The Michaela School: Tiger teachers burning bright

What can we learn from an ultra-strict free school? A essay for Prospect Magazine by Patrick Alexander / March 30, 2017

©Patrick Alexander

The sign outside the Michaela Community School reads “Private School Ethos — No Fees.” Having taught in the state sector for ten years, this was tough to swallow. But Michaela, a small secondary school in north London, likes to challenge. In fact it is perhaps the most radical embodiment of the neo-traditional movement in British education, and the press have dubbed it “England’s strictest school.”

Founded in 2014, Michaela is a non-selective secondary and a free school — state- funded, but administered independently. It is situated in Brent, one of the worst boroughs for child poverty in London. One third of its pupils receive free school meals and half are eligible for the pupil premium, the additional funding given to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The same proportion speak English as a second language — Brent is 18 per cent white British.

On my visit, the pupils seemed perfectly happy, if a little serious in some cases (a precocious outlook seemed normal). As they moved patiently from the playground, up the staircase which has Aristotle’s theory of eudaimoniasummarised neatly on the wall, they all addressed me cheerfully — “Good morning, sir!” In every single classroom I visited, pupils were attentive to an unusual degree and the subject content was unremittingly challenging.

“Family Lunch” was extraordinary. The whole lunch hall recited Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” in concert before food was served by pupils. All the children had eerily perfect table manners. Teachers ate with the students and there was a topic of discussion as there is every day. After lunch came “appreciation,” in which pupils took turns to publicly thank somebody for their positive contribution to school life. My neighbour at lunch — a chatty 12-year-old boy — seemed impatient to get back to class to learn more about Herodotus.

My last stop, a visit to the office of Katharine Birbalsingh, the founding headmistress, was initially tense. As I sat down I received, unsolicited, a voluble account of the social iniquity that meant that someone she had just interviewed for the job of school caretaker had been offered so few options in life. I told her that I had been a London secondary school teacher and was now a freelance writer.

“Oh… you’re a teacher! So you get what we do here!” she exhaled, beaming. Michaela’s mission is clear. They are different from other schools and their way is best. If you don’t believe them, you can see for yourself. Or read their book. Schools don’t usually produce tracts about their own ethos, but this school, as in many other ways, is different. The Michaela Way is explained in detail over the course of 30 polemics written by staff in the recently published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher. If this sounds like a lock-in with a roomful of zealots, that is certainly (mostly) unfair.

This is, as ever, a febrile moment in education. A lot of people want to see free schools or neo-traditional teaching methods fail. Last year, Michaela’s policy of welcoming visitors any time had to be reviewed because of concerns that the invitation was being abused by hostile campaigners. Press coverage is mixed — the school has hit the headlines for making pupils above the free-school-meals threshold eat in isolation if their parents haven’t paid for lunch (Birbalsingh was unrepentant, pointing out that they still get a good meal).

©Patrick Alexander

Birbalsingh unites a number of perspectives on education. She has Indian and Caribbean ancestry, and grew up mostly in Canada, before coming to the UK at the age of 15. Later she studied languages and philosophy at Oxford before teaching in London secondaries. Some in the education world have distrusted her since she first came to public attention. As a young deputy head, she delivered a speech at the Conservative party conference in 2010 bemoaning the quality of state schools. It says a lot about the politics of British education that Birbalsingh’s speech was regarded either as treacherous self-advancement or heroic whistleblowing — with little room for nuance.

She argued the school system was “fundamentally broken”: education had been dumbed down with a “prizes for all” culture that made excuses for poor behaviour by students. The culprits for this mess were “well-meaning liberals.” The competition needed to make a change would never be countenanced by a left-leaning profession, she said. (Puzzlingly, in the same speech she also decried the competitive league table culture.) Soon after, she had to leave her job.

In the book there is the same tone as the conference speech — evangelical, dissident. We open with Victor Hugo: “There is one thing stronger than armies, and that is an idea whose time has come.” We hear about the saint of the movement — not, as you might think, the former education secretary Michael Gove, the architect of free schools — but Michaela Emanus, a treasured former colleague of Birbalsingh, who died in 2011. Their work is referred to as “our struggle.” Staff are united by a “burning passion.” What we do “challenges mainstream liberal assumptions.” Feeling uncomfortable? Good — that’s the point.

The first of the challenges Battle Hymn presents, argued powerfully by deputy head Joe Kirby, is that “other schools” are wrong in failing to prioritise factual knowledge. As someone who trained to teach before anyone had the courage to suggest this, the chapter had me exalting — preach, brother, preach! I once attended a training day during which the task was to determine the elements of “outstanding teaching and learning.” In my group (it was group-work, of course) a long debate was almost concluded before a colleague meekly suggested the importance of “knowing things.” People drew breath as though struck by an idea of reality-altering perspicacity.

At Michaela, knowledge transmission is not, as another head teacher recently wrote, “a very limiting and limited view of teaching.” Rather, knowing things and remembering them is a liberation and a central component in the curriculum. The list of pre-GCSE content the school aims to deliver, starting with Classical Antiquity in year 7, is too long to repeat. To anyone with the faintest sense of what a normal British adolescent might know, it is staggeringly ambitious.

So is introducing children to, in Matthew Arnold’s worlds, “the best that has been thought and said.” A kind of civilising mission? Partly. Michaela is indeed a celebration of a certain view of culture or cultural literacy. But the school is also explicit about how knowledge and discipline can prevent the anarchy that Birbalsingh fears can go hand in hand with economic disadvantage.

