Julian's musings

A visit to Michaela


Having recently listened to about 5.5 hours of Craig Barton interviewing Dani Quinn (part 1 and part 2), the Head of Mathematics at Michaela Community School, I decided that it was worth visiting the school to see their principles in action for myself, so last week, I took to the buses to visit Wembley.

Though my main interest was the maths teaching, I was fascinated by the whole experience, so that is what I will focus most of my attention on here. I used to teach in a school (“W”) with a broadly similar type of intake: it was in an area with many students from ethnic minorities and many students on free school meals; that school was also in an area in which there was a grammar school system, so many of the highest-attaining students in the catchment area attended the more selective local schools. This gave me an interesting basis for comparison.

The most obvious thing which struck me was the atmosphere that Katharine and her staff have established in the school. It was very purposeful, and the students I met generally seemed happy and to like the school. They were polite to me, and some were genuinely interested in talking to me. (Or at least they gave the convincing impression that they were!) Some students were immensely proud of what they were doing and showed off their work to me (without my even asking).

Many have written about the very strictly enforced behaviour policies. But what I had not expected was the huge warmth pouring forth from the staff to the students in their lessons, and the humanity pervading the school. Whilst demerits were regularly given for infringements of the school’s very strict behaviour policies - generally accompanied by just a few seconds’ calm explanation of the positive benefits of doing what was expected or the negative impact the behaviour was having on others - merits were given even more liberally (and fairly consistently between lessons) for behaviours the school wants to encourage, such as good vocal projection when answering a question, asking good questions and giving good explanations. And these were always accompanied by brief warm words. This contrasts so dramatically with my experience at “W”, where though some teachers managed their classes well, there wasn’t anything close to a consistent school-wide system at this level of detail. There is clearly a benefit to be gained from having such an consistently enforced system throughout the school, though it is tough for teachers. (Mind you, it is not as tough as teaching in a school where students throw things at teachers on a semi-regular basis.)

The most challenging class I saw was a small bottom-set year 10 class, several of whom had already been permanently excluded from one or more other schools. Yet there they were, behaving and mostly participating in the lesson, learning and targeting a grade 4 or 5 at GCSE Mathematics. Wow. At “W”, lower-middle sets were only targeting a grade D (on the old system, the equivalent of a grade 3 on the new system), and most of them did not achieve even that. The contrast could not be greater.

A few things struck me immediately during the day, without even entering a classroom. The first was the immaculate state of the building: not a speck of litter to be seen during the course of the day. This is in stark contrast to most of the schools I’ve taught in and visited over the years, and vastly different from “W”. The students have clearly been taught to respect their environment.

Is the school’s approach a good thing? This is a difficult question for me to answer. I certainly had a sense that the school was infusing students with British culture (whatever that means), and yet for students living in the UK, is this not a good thing? It will give them significant (British) cultural capital on which they will be able to draw in later life, and which they might well otherwise not gain.

On the other hand, students are constantly being watched, as are staff: for example, visitors (with DBS certificates) are permitted to just walk into any lesson, yet the teachers and students generally didn’t bat an eyelid when I quietly walked in. Yet this significantly reduces the chances of bullying and destructive behaviour: there are no “safe spaces” within the school for bullying or other damaging behaviour to take place without a teacher seeing.

I observed parts of about eight maths lessons during the day (as well as a smattering of other subjects). My concern was that they would be very procedural in nature, given the rigidity of the school system. However, I was pleasantly surprised: while they were clearly teacher-led, the questioning did include a good mix of knowledge and deeper understanding questions. For example, in a lesson on Pythagoras’s Theorem, there were early questions designed to ensure that the students knew which side was the hypotenuse, and later questions which required more thought, such as “If I have a triangle with side lengths 6, 7, 8, can I draw a right-angle here?” (I am not overly concerned with Year 8 students not clearly distinguishing between Pythagoras’s Theorem and its converse. Students were spending enough effort getting to grips with what the question meant.) Some time was spent working on questions from their workbooks, but this was far from the majority of the time.

During one of the lessons, students were asked to read out from their workbooks. I was surprised - though I probably should not have been - at how difficult they found it to read technical vocabulary; how often do we ask our students to read a piece of technical material?

There were also opportunities for discussion in pairs; these were short and effective, and the students were continually encouraged to use the time productively, as anyone could be picked on to answer a question after the discussion time.

Dani spoke much more about the planning process and lesson structure at Michaela in her podcast, which was fascinating, so I won’t say more about it here.

Returning home and reflecting, I have two big questions about this model, and in particular with regard to maths. The first (somewhat mathematics-specific) question is whether students get enough opportunity to think about any (mathematics) problem for a protracted period of time. Hearing about other countries’ approaches, I wonder whether this is a potentially missed opportunity, especially once behaviour is so well-managed that there is a good learning atmosphere.

The second, more pervasive question, is about the use of streaming within the school. (“Streaming” means that students are put in groups which are dependent upon their academic performanace across a number of subjects. They remain in these groups for all of their subjects. As far as I could tell, it is used in Years 7-9 and possibly in Year 10 as well.) It is very effective for behaviour management, as the entire class is together the whole time, including at lesson changeover time. However, I am very unconvinced that it is good for equity, which is part of the school’s mission. Hearing of the experiences of primary and secondary schools which have moved away from ability (or better: attainment) grouping to mixed-attainment grouping, one has to ask whether this would be better for the majority of the students within the school, certainly at Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds) and possibly older too. Teachers’ academic expectations of students are lower when they are teaching lower-attaining groups, and I strongly doubt that Michaela’s excellent teachers are any less affected by this.

And would I consider teaching at Michaela? I’m not sure it would be the “right” school for me, but I would take it over “W” any day.

Finally, the “family lunch”. The initial poetry reading was like being at a summer youth camp: the energy, enthusiasm and fun were palpable. There was quite a buzz in the room during this! And the discussion over lunch - this time about volunteering, in light of the outstanding work of volunteers in the Thailand cave rescue - was fascinating.

It was a pleasure to visit the school, and I thank the staff for being so open and welcoming. I look forward to hearing of their results, both academic and beyond, in the years to come.

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