Thinking Allowed

on Schooling

By: Mick Waters


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Products specifications
Attribute name Attribute value
Size: 140mm x 216mm
Pages : 352
ISBN : 9781781350560
Format: Paperback
Published: April 2013

Mick Waters has consistently been a down-to-earth voice in the increasingly complex world of education for many years. He has regularly endeared himself to school communities in the UK and overseas by talking the sort of sense they needed to hear - practical, challenging, inspiring, insightful, engaging. His unique perspective, closeness to the classroom and ability to see innovation in terms of its impact on learners mean his views are always worth listening to. In this long-awaited book, Mick tells it how it is. The things he believes in. The things he wants to see done differently. Wry reflections, humorous insights, astute asides and simple ideas to change the system - and the future - for young people everywhere. This is the book you have been waiting for.

Thinking Allowed was named Teach Primary‘s Best Book 2014!


Picture for author Mick Waters

Mick Waters

A former head teacher, Mick Waters works closely with teachers and leaders in schools, MATs and local authorities to support the development of teaching approaches and curriculum to ensure the best learning outcomes for children. For some years he was Director of Curriculum for England, based at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA), and before that held the post of Chief Education Officer for the City of Manchester. He is also invited to work at a policy level with government in different parts of the world. 

Click here to listen in on Mick's podcast with Pivotal Education - 'Mick Waters on Centralisation, OFSTED and Brilliant Schools'.


  1. We've never been ones to laugh out loud at a book we've read or react openly in any way. But something unusual happened every time we sat down to read another chapter of Mick Waters' Thinking Allowed: On Schooling. The chapter wouldn't be over before we'd ended up saying, “this is good stuff!”


    Have you ever been in the situation where what you've read is so good, so insightful, that you've had to put the book down? That's what happened constantly with Thinking Allowed. And you have to realise we're usually with Mr B when it comes to reading-exclaimers. But, boy is this good stuff.

    Now you have to understand one thing. Any book that has chapter titles such as “-¦on national politicians and education policy” and “-¦on professional integrity and game theory” is never going to capture our imagination, let alone get us to respond aloud. But, strangely, this book has and this book did. It's witty, thought-provoking and not-in-the-least-bit dry.

    In Thinking Allowed, Mick Waters set out to:

    “comment on the state of schooling, offer a perspective on our journey to the present day and then proffer a few thoughts on how we might move forward.”

    And, in that brief sentence lie the three things that make this book such good stuff - his fair-minded commentary, clear perspective and reasoned suggestions for the way ahead.

    One of the cornerstones of Independent Thinking Press is Ian Gilbert's idea that the books should provide for the author “their voice in print”. You can see it with the difference between the lyrical and the more analytical - from the fonts used to the writing style, reading both -˜The Discipline Coach' and -˜Full On Learning', you feel you understand Jim Roberson and Zoe Elder respectively. We've never met them, we'd imagine a conversation with Jim is rather like a pep-talk and one with Zoe would fire all sorts of thoughts and ideas to better our teaching. Their voices in print.

    And so it is with Thinking Allowed. We've never met Mick Waters and don't know a huge amount about him as a person, but through his words we can tell this is a fair man. Thinking Allowed is written with a balance that is rare - especially in books that attempt to comment on “the System”. Almost always, the author's political views shine through, but in this case things are different. Mick Waters writes in a balanced way about things it would be easy to be cynical about.

    Like it or not, if you're reading this, you're probably a cog in “the Machine” with a small role in the “Education System”. During our nine years in the classroom, we spent most of that time ignoring that fact as best we could. The job was all about what happened when the classroom door shut, nothing else. Governments could direct from afar, but how we taught their Literacy Hours or Numeracy Strategy was up to us. In many ways, we'd still encourage teachers to take a similar approach. Nothing beats the dynamic interaction between teacher and student. We knew, tiny cog or not, we could affect and inspire lives daily. The classroom's where it's at. Don't forget it.

