Courting controversy

I wrote a blog this week. That’s nothing new, I’ve been blogging quite a lot since I decided to get into teaching. My blog is a personal, diary-like account of my experiences and thoughts, documenting my journey. It’s an opportunity to also network with and learn from other people in education. I usually get a handful of readers for each blog, and the occasional retweet.

I didn’t think this week’s instalment would be any different. I wrote about my visit to the amazing Michaela free school in Wembley. Lots of people before me have visited and sung its praises, so I didn’t think my contribution would attract particular attention except a “like” or two from the Michaela teachers. I was not prepared, therefore, for the Twitter storm that followed.

Perhaps I was unwise to mention certain people by name. A threat of legal action against me for defamation is not something I want to read about during my lunch break at school. Needless to say, the rest of my day was rather fraught with anxiety. How vicious the world of education can be! Why such bullying tactics?

I’m not into ad hominem attacks on people, but those two names just sprang up in my mind when I thought of the wall of critical resistance against those traditional principles of education espoused by Michaela school. It wasn’t, as was claimed, an allegation that the person had criticised the school specifically, but a criticism of a general attitude against those traditional principles, such as “no excuses”.

So, I am chastened.  I will have to be a bit more circumspect in future. However, I will carry on blogging because my truth needs to be said. I am in a position of relative strength at the moment because I’m not financially reliant on the meagre LSA’s salary I earn. I take particular care not to name my school when I write but there is a freedom in being able to speak out in my blog about what I see. In any case, I’ll be starting at a new school in September for my Schools Direct teacher training. It may be then that I scale back on the honest, “warts and all” approach.


My visit to Michaela Community School


I have just returned from a much anticipated visit to Michaela Community School in Wembley. I had expected to be impressed but what I didn’t anticipate was the degree of emotion that the visit would engender. Sitting on the tube train on my journey home, I scribbled feverishly in a notebook my impressions, writing them all down while they were still fresh in my mind. Half way through, however, I had to stop. My hand was shaking and I suddenly realised why. I was angry, furiously so.

The reason for my rage is this. I watched children today whose ethnic and socio-economic background is nearly identical to that of the children at my own school, which is in a deprived inner city ward of London, rife with gangs. These could be “my” kids; and yet they were nothing like them. They were transformed. The children at Michaela were mature, polite, knowledgeable and confident, so unlike the sullen and disrespectful pupils that I will be seeing again tomorrow morning. And so I feel anger on behalf of my rude and disaffected pupils. Why are they not also getting the life changing opportunities that are on offer at Michaela? Why is such an education the preserve of the lucky few who just happen to live in the right catchment? Why, when the evidence is so overwhelming, are so many school leaders digging their heads in the sand and refusing to learn from what Michaela school, and others, are managing to achieve? All because of ideology and politics.

I remember when I first heard of Michaela school through my Twitter feed, I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about what they were doing. I wrote an email to my line manager, attaching a link to an article by Tom Bennett describing his recent visit, and asked if anyone from our school was planning to go. If so, could I also come along as part of my CPD? The next day, I got a reply. I was told that the Principal didn’t think much of Tom Bennett’s ideas and didn’t approve of the boot camp approach. For this reason, they would not be able to allow me to take time off to visit Michaela though, of course, I was free to do so in my own free time.

It’s not just the leaders of my school. On Twitter, I have encountered certain educationalists at every opportunity sneering at and denigrating the no excuses, high expectations approach espoused by Michaela school. And all the while, the most disadvantaged children in the country continue to suffer. Just stop, people, stop! There is a better way. Swallow your pride and open your eyes to the evidence that is right before you, if only you would see it. Discipline works. No excuses works. A focus on knowledge works. Explicit teaching works. Drills and tests work. And no, it does not kill off creativity or oppress children. Quite the opposite.

My visit today started with the family lunch. As I arrived by the lunch hall, I watched pupils from the first sitting quietly troop out. I was then invited in by Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela’s head teacher, and asked to sit myself down at a table of my choosing. All the tables I observed were scrubbed clean and there was no sign of any food spills on the floor which you would expect to see whenever large groups of children eat a meal. Now, the pupils entered the hall, reciting a poem in unison. The ones at my table greeted me politely and immediately poured me a cup of water. Then we were addressed by Jo Facer, Michaela’s head of English. The topic for discussion today was about the general election and whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. We were to think of three reasons why it should and three why it shouldn’t. Then on the count of three, a pupil from each table went to fetch the food, laid out neatly on a tray, and proceeded to serve everyone on their table. This was all done with impressive efficiency. Once served, we discussed our topic. My table mates were year 8 pupils, who seamlessly started a conversation with me, speaking with confidence and listening intently to what I had to say. Think about it. Twelve year olds, talking politely and confidently with an adult they have never met. Impressive!

