Ten Cures for the Teacher Shortage

Dear Government,

Here are ten cures for the teacher shortage.

  1. Stop talking teachers and schools down. Every time you (falsely) mention how poorly we compare to our international competitors or how we need to raise standards in our schools, you put people off. Few want to play for a losing side.
  2. If you’re going to offer financial incentives to, say Maths, Science graduates, then why not tie them into teaching for a few years? At the moment, it’s a no brainer to train for a year and receive a £30,000 grant. Especially if you don’t even have to teach afterwards.
  3. Develop good career pathways for teachers who don’t want to move into management but who still want their excellence and expertise to be recognised. Value and reward experience.
  4. Increase funding to schools so they can afford to employ good teachers.
  5. Broaden out the EBacc to cover more subjects – e.g. more humanities subjects like RE or Philosophy and the arts. This will reduce the burden on finding History/Geog teachers and is a healthier spread of subjects for young people.
  6. Make salaries more attractive to graduates. People used to not mind being paid less as a teacher when they could still afford to buy a home. The housing market is making teaching less attractive to graduates who can’t afford high rents or mortgages.
  7. Reduce workload by incorporating marking and planning time into directed hours. I don’t mean an hour a week. I mean proper time that reflects the reality of the job. Yes, it’s going to cost you.
  8. Reduce workload by ensuring that teachers don’t have to spend hours preparing for Ofsted inspections. Reform Ofsted so that it plays a role in supporting and transforming schools rather than judging them and walking away. Remove grading and bring in formative support.
  9. Stop calling teachers cheats when they try to find the best possible ways of securing their own and their students’ survival. If you create a hostile environment, don’t be surprised when people fight to survive in it.
  10. Expand university training provision and remove tuition fees from those routes. They offer some of the best value for money and best retention rates for ITT. Stop on the one hand, promoting the value of an academic education and on the other, attacking university academics as “blobs”.

None of this is cheap. But then, I’m yet to hear an education secretary stand up and say they want a Poundland Education System. All I hear is World Class. That costs. Cough up.

A broken system. Progress 8, GCSEs and SATs.

A couple of weeks ago I spent 3 hours with the infinitely patient Lucy Rimmington from Ofqual, trying to get under the skin of Progress 8, the new GCSEs and what it all means for teachers, children and parents. Thanks to her and to several teachers who helped me with questions and queries along that way, I’ve written this blog to try to explain to parents and teachers some of the central issues in our exam system. I should be clear that Lucy was simply explaining processes and language to me and that any opinions or conclusions drawn are mine alone.

My first question centred around what I referred to as “norm referencing” and what is more correctly termed “comparative outcomes.” Is it true, I asked, that the proportion of pupils passing GCSEs is set in advance, regardless of criteria or achievement? The answer is yes, well sort of. Exam boards can appeal the boundaries for individual subjects if they feel that the cohort was unusually able, but this is very rare and difficult to prove.  So, in reality, it’s a yes. Already, it has been decided that this year, around 2/3rd of pupils will achieve a grade 4 or a C or above. In fact the proportions of 1s, 4s and 7s have been agreed in advance, regardless of what children do on the day. It means that although the government say that they have made exams harder and more rigorous, it hardly matters because the number of children passing will remain the same. So much for “raising standards.” It’s a clever PR ploy. Journalists and parents can look at the paper, say “ooh that’s hard,” look at the pass rate and assume that things are getting better. In reality, it simply means that children don’t have to score as highly to get the same grade. One might shrug if it weren’t for the pressure that the harder content puts on teachers and pupils and the extra worry it creates.

It seems mad, if you assume that having criteria means that children who reach it are rewarded with a corresponding grade, to find out that we have a system in which no-one can really improve – at least they can, but it must always be at the expense of someone else. But on the other hand, fixing the results in this way protects children from a catastrophic drop in results when government ministers have fiddled with the exam system. It creates stability. The alternative is what we saw with KS2 SATs last year – a criteria based system – where the % of children meeting expected standard fell from 80% to 53%. A drop like that at GCSE would be disastrous. As Lucy said, it seems like the fairest option in a flawed system.

