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.
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.
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 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.
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!