I begin the second leg of this long book (the first leg is here) with the chapter on Kindness by Brett Williams-Yale who describes the joy in the eyes of the children at Michaela with a kind of progressive abandon.
The children, he says are happy, helpful, considerate of each other. They feel safe. It sounds lovely. In fact it sounds a lot like many of the primary schools I visit. There is a culture of mutual kindness and respect and no-one in their right mind would argue with that. What Michaela does in addition, however, is elicit explicit statements of gratitude as part of the school routine. Children are regularly asked to write postcards of appreciation to their teachers. Some are lovely. Some sound slightly more forced. While I think it’s wonderful when children show appreciation, when gratitude is forced, it becomes platitude and I wonder the extent to which these children, as they grow, will begin to feel that they are going through the motions of pleasing their teachers rather than genuinely feeling appreciation.
What is becoming clear, however is the advantage of having a small school setting. As I understand it, there are currently around 340 children on roll. That’s the size of a medium primary school – in fact the local primary school has almost 900 on roll. How unusual it is for a child to transition to a secondary that is significantly smaller than their primary – to be in a school where it is possible that everyone will know their name. Such an environment can only be good for children – it makes them feel safe and secure. I suspect that much of the contentment of these children rests in the size of the school. This is something that is made even more evident in the description of Family Lunch. I was sceptical of this when I first read of it on twitter. “Blimey,” I thought “they even get told what to talk about at lunch time!” But reading Michael Taylor’s description, it sounds delightful. Children serve each other. Everything is calm and orderly. They sit in new groups each day so that they all know each other and don’t fall into cliques. This is one of the reasons I used to mess up my seating plans so often – so that children would know everyone in their class well enough to feel secure. But to do this on a whole school level is great. The topics chosen stretch children’s knowledge – it sounds like a lovely way to spend lunch and in this size of school, perfectly manageable. But there is no mention in this chapter of the children whose parents haven’t paid, who are forced to eat in isolation.
So far, despite a few misgivings, I’m feeling pretty upbeat. Then I hit the chapter Labels Damage Children by Katie Ashford who is Director of Inclusion at Michaela. “We must,” she says, “stop to ask whether it is reasonable that a fifth of the children in this country are afflicted with an issue so profound that it prevents them from learning as easily as their peers.” Reasonable? Reasonable to whom? It’s such an odd choice of word. I try it out in my imagination. “But, Mrs X, I think it is unreasonable that your child has a statement of Special Educational Need.” It’s also mathematically odd. Of course there are going to be children who learn less easily than their peers. Is it the statistic or the labelling of conditions that is “unreasonable”?
While she concedes that some children may have a genuine need, she suggests that other statemented children are “less motivated than they ought to be” and that in our desperation to excuse them, we reach for labels such as dyslexia and ADHD. I’m not sure that this teacher understands the complexity of the process of getting a child diagnosed. I’d like to know if, as the designated SENCO for the school, she has completed the national statutory training required of all schools. I’d like some clarity on how the school provides for children who fall outside of the category described in section 6:23 of the Code of Practice – i.e those with low prior attainment who seem to be the only ones mentioned in this chapter, or indeed the whole book. And while I think there are valid questions that ought to be considered about the accuracy of some diagnoses, there is an assumption made throughout this chapter that a misdiagnosis is the norm not the exception.
She assumes that a diagnosis will “hang like a millstone around a child’s neck for the rest of their lives.” She seems to miss the point that the diagnosis exists in order to ensure the child gets a chance to succeed. Let’s take one student I knew who was told in primary school that she was “behind”. She was as bright as a button, but read slowly – she had wonderful vocabulary and loved books, but she explained that the letters leapt up from the page in a jumble. She found it difficult to order information sequentially, yet had fantastic understanding. She was diagnosed with dyslexia in Year 9. She went on to Cambridge and has recently completed a PhD. Her diagnosis gave her the help she needed. It gave her the realisation that she wasn’t just a bad reader, but had a condition that she could learn to manage. It gave her extra time in exams. It gave her the chance of equity. That label was not a millstone, it was a form of liberation and there are thousands like her. To read such dismissive comments about SEND from a Director of Inclusion – well, it challenged my commitment to be fair and balanced. But I’ll try…
The misconceptions that abound in this chapter make two assumptions – that having an SEN label equates to academic weakness. It doesn’t take into account conditions such as cerebral palsy for example – I’ve taught some highly academic students with this condition. Their needs were physical not cognitive and it was my duty to make sure that they were able to achieve their potential. Not all statemented children are “weak” as Ms. Ashford describes them. The second assumption is that where a statement is in place, it gives teachers an excuse to give up on a child. It does not. The SEND guidance is clear – we all have a duty to adapt our practice to ensure that all of these children can achieve. It seems to be Michaela’s view that it is the duty of the child to adapt their condition to meet the routines of the school :-
“Quite simply, the weakest pupils need more rigour, more focus and more practice.”
