust and respect between LEA officers and schools. He pays tribute to his predecessor, David Johnston, who made a great effort to heal wounds and get everybody working together.

The last inspection in 2002 praised the authority's "highly innovative partnerships" to support school improvement, though this was not as rapid as "it needed to be"; Ofsted called for "strong and challenging leadership". It should not be disappointed.

A former primary head in Cumbria - the kind who would paint the school and put up bookshelves - Mick Waters was, before coming to Manchester, the head of advisory and support services in Birmingham, working underneath Professor Tim Brighouse, now London schools commissioner. Tim Brighouse praises his former deputy for his honesty, his astute judgment, his toughness and energy. "He was not afraid to make difficult decisions, and if he thought people could improve, he would tell them. But he brought the best out in everybody. All of us will learn a lot about city schools through his work in Manchester. He will find good practice where nobody else has. He will find ways for his schools to defy the odds."

Mr Waters himself says he hates seeing children let down. "There is no detachment in me. If things need doing I am there. I'm very direct about what needs to be done."

Teachers who know him say he leads by example and speaks from the heart. He is immortalised as Mick the Fiery Bowler in one of John Cunliffe's Postman Pat stories (the two met when Cunliffe was doing his teaching practice in Mick Waters's school). The character is a tribute to his cricketing skills but a good analogy perhaps for his attitude to work. He doesn't muck about.

He wants to get in there and knock down barriers to learning. He is not proud of the fact that only around one-third of pupils attain five GCSE passes "in a city that has been educating pupils since 1870", although he is "delighted" that this year's figure is up six points to 39 per cent.

Not that he supports top-down target-setting. That, he says, "shot its bolt five years ago". He is desperate, on the other hand, to see more children getting five GCSE passes, because "good results open many doors for young people and set them on the way to success". But he knows it won't happen unless he takes the city with him.

How many chief education officers write to pupils - hundreds of them - personally? During his first few months in post he wrote to all pupils on the cusp of achieving five A-Cs. He offered them extra tuition and residential activity courses in the Lake District. It's not about targets, he told them, but about doing well.

They were also invited to the town hall, where soap stars and sports champions extolled the virtues of effort and revision; he was delighted that hundreds of parents and grandparents attended the event. Many of those students now send him letters, telling of their progress.

How many education directors would keep up personal correspondence with a class of primary children? This began when Mick Waters visited a primary class making gingerbread men. As the gingerbread wasn't cooked, they sent him one through the post. He wrote back to tell them that when he opened the parcel the gingerbread man leapt out and escaped. He hoped the little man had found his way back to school.

Their teacher made sure the escapee turned up in class and, sure enough, the pupils sent him back. Sadly, Mr Waters had to write back to say that once again the gingerbread man had escaped, last seen crossing the lights and heading off down Deansgate. And so the story continues. As does MickWaters's quest to make the most of Manchester schools.

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