Last Friday I paid a visit to Michaela Community School, the controversial London school that is pioneering a traditional, yet innovative, approach to teaching and learning. I had heard a lot about the school, mainly through the many excellent blogs written by the teaching staff, and had read their book with interest. How would it look in real life?
I arrived mid-morning and was buzzed in at both the gate and the door. The reception are is a calm, adults-only space where friendly staff welcomed me and gave me a Visitor badge and a set of rules. There were two other teachers on my tour, both from English schools. The day of our visit was a big one for the school. The results of their Ofsted inspection [like a WSE with higher stakes] had just been published, with the school ranked “outstanding” in every area.
One of our tour guides from Year 9, another from Year 7. [In age, year 9s are comparable to second years, but it’s their third year in secondary school.] These pupils were impeccably mannered and well-prepared, anticipating questions. I could see that the tour guide role is itself a learning opportunity. The teachers I met during the day (special mention to Joe Kirby, Jess Lund, Michael Taylor and Damien Phelan) were extremely welcoming, keen to discuss their methods and enthusiastic about finding out how things are done elsewhere.
Our tour took us over the six floors of the school, which is in a converted office block. Classrooms are either side of long, narrowish corridors with stairs at one end only. Ceilings are low and there’s proportionally a lot of glazing, which meant every degree of the mid-June heat was felt by all. One side of the building overlooks the rail tracks where trains rattled by every few minutes. Impressively, the more established teachers seem to teach on this side of the building.
As we passed the computer room, we learned that there are no ICT lessons in Michaela because “it’s not academic”. The computers are there for children who do not have access to the internet at home; some of the homework must be completed online. We were then brought into a series of lessons, having been asked which subjects we were most interested in seeing. Between the end of the tour and lunchtime we had some free time to wander in and out of lessons ourselves. Then it was lunch: a choreographed, highly scripted event. We then joined the pupils in the yard for their half an hour free time, and got to chat to the many staff on duty.
These are some of the general observations I made on the day:
The curriculum is unabashedly knowledge-based. At a system-wide level I think this is the biggest lesson Ireland could take from Michaela. Every single lesson saw children getting to grips with challenging content. This is not mere “rote-learning”: teaching sequences and assessment are designed for long-term memory. My guides were very proud to tell me that their learning is not confined to examinable specifications: instead they see the value of knowledge itself and they strive to be educated adults. They’ll still sit their exams, and I expect they will do very well in them.
By the end of their third year in secondary school, Michaela pupils have studied five Shakespeare plays. If I remember correctly they were “Julius Caesar”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. None of these are for the GCSE exam (the English department plans on studying “The Tempest”). You can do this with five hours of English a week.
The curriculum prioritises depth over breadth. More time is devoted to fewer subjects. In French, for example, pupils benefit from three hours of tuition a week.
The most common class activity was reading, followed closely by writing. I saw children reading and writing in every lesson. I did not see any group work. I did not see anyone watching a film. I did not see any children making posters or Powerpoint presentations. Maybe I called on the wrong day? 😉
Every lesson was content-driven and teacher-led. I saw nothing that could be classified as the development of generic skills such as comprehension strategies. The last thirty minutes of the day is form time, and tutors read with their pupils. I saw Maths teacher, Dani Quinn, reading a history book with her form group, sending a powerful non-utilitarian message about learning.
I was told pair work does happen on occasion (pupils have lab partners in science, for example), but did not see any while I was there. This does not mean pupils were silent all the time; they read aloud, they chanted, they answered questions both individually and chorally. Children also asked questions and were quite confident in looking for clarification.
The half hour form time at the end of every day contains a strong element of pastoral care, but apart from this no class time is sacrificed to Wellbeing. (They do PE – unfortunately having to go off-site to do so – but I don’t count this as wellbeing with a big W) Instead, as one teacher told me, wellbeing drips down through everything they do; every single lesson is an opportunity to develop resilience and perseverance. Deputy head, Joe Kirby, argued in one of their events for “embedding character education in school culture rather than putting it on the timetable” and this is the approach taken to all aspects of pupils’ wellbeing. Personal development does not sit apart from intellectual development.
Despite giving no, or very little, instruction time to social and emotional development, inspectors scored the school as highly in this area as in others, awarding it the top descriptor of “outstanding”:
The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare is outstanding….Pupils know how to be successful learners because leaders and teaching staff actively encourage pupils’ social and emotional development. Pupils typically said that they understand how hard work now will help to prepare them very well for the next stages of their education….Pupils’ self-confidence matures rapidly. Ofsted, 23 May 2017
Constant adult supervision during the school day helps make the school “a safe zone”. Kindness and inclusion are both modelled and expected. The daily, post-lunch expressions of appreciation that are one of the school’s hallmarks are intended to boost the children’s happiness, and I think they succeed better than vague exhortations to “think positive”would. Encouraging children to look for small good things that have been done for them – even the presence or acceptance of a friend – acknowledges that this noticing is not always automatic or easy.
