I visited Michaela Community School today.
Traditionally, posts about visits to the school tend to say:
- It was like no other school;
- The behaviour is the best ever;
- There are routines for everything;
- The levels of achievement are unprecedented;
- 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.