This might not matter, if it were not for the fact that it creates a complete disconnect between reality and the expectations of government and Ofsted. If results are fixed in advance, then how can schools improve? If they are to be judged on data, how can it be fair to be expected not to “coast” when in fact the system is set up to ensure coasting? The fact is that every school that improves their data is doing so at the expense of another’s results. We are pitched against each other – child against child, teacher against teacher, school against school – in a fight to protect our position and to try to improve it, knowing full well that our Outstanding comes at a cost for someone else. No wonder so many schools are starting to select by excluding pupils who may skew their data. No wonder they are looking for ways to secure advantage over others. It actually makes the idea of sharing best practice an act of folly. Why should we collaborate when doing so could hurt our students’ chances of success?

The system is predicated on two central beliefs from Ofqual. One is that people don’t get more intelligent. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that what they achieve at 11 is a fair indicator of what they will achieve at 16. So the proportion of pupils who will achieve 4s and above at GCSE is set in line with SATs results. All the research into growth mindsets and the evidence from MENSA that in fact human IQ is improving, is largely ignored. They point to the fact that data suggests that children move in a trajectory from KS2 to GCSE that is largely reliable. But that doesn’t allow for the possibility that our data tracking systems for the past twelve years or so have assumed this trajectory. That setting GCSE targets in line with KS2 results might create self-fulfilling prophecies where children achieve the grade that the adults around them expected them to. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that this thinking places a ceiling on achievement and potential.

The other belief, is that for some reason, teachers are not to be trusted – that they will cheat. And so the exam system has to be cheat proof. This lack of trust drives much decision making across the system. For example, reducing coursework; the number of resits; disallowing iGCSE from state school league table results; reducing the number of reviews (or remarks as teachers call them – a semantic tic that apparently irritates people at Ofqual) – all these things have been done to stop people “gaming” the system. Yet let’s take the last one – reviews. Last year, Ofqual announced that the right to have papers “reviewed” (or remarked) would be restricted. They claimed that this was to stop private schools from gaming the system by entering whole cohorts of students for review because they could afford it. By stopping that game, they made it harder for all the genuine applications to be successful. Yet IN THE SAME YEAR, their own research found that 50% of English Literature candidates and almost the same proportion of History candidates got the wrong mark. They publish evidence that exam marking is unreliable at the same time as they make it harder to have the paper reviewed. I don’t really need to say any more on that do I?

Similarly in an attempt to stop pesky teachers from “teaching to the tests” that will change the lives of the pupils they care about, they take care to ensure that the exams are increasingly unpredictable. That the questions cannot be guessed and that they will be written in such a way that children have to think laterally and apply their knowledge. On the one hand, that’s no bad thing – flexibility of mind is an important skill. On the other, when an exhausted child is sitting up to thirty exams in a three week period, it’s a farce to expect them to have the clarity of thinking that the test is designed to extract. At least, with the grade boundaries being fixed, it hardly matters what’s on the paper I suppose.

Having said all of this, schools do themselves no favours in challenging this perception of gaming. Take the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence). Under Progress 8, schools are credited for a broader number of subjects than before under the old 5A-C accountability measure (for parents that means that schools used to be judged according to the number of pupils who achieved 5 grade As – C, now, they are judged across 8 subjects and the measure is not who gets Cs or above – but how much progress they make from SATs). That would seem fairer if it were not for the fact that the GCSE grades are set in line with SATs results. That means children are NOT EXPECTED to make progress that exceeds predictions at all by Ofqual, but they are by Ofsted. Indeed “good” progress is that which exceeds expectations – anything else is simply expected. And if they do make better than expected progress, someone else must do worse. I know, I know. Anyway, back to the ECDL.