Again the conflation of SEN with weakness. Not only that, they are characterised as being disruptive :-
“When the disengaged reign supreme in the classroom, chaos ensues.”
There is a huge assumption that special educational needs are automatically associated with weakness and chaos. I’ve taught so many who are compliant, hard working and quiet. Where does this view come from and why would it be considered acceptable from someone in charge of inclusion? I’m stumped to find an objective, balanced response. I dig…
The tone of the chapter is evangelical. We insist. We make it our mission. No transgression is allowed:-
“The occasional daydream drift-away moment may seem innocuous, but these seconds gradually amount to minutes and hours of learning time lost…”
It sounds perfectly reasonable, but talk to anyone who has ADHD and they’ll tell you the difficulty they have in maintaining attention. It is a battle. We know from research that these children can find it easier to focus if they can stand or fidget with something, but neither are allowed at Michaela. Are there no children with ADHD at Michaela? I wonder. I wonder what happens when a prospective parent who has battled for years to get a diagnosis of ASD or Dyslexia or ADHD for their child sits and listens to this kind of talk at an open evening. I expect they walk away thinking “my child couldn’t cope here – we’ll have to go elsewhere.” I wonder how many SEND children are excluded in this way before they even get an application form for secondary school. I wonder if the only children who go through the door are those who think the routine will help them? I wonder. Where do the others go?
What Michaela does seem to do well is put in intervention for those children who are presenting with general language and reading difficulties. They have a rigorous reading programme which is shown to have helped many of their “weaker” pupils to learn to read. It would be wrong to put the blame on the shoulders of primary schools, however as has been the tendency in the past. For example, we know that 7 in 10 children will suffer an episode of glue ear before they are 10 years old. Many of them will have a prolonged episode that remains undiagnosed. Glue ear usually clears up without the need for medical intervention – in fact, many parents and children may not be aware that they had hearing difficulties at a critical time of their reading development. It’s perfectly possible that children presenting with reading difficulty aged 11 do need exactly the kind of reading intervention programme that Michaela provides without the need for any kind of label at all. That’s not to say that “dyslexia does not exist” but that, as Elliott et al pointed out in their research, that it may be misdiagnosed. In such ways it may seem to Katie Ashcroft that she is disproving the condition. She is not. She is meeting the needs of a different condition. All power to her for doing that. There, I found some balance.
It doesn’t, however, excuse her assumption that other settings “reduce the bar to their level” when in fact many achieve incredible things with very disadvantaged children. Staff from Michaela would do well to visit special schools run by heads like Jarlath O’Brien, Dave Whitaker or Simon Knight to see what lifting children up looks like. While I don’t doubt that Michaela has had some success with struggling children whose parents could see that this might be the right environment for their child, they would do well to see what others do with the children who wouldn’t or couldn’t go there.
Competition is Crucial by Dani Quinn is next. My heart sinks as she cheerfully tells us about the importance of competition to South East Asian students without once mentioning their high suicide rates. In Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, governments have recently started initiatives to tackle the ill effects of the fiercely competitive education systems she admires. They are worried about the impact on the mental health of their young people.
