Debating Michaela. My take-aways.


I had a great time at City Hall taking part in the Michaela debates.   If the purpose of an event like this is to make people think and reflect, I can safely say it was a success from my point of view.   Without reviewing the content of each debate, here are my take away thoughts:

1. Project-based learning prepares children for the 21st Century. 

PBL has a place in our repertoire.  However, as the principal mode of delivery it is risky unless you know you are doing it extremely well: knowledge-rich, rigorous, setting high standards for the outcomes.   I think Peter Hyman’s school sets a standard for this; he’s not messing about and the work his students produce is impressive.  Bad PBL is bad education -as with anything else that’s bad – but he’s delivering something exceptional.

I agreed with Daisy: it is important to separate learning from performance; we need to ensure performance and the production of polished products isn’t masking weak learning (making a change in long-term memory).  It’s also important to consider ‘expertise-induced blindness’; do we forget what’s it is like not to know things?  However, there is a continuum from novice to expert; I think an optimal education has to include some opportunities for student-led learning even if we accept the primacy of direct instruction and teacher-expertise (which I do.)

So – there is definitely room for projects as part of the curriculum diet – Daisy agreed on this herself. I think we need to plan projects that allow students to build on their prior knowledge, to explore and collaborate and allow them the time to craft pieces of work that are truly excellent – in Austin’s Butterfly style.  We’re introducing our own Excellence Exhibitions based on this idea next year at HGS.  It’s part of a diet; part of the ‘Mode B’ teaching, I describe here.

2. “No excuses” discipline works. 

Jonathan Porter’s speech was a great argument for seeking impeccable behaviour from every child without patronising them, without reinforcing the dependency and entitlement that too often justify lowering standards.  I can agree with most of that.  At HGS we are right to give students a detention for not having their equipment, uniform and so on.  Enforcing high standards for everyone is an act of love; I agree with Jonathan on that.

But ‘No excuses’ is something else. As a systematic whole-school approach, over the long run, it doesn’t ‘work’.  I think John Tomsett’s trawl through the evidence was compelling. John’s quote of the proverb ‘bamboo is stronger than oak’ resonates strongly with me.  We’re trying hard to implement a behaviour system that delivers ‘impeccable behaviour’ and, without any question whatsoever, the whole thing would collapse if it were absolutely rigid. The question is where to hold the line; it’s something we discuss continually.  A small minority of students find it incredibly difficult and demoralising to hit boundaries all day long and there is a danger of schools starting to feel like penal institutions for those students; that’s not something we want.  There’s an equilibrium to find; a balance point  – and that is the challenge of running a big inclusive comprehensive school.

I’m interested in this at a system level.  If every school could pre-eliminate families that can’t or won’t subscribe to a no-excuses philosophy, what would happen? In my school, even if we wanted to, we can’t escape our role as a community hub; an agency of social care – and hopefully of social transformation.  In that context, exclusion only goes so far; ‘take it or leave it’ only goes so far.  So, we have to have flex.  ‘No excuses’ could only work in isolation from the wider community and school system.  We’re not in that position; nor are most schools.

3. Personalised Learning harms children. 

I think Katie and I were largely talking about different aspects of personalisation and I actually agreed with many of her points:  in general, we should prioritise supporting students to reach the same high standards rather than defaulting to stratifying the work setting lower standards.  If personalisation means lowering expectations or allowing students to opt out, it’s obviously harmful.  There’s also the obvious workload issue where teachers waste time preparing multiple resources for every lesson.

But I took a different view focusing on a) the pedagogical personalisation required to teach a class of individuals and b) programme personalisation where the curriculum diverges or contains options at different points.  I’ll spare you my full speech; here’s a few snippets:

The question is really: ‘how much personalisation’ and ‘at what stage in a child’s education’ is it most appropriate.

I contend that it is not only desirable for children to experience a degree of personalisation, it is nigh on impossible to deliver the opposite – a standardised curriculum – because children bring themselves to the process of learning, whether you want them to or not. One might even argue that learning is INHERENTLY personalised whatever we do…

Even if you are setting the same high bar for every learner in your class in terms of the knowledge you want them to acquire, every learner has different predispositions, experiences and biases that shape their capacity to engage. Arguably it is more harmful not to personalise; to treat all your students as if they are the same; yes they are similar; but , no, they are not the same. Teaching, like gardening, requires you to attend to each individual. 

[I gave various examples of personalisation in action from Y13 down to Y7; elements of a traditional teacher-led curriculum – part of the diet, not doing harm!]

In summary, if we regard personalisation as the process by which we introduce elements of choice and control into our curriculum, giving value to divergence in the content and outputs of the learning process, at a time that is appropriate for the learners, it can’t be true that it harms children.   This is especially true if we are measuring ‘harm’ as a long term outcome.

As adults looking back on their education, it is arguably true that students who have gained a high a quality, knowledge-rich education with a strong component of personalisation will feel more fulfilled having developed an appetite for life-long learning and had a broader range of learning experiences than their friends who were only served the standard model. It could well be argued that, in fact, standardised education harms children.

When we learned that Michaela has different streams, it raised a question we didn’t have time to explore. What’s the difference between streaming across a cohort and personalisation within a class?  Evidently there is a recognition at Michaela that different students need different provision.  The role of setting and streaming would be another good debate in future.

4. Schools should do ‘whatever it takes’. 

I had sympathy for Ed Vainker’s moral purpose but I was absolutely swayed by Joe Kirby’s ideas about prioritising teacher workload and maximising the impact to effort ratio.  I was very interested in these ideas:

No written reports.  Could we do this?  The effort to impact ratio is ridiculous; it’s a PR job, not something serving an educational purpose.  I’ve started thinking we could replace written reports with our Excellence Exhibitions. This is what they do at School21.  I’m going to raise this question back at base.

A two-week October half-term break.  I’ve always wanted to even out the holidays. Why don’t we do this?  I guess it means a shorter summer.  Why not?

No teacher marking; more quick-turnaround whole-class feedback. Jo Facer has shared this Michaela approach and I’m convinced it is the direction to go in. Less work; more impact.  A no-brainer?  We do too much marking that isn’t actioned; we need to rebalance -fairly radically.

More generally, I came away thinking that this is an issue we need to explore in depth.  Can we strip out some heavily bureaucratic processes:  Big meetings? Data drops? Reports to parents and governors? Can all of this be much leaner, more efficient and, consequently, more effective?  I think so.  When we’re facing teacher recruitment stress, it makes a lot of sense. If it improves outcomes too – it makes total sense.

In that context, ‘whatever it takes’ has limits.  We’re better off doing the things we’re funded to do as well as we can, within sensible workload limits rather than over-promising, under-delivering and burning out the staff.

5. Performance-Related pay is damaging. 

Although I had to leave by this time, (disappointed that this wasn’t up first because I wanted to cheer Katharine on), evidently it was a slam-dunk one-sided debate where even the opposer capitulated.  PRP is a terrible idea – as I’ve said before.  I’m glad that Michaela bucks the trend that tends to lump all of these ideas together.  Even if you run a Gove-lovin’ Free School with a knowledge-led, no-excuses, traditional curriculum and philosophy – PRP is still a terrible idea.  End of.

Thanks to Katharine, Jessica, Joe and Katie and everyone else involved in the event.  It was success- it’s made me think. And it was fun.



  1. A really nice summary and it is great that there seemed to be a good deal of consensus and little extremism.reflects the teaching profession I think.on project based learning, I have the. Same learning outcomes for knowledge, understanding and application whatever teaching and learning method employed.project usually takes a bit longer but learning often deeper and broader.if the learning outcomes may missed then the method not you suggest.repertoire. For both learner and teacher.


  2. Hi Tom glad you’ve mentioned teacher recruitment stress and will be looking at this as part of your HTRT Think Tank session. None of the above makes sense without an adequate supply of quality teachers with appropriate subject knowledge to be personalised or applied in a project-based way by their students. D&T is raising all kinds of issues in this space.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Why would they even debate PRP? Even a cursory look at the evidence out there on it shows it is a horrendous idea for schools. Why were these people not aware of the research and evidence?

    I work with excluded pupils and the “No excuses” fad infuriates me. In a nice setting like Michaela, these people can pat themselves on the back, stand on platforms and tell the rest of us how to do it. It is a disgraceful approach to propose for the wider teaching community. I agree with your arguments Tom but I can’t be so polite and measured. Sorry.

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  4. Thoughtful, as always. Two quick reflections.

    On PBL: teaching content and then letting learners use their acquired knowledge to inform a project is not “project-based learning”. It is doing projects – just like we all do in real life. PBL is the design of an engaging pedagogy for a compelling purpose which requires access to and acquisition of knowledge as a means of completing the project rigorously. As you say, it does need to be done well, not least because it is the essence of our core professional knowledge-base, which is the design and facilitation of great learning – not content or subject knowledge delivery.

    On personalisation: I visited the College of Communication Arts in Brixton today – a totally personalised learning model driven by students ‘controlling and owning their own learning narratives’. My take would be that personalisation is not either teacher differentiation nor the choice of different pathways. It is a combination of pedagogical design and learner autonomy, whereby learners are enabled to design their own learning scripts. They personalise their learning.

    Ironically, PBL is one route to doing that, but here are others – e.g. the Open University offers another model; or home education learning; or gaming technology; or personal fitness regimes.


  5. Really late getting to this, Tom – it’s been a manic few weeks – but I thought it was excellent. You talk such good sense on all fronts!

    And just one thought re: a two week October half term. We moved to this some time ago in the school where I was head and it seemed to be becoming the norm in the independent sector generally. I know the sector has slightly longer holidays in the summer anyway, but it was well worth losing a week of the summer break to have a fuller break in the middle of the ‘darkest’ term. However, we decided we couldn’t just finish a week later in the summer, as we would lose key time with exam classes in the autumn and they’d have left by the end of the summer term. So we started back a week earlier in the autumn, which meant sometimes we started in the same week as the August Bank Holiday. Not ideal, but still worth it.

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