There are three baskets for Progress 8. Schools must enter all pupils for English and Maths – the first basket – and these count for more points if you like than other subjects. They must also provide pupils with access to subjects in the second basket which are largely the EBacc subjects – Languages, Sciences, Humanities etc. The third basket is “other” this could include Arts subjects, vocational subjects and a host of others, like the ECDL. Although Ofqual states that these third basket subjects should involved a minimum number of hours of study, the fact that most pupils are already reasonably computer literate means that the ECDL can be taught and assessed in an intensive week or across a term. This Datalab blog post explains the gaming of ECDL in more detail. Putting all pupils in for ECDL could raise a school’s Progress 8 score by as much as 0.2 – a significant gain. So many schools, in line with the advice given to them by Regional Schools Commissioners (yes, that’s right – senior civil servants are actively encouraging schools to game the system) and MAT trustees, are now entering pupils for an assessment that has little value to them, but great value to the school. It’s no surprise then that the government have now announced that the ECDL will not count towards Progress 8 from 2019. And even before that, there is pressure on Ofsted to look carefully at how schools are creating their Progress 8 scores and whether their choices are made in the best interests of pupils. It’s another game of cat and mouse, and what it does is undermine further the credibility of the profession as well as placing more ethically minded schools at risk. Strategies such as these, while understandable, explain why it is that organisatons like Ofqual view us with suspicion.

It seems to me that we are stuck in a system of mistrust where each side is attempting to out manoeuvre the other in order to protect either themselves or the systems they create. And children get lost in the cross fire. One of the biggest problems leading to unreliability of exam marking is the poor quality of examiners. Struggling to recruit enough examiners to serve an enormously overloaded exam system, boards are turning to unqualified and inexperienced examiners, some of whom have never taught. Even without entering into the matter of subjectivity, this quality issue alone serves to undermine the validity of the whole system. Why are Ofqual and government not leaning on exam boards to ensure a basic level of qualification and experience for their examiners? They’d have to pay more; their profit margins would reduce. Why are government not giving experienced teachers incentives to examine – reduced timetables for example – and subsidising schools to encourage better quality examiners to come forward? Why is the cost of reviewing not met by the exam board if the quality of their service is so poor?

It seems to me that as long as Government allows the population to labour under the misapprehension that we live in a system of meritocracy where all can improve with effort, schools are in an impossible bind. It’s time for some open minded debate about how we best hold our schools to account; how we best assess our children and how we best communicate these aims to parents. I remain hopeful that there is a significant role to be played here by the Chartered College of Teachers to broker a relationship between the DfE, teachers, unions, Ofsted and Ofqual in a way that develops more realistic expectations, fairer systems of assessment and more open communication. What is clear, is that everyone is doing what they think is the best thing. Ofqual are trying to create a stable and reliable system. Ofsted are trying to create a fairer system of inspection. Teachers are trying to get children the best possible outcomes they can. All are working towards similar goals – to create an education system that equips young people for a successful future. But by working in competition and suspicion, they are undermining their stated purpose and the system is creaking under the pressure. We need to start again.

Growth Mindsets in a Fixed System

I’ve done a couple of training days recently on Growth Mindsets and have been asked if I’d jot down the key things we’ve covered. When I’m asked to do this training, I have to put a grenade warning on it. This is not a “this is what GM is and how to do it” course. It’s an uncomfortable truths course. Because the reality is, that while Growth Mindsets might be one of the biggest buzzwords in education, schools in the UK are working in one of the most restricted “fixed mindsets” systems in the world.

On the surface, the government would seem to embrace GM. They might say “Of course we promote Growth Mindsets! No child should be allowed to fall behind; we have high expectations for all, mirrored in our refusal to accept circumstances for failure; we even got rid of levels. And look at how many times we mention grit and resilience in our speeches. Proper GM us.”

But that would be, well a rose tinted view. In a proper growth oriented system, children would be given several chances to reach their potential – they wouldn’t be forced into a linear system. They would not be put in sets, not given “target grades” based on past performance. All of their achievements and pathways would be valued in the moment – whether academic, artistic, physical or social – and with a view on the next steps. Contexts would be taken into account and funding put in place to support those who needed extra help, including counselling, SEND support, resources and family support. A growth mindset government would not cut funding. They would not make it increasingly difficult for children to overcome set backs. So it’s clear that we are having to promote an idea that at best expects us to find ways to thrive in-between the concrete slabs of high stakes, linear testing, shifting goalposts and accountability based on suspect data.