    What put us off taking more of an interest in the education system was the cynicism we saw around us. In his book Oops!, Hywel Roberts talks about radiators and drains (those whose positive attitudes radiate from them and those who drain everyone around). It's probably fair to say that many of the drains out there are drained, hence their negativity and cynicism about a system where those at the top are changed every handful of years, usually with a completely new philosophy of how we should be doing our job and often with very little encouragement of the cogs in the machine. No wonder we just kept our head down and enjoyed the teaching.

    Thinking Allowed provides a commentary on where we are now in terms of education and it feels tremendously uncynical. The good points (yes, there are some!) in our system are cited as well as the bad ones. And so, you leave the book feeling like you've had an apolitical (and therefore unbiased) representation of where we're at. It's a breath of fresh air if all you're used to is cynical “drains” complaining about how things are and politicians er-¦ complaining about how things are. When Mick Waters complains how things are, he does so gently!

    Thinking Allowed was written during a hiatus when the author recuperated after surgery on his spinal cord. Reading it gives one the feeling that this time out allowed Mick Waters to delve into his wealth of experience - as primary school teacher, headteacher, Chief Education Officer at Manchester LEA, Director of Curriculum at the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) - and pull out the things that matter.

    What are the things that bother you in terms of education? What parts of the machine do you want to change?

    Mick Waters introduces a brilliant analogy about a race track-¦

    “imagine the 1,500 children born on any one day in England being placed on life's starting line. The children from the privileged upper classes would be on the inside lane. On the extreme outside -¦ would be the children who are born into poverty and are surrounded by society's ills-¦”

    Most people obviously being somewhere between the two extremes. He goes on to describe how for most families, the desire is to edge towards the left of wherever they are on the race track and many of the issues that are faced by outside lane schools, parents and children. It's fascinating and a powerful analogy that he refers to again and again.

    Can every school be a good school? What are the positives of the inspection process? Is the teacher outstanding, good or satisfactory or is it the teaching? As Waters says,

    “it is noticeable these days how even teachers describe one another in inspection terms. -˜Mr H is an outstanding teacher'. -˜Mrs K is good with outstanding features.' -˜Ms D', whisper it, -˜is only satisfactory'-¦ True, an outstanding teacher leads good lessons for the most part. But the outstanding teacher is more than that.”

    It's a thought-provoking paragraph (and a video-provoking one too - we made Now That's What I Call Outstanding on the back of it).

    - TESTING?
    How have we got into the situation where “assessment” often just means “testing”? Are synthetic phonics really the silver bullet to teaching children how to read?

    Why is it that in education the higher up we climb the professional ladder, the more strategic we become and the further away from the students we get? And why do children with complex needs often have someone less-qualified helping them when surely they need to access the best of the best? In an interesting analogy, Waters points out that this is completely the opposite to the world of medicine, where the more complex our needs the more expertise we access and a specialised consultant is the “best in the business”, demonstrating this daily.

    How can we show disillusioned youngsters what the point of trying is? Aspiration is more than upbeat slogans, so how else can we motivate young people? In a wonderful chapter on unleashing aspiration, Mick Waters encourages us to use “the constant example and articulation of the real world”, reveals himself as the propagator of the brilliant -˜101 Things To Do Before You're 11â€'² idea long before the National Trust ran with it and provides a great way to encourage students to give their teacher a hard time (not what they'd expect).

    And don't get us started on the chapter on teaching, pupils and classrooms - Waters' section on the ridiculousness of much teacher-talk is great.

    Despite those who say he's all style and no substance, we've always thought Sir Ken Robinson is an important voice in the education debate. But one thing we've always thought after listening to him speak or reading his work is “so what now, Ken? Yes, we can see that our school system still bears many of the hallmarks of the Victorian model and we completely agree with you about the need to value creativity, but what can we do about it?” In Thinking Allowed, Mick Waters ends each chapter with a list of bullet points with titles such as “What can we do?” and “What might be done?” And so, he suggests answers as well as posing the questions. You might not agree with all of them, but at least he proposes some solutions.

    Thinking Allowed answers the question -˜What's it all about?' Although we'd still maintain the cut-and-thrust of the classroom's where it's at, this is a book that finally got us to take an interest in the innards of the education machine and even to respond out loud. High praise indeed. You will leave each chapter inspired.