There is very little on the walls of the classrooms, and only permanent displays on the corridors. Every classroom featured identical posters relating to expected behaviour. Their most famous one is below. I really love this poster and the obvious effort being made by the climber as he scales the slopes of the behaviour mountain.
The school really loves pyramids, and famously encourages children to aspire to be “top of the pyramid people”. On the one hand, I can see why they do this: élite groups of decision-makers and influencers almost always contain an unfair proportion of privately-educated people and one of Michaela’s long-term goals is to address this. They are honest with pupils that hard-won qualifications are in some ways only a start in a world where they may face discrimination and will need to have a tough, competitive spirit to succeed. I would worry slightly, however, about presenting a vision of society that’s the same geometric shape as a food-chain or the feudal system, as sometimes it’s more complicated. Focusing on personal advancement can sometimes conflict with doing solid work that makes a contribution, and I hope that the emphasis on kindness develops with the school so that when pupils do go on and succeed, those who find themselves in leadership roles will display the values of service and justice that I think Katharine Birbalsingh and her staff hold dear.
Michaela has been called “the strictest school in Britain” but the atmosphere is not oppressive. Michaela teachers are tough: they are strict and firm, but they are not cross. I did not hear a child criticised, or ridiculed, or made to feel in any way less than their peers. Pupils were rebuked and their misbehaviour narrated in terms of its impact on learning, but voices were not raised. Even the most minor of infringements resulted in a demerit being issued. I did not see one instance of a pupil speaking out of turn or speaking to another pupil in class or while moving between classes.
Interestingly, despite its policy of “no excuses”, I saw a demerit being rescinded on the production of an excuse. How this happened was itself remarkable; a pupil received a demerit and seemed to accept it entirely, a few minutes later while the class (including him) was engaged in a task and the teacher passed his desk he said a few words I could not hear, and she – almost as quietly – accepted what he said but warned him not to let the situation happen again. Does this blow the “no excuses” line out of the water? Far from it. The pupil’s initial response, ability to exert self-control when he felt he’d been treated unfairly, respect for everyone else’s time, respect for his own time, and confidence that he’d be listened to, were testament to a water-tight discipline system that the children experience as fair.
Merits and demerits system are logged by teachers on the attendance software, and there is absolute consistency between teachers about how they are given out. Detentions are centralised; at lunch a list of children doing a detention was called out, and just before the end of the school day, a member of the admin staff came to the classroom with a list so that the form tutor could remind those who were down for after school detention. This consistency must go a long way to reduce pupils’ stress. Everything is fair and transparent, and no mental energy is expended on figuring out who’s a “soft touch”.
Punishment is only one side of the behaviour-management coin. Along with the list of afternoon detainees, came some postcards home. Teachers who want to particularly praise a pupil leave these in the office and they are handed out publicly. There are reward events for pupils with a positive merit v demerit balance.
All the pupils were working and they all seemed to know what school is for. Very many of them were brimming with enthusiasm and greeted me on the corridors with a cheerful “hello Miss”. One of my lunch companions expressed gratitude for how doing detentions has improved his habits. The degree to which pupils themselves buy in to The Michaela Way is one area that has met with scepticism among people I know who’ve read about the school. Children are children and while behaviour is uniformly excellent in the school I wouldn’t say every single pupil is the archetypal Michaela student. Children differ, but the school does not drop its standards for any of them. They trust in their robust system and in the constant cheerleading and reinforcement that bathes the pupils in encouragement to make the most out of school.
I’ve organised these observations under headings, but these divisions are artificial. The commitment to the children’s personal development, and the refusal to give up on any of them, are inextricably tied to the strict discipline system which creates the environment for focused hard work in the classroom.
During our tour we observed a few minutes of a Year 7 history lesson. The children were writing a short piece based on a question that was projected on the whiteboard “What was the greatest threat to the authority of the king in medieval England?” (or something like that). We only stayed for a few minutes and, as we made our way to our next stop, one of the other visitors asked our guide how would she answer that question, having studied the same topic two years ago. For a long moment, she seemed flummoxed. There was no rapid-fire answer that would have proven the Michaela system worked. Had I come that far to witness a mirage? But then the hmms transformed into an articulate response wherein she explained how and why both the Church and the barons were hugely powerful in the Middle Ages and how they could use this power against the king. Therefore the question was debatable, but I think she came down on the side of the barons being the single greatest threat. Here was not only knowledge, but understanding, analysis and the ability to express a coherent thought orally. The proof really is in the pudding.