To truly have a growth mindset, you have to accept that reality and then do everything in your power as a teacher and leader to make your school culture as positive as possible. That might mean asking some tricky questions to which there are no straightforward answers:-

  • Is it possible to really have growth mindsets in our schools if we use language such as high, middle and low ability?
  • Is it possible to have growth mindsets when we set/stream children?
  • Is it possible to have a growth mindset culture and still have graded lesson observations for staff?
  • Are any efforts on our part futile unless we also train parents and governors on the principles of growth mindset thinking?
  • Are we using growth mindsets and words like resilience and grit to excuse a dull curriculum – i.e. as a synonym for getting children to endure boredom?
  • Is there really a difference between GM and Assessment for Learning? How do we ensure this isn’t simply a fad that is forgotten in a couple of years’ time?
  • Is evidence from research into genetic heritability of intelligence (e.g. Plomin et al), at odds with what is effectively a ‘nurture’ approach from Dweck?
  • Is it true that people are either growth or fixed in terms of mindset? Does it not depend on circumstance and subject? In which case, are all those questionnaires a waste of time?
  • Is it possible to preach growth mindsets when sending children into a norm referenced exam system that makes the assumption that the same number of children should pass each year, regardless of whether or not they are getting better?

While there are no easy answers to the above, they form a day in which some much deeper thinking takes place and where we look to other areas of cognitive science and psychology to find some possible solutions. We explore the importance of motivation, of incremental feedback rather than praise, of stretching and challenging all children, of questioning, of moral purpose and of embedding the theory across the whole school – children, teachers, parents, governors and local stakeholders. We share ideas and we go away not with a silver bullet, but with a clearer sense of purpose and set of potential actions to effect change.

To my mind, this is what CPD should be – a trigger for change and for deeper thinking, not a set of top tips that conveniently gloss over the bigger issues that often get in the way of good intentions. In a recent discussion, for example, during a lively debate about the pros and cons of setting, one teacher said

“Whether we set or not should be irrelevant – it’s the attitude that matters. Children knowing they can move up and improve and schools making that a possibility.”

She was right of course – in schools who do set children (let’s leave the evidence behind on this for a moment) –  the problem may not be in the setting itself, but rather in the fact that there is always limited room at the top. If we are to be truly working towards a growth mindset culture, there must always be room for movement in reward for effort and achievement. If that leads to three set ones, then so be it. It’s in these discussions that possible solutions begin to present themselves. That’s not about a “consultant”coming in and telling you what to do. It’s about someone throwing difficult questions at you as professionals and then giving you the time and space to work towards solutions. Now I come to think about it – isn’t that what good teaching should aim to do?

 

Some Clarifications

This blog relates to events on twitter in the past 24 hours. If you are a time poor teacher hoping to learn something about education as you start this, I’d step away. It’s a shame I feel I have to write it, but it’s really of little worth to anyone who has not been following the conversations around my reputation for the past couple of days. I am closing comments for this blog. I am usually open to debate, but this is an attempt to end something, not start another thing off. I hope you understand.

On Tuesday night I tweeted that I had received notification from Michaela that my planned visit was no longer to happen – that they “would not be happy” for me to come. The reasons offered were twofold:-

“We are wary of criticism…and your review (of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers) contained many misconceptions.” This formed the first part of the note. It continued…

“We are inundated with requests to visit” and “would prefer to invite those who are open and willing to learn from us.”

It was polite and clear. So it’s a little strange that immediately people started to tweet that I had been banned because I was a “troll” and because my previous blog post about zero tolerance behaviour policies had referred to Michaela as “one little London school” which apparently is patronising. Now, I am more than happy to admit, I have offered criticism of Michaela’s methods in the past and that I have openly spoken of how their self promotion and tone puts people off engaging with what are, in many areas, very good ideas. Whether you agree or disagree with that, one thing is clear – it was not the reason for rescinding the invitation to visit. Indeed in the first invitation, which critically, came AFTER the zero tolerance blog was published, this was written. I am not naming the author of the comment – it’s not fair, but I think this is uncontroversial and reasonable:-

“I’d love you to visit, and I won’t take it personally if it doesn’t resonate with you: I’m more interested in you helping us see our blind spots…Thanks for having the courage and taking the time to come and visit us. I want us at Michaela to be wary of bubble thinking – I know we are making mistakes that are hard to spot once everyone’s on the same wavelength.”

