A visit to the country’s most notorious school…
So much has already been written about Michaela that it leaves one in quandary about what exactly to add. Most people reading this will be well aware of their marking and feedback policies; the family lunches; their approaches to teaching, homework, and curriculum; the no excuses behaviour policy and silent corridors; and all the other ideas and innovations that have captured people’s attention. Therefore, I shan’t investigate any of these things directly, since, as far as possible, I have tried not to repeat things that others have said before. If I have failed, I apologise.
For a while now, I have thought that were I to run my own school, its motto would be ‘Well-behaved pupils being taught well’. It’s simple, straightforward, and seems to capture the essence of a good school. So, when I say Michaela is a ‘normal’ school, it is with that approach to schooling in mind. Because, for all the extraordinary things I saw at Michaela, and I saw many extraordinary things, what they added up to was a school in which well-behaved pupils were being taught well.
Perhaps it was because of the noise around the school—the detractors on Twitter, the lunch-money controversies, the newspaper headlines anointing Katharine Birbalsingh as ‘Britain’s strictest Headteacher’—that, with retrospect, a small part of my subconscious was expecting to be confronted by something utterly strange, entirely abnormal. Thus, it was not the sense of fellowship imparted by communal poetry recitals at lunch, or the pupils’ enthusiasm to answer questions in class, that I found most striking. Nor was it the abundance of warmth between pupils and teachers, or the two Y9 girls who confidently told me they had “left the pyramid behind”, as evidence of their having fully embodied its message.
No, what struck me most was the downright normality of seeing pupils, in a school, gasp, working hard. That and the dissonant feeling I had when contrasting the perfectly uncontroversial sight of teachers teaching and pupils learning, and the positive relationships fostered therein, with some of the histrionic criticism I had seen online. I felt as though my eyes were broken. I watched and wondered what some people, even if they favour a different approach to educating children, could find so offensive?
The reason I draw attention to this is because, even for someone who consider’s himself in accord with Michaela’s approach, as I do, it can sometimes feel as though the school is a far-off quirk, a remote outpost existing somewhere on the periphery of our education system. But it isn’t. Far from it. True, the staff at Michaela have been in many ways trailblazers, prepared to think differently, originally, daringly, but the school isn’t doing anything that another school couldn’t do, should it wish to. And since that it has, for some time, been unusual for schools to expect that pupils will listen silently and attentively while their teacher explains things, for pupils to complete individual work without chatting to their neighbour, and for teachers to be respected simply because they are teachers, that’s an important point, I think. These things need normalising; people need to say these things are normal.
Now, I teach in a school in a very different situation to Michaela. As such, my classroom will often look quite different to a Michaela classroom. But when I close my classroom door, the goal is exactly the same: to have the pupils behave properly, so I can teach them what they need to know. And when you stand and see Michaela’s approach for yourself, or at least when I stood and saw it for myself, consistently implemented across the school, it just seems mind-bogglingly sane. A simple, common sense approach to teaching, free from soul-destroying box-ticking and time-wasting flimflam. Ultimately, what was remarkable about the school was not any particular policy, procedure, or idea, but what, together, they added up to: Well-behaved pupils being taught well, unanimously. By implementing everything with painstaking zeal, the staff have created classrooms that are extraordinary precisely because of their apparent simplicity.
Understand, in no way am I diminishing or downplaying what Katharine Birbalsingh and her team have achieved. Quite the opposite. I can only speculate, but I’d guess that to develop the school into what it is today, the amount of forethought required was astonishing. Simplicity is deceptively difficult to achieve; the minutiae of numerous complex issues must be considered, allowing for clear and candid systems to be developed and implemented. As I have said before on this blog, a great writer is not one who can make a simple idea seem complex, but one who can make a complex idea seem simple. Having read Tiger Teachers, I presume something similar is occurring at Michaela. They are taking complex problems, grappling with them deeply, and then implementing their solutions so efficiently, consistently, and relentlessly that it feels like they just happen.
But things don’t ‘just happen’. People make things happen. So when I say Michaela is a ‘normal’ school, or that things appear ‘simple’, I don’t mean to suggest there is a lack of complexity, or that here it is your average, identikit comprehensive, no different from any other. No, I mean it as a great compliment. Because to go against the grain, to take old ideas and combine them with new ideas, to add in some original ideas of your own, and then, on top of all that, to implement them so seamlessly that the whole thing seems entirely normal, that, it seems to me, is a remarkable achievement indeed.
I’d like to end by extending my thanks to Katharine for finding time for me to visit and the rest of the staff for being so welcoming. In particular, Joe Kirby, Barry Smith, Jo Facer, Jonathon Porter, and Katharine herself all gave up their time to chat with me and answer my questions.