Sunday, 27 November 2016

Thinking about... my visit to Michaela

Michaela: ‘You’ll leave with more questions than answers’ 

Barry Smith, Deputy Headteacher at Michaela, wasn’t wrong. After two days at the school, my head is spinning. I am still trying to digest and comprehend everything that I have witnessed and heard. I am unsure of exactly how I feel about Michaela and I have been left pondering if I want to join the revolution.

During her introduction to Michaela’s ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ event on Saturday morning Katharine Birbalsingh, the Headteacher of Michaela, exclaimed that ‘We’re thinking differently and we’re part of the revolution. Join us and be on the right side of history!’

Michaela are certainly challenging the status quo or ‘ripping up the rule book’, as Katharine would put it. Teachers at the school are required to challenge what has become the ‘known truths’ in education and, in doing so, they have become unashamedly knowledge focused and they have adopted a tough-love ideology. Their philosophy and practices have raised debate, scepticism and, in some cases, have been opposed very strongly. I was unsure what side of the fence I would fall on, but I went with an open-mind and as Katharine requested of delegates, I was willing to change my mind.

I visited the school on Friday and had the opportunity to drop into lessons. The best way to describe what I saw is absolute consistency. Pupils’ movements and actions in lesson were unified, teachers taught lessons through drilling and didactic teaching and using the exact same structure. Even on the corridors pupils moved consistently, in lines and with purpose.

The event, Michaela hosted the following day, was really valuable because I had seen the school in operation but I did not have the opportunity to listen to the reasoning behind their methods and values. This is why, when I left on Friday, I had more questions than answers. The majority of these were addressed throughout the ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ event and the following is what I took away. 

One aspect of Katharine’s opening speech that resonated with me was a section on ‘personal responsibility’. It is clear that this underpins the routines and no-excuse behaviour policy at Michaela. The school does not aim to oppress children, contrary to the suggestions of some of Michaela’s critics. Rather it is used to inspire them to rise to the ‘top of the pyramid’, a metaphor used to articulate the extremely high standards that the school has for their pupils. A pupil at Michaela operates at the ‘top of the pyramid’ simply because it is ‘who they are’. Their behaviour represents their intrinsic motivations rather than their desires to simply avoid a sanction, to please others or to benefit their future self.

I witnessed this first hand, during a conversation over lunch, a year 9 pupil explained how they had been given a detention in a Maths lesson for talking. He expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to learn from his mistake so that he could become a more successful individual. The systems in place at Michaela ensure that pupils take personal responsibility seriously. How many behaviour systems across schools in England result in pupils staying at the bottom of the pyramid? Behaving just to ‘fall into line’ or to achieve rewards and please their teachers? The large majority I assume. Michaela could argue, for this reason, that it is the large majority of schools that are oppressing our school children.

How can I improve our school systems so that pupils’ take greater personal responsibility? This is one question I will take away; behaviour is excellent in my school but how can I change the attitudes of my pupils so that they act in manner that reflects their desire to become a better version of themselves rather than simply to conform to the school rules?

Whilst recounting his experience of joining the Michaela teaching staff Mike Taylor expressed a concern that ‘teaching is becoming anti-intellectual’, sadly I agree. However, as a member of SLT am I part of that problem? For teachers to be more effective and for the profession to be an intellectual one we need to provide time for our teachers to refine their practice and to develop their subject knowledge. Mike outlined how, as a teacher at Michaela, he had the rest and freedom to be a better teacher.

What is the learning return on the time invested? This one question, posed by Jessica Lund, will become my most important takeaway from the weekend. If I want my staff to become experts in their subjects, I need to give them the time and freedom to do so. I definitely can’t ask them to do anymore!

Jessica Lund’s speech, No nonsense. No burnout. No marking, discussed the one huge challenge facing our profession; workload, wellbeing and teacher burnout. This is something taken very seriously at Michaela. The staffs questioning nature extends to their own work. Jessica regularly posed a question that they frequently use; ‘what is the learning return on time invested?’. The use of this question has resulted in Michaela not marking work and centralising homework. Jessica explained that ‘we don’t mark we give feedback’. She emphasised that pupils are more similar, in terms of their learning, than different. So why write the same targets in 90% of pupils’ books? Why not focus on teaching the 10% and the common misconceptions before they arise?

What is the learning return on the time invested? I need to ask this question to determine how efficient and effective our school’s choices are. Do they have a greater impact on staff or pupils? If the answer is staff. We need to change or stop what we do.

If Joe Kirby had to attribute the astonishing culture and impeccable behaviour at Michaela to one single thing, it wold probably be the Michaela boot camp. Each new cohort is inducted to the ‘Michaela way’ with an intensive bootcamp that focuses on developing the mindset and habits that pupils need to be successful. Joe stated that ‘we can’t expect children to do anything that they haven’t explicitly been taught’. Michaela prioritise culture over curriculum in this first week and teach pupils about stoicism, self-control, the school values, how to deal with being given a demerit and how to behave in detention.

The bootcamp is not only an essential induction for new pupils, it also provides a sound foundation for new teachers. Often new teachers can feel overwhelmed with the complexity of new systems and structures, this can prove especially difficult when older pupils know the rules far better than the new staff. The opportunity to observe experienced staff, team teach and practice on the new cohort develops confidence and means that pupils cannot differentiate between the new and more experienced teachers.

What are the habits I would most like to prioritise in my school? How do I model these to both staff and pupils? The culture and ethos within a school is shaped by its whole school systems and practices. Can I leave the adoption of these to chance? If I do, I am likely to find myself within a different culture to the one I envisioned.

There were other speeches throughout the day that were equally as thought-provoking but the above are most pertinent to me. The school’s new book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ explains the ‘Michaela Way’ in greater detail. I recommend you read it; it is the first thing I will be doing when I finish this post. I have bought a number of copies so that staff at my school can also reflect on and learn from ‘The Michaela Way'.

Regardless of your opinion of the school you can only applaud Michaela for their openness and transparency. During my two days at the school there was no arrogance. The school doesn’t profess to be the greatest school in the world. Teachers openly admit they have made mistakes and that they are continually learning and developing. Michaela has simply put itself ‘out there’ and, in doing so, they have encouraged educators to question the practices within the teaching profession and they have inspired schools to make changes against bureaucracy and in favour of enabling both staff and pupils to flourish.

It is easy to criticise and judge from afar but my advice would be to engage with the staff, visit the school and use it as an opportunity to learn. Whilst I was there pupils were as happy, better behaved and more knowledgeable than any other pupils I have ever seen…you simply cannot ignore that.


  1. Really good read! So glad I'm working at a school that has the courage to think like this.

  2. Thank you for such an enlightening reflection on your visit. The Michaela approach is common sense, simple and clearly effective. They certainly have a lot of courage putting it out there, despite unfair and unconstructive criticism. Shifting paradigms is a difficult and often messy process but I, for one, am totally in support of their 'way.'