No-one in their right mind could read that and not see it is an open and honest attempt to engage. It certainly set my mind at rest in terms of writing the review in which I hoped did exactly that – recognised the positives and identified some possible “blind spots”. So I think I am justified in being confused.

I have been conflicted about sharing this information. But Michaela have also come under fire and I think it’s important that all their staff are not grouped together as one band of paranoid people who are afraid of challenge. Indeed, another member of staff wrote to me after the review to say “thank you – that was really, really lovely.” Hardly insulted.

So I don’t know what conversations have gone on in the background. I don’t know and I don’t really care. The school are entitled to have whoever they like in. They are entitled to protect themselves. I respect their decision and am thankful to have time and money saved. But they no longer, and I’m sure they see this, have the right to challenge any criticism with the repost “well come in and visit then.”

As for the quite ridiculous allegations spinning off about trolling, let me clear up one or two things flying around about my “behaviour” and “abuse”. I hold my hands up to having lost my temper on a couple of occasions on twitter – to the best ability of my memory – it’s happened three times, all quite a while ago when I was feeling, well, not to put too fine a point on it, not myself. I was open in blogs and on twitter that I was struggling emotionally at the time. I first joined twitter as a teacher, just blogging about this and that in my classroom, then one day I wrote a letter to Michael Gove and invited other teachers to sign it. Within a week it was on the front page of  The Independent and I was on Channel 4 news, quaking in my shoes, opposite Nick Gibb.

No-one prepares you to be catapulted into controversy like that. I was woefully unprepared for the attacks that came my way from some of the neo-trad Gove supporters, most of it subtweeted. One in particular was rude. It made me very wary of him. I noted I was being discussed without being included. My work was described as “silly” and “mediocre” and later my tweets and errors would be screen shot and ridiculed without my knowledge. I couldn’t really understand what I’d done.

While all that was going on, I was struggling more and more at work. 70 hour weeks, relentless drives for data. Weeping staff sitting in my office telling me they’d been judged inadequate after years of brilliant service and that they’d been sent to me for advice. What could I teach these wonderful people who simply weren’t teaching in the way deemed to be acceptable at the time (thank God that’s shifting). I was starting to see the system as abusive to both children and teachers and I couldn’t stand it. I quit. I left the thing I had done for 21 years with no plan and no job and I walked away.

The pain of that decision still brings tears to my eyes now. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a great three years – learned loads, travelled all over the world. It’s been great. But then at that point, I was devastated. I felt like a deserter and there were people happy to let me know that they thought so too.

So… when a review of my book came out in October 2014, I was still feeling a bit delicate. I wasn’t really bothered that it got one bad review – it’s pretty unreasonable to expect everyone to like everything you do. But I was really hurt by the cheerleading and gloating that surrounded that one review. It went on and on and I was feeling ridiculously oversensitive about, well, everything.  I wrote about it in a blog that now makes me cringe in the same way that this blog will one day make me cringe. I was on holiday with my family. I spent the whole time on twitter and the holiday was utterly ruined. I came home, opened the comments page on that blog and saw a comment from the man who, I had come to feel (whether rightly or wrongly) was stalking me in an attempt to discredit and undermine me. He followed up a series of tweets, one of which called me “shoddy” in a comment, that on the surface may have seemed innocuous. But it ignored the fact that I said I was genuinely struggling with my mental health. It ignored the fact that that the blog was really an attempt to explore whether women were more prone to attack than men. Instead, it attacked. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. I snapped. In a comment on that blog, I accused the man of “utterly lacking in human empathy” and then I added probably the clumsiest comment of my life “unless, of course, you are autistic, in which case I apologise.” Or something to that end. No doubt there  will a screen shot in a file of grievances. That comment, deleted fairly quickly, has been the bane of my twitter life. It led to three days of persistent hounding on twitter. How dare I? What an insult to autistic people. They were right. It was. I apologised again and again and again for it. It wasn’t enough. By now I had not slept for almost a week. I was a wreck. After six apologies, when one twitter user (I’m not naming her, because I know that she is as sick of this being dragged up as I am) who had repeatedly  refused to accept the apology although she had acknowledged it had been made and had then subtweeted conversations about it, told me that she would not “let it pass”, I snapped. “And you” I wrote, “are a nasty piece of work.” It was the wrong thing to say and I regret it. I have written I have regretted it more times than I can remember. Partly because every time a certain someone wants to have a pop, he brings it up. And just because it was wrong.

And so, yes, when I realised that in a photo I had taken at ResearchEd that year, the figure with his back turned to the camera was this man (who although tweeting anonymously, seemed to be known and recognised by everyone there), I was tempted to tweet it. I held off for months. Then one night, after seeing him treat another female teacher in the way he had treated me and many others, I put it up with the caption “you may find a straw man in here.” There was no name. That was it. And within minutes, I regretted it. One of his friends, a fair and decent man, sent me a DM. “I know you are angry and I completely understand why, but this will only backfire on you. I would strongly urge you to delete it immediately.” He was right and I did. It was online for minutes and I admitted I was wrong. I don’t deny it now. It was wrong. It didn’t matter that he had himself attempted to out other anonymous twitter users. It didn’t matter because two wrongs don’t every make a right. I was wrong. That’s it.

So…three years later. I’m in a better place. Less likely to be riled, less likely to snap and be rude. I’ve learned a lot. I’m better. And if those incidents in the past make me a troll, then so be it. I can live with that – at least it’s set in context.

As for some of the other accusations I’ve had in the past couple of days. Did I “report Michaela to Ofsted” as was tweeted and attributed to me? No, apparently that was @HeyMissSmith who it seems did not “report” them either, but simply copied Ofsted into some Michaela tweets. It would seem that both of us were misrepresented in this respect.

Did I call Toby Young a knob? Yes I did. I might have been ruder, but it rhymed so beautifully with blob.

Knowledge Organisers are, Err…Ok

Probably the blandest title I’ve ever written for a blog that – but it kind of fits the mood. There’s been some hoo-hah recently about knowledge organisers. Are they good? Bad? Boring ways of forcing facts down little gosling throats or essential diets for healthy learning? Well to throw my tuppence worth in, they’re neither. They’re a baseline. A common denominator of the things we’d like the children to be able to remember for whatever reason. Some find them useful as starting points. Some see them as the starter, main course and pud. I probably fall in the former camp. Take the example Jon Brunskill kindly shared of his KO on the moon landings. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. Facts leading (hopefully) to a decent piece of informative writing. There’s nothing wrong, but it’s so small. Man, this is the MOON. There’s not much else out there that can get kids more excited than space. Surely it’s worth expanding?

What if?

A few years ago when we were outside I got the children to make footprints in the mud with their wellies. We predicted how long they would last and I asked them how long they thought a footprint would last on the moon. They generally thought it would last longer on the moon because they decided there was no rain there. And well, where we live, it rains a lot. But it was the first of many questions – some coming from me, some from them, that led to lots of investigation and learning:-

“Why were there no women astronauts on the Apollo missions?”

“How long would a footprint last there and why?”

“Is there less gravity on the moon? What is gravity?”

“How long did it take to get there?” (you could work this out from the times and dates provided on Jon’s knowledge organiser)

“How far is it? How fast did the rocket go?”

“Have rockets got faster over time?”

“If it took that long to get to the moon, how long would it take to get to Mars? The edge of the solar system? The edge of our galaxy?”

“How much did it cost to go there?”

“Would there be tides without the moon?”

