Michaela School: Route One Schooling

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I learned two very important principles from my visit to Michaela:

  1. You can do whatever you want as long as you hold your nerve and accept the consequences.
  2. You can always go a lot further than you first think is possible.

The first principle is embodied in Head Teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh’s explanation of how to get the culture you want: you just don’t compromise. If a teacher sees or hears a phone at Michaela it’s confiscated until the following term. It doesn’t matter whether the phone accidentally slipped out of a pocket, and it doesn’t matter whether the parent is going into hospital and really really needs to ring their child. There are no excuses. When parents have inevitably come in to explain why their circumstances are unique and why and an exception needs to be made in their case, they’re given a choice: you either abide by our decisions and support our rules or you find another school for your child. Let me be very clear: this does not mean they boot unruly kids, it means some parents decide they will not support the school.

As Birbalsingh explains, maybe Michaela isn’t right for every child. Maybe some children would be happier elsewhere. She calls herself  ‘The Dragon Lady’ and makes it clear to parents that being at Michaela means following the rules. There are no exceptions. But there’s no shortage of other schools for disgruntled parents to send their children.

As a result, behaviour is immaculate. Children are polite, orderly and enthusiastic. Over lunch I was quizzed articulately about what I did for a living, how I voted, whether I thought nuclear weapons were a good thing and what I was currently reading. The children served each other, cleared the table and went about the serious business of eating a meal which was so much more than merely consuming food. When asked about the differences between Michaela and their primary schools they were unanimous: “You can learn here.” “No one pushes you out of the way.” “Teachers really care.” Bear in mind, the school is in Brent, right next to Wembley Park tube. This is not a leafy, affluent suburb.

They’ve also refused to compromise on ‘what Ofsted want’. They’ve come to terms with the fact that inspectors will almost certainly hate what they do. They’re supported by founding governors who are fully expecting a negative verdict next year. But as Birbalsingh says, how you could meet their children and see the progress they’ve made and not admit that something must be working? I have hope that Ofsted have evolved sufficiently to get over residual biases, but of course it’s a risk.

The second principle was evident in Michaela’s approach to marking. I’ve written about marking being a meaningless fetish, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how far you could take this idea. At Michaela teachers do not mark books. Ever. Marking, Assistant Head, Joe Kirby explained, is not the same as feedback.

Although their books go unmarked, children get plenty of feedback. Classwork is regularly quizzed using a very slick bespoke system which allows teachers to immediately see where children have weaknesses and allows them to intervene. On top of that, children complete an extended assignment four times a year which is summatively assessed. Good examples are dissected under the visualiser and whole class feedback is delivered from the front. I long railed about the time teachers are expected to spend marking, but I’d always assumed that there was a point at the heart of it. Apparently not. As Kirby explains, individual written feedback isn’t renewable; the time spent giving it could be spent on designing renewable resources which could not just benefit the whole class, but benefit every child who might ever attend the school. When compared to the paltry effects of a bit of red pen in your book, this is pretty sobering.

Because behaviour is perfect and because teaching sequences have all been planned out in advance, teachers just need to teach. Imagine it: no lesson planning, no marking. What might life be like? Teaching at Michaela is all about telling children stuff they don’t know and they checking to see whether they know it. Put aside whether or not you’re ideologically comfortable with this for a moment and consider the advantages just in terms of teaching rather than learning. There is no variance in lesson quality. They may well be variance in teacher quality, but this is largely irrelevant: children’s experience of lessons is consistent, predictable and coordinated. There are no weak links. Or if there are, pupils are unaware of them.

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There’s no getting away from the fact that Michaela’s style is direct. Some people will hate it They’re unapologetic about the knowledge building mission. Creating a rich, memorable knowledge base is definitely the top priority. Everything they do revolves around this central aim. This results in a very coherent school experience but to those us who’ve always worked in ‘normal’ schools it can seem extreme. It’s route one schooling: direct, effective, but not pretty. But maybe that just takes some getting used to.

We could argue endlessly about whether or not you think the Michaela approach will result in learning. For what it’s worth I think they’ve got a lot – although maybe not everything – right. But if you disagree, there’s very little chance I’ll be able to persuade you otherwise: I’m sure you’ve already made up your mind.

What they have indisputably got right is putting teaching well-being at the heart of every decision they make. Although Birbalsingh thinks “display work is lovely,” the time it takes for students to make it and teachers to put it up just isn’t worth the cost. So there’s no student work on display. She talked about the US Charter School method of employing 23-year-old teachers, burning them for four years and then spitting them out, exhausted and broken. This she says is unsustainable and makes a school a miserable place to work. I’d go further: the expectation that teacher should give up evenings and weekends in order to meet minimum standards is immoral. If you are happy to do things their way, Michaela would be an idyllic place to work.

But God help you if you want to do some group work.

Michaela have assembled a fiercely passionate team committed to making a difference in the lives of the children they teach. It’s not perfect, but never have I visited a school where the vision so closely aligns with the reality. The amount of thought, care and, yes, love, put into their school will surely make it a success.

