Interview - Teachers' hero who is careful never to put a word wrong

8th May 2009 at 01:00
Mick Waters is the second big hitter to leave the QCA in weeks. He talks frankly about his departure and his plans to William Stewart

Mick Waters chooses his words very carefully. The charismatic educationist is giving his first interview since finishing a four-year stint as the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's director of curriculum, and he is clearly keen not to do a Ken Boston.

Just over a week ago, the former QCA chief executive, who resigned over the 2008 Sats debacle, launched a wide-ranging and very public attack on government ministers. An explosive session in front of the Commons schools committee saw Dr Boston describe their evidence to a public inquiry as "fiction" and "sexed up". He accused them of cynicism and self-protection and, at one point, seemed to be calling for resignations.

So does he have anything to say about how his old boss was treated and why he left the authority?


The quietly spoken teachers' hero obviously wants to stay out of the row. The problem is his former boss has already dropped him right in the thick of it.

Speaking about the tension he believed there had been between the QCA and ministers, Dr Boston told MPs: "One of the great sources of agitation has been the way in which I have played my role and allowed other senior people to play their roles, including, particularly perhaps, Mick Waters."

Waters seems genuinely shocked by the idea that ministers are unhappy with the way he has done his job. "I have shared the platform with ministers on many occasions and they have never told me that," he says. "I have always backed national policy and I have always spoken for the very best opportunities for youngsters.

"I am fully behind the Children's Plan. I encourage teachers to do the very best they can to achieve.

"I am somebody with a record of running excellent schools. I have run an advisory service which was highly regarded by Ofsted, and I have seen massive improvements in results in an urban education authority where I was chief education officer. I have got a lot of experience of making things better for young people."

That is as good a summary of Mr Waters' career as any and helps to explain how he has inspired teachers to run with the curriculum reforms he has overseen. It is work he is continuing, having come hotfoot from speaking to a conference of heads from Halton in Cheshire.

On the surface, it is tempting to draw parallels with Dr Boston, the Australian who appointed him to the curriculum body in 2005. They are both charismatic, confident figures who shared the limelight as the QCA's two bigger hitters and are officially leaving it within weeks of each other.

Dr Boston's departure was triggered by last summer's Sats chaos, although he believes ministers had it in for him as long ago as March last year. Observers have suggested that ministers may also have played a part in Mr Waters's departure by taking the lead role in the primary curriculum review away from the authority and handing it to an outsider, Sir Jim Rose.

But he is having none of it. "If I was going to take umbrage, I would have done it when it (the Rose review) was announced." He insists his departure is down to a four-year contract ending last month and the fact that the QCA is about to be transformed into the new Qualifications and Curriculum and Development Agency, making it a natural time to move on.

"I am more up for the challenge of making a difference to youngsters' lives on an immediate basis than I am on a move (the new agency will be based in Coventry) and re-organisation and all the management that involves."

Instead, he will continue his mission of encouraging teachers to inspire pupils through a variety of other avenues. Half his time will be spent as a professor of education at Wolverhampton University. He will also be advising Sheffield Council on improving education and is involved in a new company called 360deg People, which is offering schools a computer system which allows them to assess their pupil's "soft skills".

Adults who have worked with pupils - such as employers who have given them work experience or youth club leaders - can assess them on skills such as team-working and problem-solving. The software then analyses the results to give pupils guidance on the areas they need to develop next.

It fits with his argument that "young people are more than a currency for the league table of school results and success is more important than examination grades".

"I believe most schools see it bigger than that," he says. "They really do work on what are known as soft skills and they know they will get the rebound in terms of results - it is not one or the other.

"But at the moment, many schools have not got the capacity to invest in the assessment or recording of these skills."

It was a similar "whole-child" philosophy that lay behind the key stage 3 curriculum review that he headed with its emphasis on "dimensions" - areas of knowledge that need to be taught but that fall between the traditional subjects, areas such as healthy lifestyles and community participation. It is a curriculum that he believes works because of the time he spent talking to schools and whetting their appetite for it.

So was he really content not to be involved in the primary review in the same way? Was he happy that it was taken out the QCA's hands?

"There has been a lot of puffing and blowing about it and people read all sorts into it," he admits.

But he argues that the process of the primary review was not that different to the secondary one, in that both were started by independent experts setting out the parameters, followed by the QCA carrying out the detailed work.

The expert for the secondary review was Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, who, he says, called for a curriculum review in his 14-19 report - which QCA went on to carry out.

At primary, he says, the only difference is that the expert critique, carried out by Sir Jim Rose has, "because of time pressures", run concurrently with the more detailed work done by QCA.

"People want to make a bigger drama out of that than there really is," he says, before admitting, "I think everybody would have appreciated it taking longer, but the Government were keen to make it fit in with the Children's Plan."

So he believes the timescale for the primary review was too short? There is a long, pregnant, pause before he replies, slightly unconvincingly: "No. It has got done."

Mr Waters believes the real challenge now is to avoid "planning blight" before the introduction of the new primary curriculum in 2011, ensuring schools don't spend "two years planning and not teaching very well".

He wants teachers to look at how they can make the curriculum work for them rather than simply work out how to comply with every word of it. The Rose review was an opportunity to take some of those words on content out of the primary curriculum, he admits. But again he stops short of criticising it for not doing so.

"My perception is that the lobby from every subject was so strong to keep their patch of territory that it becomes more sensible to write it in a different way to try and make clear to teachers what it is they have to do - what the must-do, should-do and could-do elements are."

So does he have any reservations? "I have no big reservations anyway." And were his own relations with ministers OK? "I always had very cordial meetings with ministers."

What about the Conservatives, who look increasingly likely to form the next Government, and their allegations that skills are being introduced into the curriculum at the expense of subject knowledge?

"Conservative education spokespeople ..." he starts. But he breaks off saying: "I had better be careful."

It is a consummate performance from a man with a long experience of firing up teachers, who knows just how powerful his words can be.

"I haven't said anything damaging have I?" he says, smiling on his way out.

No, Mr Waters, you haven't.

- Sir Jim's formula, pages 26-27


He started teaching in a primary school in Nottingham and quickly gained promotion. Two primary headships in Cumbria followed and then a spell in teacher training in Lancaster.

His next job was as chief adviser at Birmingham local education authority under the charismatic Tim Brighouse.

In 2002 he moved to become chief education officer for the city of Manchester

In 2005, he was chosen by Ken Boiston to become head of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, leading the reform of KS3 curriculum.

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