About Our Schools

Improving on previous best

By: Tim Brighouse , Mick Waters


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PublishedFebruary 2022
Size248 x 185mm

Written by Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters, About Our Schools: Improving on previous best examines in detail the turbulent years of education policy and practice from the late 1970s to the present day – and sets out what policy-makers and education leaders can do to enable our schools to improve on their previous best.

Foreword by Danny Dorling.

Through revealing and forthright interviews with 14 secretaries of state – from Kenneth Baker to Michael Gove and Gavin Williamson, together with many other leading figures in education – Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters provide fascinating insights into the various evolutions and revolutions that have taken place in English state education since 1976.

In so doing they highlight key areas for improvement and assess where we should go from here to enable teachers and schools to improve the learning and broaden the horizons of each and every one of their pupils – whatever their talents, challenges, advantages or problems.

Split into four parts, the book shares a range of perspectives and informed viewpoints on education, covering areas such as curriculum, pedagogy and assessment; school improvement and leadership; admissions, attendance, exclusions and behaviour; special educational needs and disabilities; and governance and finance of schooling.

The authors offer insights into how education policies are made, what helps and what gets in the way – and explore how institutional barriers and obstacles to pupil fulfilment can be overcome. And, crucially, the authors conclude by outlining 39 steps to success that can help the education sector build forward together and foster more collaborative partnerships towards a brighter future.

Tim and Mick have both spent a lifetime in state-provided education – first as pupils, then as teachers, and finally in various leadership and policy-making positions, both in and out of schools. About Our Schools is born out of their shared love for education and their appreciation of how schooling can be a transformative element in the lives of children and young people.

Suitable for teachers, head teachers, school governors and policy-makers, as well as parents and anyone interested in the politics of schooling.

All royalties from sales of this book will be donated to Barnardo’s and the Compassionate Education Foundation.


Read a Schools Week review from Laura McInerney for About Our Schools here.


Here's Tim and Mick speaking with Geoff Barton on the ASCL's Leaders are Readers podcast:

Picture for author Tim Brighouse

Tim Brighouse

Twice a chief education officer – once in Oxfordshire and once in Birmingham, each time for 10 years – and he lead the London Challenge, which Tim Brighouse said he had learned from most of his many mistakes as a teacher, teacher educator and administrator. He believed in the power of teachers and schools to change the world for the better.

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. I would highly recommend this new book to teachers and parents interested in the politics of schooling; for teacher educators I would say that it is essential reading! The authors' dedication of the book to their grandchildren reflects the ongoing philosophical aspirations that, as educators, we share for all our learners, whatever the short-term policy changes of ambitious politicians..

  2. About Our Schools is a powerful piece of work. Tim and Mick have produced a thoughtful analysis of education over the past decades. Importantly, future policy-makers might learn something from these two wise men.
  3. About Our Schools certainly relates to my own experiences of working in education over the years. Having worked as an adviser at the Department for Education in its various guises, I feel this book should be compulsory reading for every secretary of state and all education ministers, as well as the civil servants who implement government policy.

  4. With sweeping ambition, Brighouse and Waters’ About Our Schools provides a compelling narrative of how markets came to dominate education policy-making since the 1970s – and how we can change course. Throughout the bulk of the book is a detailed review of educational policy in England and its trend towards centralisation, their insights, drawing upon personal interviews with dozens of policy-makers, also ring true for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic. They provide a compelling account of what happened to the hope and optimism of the post Second World War era, avoiding nostalgia, and acknowledging where trust in the system of public education went awry. And by proposing 39 policy solutions ranging from smarter accountability to fairer admissions, the authors deliver a sweeping road map to transform English schools from islands of autonomous competition towards a cohesive, collaborative whole.

  5. Publications like this are few and far between. I cannot remember the last time I read a book that so skilfully sets out its historical context in an analysis of our current educational landscape and its optimistic vision for the future. Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters have brought their trademark humanity, pragmatism and insight to a fascinating book that has the importance of teachers and teaching at its heart. Drawing on their unrivalled perspectives of our education system over the last 40 years, the authors have created a book that is full of fascinating anecdotes, illustrations and personal accounts that enrich the overall narrative beautifully.

    The panel of witnesses is a veritable ‘who’s who’ in education over the last several decades, which is testament to the regard in which the authors are held. This has enabled a fascinating set of perspectives on the inner workings of government, with all its challenges, political machinations and surprises.

    About Our Schools is a must-read for anyone working in education. You may not agree with everything, but it will certainly get you thinking.