She goes on to outline the importance of competition and how she perceives it to have been eroded by progressive education and western fads such as worrying about self esteem. Instead, Michaela publicly rank children in Maths and other subjects. They share children’s test results with the whole class and performance is discussed with the whole class with successes merited and failures de-merited for their weakness. Somehow this all fits in with the school motto “work hard, be kind.” I’m going to need to see this in action, because it doesn’t sound very kind. Such conversations are scripted for us:-
“I’m really disappointed with Corey’s result this week. We all know that Corey is able to do well and in lessons this week I had no worries about him as his answers were of good quality and he got through the practice well. Maybe it made you complacent? Did you practice over the weekend, before the quiz? (embarrassed look) That explains it!…I wouldn’t say this if I thought you couldn’t do well at Maths. I’m saying it because I believe you can do better and you need to know the truth.”
What if Corey was ill?
What if Corey’s grandparent died?
What if Corey’s mother had taken an overdose this weekend?
I have no doubt that these words would be delivered as kindly and gently as possible. But at what point was Corey given a chance to explain? Why would his embarrassed look be enough to assume you know what he’s thinking? I’m bewildered by “you need to know the truth” when the teacher seems to have made no effort to discover the truth. No excuses, I know. Maybe Corey didn’t practice hard enough. But what if? And why does this need to be done publicly with the child being discussed in the third person at the start?
This approach is justified by stating that there is a social benefit to publicly sharing these kinds of comparisons – that “children (can) see how actions and choices lead to consequences.” Yet it seems to fly in the face of all the research we have from Dweck about the impact of grades and ranking on the mindsets of children. In fact I can’t see any evidence at all supporting the position. Not one iota. Dani goes on to further justify the approach that life is tough so children need to get used to it. But that rings hollow to me – many of these children, watching their parents struggle to make ends meet, already know that life is tough. Do they need further reminders? I wonder if Corey feels any resentment as he writes his gratitude postcard to his teacher at the end of the week.
There is an attempt to show how feedback can be given kindly and proactively so that children don’t become dispirited if they seem to plateau or to be given a boost if they are complacent but excelling. And they are good examples. I still don’t see why they have to be publicly narrated to the whole class.
The Devil is in the Detail by Sarah Cullen offers a more positive view of life at Michaela and the impact that “rowing together” with a shared sense of purpose has in the school. Again, I am reminded how much easier this is in a small school – I see it much more frequently in primary schools with shared values where staff spend a lot of time together than in large secondaries with over 100 staff spread in workrooms across a school. That doesn’t mean that larger secondaries can’t learn something, however, from the idea of a shared purpose and consistency in its application. It is, I think, important to “sweat the small stuff” and too often we let things go under the weight of workload. It’s right to be reminded that small details matter. But some of these details seem odd. It turns out that Michaela children are taught that it is important to know which side of a chair to walk around when they stand up. I had no idea there was a right side of a chair. I’m overloaded with anxiety now that I’ve been on the wrong side of the chair all my life and that this is perhaps why I’m not now Prime Minister.
No Nonsense; No Burnout by Jess Lund returns to the issue of teacher workload. It’s one of the areas I hear people say they are most interested in learning about. How do they keep their workload down? We’ve already heard from Jo Facer on the matter of marking. Jess turns her attention to tackling burnout. No-one will argue with the case made to get rid of performance related pay or high stakes observations. But the chapter focuses more on planning and pedagogy as a means to cutting down on workload. The enemies of workload are set out as “games, technology, displays and lesson plans, none of which we do at Michaela.”
Jess takes on the idea that activities designed to engage children are poor proxies for learning. There is a semantic issue here. A brain needs to be engaged to learn just as gears need to be engaged in order for a car to move forward. Too often engagement is confused with entertainment, and I have some sympathy here. An activity that is fun and passes time is just busy work unless there’s a clearly thought through learning purpose that is made explicit to the children. To me, of course, Times Table Rock Stars is an engaging game. To the teachers at Michaela, it’s drill. Semantics. What she argues quite well is that the focus should not be on activity, it should be on learning. Engaging with the beauty of the language they are learning should be the aim. I agree. Engaging with content – being excited and motivated by it matters. We may disagree on the how, but the purpose we have in common.
