Anyone’s Equal. The Michaela Way


Is Michaela Marmite? To me it’s more like the seasonal box of Roses. Lots of lovely parts, some bits that are truly yummy, and yes, more than one coffee crème. I could sit here for two hours typing out the  elements of the Michaela way with which I disagree, the parts I think they get away with only because they’ve started from scratch and those which I can see work for them but are irreplicable within an Irish context. But why would I do that?

There is much to be admired about Michaela and much to be learned from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”-  a collection of twenty essays, written mostly by teachers – which was launched in November at this live-streamed event.

Funnily, when I talk to colleagues about Michaela a common reaction is “That’s what we have here! That’s what we have and we’re getting rid of!” In many ways that is true. Irish secondary schools, particularly the voluntary sector in which I work, have long operated on the understanding that a strong, academic education delivered in an atmosphere of discipline and pastoral support is the best way we can serve both our pupils and the wider community. Much of that legacy is sadly being swept away by a wave of reforms that are explicitly less knowledge-driven and manage to be both progressively child-centred and grimly utilitarian.

So while my reading of Barry Smith’s account of the motivational speech he gives to Michaela pupils was accompanied by some eye-rolling and a fair few FFS, I was reminded of what a past-pupil of our school once told me. She had left the school in the eighties and had not had the opportunities there are there now to go to third level. Yet she said that on leaving school, this quiet girl from a large family on a small farm in North Cork felt she had learned as much as if she had attended an exclusive, private school. She told me: “I left school feeling like an educated person. I was anyone’s equal. I’ve never met anyone, in any situation, that I haven’t felt confident holding a conversation with.” This is the spirit I see in every page of “BHOTTT”: that every child they teach is anyone’s equal. Not just the equal of any other child within the education system, but the equal of any adult in the land regardless of that adult’s status or wealth. They want their children to grow into adults who can hold a conversation with anyone without being patronised or feeling inadequate, and who can not only gain admittance to the world’s most elite universities but thrive once they get there. And they do this by not treating children like adults (adults with our autonomy, our ingrained habits and our adherence to our chosen or accidental groove), but as children made up of no part bigger than potential. Katie Ashford, Michaela’s Head of Inclusion (roughly equivalent to SenCo) writes “By treating every child like they are aiming for Oxbridge, by harnessing the fire and ambition to succeed that everyone has within them, and by never allowing them to settle for anything other than their strongest effort, we are helping our children to overcome the barriers that some say are insurmountable.”

It might seem ridiculous to talk about “treating every child like they are aiming for Oxbridge”. Surely they know that this an unrealistic goal for any but their brightest pupils? The answer may be that they share the view expressed in this post by Tom Bennett in which he explains how he tells all his pupils that his target for them is to get an “A”. Not because he thinks they’re all going to get an “A”, but because he understands what the word target means. It means the thing that you aim for. I tried archery once, and I wasn’t very good at it. If an arrow landed on the board, I was pleased. If one landed on the coloured part, I was delighted. I was, of course, aiming at the bullseye the whole time, because if I’d just aimed for  “hitting blue, and possibly red if I’m lucky” my arrows would have fallen short or gone astray. Michaela are aiming high for all their pupils because they feel that’s the best way to maximise attainment all round. Another justification for such aspirations brings me back to the woman quoted above who for financial and circumstantial reasons didn’t make it to university but still feels like “an educated person”. If we see challenging, traditional academic content only as preparatory groundwork for university and not for every child, then we will end up with a societal educational cliff, where there is a huge gap between those with degrees, and those who we decided at twelve would never need to know even the basics of history, poetry or physics.