In the words of American educator ED Hirsch, the godfather of neo-traditional curriculums: “Breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status… That is to say, being ‘smart’ is more dependent on possessing general knowledge than on family background. Imparting broad knowledge to all children is the single most effective way to narrow the gap between demographic groups through schooling.” In a free labour market, where you are competing against wealthier households, cultural capital equals access. According to Battle Hymn, the true nature of that competition should not be hidden because accepting that truth is a passport from Brent to anywhere.

That passport is earned through meticulously modelled behaviour and community values. Content is memorised through choral drills and “self- quizzing”; behaviour for new entrants through Year 7 “bootcamp.” The “no excuses” behaviour policy is utilitarian — the greatest possible outcome for the greatest number of pupils — and seeks to remember the “silent majority” of pupils sidelined by a minority of demanding classmates. The reason why a given behaviour is undesirable is narrated in semi-scripted fashion back to pupils immediately, and dealt with the same day. All pupils learn that teachers are like referees — imperfect, but for the game to work, decisions must be respected.

©Patrick Alexander

And teachers are respected alright. Birbalsingh boldly states that her job is to look after staff first, then her pupils. Teacher Hin-Tai Ting’s chapter argues that the status of the classroom teacher must be rehabilitated if a school is to work at optimum capacity. Again, preach. Yet one of the reasons why the primacy of teacher authority has faded in British classrooms is that a less hierarchical dynamic can help create a dialogue in which the discovery of answers is more mutual. The benefits of a more equal relationship are huge in terms of teacher- pupil trust: a shared journey through the complex architecture of difficult ideas.

But Michaela is all about efficiency: the fastest possible progress to as much knowledge and understanding as possible. Planning opportunities for discovery learning — including plasticine and funny hats — can take time. And so Battle Hymn recommends that schools design bespoke documents called knowledge organisers: Michaela-specific documents which contain all content to be delivered in a given scheme of work. So unless you are head of faculty (and paid more), no planning is required. None. And marking? None. Teachers — are you listening at the back? Assessment is made by comparative judgment. Work is read quickly, sorted and ranked into three piles. Teachers record a summary of feedback about common problems and deliver to the whole class the next day. Data entry is minimal.

Battle Hymn does recommend extra tasks. Just as Matthew’s father Thomas Arnold did as head of Rugby School two centuries ago, all Michaela teachers memorise the name and face of every single pupil. There are 120 children in each year group. But set against the burden of planning and marking, your school would have to have one million pupils for the task to be as labour-intensive. While there, I asked one teacher who had spent years at conventional schools what was it like working at Michaela. Before I could finish the question, the answer came: “Beats working for a living!”

Of course there are things that won’t work, and some innovations which sound familiar. Kirby in particular is cautious in his claims about Michaela’s reading programme and the limitations of the comparative judgment assessment model. What happens when pupils need personalised feedback after a GCSE mock exam? What if students cannot memorise content no matter how hard they try? Battle Hymn is often honest about the school’s problems and provides case studies of “outlier” pupils, and of parents who kick against the school’s methods.

©Patrick Alexander

Such methodological rigidity is potentially a huge issue. What if the Michaela Way really does turn out to be the wrong way for a pupil, who might benefit from a greater emphasis on less cerebral concerns? That is what is admirable about the Battle Hymn book. Nobody can accuse them of a lack of clarity. Parents in the catchment area will have to try hard to make an uninformed choice.

That doesn’t nix all of Battle Hymn’s problems. It is too ambitious. One chapter about special needs seeks to resolve an entire field of medical research into a single Michaela- specific position and doesn’t, I think, succeed. The “Top of the Pyramid” chapter, in which Barry Smith outlines how Michaela pupils should embrace a “them and us” culture to distinguish themselves from the inferior behaviour of less-fortunates, might work as a speech before a school trip, but not here.

Many teachers have at one time or another used the “not in this school” trope to reinforce identity and a culture of discipline. But publishing this to a wider public that includes neighbouring schools seems inflammatory and typical of Michaela’s modus operandi. Given how courageous its core philosophy is, it would be sad to see the project suffer by making too many enemies. As Gove discovered when Cameron shuffled him out of the Department of Education, there is a cost to picking fights on too many fronts.

So yes, there is some naive self-promotion. At times, (see Family Lunch) the whole enterprise feels like a cultish social experiment. But there is an admirable strength in the defiance of convention. Schools have so many moving parts, and of such unpredictable character, that to have them moving together as cohesively as Birbalsingh has done, in a hostile environment, against all orthodoxy, breaks new ground in modern British schooling.

On my visit, I saw a Year 8 pupil shoot a basketball backwards over his head, eyes closed. No part of the ball touched the ring, instead lightly kissing the ropes beneath as it passed through the centre. The next shot missed the backboard altogether. Michaela’s ambitions may yet prove to be hubristic. But if so, the school should be applauded for erring in the right direction, and doing a difficult thing with total conviction.

Would I send my own children there? Would I want to teach there? I don’t know. But in August 2019, when the GCSE results for the first cohort of Michaela Community School come through, Brent Park estate agents will be taking an extra phone call or two.

Originally published at www.prospectmagazine.co.uk on March 29, 2017.

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan