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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

Michaela is Marmite

Having read a number of blogs about Michaela School, principally from their Assistant Head teacher Joe Kirby, I contacted Joe who kindly organised a visit.  Last Thursday was spent wandering around Michaela chatting to different teachers and pupils and to be honest thoroughly enjoying myself.  I sense Michaela is one of those Marmite schools, you either love it or hate it, but there is a danger this can blind you to what is good and what can be learnt.

Photo Credit: Celeste Hodges via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Celeste Hodges via Flickr cc

Michaela School currently has about one hundred and twenty pupils in each of Year 7 & 8 and will continue to expand as a new year 7 is added each September.  Some pupils I chatted to had put Michaela as their first choice and others as their fifth, half the children are from disadvantaged backgrounds and it is ethnically diverse.

Lunch Time is an Experience

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  Children sit in tables of six, groups are predetermined and not friendship based, with a clear timed structure reinforced by notices on the walls and tables, all orchestrated by a lunch time leader.  We recited the poem “If”, then pupils sat at places 1 & 2 collected and served lunch, which is the same for all pupils, whilst we discussed the topic for the day on the implications of carrying a knife.  At the allotted time pupils 3 & 4 tidied away the main course and returned with pudding, which today was a biscuit, followed by a series of “appreciations”, children standing up and thanking people for various things and given two claps.  It all ended with pupils 5 & 6 tidying up, wiping the table and a series of appreciations led by individual children.  We drummed, clapped, SLANTed and I was happy to join inIt’s regimented, ordered or slick depending on your point of view. 

At this point I can understand some people thinking but this is just awful so regimented and lacking in choice and deciding to stop reading before their blood pressure rises too much.  It’s partly the Marmite factor but also the difficulty of transferring the whole experience via a blog post.  Lunch may be the metaphor for Michaela and where it positions itself on the spectrum of individual liberty to collective responsibility.  We all make these choices though maybe not as explicitly as at Michaela and we certainly end up in different positions.  Individual liberties are curtailed as we come together otherwise anarchy rules.  Having choice is important to many of us and we want similar for our children but it is a matter of degree.

Comparing the Michaela dining experience, to ones at other schools I have led or visited, it has some real strengths and with them came an odd downside.  As with the rest of the day I felt very welcome at the table and the pupils chatted happily and very politely with me.  Not all school dining rooms have such a positive feel.  

The Knowledge Bit

Sign for Michaela with some old bloke stood in front of it

Sign for Michaela with some old bloke stood in front of it

The school is focussed on building a child’s knowledge.  I ended up wandering into a Year 8 class, my choice, where pupils were doing Maths that was quite simply very hard; adding and subtracting algebraic fractions with complex denominators is not for the faint hearted.  No noise, no messing, clear instruction and massive expectations.  It all starts with you becoming a times table rock star, through rock god status, loads of practice via Manga High (online Mathematics website) and significant progress particularly for those furthest behind.  Silence is golden, expected and children respond quite happily.  The atmosphere was calm and the pupils friendly.  At the second sitting of lunch I sat with some Year 8 asking them about Science and ended up testing one of the Year 8 pupils, at her behest, using her knowledge organisers.  She had a genuine desire to learn.  The knowledge organisers fascinated me and remind me of the bank of end of topic/revision organisers I built up in the late 1980s and early 1990s for GCSE Chemistry.  Sadly they are now all on Amstrad or Archimedes discs long since assigned to a rubbish tip.  Decide what you want pupils to learn, as this is what you will teach, with the how following.  We’ve possibly been too focussed on the how as a system, schools and teachers and we need to rebalance.  As long as the how is effective maybe we should focus a bit more time on the what; the factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive knowledge young people will need.

The Michaela Way

Through everything they do Michaela School strives for simplicity, consistency, efficiency and excellence.  These are good things; simplicity and efficiency reduce work load whilst consistency and excellence mean every child stands the chance of getting a great education.  Kathrine has started assembling a team of staff who are equally committed to the Michaela Way.

Single-mindedness may not always win you friends but it can be pretty effective when a job needs to be done.  The massive challenge for our Education System is to ensure disadvantaged children have similar outcomes and opportunities as their more advantaged peers.  I sense Michaela School may lead the way on the outcomes and for that I applaud them. 

Photo Credit: Chotda via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Chotda via Flickr cc

The opportunity bit is more complex.  Chatting to a Year 7 pupil at lunch I asked him what he wanted to do and he responded with going to university.  Whilst I already knew the answer I asked him the obvious question about whether he had thought of anywhere in particular … the answer was obviously going to be Oxford or Cambridge There are other factors beyond your schooling that will influence your life’s journey and destination.  For disadvantaged children there are more things to knock you back or knock you off course.  As teachers and school leaders we have a significant control over a child’s education and so we must do our best to implement this in the most positive way we can.