She reminds us that at Michaela, there are no iPads, tablets or computer room lessons. I have some sympathy with her assertion that teachers lack the knowledge to effectively use ICT to aid learning. But it’s odd for a school that places so much emphasis on teacher subject knowledge to have a laissez faire approach to, well, teacher subject knowledge in this respect. Still, I can see that you can teach a corking lesson without technology. Equally, however, many teachers use technology in wonderful ways that greatly enhance learning. Personally I think it’s horses for courses. There is a further contradiction from a school that has so vehemently criticised Ofsted for telling people how to teach, to then dictate how teachers should teach. Similarly I’m confused by the tension between arguing that children need to experience intense competition to prepare them for the ‘real world’ while ignoring the role that technology plays in the real world of work. I’m increasingly hit by the paradoxical positions in so many of these chapters.
She is quickly dismissive of displays. If the learning is in the children’s heads, why does it need to be on the walls? Good point. But what if the displays are about valuing and sharing the children’s work and achievements? I’m reminded of the beautiful displays in School21 showing crafted pieces of excellence alongside the drafts that remind everyone of the process of creating something worth displaying. I don’t believe that’s a waste of anyone’s time. I do, however, find myself nodding in agreement at the time wasted in writing detailed lesson plans and triple marking. There we stand united. Then there’s the no parents’ evenings, no lesson objectives being written up, no long reports home to parents – all things we find time consuming in school. How lovely it would be? But how do they communicate with parents? We find out later…
Barry Smith writes two chapters. In the first, Education, Education, Education, he writes about all the things that have driven so many of us mad – WALTS and WILFS and empty busy work. He speaks of how he found salvation in Direct Instruction, though the people I speak to about his teaching talk about his passion, his powerful and engaging delivery, his strong relationships with children, his love of language – so infectious you feel you have to speak it. I think he underestimates these things in what he calls his rant. But he makes one of the most important points in the book – the need for a teacher to be their authentic self and not to perform to an expectation of who they should be. It’s something that drove many brilliant but maverick teachers out of the profession at the height of the Ofsted lesson observation frenzy. I saw it myself and hated it. And it’s good that he feels he has found his home. It’s also, of course, important to note, that other authentic models of teaching might also be effective.
His second chapter, Top of the Pyramid, stopped me in my tracks. It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever read. Here’s a section from the start:-
“Kids and parents are told that every Michaela pupil must be in bed and asleep by 9pm. They’re told that they should be up at 6am. They’re told that they need a fresh, clean white shirt every day, clean pants, clean socks, they’ve got to wash their ‘bits and pits’ and brush their teeth. A healthy breakfast too, before they leave the house.”
I’m reminded of Chris Kilkenny’s story. He had one set of uniform. He lived in and out of rehab with his Mum. When they were in their flat there was no hot water. No washing powder. No washing machine. On Sunday nights, he’d scrub his graying shirt in cold water in a vain attempt to clean it. It would be cold and damp in the morning. He envied children with clean uniforms, with a change of clothes, with hot water. Chris wouldn’t have made it to Michaela. Many children won’t make it to Michaela.
In their detailed and probing longitudinal EPPE study, published in 2014, Taggart et al stress the importance of family support in securing successful outcomes for children. Rich or poor, they say, a supportive family background makes a critical difference to children’s success. In its contract, Michaela demands 100% support and 100% competence from parents. Only children whose parents are prepared to do this can go. In one sweep, the school selects the ones most likely to succeed. No exceptions are allowed.
Barry’s chapter continues. At 7.30am, each morning, he stands on a bench and delivers a sermon to the children, but really to the passers by who gather to watch.
“We’re Top of the Pyramid. Top of the Pyramid people – there aren’t many of us. We’re special. We make the right choices. Even when it’s difficult…We’re not normal. You know what normal kids do? They shout in the street. They push and shove at the bus stop. They never say thank you to shop keepers. They never give up their seats for elderly people. They don’t know how to shake hands properly. They don’t make eye contact or smile when they speak. I don’t want you to be just normal… ”
Now on the one hand, all the values he speaks of are good things to have. No-one would say “Pah – what an oppressive school, getting children to help old ladies with their shopping bags.” But there’s something that I find really uncomfortable here and it’s the mantra that “We are better than everyone else. We are special. We are not normal. We are Michaela.” These children have to leave Michaela and enter ‘normal’ world. And they’ll see that actually, in normal world there is kindness everywhere. It is not a quality owned by one little school in London. Pride in your school is great. Having strong values is great. But to claim that you are the only ones to have them? That’s arrogance.
