I learned two very important principles from my visit to Michaela:
- You can do whatever you want as long as you hold your nerve and accept the consequences.
- You can always go a lot further than you first think is possible.
The first principle is embodied in Head Teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh’s explanation of how to get the culture you want: you just don’t compromise. If a teacher sees or hears a phone at Michaela it’s confiscated until the following term. It doesn’t matter whether the phone accidentally slipped out of a pocket, and it doesn’t matter whether the parent is going into hospital and really really needs to ring their child. There are no excuses. When parents have inevitably come in to explain why their circumstances are unique and why and an exception needs to be made in their case, they’re given a choice: you either abide by our decisions and support our rules or you find another school for your child. Let me be very clear: this does not mean they boot unruly kids, it means some parents decide they will not support the school.
As Birbalsingh explains, maybe Michaela isn’t right for every child. Maybe some children would be happier elsewhere. She calls herself ‘The Dragon Lady’ and makes it clear to parents that being at Michaela means following the rules. There are no exceptions. But there’s no shortage of other schools for disgruntled parents to send their children.
As a result, behaviour is immaculate. Children are polite, orderly and enthusiastic. Over lunch I was quizzed articulately about what I did for a living, how I voted, whether I thought nuclear weapons were a good thing and what I was currently reading. The children served each other, cleared the table and went about the serious business of eating a meal which was so much more than merely consuming food. When asked about the differences between Michaela and their primary schools they were unanimous: “You can learn here.” “No one pushes you out of the way.” “Teachers really care.” Bear in mind, the school is in Brent, right next to Wembley Park tube. This is not a leafy, affluent suburb.
They’ve also refused to compromise on ‘what Ofsted want’. They’ve come to terms with the fact that inspectors will almost certainly hate what they do. They’re supported by founding governors who are fully expecting a negative verdict next year. But as Birbalsingh says, how you could meet their children and see the progress they’ve made and not admit that something must be working? I have hope that Ofsted have evolved sufficiently to get over residual biases, but of course it’s a risk.
The second principle was evident in Michaela’s approach to marking. I’ve written about marking being a meaningless fetish, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how far you could take this idea. At Michaela teachers do not mark books. Ever. Marking, Assistant Head, Joe Kirby explained, is not the same as feedback.
Although their books go unmarked, children get plenty of feedback. Classwork is regularly quizzed using a very slick bespoke system which allows teachers to immediately see where children have weaknesses and allows them to intervene. On top of that, children complete an extended assignment four times a year which is summatively assessed. Good examples are dissected under the visualiser and whole class feedback is delivered from the front. I long railed about the time teachers are expected to spend marking, but I’d always assumed that there was a point at the heart of it. Apparently not. As Kirby explains, individual written feedback isn’t renewable; the time spent giving it could be spent on designing renewable resources which could not just benefit the whole class, but benefit every child who might ever attend the school. When compared to the paltry effects of a bit of red pen in your book, this is pretty sobering.
Because behaviour is perfect and because teaching sequences have all been planned out in advance, teachers just need to teach. Imagine it: no lesson planning, no marking. What might life be like? Teaching at Michaela is all about telling children stuff they don’t know and they checking to see whether they know it. Put aside whether or not you’re ideologically comfortable with this for a moment and consider the advantages just in terms of teaching rather than learning. There is no variance in lesson quality. They may well be variance in teacher quality, but this is largely irrelevant: children’s experience of lessons is consistent, predictable and coordinated. There are no weak links. Or if there are, pupils are unaware of them.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Michaela’s style is direct. Some people will hate it They’re unapologetic about the knowledge building mission. Creating a rich, memorable knowledge base is definitely the top priority. Everything they do revolves around this central aim. This results in a very coherent school experience but to those us who’ve always worked in ‘normal’ schools it can seem extreme. It’s route one schooling: direct, effective, but not pretty. But maybe that just takes some getting used to.
We could argue endlessly about whether or not you think the Michaela approach will result in learning. For what it’s worth I think they’ve got a lot – although maybe not everything – right. But if you disagree, there’s very little chance I’ll be able to persuade you otherwise: I’m sure you’ve already made up your mind.
What they have indisputably got right is putting teaching well-being at the heart of every decision they make. Although Birbalsingh thinks “display work is lovely,” the time it takes for students to make it and teachers to put it up just isn’t worth the cost. So there’s no student work on display. She talked about the US Charter School method of employing 23-year-old teachers, burning them for four years and then spitting them out, exhausted and broken. This she says is unsustainable and makes a school a miserable place to work. I’d go further: the expectation that teacher should give up evenings and weekends in order to meet minimum standards is immoral. If you are happy to do things their way, Michaela would be an idyllic place to work.
But God help you if you want to do some group work.
Michaela have assembled a fiercely passionate team committed to making a difference in the lives of the children they teach. It’s not perfect, but never have I visited a school where the vision so closely aligns with the reality. The amount of thought, care and, yes, love, put into their school will surely make it a success.