Last week, I joined the growing number of people who have visited Michaela Community School to see it action. I’ve read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers and numerous blogs and articles about the school from its teachers and visitors – so it was great to see what it is really like to put the commentary into perspective. I had some preconceptions and lots of questions but, as I’ve often said, it’s a big mistake to judge a school you’ve never been to. I was prepared to react in lots of different ways.
My overriding impression was that Michaela is a lovely, lively, happy school, led by highly committed, driven people on a mission; people doing some ground-breaking work in shaping a knowledge-driven curriculum that inner city teenagers can access at a rate and depth that seems remarkable – all supported by an ethos with life-changing potential. It would take pages to give a full blow-by-blow account so here are some of the more note-worthy aspects of my visit:
My tour guides were very polite and gave extended explanations of what they’re learning without prompting. This suggested that they are explicitly taught manners and to string sentences together. My Y7 guide was very sweet and enthusiastic – and was having to think consciously about how to express herself fluently whereas her Y9 partner spoke effortlessly. It’s part of their learning – something that, through practice, they’ll get really good at. The explicit teaching of manners was evident at multiple points in the day.
In lessons the behaviour was impeccable. The ‘1,2,3, SLANT’ instruction and response was impressive – not unnatural or oppressive in any way, just absolutely consistent. My guides couldn’t even remember what the acronym stands for exactly – it’s already a habit. In fact lessons felt quite relaxed because everyone is so used to the expectations. Students really are fully focused the whole time and their work is constructed to be pretty intense . However, because lessons are punctuated with lots of choral repetition, appreciations and so on, it’s not all stuffy silence -far from it. For example the Mexican wave of whooping to mark success on a maths exercise was joyful – lovely.
The centralised curriculum planning and associated work books and knowledge organisers are all very interesting and impressive. It’s totally clear what needs to be learned and the expectations are built-in from the beginning – a sharp contract to schools where teachers are planning lessons from day-to-day, scrabbling to pull resources together by themselves to varying degrees of success. Students were really clear about how their learning was supported by the process of self-quizzing – for homework and other parts for the day.
This whole process of teaching very specific elements of knowledge very directly, with the use of choral repetition and daily quizzing is fascinating. Katharine explained that, in her view, the mistake new teachers make most often is asking students questions they don’t or can’t know the answer to. The ‘just tell’em‘ philosophy is very strong; it’s palpable in lessons. However, once told, students are meant to learn and remember. This is done systematically and rigorously – eg a demerit for not checking all self-quizzing correctly. But the students say it just makes them do it and they’re really learning – across the curriculum. Year 9s are getting a more varied diet of homework with more extended tasks beyond the quizzing. I’m interested in where this all leads and what other types of learning might be built on this later as all this knowledge gets put to use in wider contexts.
The curriculum model is interesting. Six one-hour lessons a day and a stripped down curriculum mean that the subjects all have lots of time given to them. At KS4 they will all do History and French plus RE in Y10 and the core subjects. Art vs Triple Science is the only option I think. It’s a bold model, nicely simple. Do we over-do the whole concept of choice and of trying to fit every subject into an impossibly crowded curriculum?
The Year 7/8 art work is amazing. It seems to build explicitly on learning from artists and making reproductions using scaling grids for accuracy before students do their own drawings – but, wow, the portraits students had drawn were wonderful; it’s impressive stuff.
The maths teaching I saw was great. Students worked at a pace through pre-planned sets of practice questions which were then checked at speed by a teacher modelling the answers using a visualiser. I loved the tall visualiser stands – which made this very easy for the teacher to use repeatedly. The tasks included going back to easier problem sets like doubling (x by 2). This was done at speed which students really enjoyed. The emphasis was on building confidence which seemed to be working.
Behaviour around the school was also impeccable but also seemed quite relaxed and normal. It wasn’t overly oppressive; there is a busy dynamic feel as students move quickly from a lesson to lunch or lesson to lesson; there’s a staff presence but everyone is just saying hello and smiling and the children say ‘Good afternoon Sir’ as they go by. People tend to associate strict behaviour with sternness and people being told off a lot – I didn’t see anything remotely like that.
The family lunch is great; a powerful element in creating the school culture. The space allows staff to address students at multiple points in the half-hour starting with some choral recitation of a poem and a bit of Shakespeare (I’m too ignorant to know which bits they were -but my dining partners knew very well when I asked). During the recitation I saw a Y9 girl who clearly knew the soliloquy very well, almost dancing in the rhythm of the lines as she said the words – this was spontaneous enthusiasm; she loved doing it. I spoke to her later – a very happy, engaged student.