  6. I had to smile when I got to the 39 steps. I read John Buchan’s novel at secondary school and the hero, Richard Hannay, sets an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety. Mick Waters and Tim Brighouse are extraordinary men who have always put the interests of children first.

    As the authors tell us, About Our Schools is not meant to be read from cover to cover. Instead, it will become the go-to guide to education in England. A guided tour – with expert guides – through education policy and practice. I hope, and expect, it will be on every student’s reading list when they start teacher training and will be kept as an essential reference book.

  7. Education in England is in a mess – more so than in the rest of the United Kingdom and in many other countries around the world. Buffeted by pundits and politicians who mostly know much less than they think, we are in desperate need of cool, wise, experienced thinkers who can share their good, deep, well-informed common sense. Hoorah, then, for Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters, two battle-scarred warriors of educational reform who can rise above the fray, remind us of the long view, and talk truth to power. Let us pray the powerful are listening.

  8. More than two men’s memoirs, less than a treatise in political science, this fascinating book opens up its readers to 45 years inside the corridors of power in UK education, like no book has ever done before. This work, from two living legends of British education, brings forward extraordinary levels of candour and insight from political figures as ideologically disparate and strategically different as Estelle Morris and Michael Gove. How did academies evolve? What was the purpose of chains and trusts? How has England’s education system become so chaotically marketised and incredibly centralised all at the same time? And how should we judge what’s happened to the training of teachers and leaders? It’s all here, unexpurgated and unplugged, from the mouths of government ministers, civil servants and education professionals. Dip in, breathe deep, keep an open mind, and enjoy!

  9. You can hear the passion, the decency, the anger, the compassion, and the hope in this insider–outsider story about England’s education policy over the past 45 years. About Our Schools documents the storms, showers, glimpses of sunshine, the fronts, doldrums, cloudy times, and ends with brighter spells ahead. It shows the silencing of the profession and the cacophony of experts, the motives, hopes and honesty from many of the key political players, documents a cocktail of unfairness, and is the most exciting and exacting book I have read in a long time.

  10. About Our Schools takes the reader on a thought-provoking and insightful journey through education policy, positioning and practice in examining the interdependencies, levers and drivers within the school system and the classroom. Most of all, however, the book focuses on the prize of ensuring we have an equitable, engaging and outcome-led approach to equipping our young people to positively impact upon their and our future society. In doing so, the authors reinforce the importance (and difficulties) of working beyond short-term political gains and boundaries, and towards deploying a multi-partner and holistic view of the purpose of benefits of education.

    Whether you are a practitioner, student teacher, civil servant, community worker, policy-maker or education leader, About Our Schools will both challenge and inform you.

  11. I was hooked from the start in this epic educational journey. Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters are honest, passionate and crystal clear on the values and beliefs that underpin their mission. Blending evidence, including fascinating perspectives from highly influential witnesses, with story-like reflections on their own wealth of experiences, they delve into key themes that have shaped education in England as we know it. Tim and Mick fill their exploration of the history, complexities, challenges and potential of the current system with rich insights, while their bold suggestions to reimagine schooling for a more equitable system make for a rousing conclusion. And, of course, as many expect and admire from these two champions of education, the authors’ hope, ambition and collaborative partnership shine through. About Our Schools is just the book to provoke powerful reflection, courageous conversations and concerted action.

  12. In About Our Schools Tim and Mick bring to life, with passion and purpose, the lessons of history and the potential and promise of tomorrow. This book is a masterclass in how our education system shapes and reshapes itself over time, and who better to learn it from than these two giants of the education world.

    Eavesdrop on their personal memories and recent conversations with a stellar cast of educators and politicians, where nothing escapes their scrutiny – equally warm in their praise and excoriating in their criticism. I cheered mightily at many sections.

    Tim and Mick love our schools and those who work to improve them, and this heartfelt hope and optimism is imprinted on every page. For those who see these times as a ‘hinge of history’ and seek a COVID legacy that leads to the transformation of our schools, I urge you to read it. This is an education manifesto like no other.

    The authors say this is a book to be dipped into. I say it is much more than that. About Our Schools is a book that will keep our ‘reservoirs of hope’ full at times when we most need it. Buy it, read it, act on it, and keep it close.

  13. In About Our Schools Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters have brought together their own unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge about the schooling system, along with invaluable further testimony from movers and shakers at every level in education. Read on!

  14. This book of historical context, present vexations and plans for a brighter future throws a light on the range of deep-seated barriers that need pulling down if children are to have a productive and enjoyable schooling. Brighouse and Waters offer both national decision-makers and school leaders a nuanced and insightful vantage point to look at the challenge of providing education in a post-pandemic world, and provide suggestions for planning ways forward.

