I had an afternoon free in London on Monday (what luxury!) and arranged to pop in to Michaela Community School to see what, if anything, had changed since my last visit in May 2015. I hadn’t realised it at the time but my blog was one of the very first written about a visit to the school and marked something of a watershed. Hard to believe now, what with a series of high profile education debates and the launch of their manifesto, The Michaela Way, but staff had been operating under radio silence and blogging was verboten. Headteacher, Katherine Birbalsingh laughingly says she had wanted the school to ‘keep a low profile’. So much for that.
On being buzzed into the austere converted office block, just across the road from Wembley Park tube station, the receptionist proudly showed me how many visitors had been shown round the school just that day. During my visit I encountered a party of four from another school, a journalist and a cameraman filming for Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion team. The school – and the students in particular – has (have) become used to all attention.
But when I spoke to Birbalsingh she said that they were feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Although the school has received all sorts of plaudits from some very high profile visitors (complimentary quotations from Boris Johnson, Sir Roger Scruton and many others adorn the walls) they’ve received more than their fair share of hate. Last summer’s media storm about lunch time detentions resulted in death threats and some particularly vicious invective. And what’s worse, some of the visitors to the school have behaved disgracefully leaving their student guides in tears. We discussed how to prevent granting such undesirables entry into the school and Katherine resignedly said she didn’t see how it was possible; it’s not as if prospective visitors announce in advance that they intend to behave despicably!
One of the most striking aspects of the school is how antiseptic it is. Walls are painted white and there is little in the way of colour in either corridors or classrooms. This is a school which feels different from almost any other school I’ve visited. Lessons still follow the same format of teacher explanation, reading from bespoke text books and silent practice. There is no disruption. At all. Of any kind. Students are incredibly focussed. They hang on teachers’ every instruction and literally leap into action when given an instruction. You could be forgiven for thinking it was all a bit Victorian were it not for the unbridled enthusiasm and pride the students display.
Last time I visited, there were only Year 7 students. Now the school has students in three year groups and I was shown round by two boys: one from Year 7 and one from Year 8. Both eulogised about their experience of maths – their favourite lesson – and how much they had learned and how much more they craved to learn. The Year 8 student proudly announced that he had even gone to the trouble (without prompting and in his own time) of memorising pi to 100 digits! What other lessons did they like? Science. The both reported that they “loved” science. What about English? They “love” that too. The older student said he was currently reading Othello and thought it was brilliant. What, in lessons? I asked. No, just for fun. He went on to explain what he thought Iago’s motivation was and why he felt sorry for Othello, despite his poor decisions.
These two students talked about love a lot. They love lessons, their teachers and the school. But maybe they’re not representative? Who really knows, but visiting a French lesson at Michaela is still one of the most extraordinary experiences. I had thought Barry Smith’s lessons must surely be an unrepeatable one off, but watching Jessica Lund teach Year 8 and seeing the students (including the boys taking me on my tour) vie to be allowed to show off their extensive French, one can only gape in admiration. Not only do the students speak about everyday events and issues in French, they also speak about French in French!
When I asked my guides about whether the schools is too strict they’re were emphatic that it’s not. It’s strict, they told me, but not too strict. No one gets in trouble here because the teachers help us stay out of trouble. Don’t they sometimes just feel like blowing off steam and doing something naughty? Oh no! They look at me like I’m a bit weird whilst remaining unfailingly polite and respectful.
Not everyone is going to like Michaela – it’s just too much of a culture shock. Even when the school gets its first external results in two year’s time, critics will still be able to say, but it’s just an exam factory, or, you can’t measure the things that really matter. Birbalsingh nods wildly and shouts, “Yes, but I wish they could!” If you could reliably measure children’s happiness, she’s convinced Michaela would be off the scale. On my limited exposure, I can only agree. When I asked my guides what one thing they would change about the school they honestly couldn’t think of anything.
So, what’s changed? Not much. They’ve done away with 1-1 devices which, despite being bought to support the schools’ dedication to low-stakes quizzing, had proved an excessive drain on teachers’ time. They’ve also banned PowerPoint as being another drain on that most finite and precious of resources. As soon as something is identified as having too great a cos for its intended benefits, its axed, ruthlessly. This is a school that really means it when they say they won’t tolerate distractions – that’s as true for teachers as for students. But the big idea – that knowledge is power and that all students deserve a knowledge rich curriculum – is alive and well and the centre of every decision.
Human nature being what it is – or at least, my nature being what it is – I couldn’t help but look for cracks. Birbalsingh is the first to acknowledged that they make loads of mistakes and that they’re a long, long way from getting it right. When asked if she’s ever changed her mind she says, Yes! Every day! But her sense of mission is as single-minded as ever. I left feeling almost disappointed that my visit had been so similar to the last.
And then I read this from Jo Facer about why, for the time being, the school was closing its doors to visitors and I understood. Sad to think I may have been one of the last allowed to visit.