The eating part is all very civilised and efficient – you can’t hang about! Our table felt very relaxed; students spoke openly about how they view the school -there was some playful off-message irreverence as well as genuine pride. There was some direction about a discussion topic – something to do with empathy in literature but on my table they weren’t too keen to follow; they viewed it as optional. Fair enough – I may have put them off; they were normal kids. The appreciations after eating were interesting. They were expected to explain the reason for the appreciation in a big loud voice – with appropriate affirmation/feedback from the lunch-leader. Some appreciations felt more authentic and personal than others but I saw that as part of the learning process; students are learning to appreciate others and that their community values it. At the end, all those with detentions were called up to go. It was a largish number – 40 or so? This is part of the routine of their world, a consequence they accept, not something they fear. It keeps the standards high – two demerits= a detention – but it felt light-touch, not heavy-handed. All sanctions are narrated – students have rules and expectations reinforced all the time. It’s a powerful culture.
The reading system is massively impressive. The texts are all pre-planned and printed in numbered lines in the booklets with key words in bold to prompt instruction and annotation. Students hold their guiding ruler with two hands moving down the page stopping to annotate as required. It all happens at quite a pace. The expectations here are sky-high; intense reading of sophisticated texts with lots of modelling from the teacher as well as students reading aloud. So, this is how you do reading! There’s so much to learn from this.
The French lessons I saw were fabulous. We were treated to a bit of a flourish at the end of Mr Smith’s Year 9 lesson. The loud, enthusiastic call and response, (his English and their French), was dazzling. Accents were stunning. However, it’s not a mystery. It came straight from the Year 7 knowledge organiser: À mon avis, apprendre une langue étrangère c’est très utile main évidemment ce n’est pas toujours facile quand même. Also, Il faut que je fasse mes devoirs. This isn’t like any language learning I’ve seen before. The theory appears to be that if you amass a repertoire of complex phrases through direct instruction and recall methods, you gain huge confidence on which to develop fluency later. It’s a world away from the more typical process of learning lots of vocab about everyday life and gingerly introducing verbs – without really expecting/demanding total recall of what has been learned along the way. Here, students learn to say the phrases before they fully understand the underlying structures – too often we over analyse language at an early stage which inhibits the learning.
Something I was looking to check was that Michaela has students who might present as challenging elsewhere. I certainly did find a range of students. It turned out that my playfully off-message lunch partner needs lots of support and has had some difficulties at previous schools. I encountered him later in a withdrawal group for Maths where two students were being taught by a teacher. He’s definitely doing way better than he would be in a lot of schools. Elsewhere I saw students who were just like a lot of the characters I’ve met at the more challenging end of the spectrum at other schools. I don’t know the proportions but certainly Michaela does cater for students who are not simply pre-programmed to passively work within the boundaries of a discipline system. They have to be shown and supported even though the expectations remain firmly the same for everyone. For sure, it would be hard to impose this culture in an existing school; you need very strong majority buy-in to a culture that the odd more challenging students assimilate into without them creating their own.
The main under-represented group are middle class children. This was something I discussed during my visit – whether the Michaela way could extend to a more socially mixed cohort, where students have stronger home learning environments, more involved parents, mature self-discipline and, more importantly, students with a lot more prior knowledge and cultural capital. The school isn’t really set up with those students in mind but it’s interesting to explore what might transfer to different contexts and what one might change in terms of the curriculum and some of the routines. It will be interesting to see if Michaela matures into a school that staff send their own children to – always the acid test. That’s not meant as a criticism; it’s a genuine question about different social cultures and the interface between what parents express what they want for their children and what a school provides.
Finally, I was struck by the expectations of staff supervision. Teachers teach most periods in the week and then, between lessons, there they are at their stations on the stairwells by the toilets and there they are again taking part in the family lunch, swapping places to supervise the half-hour of free time in the yard. It’s a full-on day. That’s the deal. The trade-off is that teaching materials are pre-prepared and marking is minimal and overall, staff do report that they find it easier working there than in their previous schools. However, the expectations of contact time are a world apart – it’s all part of that sense of mission that is so strongly shared by the staff.
Ok – this has ended being much longer than planned but there’s a lot to say. Thank you to Katharine for hosting the visit and to all the Michaela staff and students who made me so welcome. Congratulations on creating such a great school and for giving us all so much to think about. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when the time comes, Michaela students will knock those accountability measures out of the park.