If there’s one aspect of life at Michaela that I’m most jealous of, it’s the amount of class time given to subjects. They have a whopping five hours of English a week, compared to our 2.6 hours in first year and 3.33 hours in second and third year. This allows for a full one-hour class of grammar a week, leaving four hours for tackling challenging texts like “Julius Caesar” [read at an age when ours are still in primary], “Frankenstein” and “Oliver Twist”. Very cleverly – and this is something I think is possible anywhere – they “select subject knowledge to dovetail cohesively across and between subjects”. This works especially well between History, English and Religion, but also manages to bring in Science.  They have cut the curriculum down to focus on key subjects. I think this idea was also present at the inception of Junior Cycle reform. Previously it was not uncommon for candidates to take twelve or thirteen subjects, leading to a crammed school day of short classes and a rushed pace that saw some fall behind and didn’t leave time for discussion and deep understanding. Reducing the number of subjects and enforcing longer classes was a good idea but these gains are being negated by not allocating the saved time to the subjects that are left. Instead that time came, somehow, to look like “empty time” that has since been filled with short-courses (often with little academic content) and well-being. Frustratingly, the move to longer classes and the requirement to include new “areas of learning” have for many classes meant a net decrease in contact-time per week. The phrase “time is our most precious resource” appears numerous times in “BHOTTH” and it’s a phrase that should echo through every school and every education system. We cannot improve outcomes without giving teachers the time and the space in which to teach.

It is worth remembering that Michaela is operating in the context of a system that is currently being outperformed by our own (depending how much credence we give PISA). There are many reasons for this, one probable one being our small population, with countries/systems of around 5m inhabitants tending to do well in international tests. Another possible reason is that in Ireland teaching continues to attract well-qualified graduates and school-leavers and – for the time being at least –  our retention rates are good. There is one area in which Michaela almost looks like it could have taken lessons from Irish schools, and that is in Jess Lund’s chapter on teacher workload and burnout. For on the list of things they eschew that are common practice in other UK schools, there are many items that we never did here to start with, and which don’t seem to have hurt progress. In particular, we don’t waste time converting class test results into “data” and entering these into meaningless spreadsheets. Neither do we live in the dread of internal, high-stakes graded observations.

There’s been an awful lot of discussion around discipline at Michaela. It has unsurprisingly been the focus of media coverage of the school, given that this aspect of school life is emotive and highly visible. They do, as Jonathan Porter writes, “sweat the small stuff” and if the many visitor blogs that I have read about the school can be believed, their system of strong support and narration around expectations mean that warm relationships are not mutually exclusive to consistently applied consequences like detention.

But there is much more to “BHOTTT” than a general call for a stricter discipline and a knowledge-rich curriculum. The book is also an insight into “the Michaela Way” of school improvement, which centres on collaboration, ethical experimentation and constant fine-tuning of their practice. One of the most interesting passages is in “Homework as Revision” by Joe Kirby. I had seen the promo for the school in which Katie Ashford declared with confidence that the children read every night. A reliable way to check that pupils are engaging in independent reading would be the Holy Grail for English teachers. Had Michaela found it? It turns out that they hadn’t, but the rigour and imagination with which they went about this quest are impressive in themselves. They tried “reading logs, MCQs, open-answer questions, sanctions, vocabulary logs and incentives-only with no sanctions”. None of these methods proved entirely satisfactory but each trial yielded insights that informed later teaching and planning.

“Homework as Revision” will never make headlines the way that “Girl Gets Detention for Dropped Pencil-Case” or “Boy Gets Free Sandwich” can. Yet the book is full of these unshowy, well-thought out strategies that might not work for every class in every school, but are well worth trying. I’ve been banging on to the kids for years about the value of self-quizzing and retrieval practice, even showing them PPT slides of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, but since November I’ve been quieter on the subject because they now do self-quizzing for homework. It takes minutes to check the following day, they like it, and it seems to be effective.

I have touched only briefly on some excerpts from some chapters of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.  It is a remarkable book put together by a remarkable group of people. I doubt there is a teacher anywhere who would nod along in agreement with everything they say, but it’s a book that made me think and that made me look at things I would have taken for granted in a new light. Buy it. Read it. Think about it.