So I went to Michaela…

Following the BBC’s ‘Chinese School’ programme, there has been a lot of discussion about how ‘regular British children’ can’t cope with lessons where they are taught from the front and have zero-tolerance behaviour systems due to alleged cultural differences. It turns out that they can, and I’ve seen it in action. And so has Boris.

Boris looking surprised at pupils’ knowledge of Mesopotamia – photo from the Brent and Kilburn Times.

Michaela is a school which I’ve been hugely interested in since it’s creation – its teaching team comprises of some of my favourite characters in education (Kathrine Birbalsingh, Joe Kirby, Bodil Isaksen, Katie Ashford and Jonathan Porter) and, having attended a grammar school, the idea of the ‘private school ethos’ was something I wanted to find out more about. It basically just means ‘having incredibly high expectations, making pupils do their homework and hugely valuing a traditional academic education’.

I visited the school in April, on the same day as ‘a cynical teacher’, who wrote a full account of the day here: https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/my-visit-to-michaela-school/. I’m not going to rewrite the same summary, but I am going to briefly look at the following areas:

  • Teachers as Heroes
  • Academic Subjects being Interesting
  • Zero Tolerance Behaviour
  • The Workload
  • The Knowledge

Teachers as Heroes

This isn’t an explicit written policy, but it’s clear that all pupils at Michaela view their teachers as heroes. They understand that they are privileged to be taught by people with degree-level knowledge in their subjects who have chosen to work in teaching and have chosen to work with them. The school’s website contains a mini-bio of each member of staff, detailing teachers’ degree subjects, universities and interests to pupils and parents. Admittedly the Michaela team are particularly exceptional (mostly Woxbridge graduates who have chosen to set up and run their own faculties in a new school), but all teachers in all schools are inspirational people who have higher-level education and reasons for choosing to teach their subjects, which should be known and admired by pupils.

Academic Subjects being Interesting

“I don’t need to have fun or interesting activities in my lessons, because the greatest events in history are interesting, and learning about them is interesting” – Porter, 2015. The Michaela staff have realised that, with the right expertise and enthusiasm, academic subjects are genuinely interesting for all pupils. Who doesn’t love learning about ancient battles? Or reading some of the greatest literature ever written, once they’ve been taught to understand it? Or competing to be be fastest mathematicians they can be? With curricula built around pupils mastering knowledge of their subjects, and activities designed to maximise this knowledge, pupils of all prior abilities are learning at a rapid speed and loving it too.

Zero Tolerance Behaviour

Michaela has a zero tolerance behaviour system. This means that every infringement of the school rules is met with a demerit, with two demerits leading to a detention. While some may argue that this is unfair, the rules are all clear and straightforward, and all pupils still get a warning each day before receiving a sanction of any sort. The main thing I’ve noticed here is that the pupils are as happy, focused and determined as any I’ve seen elsewhere, so this is more than enough evidence to counter the objections. It will be interesting to see how scale-able this system will be within a larger school, but it should be fine.

The Workload

Pupils at Michaela do have a heavy workload. They have longer school days than most, followed by 1.5 hours of homework per night. I did almost feel sorry for the pupils at this point, but then remembered it was exactly the same when I was at school, and I still had time to do various sports and music things, as well as lurking around the local area with my friends. Rather than stopping their pupils from having a childhood, the staff are enabling their pupils to have a more enlightened childhood. When you consider that half an hour of the homework is reading, which is something they should be doing for pleasure anyway, then the conclusion has to be that the workload is challenging, but manageable.

It’s also worth remembering that this is what the pupils at the grammar schools and the private schools do. If we don’t have our state school students doing something similar (personally, I don’t think the longer school days are necessary as long as pupils are doing the work) then we’re hugely disadvantaging them when they come to sit exactly the same exam papers at the end of Year 11.

The Knowledge

The one thing that most amazed me was the amount of knowledge that the pupils had. We were able to have educated discussions about poetry and world history, while I saw pupils answering 70 or more questions in a minute on the Times Tables Rockstars game. This wasn’t just the top set either – the amount of progress which their lower ability pupils have made is immense. I spent an hour in a maths class with the lowest stream of pupils, and they were all able to answer questions quickly and efficiently, and work in silence for long periods of time.

Conclusion

To finish this post, I should state that my own school is brilliant too, and I’ll be writing more about it in future posts. The provision it offers to nearly 1400 pupils every day is incredible, and the staff do a lot of excellent work. This blog by Alex Hughes (https://alexhughesninestiles.wordpress.com/2015/07/20/the-day-david-cameron-came-to-ninestiles/) really emphasises what it is that makes the school outstanding.

Starting a school from scratch and working with a single year group allows you a unique opportunity to create and innovate in a way that’s not immediately possible elsewhere. The staff at Michaela have really made the most of that opportunity, and I think everyone involved in education could learn a lot from the work they’re doing. That doesn’t mean I think my school should become Michaela – we’re different schools in different contexts – but I’ve certainly learned a lot from my visit!

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7 thoughts on “So I went to Michaela…

  1. Hello. Good post. I’m interested in what you’ve written about ‘teachers being heroes’. When I was a teenager I attended boarding school for a few years while my parents lived abroad. Every year we had Speech Day n the summer term – a grand affair for all parents and students, held in a marquee. I remember that the Head Girl’s speech was always exceptional, and that I always felt proud to go up on stage to receive subject awards. I also remember the teachers. They would file into the marquee in their university gowns and sit on the stage at the front. They had a presence – an authority of knowledge. This contrasts greatly with the Prize Giving events at most state schools. At these events teachers sit at the back of the hall and might as well not be there. I appreciate that the event is about celebrating students’ achievements, but to me this says a lot about the relative status of teachers. At my boarding school I had the greatest respect for my teachers, who I saw as academic role models. In some schools and some cultures (Shanghai etc), teachers are highly respected members of society. Not so in many English state schools. It’s nice to see that Michaela understands the importance of students looking up to their teachers.

    Your point about ‘academic subjects being interesting’ is also important. It frustrates me that many maths teachers feel that they must relate all maths to real life in order to engage students. There are plenty of teachers (including many outside Michaela!) who have already worked out that expertise and enthusiasm beats games, gimmicks and pseudo-contexts, but sadly plenty who haven’t.

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    1. Hi Jo. Thanks for your comment! I attended a grammar school, and our speech nights were exactly the same as those which you described. Our awards evening at my current school is held at the Town Hall and it’s a great evening, but it is different.

      The teachers are well-respected here too, but comments like ‘if you’ve got those grades/that degree, why would you want to just be a teacher?’ have been heard more than once. I think a lot of the pupils don’t really see teaching as a career to aspire to in the same way as being a doctor, accountant etc.

      I also agree completely on the gimmicks. My favourite lessons are the ones where we look at some really difficult topics, and any genuine applications of them, before solving lots of problems and developing understanding.

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