What Is Transferable?

The opportunity to reflect and learn is important; it’s why I visit a few schools every year in various parts of the country.  There is a need for me to go beyond Blackpool and challenge myself and my thinking.  One big takeaway from Michaela is level of expectation and challenge.  We’ve made huge strides forward in recent years but Michaela has prompted me to reset expectations higher again.  Another one is about workload and efficiency, it’s my 9 or 10/10 or it’s a no rule, and some fresh ideas about where to look harder and be stricter with myself and colleagues.  It is interesting to reflect on whether you could transfer the Michaela Way. lock, stock and barrel, onto an existing school or whether these things are best built from scratch.

I hope to keep in touch with Michaela over the coming years as I’m genuinely interested in their approach.

How will the Michaela Way change, if at all, as their pupils become older?  Mid-teens and Sixth Formers are different propositions to Year 7 & 8 pupils.  Will these children be as willing, for example, to walk in straight self-managing lines along the left hand side of corridors and do a kind of quick hop, skip and a jump through the class room door to have a fast start to their lessons?  Will Michaela want to deliberately alter the balance with respect to the amount of choice given, for example at lunch in terms of the meal or structure, and what would be the impact on the school if they did?

What will be the practical limitations experienced as the school increases in size and age range, for example, by the buildings, examination systems, funding, parents or whatever, that will need to be addressed and navigated in the years ahead.  The school will grow from two hundred and forty Year 7 & 8 pupils to approximately eight hundred 11-18 years old pupils.  This will naturally build additional layers of complexity.

Will workload pressures change and approaches be less effective or equally effective as the hard edges of accountability, which tend to come with GCSE and A-level cohorts, kick in.  Michaela are certainly fortunate to be well out of the current maelstrom of examination changes that other schools and their teachers are coping with.

This is very much thinking out loud than criticising anything I saw.  Katharine and her team may already have thought these issues through and have plans in place.  There is only so much you can see and ask in a day.

Thank you to Katharine, Joe, Naveen and Olivia for their time, openness and welcome and my two student guides at the start of the day, Millie and Kivat, who were fabulous.  Thanks also to the many other staff and students who chatted with me and whose day I disturbed.  For what it’s worth I think you have used your quite unique opportunity to build a culture from scratch to great effect.

By way of contrast in approach, the day following my visit to Michaela the Trust’s primary school Head teachers went to visit Hartsholme Academy who deliver an immersive educational experience for their children based on authentic projects.  When I visited last year I ended up lying on the floor in a Year 2 class room doing Mathematics with a few pupils who were working hard on their times tables.  If you see these things as a spectrum it is arguably at the other end to Michaela but it is equally a fantastic school with great outcomes.  The teachers get two days to plan each project to ensure they have total clarity about the knowledge that must be covered and how it will be integrated into the work done by the pupils.  The what to learn is clearly defined.



6 thoughts on “Michaela is Marmite

  1. Interesting that regardless of methods the knowledge focus is clear in both schools. I really do think that is something that is true for all successful teachers and schools.

    Posted by teachwell | November 29, 2015, 8:58 am
  2. Education bridges the gap between the disadvantages of the past and the opportunities of the future. It’s so important that schools see this as part, a key part, of their role – it sometimes involves a shift in self-perception, a separation of home and school cultures, self-belief through on-going achievement and the self-confidence endowed through high expectations. Not all schools could be like Michaela, not all schools would want to, but you’re right, Stephen, that there could be much to learn from watching this school and the opportunities it had had/made/taken to create a new educational culture for these children. I share many of your questions regarding the future ‘profile’ of the school,and whether current practices can or should be maintained. I also wonder about the extent to which the London context makes aspects of the Michaela mindset more challenging for those of us in more out of the way areas (not that that’s a reason for not having high expectations) – what strikes me most I think is the feeling that this school can set its own standards, its own curriculum, its own methods, its own policies and its own culture, from scratch. Let’s face it. They have the vision, the time, the high quality teaching staff and the leadership – so if the school’s commendable aims can’t work at Michaela, they probably couldn’t work anywhere! Seems to me that the successful free schools will succeed where these factors combine. Where does that leave the rest of us though?

    Posted by misslisa67 | November 29, 2015, 9:28 am
  3. I really like that you went to Michaela with an open mind and it’s great to read this very pragmatic blog post that seeks to be as objective as possible. I am a big supporter of the Michaela approach to teaching and learning and would love to visit, but can’t (due to full time teaching responsibility), so your honest feedback is very much welcomed.

    Aside from the pupil outcomes, I also really like the fact that their approach actually restores a work-life balance for teachers.

    Posted by The Quirky Teacher | November 29, 2015, 10:21 am


  1. Pingback: Blogs about Michaela by people who’ve visited the school | A Roller In The Ocean - December 7, 2015

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