    Last word must go to @paulyb37 (a headteacher based in Nottingham) who, after we mentioned the book on Twitter, tweeted the following:

    “Weirdly I've been reading it over the summer and I got the links. Lots to think about, left me wanting to change the world!”

    Change the world? Like we say, it's good stuff.

    See the full review here:
  2. Mick Water's latest book “Thinking Allowed on Schooling” should attract a wide readership with something for everyone involved in education -” students, practitioners, trainers, school leaders, stake holders, administrators and certainly politicians. Mick's thinking will set his readers' minds racing and trigger fresh insights, knowledge and understanding about schooling in the round, about teaching and learning, about how children learn, about parents and stakeholders, about public education policy, about professionalism -” about the past, about the future. Mick writes as he speaks in a calm, authoritative, reflective but direct manner which engages his readers impatient to discover as though reading a novel where the narrative may lead next.

    Mick's book is a tour de force presenting as it does a complete picture of the “muddle” represented by the public education service in England in 2013 -” the reasons for this together with suggestions about ways and means of bringing change and improvement. But while Mick puts forward in typically positive fashion carefully thought through proposals at macro and micro levels about what might be done, the enormity of the task in combating what might be regarded as the forces of darkness threatens to overwhelm. It's not just that Mick “says it is as it is” in the robust terms of the realist that he is in explaining what doesn't work and why, but rather that the scenario itself is in reality so dire and so far removed from anything that should be considered “fit for purpose” that the reader's gloom might well turn to anger.

    Mick packs so much insightful thinking into this important book that merits further reflection and comment, but two critical areas he explores are, arguably, central to any agenda for change that will lift public education out of the current -˜mess'.

    The first of these major areas of concern relates to the whole raft of government education policy, the way it is implemented and its impact on schools resulting in the phenomenon Mick describes as -˜game theory'. A mixture of target setting, testing and a flawed inspection process inter alia mean that schools have to focus undue time and attention on ensuring they are able to tick the right boxes to gain a seal of approval -” almost regardless of the actual quality of teaching and learning provided. After all, “pleasing the inspectors is key to survival”.

    The second critical area -” a precondition of improvement perhaps -” is that the teaching profession itself needs to regain its collective confidence -” should rediscover its professional voice and become a much stronger player in shaping improvement strategies and charting a way forward. In the process, Mick believes the profession could do well to reconsider its general attitude to the importance of research findings and be seen to value and embrace the learning that research offers. 

    Mick Waters' overarching observation about the educational status quo in England is to question the involvement and role of politicians in directing what happens in schools or even in classrooms. Clearly the case for government to determine the parameters of a public education service is not in question but it is questionable that this should extend to what children are taught or indeed how this done. Mick's prescription of an elected National Council for schooling drawing on the thinking and decisions of major stakeholders is a constructive proposal : his readers will decide how practical this might prove to be or if there is ever likely to be the political will to accept such model.

    Mick's book is not light reading but it is enjoyable reading. Having said that, his writing will variously inform, delight, inspire, depress, invigorate, challenge his readers and prompt hope and despair and much else. Above all, his experience, learning, wit and wisdom fill every page which “Thinking Allowed on Schooling” essential and rewarding reading.
  3. Never mind the King James Bible - every school should have a copy of Thinking Allowed on Schooling by Mick Waters instead. While the King James Bible might be useful to many of today's schools as a door stop, Waters' tract, written with esprit and elegance, is a sharp, balanced and enlightened rumination on the historical, political and social influences of schooling. Like the ghosts in Dickens' -˜A Christmas Carol', he clearly and calmly presents a past, present and possible futures for schools, offering ideas while firmly laying down a revolutionary gauntlet for those with the wit and courage to pick it up. Without a doubt, it is the duty of everyone remotely connected to or interested in schooling and education to read this book and help transform the future of education, before it is too late.
  4. Experience of working alongside Mick Waters as a member of the school improvement team within a local authority enabled me to review this book with added awareness of Mick's professional and personal abilities. He stimulates thinking and offers practical perspectives gained from a breadth of experience at the “coal face”. His voice, that challenges many aspects of current thinking, offers a practical and realistic approach to address key issues faced by staff within schools and colleges. Current key foci of inspection teams is to raise aspirations and challenge pupils and students to improve achievement and performance. Mick, in his own inimitable style talks realistically on p179 onwards, “unleashing aspirations and sending the human spirit soaring..... aspiration is than simply upbeat slogans”. A brilliant book encapsulating all of Mick's abilities, experience and skills to stimulate staff and students to think outside of the box.
  5. There are so many moments in Thinking Allowed on Schooling where I recognise myself and my school and we have adopted the phrase "cheerful but confused professionals" as our new Leadership Team motto. Thanks Mick for making it so clear that we are not alone in "running a parallel race alongside the game theory of results to achieve the best educational outcome they can for the pupils."
    A wise, warm, perceptive read which has put a smile on the faces of those who work in school day in day out, rather than simply make speeches about it.