Barry tells us how, in front of passers by, he’ll raise his hand and the children fall silent. “Where else would you find that?” he challenges. Well, Mr Smith, in drama studios up and down the country for a start. And when I teach between 100 and 200 pupils at a time in various schools around the world, it is the norm that when I raise my hand, they fall silent. And I remember being drawn to Kingstone School in Barnsley, where I first met teachers like Hywel Roberts, Jane Hewitt and Dave Whitaker, during a visit when the fire alarm went off. In absolute silence, 1300 pupils streamed out of their classrooms and up to the upper playground. They stood in silence for almost ten minutes while the building was checked and then, after a whistle was blown, they filed back in silence.
“Wow.” I said to the head “I have never seen anything like it.”
“It’s what we expect” he said.
So there are other schools who can have this kind of mutual respect and order without the need for no excuses policies. But they don’t feel the need to “perform” this to passers by. They don’t need to shout it. I’m touched by the accounts given of people stopping Barry to tell him how impressed they are. But underneath it all there’s this little unease. Who is it for? It reminds me of parents whose high regard for their children depends on how their behaviour and choices reflect back on them. Conditional positive regard.
Most of the rest of the book takes the form of vignettes and short chapters dwelling on specific subjects. Jake Plastow-Chason takes on Rethinking Initial Teacher Training. Jake is scathing about his Teach First experience in a school in Manchester – an experience that led him to resign. His experience sounds horrific, yet it is odd that having been through a school based route with such devastating consequences, he focuses his ire on university based routes with, it would seem, no direct experience of them. He argues for the MTT model – Michaela Teacher Training model stating that “at Michaela we’re radically different because we believe there is -and ought to be – one particular, optimal pedagogy.” Again, I’m struck by the tension between “don’t tell us what to do” and “there is only one way to do it” a refrain I find throughout the book. You’re wrong, we’re right. There doesn’t seem to be room for nuance in the rhetoric, yet there is nuance, as I found in several chapters, in the application. Not so in this chapter. This is a road to Damascus transformation from what is termed as NTT (Normal Teacher Training) to MTT. Gone are experiments and experiences. In is didactic teaching. Gone is differentiation. In is teaching the same to all at the same pace. And so on. It strikes me, not for the first time, that most of the teachers at Michaela are scathing about ITT and yet most of them came through the Teach First route and are ambassadors for Teach First. It leaves me confused. 70% TF 30% unqualified teachers, all united in their contempt for teachers training routes that they never experienced.
Sarah Clear explores coming into Michaela as an unqualified teacher in her chapter “Teaching Without QTS”. She points out that 30% of Michaela’s staff are unqualified. She is able to be a good teacher, she says “because I have been spared the doctrine of progressive constructivist education that is so prevalent in teacher training in England…” From this vantage point of having heard about the state of ITT from people like Robert Peal (also Teach First), she launches an extraordinary attack on university based teacher training routes. I wonder if she understands the difference between progressivism and social constructivism and the alignment between the latter and some aspects of the kind of cognitive science that Michaela promotes. For example, the connection between Vygostky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the state of “thinking hard” that Willingham describes as necessary to learning. Or the opposition that Vygotsky put up to Piaget meaning they can’t be lumped together in one progressive lump. Or the importance that Vygotsky placed on the “expert other” – the teacher. I wonder if some teacher training might have helped make those distinctions clearer. Again, I’m struck by the irony of seeing people who so vehemently argue for knowledge in the battle against ignorance, to be so content in speaking of things about which they know so little.
Changing My Mind by Lia Martin charts her move into teaching from advertising and how she overcome her initial concerns about some of the Michaela structures to become a convert to their way of working. She charmingly describes how hard the teachers work to build pride in the school – a sense that the children are special so that they believe that they can achieve. She describes her discomfort in punishing little Ahmed for not handing in homework because he was visiting his mother in hospital, but how, having read Robert Peal, she sees that this is better for Ahmed in the long run. Lia’s kindness and good intentions run like a thread through the chapter. I vehemently disagree with her about Ahmed. These are not high expectations in my mind – they are well intended acts of cruelty. But I have to accept, that like many of the teachers in this book, she is acting with the very best of intentions. Her story is echoed in those of parent and teacher Chase Musarurwa, of teacher William Easement and of teaching fellow Fadila Bettahar who speak enthusiastically of their experiences as teachers at Michaela. It it clear that they are very happy indeed.