“How do people pee in space? Where does it go to?” (that was mine)

It seems a shame to limit learning about this amazing voyage to a literacy task. Look how much Maths and Science is in here! And I’m reminded of the Year 4 children I saw in Ashley Primary School arguing about a 2cm disparity between their scaled circle of the moon and one of the earth. They had found out the circumferences of both, scaled them down and cut them out. They they had used the same ratio to work out the scaled distance between them. But the hinge of a door was in the way. They’d have to move the moon 2cms away from the earth. One of the children was most upset – she wanted it to be accurate. She knew in reality that 2 centimetres was thousands of miles. Now that kind of passion and commitment is what we really need from children. Facts are great, but caring enough about those facts to argue over them is greater. Sort of.

It’s not enough to teach children the what of the world and beyond. We need to teach them to find the wonder in all that is around them. We want them to want to protect their world, to investigate it, to push the boundaries of knowledge forward and become knowledge creators, not just knowledge keepers. So Knowledge Organisers. Yes, they’re ok. But they’re bread without butter. I  know a good sandwich starts with the bread, but I don’t see why we can’t give them a tasty filling. That’s all.

The Kindness Paradox: Nurture2016/17

Being kind is something I hold dear, but it’s not always straightforward. It’s been hard this year to think kindly of those with deeply opposed views to mine – those who voted for Brexit for example, or those who swept Trump into the most powerful position in the world. It’s easy to say “be kind” while placing yourself up on a virtuous pedestal and criticising others – calling them horrible and demonising them. Perhaps being kind is about accepting that other people might have valid points of view; valid reasons for acting in ways that seem inconceivable to us. Perhaps. Listening and trying to understand is important, and of course no-one can take seriously calls for respect and kindness from those who simultaneously treat others with contempt.

But then there’s the point at which kindness becomes apathetic and passive. Where staying silent and still is not about respecting others, but is about retreat and self protection. Where it is no longer kind – it is neglectful. And at the other end there is the “kindness” masked as compliance – where our expectations are that others will carry out our commands and obey us in the name of kindness, when all our actions suggest that it is not kindness at all that we value, but obedience. We say one thing; we model another. Perhaps if we want a truly kind world (and God knows we need it), we need to think about what it actually is and not use it as an excuse to coerce something entirely different from others.

Kindness looks for the best in people and organisations, but it doesn’t look away from challenge and injustice. It is compassionate and critical – it has to be, for in order to be kind or to be fair, we have to tackle injustice. That might mean challenging those who are not kind. Kindness accepts that people act in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. It seeks not to judge the person, but to manage the behaviour of a person. It demands humility and thoughtfulness. In order to be effective it needs to be selfless – not to seek attention and affirmation, but to simply seek to make as simple a difference in its own realm as it can. Then we may hope that kindness is contagious.

Kindness is easy but not simple.  We know what it looks like – it’s not always easy to enact it; to separate it from the veneer of wanting to appear to be more virtuous than others. It’s as slippery as soap. But it’s vital to our happiness and to that of others. So where do we start?

I intend to start here. I will start with the assumption that people mean well. That it’s worth engaging with them as politely as possible. I’ll try to avoid generalisations about others in order to suit my purposes. I’ll continue to do what I can in the small ways I can -to contribute to my local and global communities, through education, through charity work (thank you Northern Rockers), through championing ideas and people who get little acclamation. I’m heartened by the New Year’s Honours award to Nicola Wetherall who has overcome all kinds of personal challenges to bring holocaust, genocide and refugee education to children. I’m heartened by the dignity and campaigning of Brendan Cox in the face of unimaginable personal grief in continuing the work and the values of his wife. I’m heartened by all the young people I meet, every day, who care about each other and the world and who are not the selfish, technologically obsessed narcissists we are led to believe they are. I believe that placing kindness at the heart of our schooling and our society is vitally important. And to do so, we need to reach out and believe that we are not the sole custodians of virtue. That others have the potential for goodness and that we can work together to build a better world, whether we voted in or out, shook it all about, did the hokey cokey and turned around. Because that’s what matters. Kindness. That’s what will make the difference. That’s what it’s all about. Happy New Year.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – Part 2.

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.