  6. This is a very honest, reflective and extremely readable book from Mick, and one that places him firmly on the side of pupils and the integrity of education. He has always been a personal champion of the profession and the need to support and challenge colleagues. He argues very cogently about the need for a rational framework for education strategy. This would remove education from the political chess game it has become and enable decisions to be made on the basis of evidence, experience and impact.

    Head teachers and school staff reading this will feel that at last someone cares and recognises the tremendous (and human) efforts they make in trying to meet the educational needs of our children and society. The book will remind them of why they became teachers in the first place -” and that professional autonomy is worth striving for.

  7. Thinking Allowed on Schooling, is a book that only he could write, a book that we have all been desperate for him to author and a book that should give us all the courage to rediscover our professionalism, passion and purpose. Mick has always put our children first, this book will help those of us who really care about education do the same. Governments and policies come and go but this book will stand as a legacy of Mick's work for generations to come.

  8. As one would expect from Mick Waters, Thinking Allowed on Schooling is an engaging read. His analysis is penetrating yet readable and I find a great deal of what he writes to be wholly convincing.This book deserves to be taken very seriously by those now responsible for such matters.
  9. Mick Waters has done it again. Sometimes you read something so blindingly obvious that you wonder, “Why didn't I think of that?” But, whereas most of us manage to glimpse parts of the problem and fragments of possible solutions, he pulls all those elements together succinctly and coherently. He presents educators and policy-makers alike with a challenge that is huge and daunting, to be sure, but which in his masterly analysis is eminently capable of being addressed, if only we have the will to do so. 

    That analysis is dispassionate, but there's no mistaking Mick's passion for education and for its purpose that we owe to our children but in which we so often fail them. Notwithstanding his clear love for teaching and for teachers, he doesn't flinch from criticising the uninspiring and formulaic: nor does his flinch from laying the blame firmly at the doors of qualification-obsessed policy-makers and the data-dominated inspection system for creating and perpetuating the focus on what is narrow, tedious and purely utilitarian.

    Mick is a positive thinker -” hence the book's title. So, although he paints a bleak picture of the current state of affairs, he offers solutions: they are challenging but realistic, if only policy-makers would find the courage. If we don't pick up the gauntlet Mick throws down, we risk (as he writes graphically) continuing to “beat the drum of progress and march to the drum of tedious accountability”.
  10. Thinking Allowed is of course an inspiration! 

    Unlike most educational books this one will not be read and then shelved. Mick's absolute commitment to the best education for our children is apparent throughout as he shares his wealth of knowledge and experience. The book, whilst being accessible and colourful, provides enough hard hitting research and challenging quotes and examples to make it a very interesting read for people at all levels of education and a credible point of reference for years to come. I hope that Thinking Allowed will become both a valuable source of guidance for educators and an essential read for future Secretaries of State! 

