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Man at QCA

The national curriculum could be a 'world-class treasure' if teachers loved it as much as Mick Waters does. Elaine Williams joins him on the road as he spreads the word

A plate of egg and chips congeals as Mick Waters, director of the national curriculum, sets off in search of knives and forks in the forlorn surroundings of Chieveley service station off the A34 in Berkshire. It's 10pm, and even the seats and lights in this vast, empty cafe seem fatigued.

But Mr Waters is chirpy. He surveys the bowls of sugar and salt sachets nearby. "Do you suppose people ever get to the bottom of those," he muses, "or do waiters just keep topping them up? There's probably sugar and salt that's been lurking in there for eight years."

His warm curiosity leads him off on other trails in this lacklustre place.

The lad at the till is from the Czech Republic, and Mick Waters is intrigued by the boy's life, his studies, the reasons that bring him to work at these hours in such an unattractive spot. The boy's face brightens at the interest shown. Mr Waters got a similar reaction from the secondary heads he had addressed a couple of hours earlier in Daventry.

It's not often that a talk about the curriculum brings people out into beaming smiles, cackles and snorts of delight, especially among such a sceptical audience. Council members of the Association of School and College Leaders (formerly the Secondary Heads Association) who had settled down in snooze mode for the pre-dinner talk began to sit up and take note.

Mick Waters has a habit of coming at stuff from oblique quirky angles, his sharp, northern wit stripping away the flannel from policy and practice.

For the past nine months, since his appointment, he's been on the road, talking and listening about that most unloved of creatures, the national curriculum.

"If the national curriculum were a child it might have low self-esteem," he tells the Daventry gathering. It badly needs nurturing, transforming into a "world-class treasure". And they are the ones who know their schools, who can branch out from the tramlines.

He is not there, he says, to impose yet more top-down prescription or make major changes to mandatory provision and subject content. What needs to change is the "design". Give 20 architects the same building materials and they will come up with 20 different concepts. Similarly, individual schools, "or clusters of schools", should build upon basic national principles with their own unique features and those of their locality to devise a "wrap-around" curriculum. He and his team are there for guidance What he wants to see is a curriculum shaped by big, exciting ideas, rather than by subject specifications. He wants to see children rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into "deep" learning, as they do at the Bealings school, in Suffolk, where projects are taught through real tasks for real companies. Or the Leasowes school, Halesowen, in the West Midlands, which has instigated two-week lessons to allow children to follow their noses and become thoroughly immersed in a task.

Ever the storyteller, he recites two recent encounters to illustrate the curriculum dichotomy. The first was with a doctor who was giving him a check-up: "When he learned what my job was he immediately wanted to know whether we'd be including periodic tables and capital cities and the heights of mountains." The second was with an eminent scientist he sat next to at lunch who said that children were turned on to learning, not through a load of content, but by the big ideas and the opportunity to experiment and to fail in order to truly succeed.

The curriculum has to start, he argues, with what we want our children to be. He opens the question to the heads in Daventry, who answer readily: children should have hope and self-belief; be able to listen and reflect; they should be dependable; be able to think on their feet. Funnily enough, says Mr Waters, whenever he talks to employers they say much the same thing. And funnily enough, though he has asked this question many times, no one has ever mentioned five A-Cs (hoots and cheers).

His sustenance break at Chieveley is a stop-off on the way to Yeovil, where he is talking the next day to 200 primary heads from the South-west. There, with solidifying egg and chips perhaps fresh in his mind, he says he favours a Ready Steady Cook approach to the curriculum. "Or should it be 100 ways with mince?" he muses, recalling his more impoverished days raising three boys on a primary head's salary in Cumbria. "You have this bag of ingredients and you put them together in the way you want to, to make the most delicious meal".

Such talk is earning grassroot devotees. One head who has "gatecrashed" the Yeovil meeting, Paul Harper from Holway Park primary in Taunton, arrives bearing a green ukulele as a "gift for Mick". At a previous talk in Somerset Mr Waters took an interest in the school's 40-strong ukulele orchestra that was helping to transform the learning culture. "Mick understands schools; he gave us the best in-service training we had ever had," says Mr Harper. "With him consultation is genuine. But he is not cosy; he challenges us".

Mick Waters calls this his "year of engagement", which he is spending listening to the recipes schools are coming up with, passing them on to other schools, inviting schools to send in more. His team call it "contagious professionalism". And he is taking his subject officers with him. At Yeovil they are on the floor chairing workshops, listening to ideas, encouraging schools to go away and try things out. It's all a far cry from the consultation exercises carried out in the past by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which were conducted largely at headquarters back in London.

As a primary head Mick Waters was a great believer in "management by walking about", getting out in the classes and corridors, on the playground, modelling good teaching. The sort of head who would paint the school in the holidays. And when he became chief education officer for Manchester in October 2002 after serving as Tim Brighouse's deputy in Birmingham, he was much admired for his ability to inspire as well as take tough decisions. He was frequently out in Manchester's schools, advising on lessons, encouraging heads in tough circumstances, weeding out those not prepared to get stuck in, corresponding with pupils. And he required all of his advisers to teach to earn respect. They were organised into teams to take over schools on a Monday morning to give staff a breather. "Manchester Monday mornings" were in great demand.

He's now applying those principles to the QCA. He and his officers are out there, by land, air and water, meeting schools, talking to employers, Ofsted, the National College for School Leadership, calling on school leaders and teachers to become "big, brave professionals" and get stuck into curriculum design.

Mr Waters is undoubtedly treading a delicate line. The Government, already besieged on the education front, is at pains not to be seen to be burdening teachers further; but schools are queuing up to work with Mr Waters's team.

He also has an answer to those who are concerned that curriculum innovation might threaten the standards agenda or to heads who think innovation cannot happen without fundamental changes to assessment: "If curriculum innovation does not raise standards then it's not worth doing." Moreover, the current "co-development" underpins the key stage 3 review which aims to create greater flexibility and space for 11-to-14 year olds.

Paul Jones, chairman of the Devon Association of Primary Heads, who helped to co-ordinate the Yeovil conference, says Mick Waters is admired as the "biggest champion for children out there. Schools are bursting to try things out with the curriculum. Now they will feel they have official backing."

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