43 Responses to Michaela School: Route One Schooling

  1. bt0558 says:

    A really nice post. One can see clear leadership from those at the top.

    I would love to know more about this but I am guessing they are putting a deal together to seel it….

    “Classwork is regularly quizzed using a very slick bespoke system which allows teachers to immediately see where children have weaknesses and allows them to intervene”

    Very interesting post thankyou.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    I have the greatest admiration for Katherine. What she went through to get Michaela started would have flattened anyone else. I greatly admire her courage in standing up to the Ofsted bullies, and I sincerely hope that serves as an inspiration to others!

    For anyone who’s interested, her book “To Miss with Love” should be essential reading for anyone in education. I haven’t exchanged emails with her since she opened–I will have to blag an invitation to visit soon!

  3. Frank says:

    It’s refreshing to see a school prepared to ignore OFSTED and support the work/life balance of young teachers.

    They are in the position of being able to tell pupils to follow the rules or go elsewhere. Thus must make it much easier to focus on the job. I’m not sure about the legal position but as far as I know, schools in the State sector don’t have this as an much of an option. Pupil misbehaviour has to be extreme before they can be expelled, and then only after a long period of intervention.

    Glad to see the using visualizers. Surely one of the best pieces of technology to find its way into classrooms in recent years.

  4. teachwell says:

    A great insight into Michaela – I was wondering. It may not be to everyone’s taste and I personally see no problem with the odd display!! However, I agree that they are a distraction from the real job in hand. As an NQT I worried that I didn’t have enough displays and did not have them updated enough. She was the first to make the ‘It’s the teaching, stupid’ argument. Every piece of solid research points to it be it the EEF on quality first teaching or the longitudinal studies on the impact of teachers. In the end, what we leave children with is the knowledge and skills that we have taught them, the odd great visit and production too no doubt. What were the displays like in my school? Couldn’t tell you and I couldn’t tell you what the exact feedback I got each day was. I very much believe in assessing as much as possible in a myriad of different ways and feeding that back into planning.

  5. Amanda Wilson says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights into this school. Because of my previous job with an IT provider I’ve been watching this school with interest since it was first proposed. Similar to @bt0558, I would be interested to find out more about the ‘bespoke system’ they use. In fact, I’d be interested just to go along and see day-to-day practice.

  6. Fascinating – thank you for this. Is there a particularly clear method of responsive differentiation that they articulate – or should I message Joe, Bodhil, Katie etc about that? (- What, with the long term planning clearly being in the driving seat ‘and all’)
    Also – what IS on the walls…? Do they do motivational posters…? 😉

  7. Andy Day says:

    Interesting report back. I think Joe’s feedback and summative marking schedules sound very sensible (and what we had in my department until the fetish with observing spurious ‘progress’ in exercise books): periodic, high-status, extended essay responses to open-ended challenge-questions generated much more focused application by students than knowing they’ll be getting the weekly three stars and wish white-wash. I suspect the students in this school will flourish because they have enthusiastic teachers who fully believe in the approach they are orchestrating and live it with conviction daily. I don’t think it would be mine – I have caveats – but they have cracked the key requirement of giving their students an authentic experience each lesson. Having said that, I do think that it needs to be made clear that they are only a little over two terms in with a Year 7 cohort. They have yet to marry their approach with the vagaries of adolescent students and it will be interesting to see if students are still enthralled by the same approach by Year 10/11. The other challenge to be faced is scaling up, with more students and more staff. The original core of staff will have invested huge amounts of credibility and commitment to the philosophy they’re enacting. Whether new appointees will be expected to adopt the approach to the letter, or whether they will have the possibility of bringing their own interpretation to it will be one test. Another will be managing full cohorts of students in each year; Laura McInerney reviewed a new guide for Free Schools recently in SchoolsWeek which spoke of the challenge of managing a closely hot-housed Year 7 when, subsequently they become Year 8 and suddenly have to share their coveted teachers’ time with a new, younger cohort.
    I suspect it will be too early to take many lessons from MFS until we’ve seen how the full secondary life-cycle of a student plays out. And it’s always easier to develop a culture and ethos from a Year Zero clean slate. But there is one key message from your visit that I applaud and would love to see enacted beyond: for classroom teachers to be able to consolidate their pedagogic philosophy, teach from it with unrestrained enthusiasm, be accountable for it, and so give each student what they believe is a fully authentic experience each hour. How to work that into existing school set-ups is a challenge the rest of us should attempt to address.

    • David Didau says:

      They have huge challenges ahead and they really recognise this. More students and more teachers will obviously make things harder.

      I was there with staff from Swindon Academy to think about how their approach could be made to work in an established with working-class school. As far as I know, there are no examples of other schools that have taken this kind of approach with an existing school. I’ll keep you posted.

    • “it will be interesting to see if students are still enthralled by the same approach by Year 10/11.”

      Is there any reason to believe they intend to stick with exactly the same approach for older children? It would make sense to introduce more freedom/responsibility gradually as children mature. In fact I am sure I have read of a school with a similar approach that was planning to do just that.