    About Our Schools is a must-read if you want change in our educational landscape.

  15. It seems odd to refer to a book on education as a page-turner, but About Our Schools really is just that. Hardly surprising though, as it has been written by two of the greatest storytellers in the field, whose careers at the heart of the action mean that they know everyone and have a view on pretty much everything. They survey the past and critique current initiatives, always through the lens of the teacher and the child in the classroom. It’s full of anecdotes, balanced critiques and a surprisingly compassionate appraisal of politicians. About Our Schools is a masterpiece, and I shall be returning to it again and again.

  16. In About Our Schools, Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters use their considerable experience to reflect on how we got to where we are in education, and what should happen now. Through sensitive and revealing interviews with a range of politicians, policy-makers and practitioners, they argue for a new era in our education system – moving away from the past 30 years of centralisation, marketisation and managerialism.

    Lucid, accessible and attractively exploratory in tone, the book concludes with some important proposals for reform, including a change in our outmoded accountability system, acceleration of the productive blending of place-based and online schooling, new limits on centralised power and a broader curriculum fit for the education – and diverse experiences and talents – of children and adolescents living in the 21st century.

  17. Did you ever miss someone like crazy, thinking that you would never see them again, only to have them show up out of the blue better than ever? That’s how I feel about Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters and their new stupendous magnum opus About Our Schools.

    Based on much original material from interviews with central players including nearly all secretaries of state for education since 1975, and scores of key officials in positions at all levels of the education system in England, About Our Schools is a goldmine of inside thinking and action. It is as if the authors were standing over the shoulders of people when they made significant decisions, asking: ‘What were they thinking when they did X and Y?’ And Tim and Mick were there much of the time as they worked at all levels of the government, but most of all immersed themselves in the daily lives of the pupils and communities that they served.

    I can say that I was never bored with a single page. Every chapter was interesting and insightful, and I felt the authors were speaking to me as a reader throughout. The authors’ cumulative critique of the worsening of the policies that have been presented over the years is so damning that their solutions bear careful scrutiny. It is time for a new approach to system change, and in the final section Brighouse and Waters serve up six foundational stones to get us started.

    About Our Schools is a treasure trove of the past, and a treasure map for the future – compiled by two human explorers who combine more than 100 years of caring and action in tackling the most vexing problems of the day. Now I know in detail why I am glad they are back on centre stage.

  18. What has happened to English schools over the past 40 years? Are they stronger after decades of rapid and often bewildering change? Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters, with their extensive knowledge and experience of all levels of schooling, are uniquely qualified to give us the answers.

    Drawing on lengthy interviews with dozens of leading educational figures – ministers and former ministers, civil servants, directors of academy trusts, school inspectors, local authority officers and more – as well as their own personal recollections, Tim and Mick share new and sometimes shocking discoveries about how decisions that affected millions of children were reached.

    Through sometimes hilarious anecdotes as well as unfailingly perceptive analysis, this book reveals the truth about what was happening behind the scenes as almost everything in the world of education changed – from the school curriculum to marking schemes, from teaching methods to pupil exclusions, and from the rise of academy trusts to the role of head teachers.

  19. Over the past six decades and in a wide variety of roles in education, Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters have inspired, challenged and supported teachers and head teachers across the country. Their status as education heavyweights is shown by the truly impressive cast of A-listers interviewed by them in their research for this important new book.

    About Our Schools is packed with fascinating insights into the motivations of and influences on the secretaries of state for education in England since 1976. It charts the key features of and changes in the education system over the last 45 years, giving the perspectives of key players and sharing amusing and moving tales from the authors’ careers. The final chapter also offers a powerful and compelling rallying cry – a manifesto for ‘building forward together’.

    Younger readers will find this a fascinating history lesson, and those who have lived and taught through the years described will find it brings back a host of memories – but all who read it will gain an enhanced contextual understanding of how our education system has evolved.

  20. Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters are two sages of the educational world that are resisting the call to ‘retire to the woods’. We are the richer for their delayed departure.

    About Our Schools has been crafted to provide information, inspiration and direction for anyone interested in education and social change. These stimulating and informative interviews are testimony to the power of dialogue to connect and transform individuals and communities. These two wise men provide us, in the final chapter, with the foundation stones and steps we need to take in order to continue our shared journey of school improvement. It would be fitting testimony to their efforts over the past 45 years if we followed their advice and good counsel.

    About Our Schools is essential reading for those interested in understanding our educational past and shaping our educational, social and economic future. The fact that the royalties will go to support the work of Barnardo’s and the Compassionate Education Foundation is another good reason to buy the book.

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