Jo Facer’s chapter on CPD at Michaela is a refreshing shift towards a consideration of practical possibilities that other schools might learn from. Every teacher at Michaela gets to watch others teach. They plan together – time is set aside to discuss what will be covered and how. They have meetings to talk about their values and purpose. What a great way to collaborate. There are no lesson observations – instead people wander in and out of each other’s lessons and ping an email with a comment afterwards – instant, formative, actionable feedback. So much more effective, so much more supportive. There’s also a lovely attention paid to heightening language and ensuring that subject knowledge is shared so that standards are equally high across groups. No-one can argue with the importance of this. While I question the Michaela method for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, there is a great deal to be learned here about focusing CPD time on what will aid learning best.
In her chapter When Parents Push Back Katharine Birbalsingh answers some of the questions I’ve had pecking in my head throughout. She makes it clear that parents are told from the outset that the school demands “100% competency.” I’ve already explained how that ensures that the school selects the children with the best chance of success – those with supportive parents willing to back the school up. It’s great for them. But the others have to go somewhere else. Her account of Korey’s mother’s desperation to find a school that could control her son who she felt was going off the tracks, is compelling. We all know of parents at the end of their tether, fearing for a child who may be about to get involved with drugs or crime or gangs. For them, Michaela can offer a short, sharp solution and I don’t deny them the right to try it. I’d never deny the school the right to exist and to do things their way. I just wish they’d stop trying to deny others the same right. And much of what she says makes sense. Remember the middle class school I described in Part 1 – the one where behaviour was bad because the parents had scant regard for the teachers? Much of that arose from parents doing what Katharine describes as undermining the school. Support, she says “means never criticising the school in front of one’s child.” I can’t argue with that.
Even so, the demands are high. Clean shirts every day. Strict bed times. How many parents can adhere to that? I’m not sure I could. I’m pretty sure my child’s shirt had egg on it this morning as I arranged his tie to cover it up. And he’s often singing away to himself in Japanese at 10pm. Short of a sleeping pill, I don’t know what I can do to make sure he’s asleep at 9. I definitely couldn’t sign the agreement. There’s also an awful lot of guilt here. If homework is not completed, for example, the parent is called into school:-
“I tell parents right from the start that they are not being a very good mother or father and that things will have to change.”
I wonder if little Ahmed’s mother is hauled in from her hospital bed.
All of this is justified by claiming it is the truth. But truth is slippery. Are you being a bad parent if you work three jobs, came home with a migraine and didn’t check your child’s homework? Are you being a bad parent if you don’t have the money to put in the meter to use the washing machine? Are you being a bad parent if just once in a while you forget to do something? Is it fair to be told by someone who has none of your financial or social worries that you are a bad parent? I really don’t think it is.
She goes on to list instances where parents have chosen to take their children elsewhere. – she is dismissive of their reasons. All the parents who chose to leave are painted as fools who are condemning their child to a hopeless future. The tone is wearing. It is simply not possible in her eyes, to consider that Michaela just might not be right for some families. For those who like it and stay, it clearly works. For others, it may not. That does not make them bad parents.
And we near the end of the book. Katie Ashford and Jo Facer reflect on the journey so far and the future of Michaela. There are lovely accounts of children thriving. There are positive quotes from children, parents and visitors. It is clear that they love the school and are proud of its achievements. And at the end of the day, this school will achieve great results. However, all this is said with caveats. I believe that the school strongly selects “the deserving poor” and tips the chances of success in their favour by ensuring that only children with strong parental support attend, and I would hope that any accountability structure took this form of selection in mind when comparing Michaela with the local schools who take the children who are neglected, whose parents don’t care. I worry that the school is neglecting its statutory duties for SEND children. I worry that the children are not learning about autonomy, they are not being given chances to create, to connect, to apply in the ways that would be demanded of them in higher study or the work place. But what I cannot deny is the passion, the commitment and the belief of the staff in their school their mission and their children. It has a place. Other schools and other approaches also have their place.