      • David Didau says:

        I know KSA loosen up some of their rules as children get older and become more responsible.

      • D says:

        Maybe, but in my observation it’s primary children who often have the most freedom in terms of managing their own learning…then we died troys that in year 7-11 and expect it to magically appear in year 12-13. So if we can build freedoms/responsibility up from year 7 we might be in with a fighting chance?

  8. Thanks for this insight. It’s certainly an interesting and courageous approach and I have a degree of sympathy with many of the (quite radical) policies.
    However this is the bit that would worry me, if I were on the governing body:
    “… who are fully expecting a negative verdict next year”
    Maybe I’m missing something, but if this is the case and Ofsted gives the school a poor rating, won’t they force the replacement of the school leadership and GB? Or is the school insulated from this somehow?
    Whatever their level of personal conviction and vision, don’t leaders also need to take account of issues of Realpolitik, not least to protect their people? I often say, just because you’re right, doesn’t make it right.
    But, maybe this is in hand, and I’m reading too much into a single line…
    All best wishes.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks for you comment David

      “Just because you’re right, doesn’t make it right” Man! I’ve managed to arrange my life to avoid this kind of compromise. And as far as a school is able, I think Michaela has taken the same approach. Of course they want Ofsted to ‘get it’ but should they do a bit of group work just to keep the clipboards happy?

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Let’s face it, Ofsted thrives on a bullying culture. I’ll never forget the inspector who bragged to me that “teachers are afraid of us!” as though this were something to be proud of. However, bullies are also cowards. Birbalsingh would demolish them it they tried to change her governing body. I’ve met her, and she is truly formidable and fearless. She has already proved that she has the political nous to make things happen and access to the media. She could create so many problems for Ofsted that they wouldn’t dare. She might even be hoping that they will try. The message that you can have perfectly behaved pupils making good academic progress without having to work obscenely illegal hours would resonate with every teacher in England–that is, every teacher who actually teaches. Michaela would be crawling with TV cameras, and Ofsted would experience an existential crisis. I’d put my money on Katherine!

  9. I know Katherine visited leading private schools before setting up Michaela; avoiding OFSTED proscription is something these schools have the freedom to do as ISI is more open-minded. I think there is a lesson in this.

    • Amanda Triccas says:

      Late to the party here: I wonder what Katherine picked up from independent schools which shaped what she implemented here, or which influenced Michaela. Little of it sounds like what happens at any of those in which I’ve worked.

  10. @maryUYSEG says:

    Thank you for this, David. Like others, I wonder what will happen as it grows. And I do want to know what is learned beyond The Knowledge.

  11. […] was a bit taken aback at the vociferous at which some people condemned Michaela School’s approach to behaviour. The argument seemed to go that if you refuse to accept poor behaviour then you simply pass on the […]

  12. Wish I could see this school. It sounds great, and it would be good to have primary feeders that follow the same ethos (which I would absolutely love to work in!).

  13. […] with the tech at your workplace. What happens if you combine this phenomenon with reading an excellent post by Megaphone Man, D.Didau? Well, you start thinking about whether a simplified, traditional and […]

  14. julietgreen says:

    I admire any school and its leaders where they’ve considered what they want and why and are prepared to see it through. I’m fairly sick of reading identifit aims and ethos(es?) on school websites. I’m also sick of knee jerk reactions to how things need to appear, regardless of whether there is any point or not.

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  16. […] incident from my visit to Michaela School stands out in my mind. During lunch, a student came up to Joe Kirby in the playground to say that […]

  17. […] all the observations I made about Michaela School, one which proved particularly controversial was their decision not put display children’s […]

  18. […] then having a really good think about why I’m resistant. As a case in point, when I visited Michaela School there were a number of aspects of their work which surprised me. Instinctively it ‘felt […]

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  21. Not given says:

    You only need to go 100 metres down the road to see a school doing most of the good things you’ve highlighted here but that also think that students benefit from group work, seeing their work displayed and marking done at Ark Academy. We do exactly the same thing with mobile phones, we have an academic approach to learning as well. The vast majority of these positives from Michaela are the exact same philosophy, on the exact same street!! It will be interesting to see how this pans out when they have year 9, 10 and 11 kids too… Trust us – we’ve done it and gets harder and harder!

  22. […] all the observations I made about Michaela School, one which proved particularly controversial was their decision not put display children’s work. […]

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  24. […] has received a lot of coverage in the blogosphere, some admiring and some more critical. So it was a real privilege to go to Michaela in person and see what […]

  25. […] There is understandably a fair bit of controversy about free schools, the way they are funded and to what extent they are succeeding or failing. However, I have been much impressed about what I have read and heard about the Michaela Free School. In his post David Didau writes about his experience of visiting the school – see here. […]

  26. […] faith hope and love, seen in action, could convince every parent, but it seems like from Didau’s account the school already concedes that they currently can’t. I’d love to hear more on […]

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