The Obligatory Michaela Post

January 18, 2017

I visited Michaela Community School today.

Traditionally, posts about visits to the school tend to say:

  1. It was like no other school;
  2. The behaviour is the best ever;
  3. There are routines for everything;
  4. The levels of achievement are unprecedented;
  5. The pedagogy was new and exciting.

In a way it didn’t really live up to that for me. And I don’t mean that as a criticism, I just think the great things about the school are not so exotic or different. I think that much of what they do can be seen in schools up and down the country; I just think that few of those schools are state comprehensives.

I worked for a couple of terms at a selective, independent school and also a term in a girls grammar school. The behaviour  at those schools was just as good and the achievement probably better (although given I’m talking about highly selective schools it is impressive that I have to say “probably”). The description of Michaela as a “state school with a private school ethos” is probably the most accurate (not that there aren’t private schools out there with a terrible ethos). The real tragedy is not that there are no children out there already experiencing a Michaela-style education, but that you normally have to have parents able to pay school fees or for a private tutor to get that sort of education. While I can understand that many teachers have never seen anything like this, what makes it exceptional is simply that education with such high expectations can be found in a state comprehensive in Brent.

I think my view of the pedagogy was somewhat shaped by my subject. The language lessons and RE lessons I saw did seem unlike anything I had seen elsewhere, because of their intense, interactive, didactic style. The maths lessons didn’t seem so unfamiliar. I think good maths teaching looks pretty much the same everywhere: explanation and practice. Where the maths lessons stood out was in the quality of the resources and the behaviour of the students. Similarly the routines that I had heard so much about were, at least in lessons, not that different to what I have seen elsewhere; what was different was the willingness with which students complied with them.

And so I guess it all comes down to behaviour and motivation. This school appears to have shown that it is possible to create a culture in a state comprehensive that is similar to the best of the private sector. Everything else seems to flow from that. It is not obvious from walking round how they have created that culture, although their book gives a lot of indicators. What is going to be interesting is how much of a boost to results that culture actually creates. It feels like they are on course for breaking records, but who can tell at this point?

So if Michaela is exceptional because of who the education is provided for, rather than the education itself, what does that mean?

Well, firstly, we can dismiss the abuse the school has received from those who see their high expectations as cruel. They are simply what parents pay thousands for elsewhere. If Michaela is cruel then so are dozens of the most successful schools in the country, and thousands of schools across the globe. So is any institution supporting sustained and successful learning.

Secondly, we need to accept that Michaela should not be that difficult to replicate. Almost every city already has schools like this, they just aren’t open to everybody. It should be an aim to create a state comprehensive with this sort of ethos in every local authority.

Thirdly, we need to stop accepting that working class kids cannot behave. It really isn’t true. They just need help and support. We need to acknowledge how many schools routinely excuse the unacceptable.

Finally, I hope I am not downplaying what has been achieved. What is truly exceptional about Michaela is the vision and strength of purpose of the staff. Almost any other school would have long since settled for the “good enough” standard. Their achievement is not that they have done the impossible; it is that they have done what teachers have been told was impossible and that’s pretty impressive in itself. However, it is time to challenge low expectations everywhere. I see no reason there couldn’t be a thousand Michaela Schools.


  1. Really interesting. Thanks. I bought a copy of ‘Tigers’ on the strength of your review. I think that I am likely to agree with much of what you say.

  2. […] The obligatory Michaela post by Old Andrew […]

  3. Michaela is achieving what it achieves because the staff and students are self-selecting. Replicating the school will be difficult unless the staff, students and local conditions can also be replicated. I’ve discussed this in more detail here https://logicalincrementalism.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/the-tiger-teachers-model-of-knowledge-whats-missing/

    • I got a few paragraphs into this and it seemed to be your usual claim that other people don’t know as much about psychology as you do. This claim always seems ridiculous when your own ideas about psychology are so eccentric and not widely shared among psychologists. No doubt the teachers at Michaela haven’t expressed every last nuance of the cognitive science, but at least they’d accept that “dog” is a word.

  4. Andrew I am a bit confused about your critique of logicalincrementalisim. His article doesn’t seem to be really focused on a psychology and he seem to want you to look at the issue of scalability of the Michela concept (about 2/3 into the article).

    I should note that having had a quick look at his other blog entries I can see examples of what your saying but they are different arguments to the one he referenced.

    I should note that I do see the scalability issue as obvious but legitimate and that I find Incrementalist’s style interesting.

    He seems to combine clearly presented points at the paragraph level with muddled arguments that don’t seem very relevant or at the least unnecessary. It seems to need a strong editor or redraft to keep it focused.

    An example is the critique that Michela staff don’t understand there own arguments very well line of reasoning-which is totally predictable. Most people in an organisation have a poor understanding of why they do something. (Forgot the name of the fallacy where you argue with a weak opponent and proclaim yourself a victor- its not a strawman).

    The Rousseau is misunderstood largument also confuses me. I accept the conclusion but can’t see why it really matters.

    (Apologies to logicalincrementalisim-I think I should have shifted to directing my comments directly to you but could figure out how to do that midpost)

    • I will confess I never got to the point of finding whatever paragraph contained the relevant point. I have spent hours of my life reading the endless paragraphs on that blog that use hundreds of words to say little more than “I understand psychology better than these people, although I can’t say what they’ve got wrong” and nowadays I stop reading when confronted with it.

      • I can see why. May be better to simply ignore if you don’t want to try and have a crack at translating.

  5. To me, descriptions of Michaela have always sounded remarkably like descriptions of Mossbourne or Dixons Trinity or King Solomons Academy:




    The biggest difference is that Michaela is talked about more.

  6. “I just think that few of those schools are state comprehensives.”
    I am in the process of looking at returning to teaching at pre HE/FE level and have been trying out a few places. From my statistics I am not sure that the word “few” applies. For example:
    “St Machar Academy” (an inner city comp in Aberdeen) I volunteer at a lunchtime STEM club is student led project scenario. The behaviour is impeccable, the students are keen to learn and progress is made.
    “Hazlehead Academy” (in a suburb). I have invigilated for a couple of years and the discipline has again been exemplary. No one has disrupted others in exams be it from within or the continuing instruction further down the school.
    Last year I travelled south of the border and saw 3 different schools in middle England all with different cultures. One in a converted FE college appealed to me as the Grammar was too quiet ….

    “Thirdly, we need to stop accepting that working class kids cannot behave. It really isn’t true.”

  7. Do you think that because Michaela is outside the bubble of ‘private’ schools it opens it up to criticism more? I’m really interested in the dynamics of this kind of school and if it really WOULD be possible to replicate it across the country.

    • I think a lot of schools with strict discipline and a traditional teaching style hide it, as do teachers. A lot of the people attacking Michaela do suggest that by being open about what they are doing, then they have brought it on themselves. That said, there have been periods where they have gone very quiet, and there has still been lots of attacks, so who knows. I’m not sure mobs follow any logical principles.

  8. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  9. […] The Obligatory Michaela Post […]

  10. […] The Obligatory Michaela Post […]

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