Before I knew it, lunch was over and it was time for appreciations. I had heard of these but seeing them was quite instructive. These are an opportunity for pupils to show their appreciation for someone, in accordance with Michaela’s ethos of “work hard, be kind”. When the time came for this, a sea of hands shot up into the air, asking to be picked for an appreciation. The pupils chosen then stood up, crossed their arms and said their appreciation, ending with two claps. A pupil at my table said an appreciation to his brother, who had taken away his phone so that he could do his homework without being distracted. Another pupil thanked a teacher for recommending a good book. What I hadn’t realised though, was that this was not just an exercise in kindness. The pupils were also judged on the quality of their delivery as well as the content. Had they spoken clearly and loudly enough? Had they expressed themselves in correct English? Was the appreciation sincere? If so, merits were handed out. If not, they were corrected, kindly but firmly. And then it was time to clear up the tables, which was all done quickly and efficiently before trooping out in silent, organised lines.

Another thing that surprised me during my visit today is the degree of freedom I was given to roam round the school, entering whatever classroom I chose to. I had assumed that I would be supervised and escorted around but that was not the case. I was a bit hesitant at first, not knowing where to go, but the teachers I met were incredibly friendly and helpful. Thanks by the way, to Jonathan Porter for pointing me in the right direction today.

So, what were the lessons like? These were my impressions:

  • Class sizes of approximately 30 pupils, with excellent behaviour. Pupils were quiet, put their hands up to ask questions and had to sit up straight and track the teacher when asked to (using SLANT).
  • I noticed a real consistency in the style of all the teachers I observed. The teachers had clear authority, they were firm and brooked no nonsense. This does not mean that they were humourless or unfriendly. Merits were handed out regularly for correct answers. Pupils who gave wrong answers were told, rather bluntly, “incorrect”. No sugar coating it with “good effort”.
  • Regular feedback was given, with teachers asking pupils to put their hands up if they got the question right. They would then ask pupils who got it wrong to put their hands up if they did not understand their mistake.
  • There were no group activities or any “engaging” games. The lessons I saw followed the curriculum set out in the booklet for each topic. This could be considered dry and unexciting. However, I noticed that everything was explicitly explained by the teacher, with a lot of call and repeat to make sure, for instance, that the pupils were pronouncing a difficult word properly. And, more importantly, the pupils kept their focus throughout the lesson. I have recollections of so many childhood lessons where I would have doodled on my book or day dreamed. None of this here. The pupils were paying attention throughout.
  • I liked the use of the visualiser, which worked just as well, if not better, than the interactive whiteboard we have at my school, but at the fraction of the cost. The classrooms were fairly low tech. No use of chrome books or other fancy equipment. This school is no frills and, I would hazard, much more economically efficient than mine.

My other overall impressions from my visit today were:

  • There is meticulous attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance. All school bags were deposited in neat shelves. The pupils had clear plastic wallets and were fully equipped with pencil case, pens and rulers etc.
  • All teachers are “on message”. I noticed, even in the playground, teachers on duty giving pep talks to pupils. The message and ethos of Michaela is continually reinforced.
  • Amazing artwork was displayed on the staircase, some of it of professional quality.
  • The children looked happy and secure.
  • In the time I was there, I witnessed only two demerits being given but an overwhelming number of merits.
  • The children are not just learning by rote. In a history lesson I observed, there was a great deal of critical thinking going on.
  • I know people have expressed concern about SEN pupils coping in the no excuses environment. I noticed two pupils today who had obvious SEN. They were treated with dignity and understanding, without lowering the bar of expectation.

Clearly, I was very impressed with what I saw at Michaela school today. My urgent wish is that the good practice I witnessed be spread to other schools, the sooner the better. Would Michaela consider becoming a teaching school, sending its trainees far and wide into the country? I hope so.

One last thing. I know some commentators have praised the school for what it can do for socially disadvantaged children but have been equivocal about its merits for middle class children. I have no such qualms. I’d send my son there like a shot.