    I am a head teacher and therefore not in the business of critically evaluating and editing material for publication so I can't be of help in reviewing the language, organisation and structure of the text itself but I can comment on how the book could, and has already, helped me as a practicing head teacher. Thinking Allowed justifies my exhaustion, it also revels, with me, in the joy of schools and education, making me laugh out loud and nod my head at shared experiences! Thinking Allowed set out, with real clarity, the very complex context for education and the huge agenda faced by schools. It gave enough history for us educators to understand how we got into this educational situation and enough inspiration and guidance to help us prioritise, refocus and manage things better for our children and our communities. I liked the book being crammed with page after page of things I'd wanted to have explained and reminders of why we are all trying so hard to get -˜it' right. I felt reassured that I could have this book on my desk as a constant source to tap into, for clarity; reflection and deeper thinking. It is helpful to have chapters focussed on crucial things like pedagogy and curriculum, aspiration and assessment. It worked well for me that each section concluded with What could we do/What might be done? - clear next steps which we can all consider and/or act upon. I have pulled out key messages to help clarify our strategic thinking, as a school (when I'm given the go ahead to share content) and have clung onto -˜innovate with integrity' and -˜learning which is irresistable'. The book has highlighted some key questions I need to ask of myself as a leader, of our team within school and of the parents and children. I think that this book will become invaluable to senior leaders within education and could go alot further to raising standards than Ofsted Inspections, testing systems or political grand speeches will! 

    I feel very privileged to have been asked to read the book and even more privileged (though not surprised) that Mick is willing to share so much with us all.
    To conclude - What could Mick do next? Find a structure to update schools leaders and teachers with filtered information to help us prioritise, a way to help us feel informed but not overloaded with information and political claptrap. Press for a National Council for Schooling. Pat himself on the back (for once) and know that he has provided us with something practical and tangible that WILL make a difference to education in our schools.
  11. Mick Waters has produced the right book for the right time. He penetrates to the heart of the many open discussions we are having about education today. We may not agree with all he says, but we cannot help but be stimulated to think at a deeper level by reading this book.

  12. Mick Waters is a calm, seasoned voice in the rising clamour of debate on the future of education. Drawing on his long experience in classrooms and in national policy, Thinking Allowed offers a wise, well-informed and practical perspective on the challenges that face education and how to meet them. Unlike many passing politicians, Mick Waters has spent his life in education. This insightful, compassionate book distils the essence of what he has learnt and what we can learn from him. An essential read.

  13. With his characteristic lightness of touch, Mick Waters maintains a steadfast hand on the tiller as he navigates the challenging waters of today's fast changing educational landscape. Highly accessible, eminently readable and earthed in the experience of teachers, this book exposes the absurdity, complexity and utter joy invested in the business and busyness of schools. Through reflections, anecdotes, and distinctive humour, the authoritative voice of Mick Waters liberates education from its historical, political and cultural context by offering a compelling critique of educational policy based on a belief that public service, pride in the teaching profession and an unequivocal commitment to the most aspirational outcomes for children and young people provide the only way forward.

  14. Listening to Mick is always a pleasure, his down to earth, common sense beliefs are forged from exhaustive research, vast experience and a commitment to providing high quality learning experiences for our young people, regardless of their backgrounds. His book is no different, it is as thought provoking and challenging as I had hoped it would be. I am looking forward to some very interesting and productive staff development sessions, using his questions, and suggestions as the basis for discussion and change.

  15. In this highly readable book, Mick gives a brilliant review of the Good, the Bad, and the Plain Old Ugly of the current educational landscape. He is right to conclude that we need "an Education Spring - a rising of intolerance about the way schooling is being manipulated in a piecemeal and uncoordinated way to serve too many purposes with unclear measures". His call for the establishment of an elected National Council for Schooling as a way forward is also spot-on It is indeed time for politicians to hand over the direction of the Profession to the Profession itself

  16. `Thinking Allowed' is a truly seminal work which should become required reading not just for Head teachers and those charged with delivering education but for all with an interest in how our children become educated, rather than simply schooled, and engaged members of our society rather than tabloid stereotypes. Mick Waters goes beyond analysing the triumphs and failings of our system, to suggesting practical solutions to the miasma of challenges facing us today. He provides a clarity and sharpness of thinking, liberally interspersed with humour and humility, things our political masters only achieve unwittingly. This is a brilliant contribution to the informed debate that is yet to be had.

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