Today I visited Michaela and as I said to Katherine Birbalsingh, Joe Kirby, Jessica Lund and Jonny Porter, I don’t need to go on about how wonderful it was.* They know it. What I’d rather – briefly – write about is what I and my colleague, Kathrine Mortimore, saw and how Michaela Community School has achieved this. Because even though I knew precisely what I would see, actually being there, witnessing that focus and respect and pride – well, it really is spectacular. And I know the school has its detractors, but – whilst I wish them and their students good luck – I humbly believe them to be very wrong. What the staff and children and Michaela have done – are doing – is truly inspirational.
I reckon 95% of the children we met in the corridor, walking in silence between lessons and pausing – in silence – to let others pass on the stairs whispered “Hello, Sir”, or “Good afternoon”. Everyone smiled with genuine warmth. They know that other teachers come to their school to learn. They’re extremely proud. At lunch, where children talk in small groups about a chosen topic – today was tattoos over vegetable wraps – they asked me what I would take from my visit today, and how I would implement anything I learn into my school. Yes, “implement”. They knew where Devon was and even asked me if I was a farmer! They set the table, served the food, cleared up and then offered public appreciations to each other, where I was appreciated for taking the time to speak with them.
The expectation is that every child should be able to appreciate something that another person has done, and that this should be made public. They’re encouraged to speak loudly and clearly to the year group, as they are in class when asking or answering questions. What struck me most was the articulacy of every child I met: all that I spoke with (and it was with rather than to – they are more than capable of holding their own, and proud to demonstrate this) were able to express themselves confidently, maturely and with, when necessary, technical language.
So how do they do this?
Firstly, Michaela has an inspirational headmistress in Katherine Birbalsingh, and she has a particularly clear vision in to which everybody thoroughly invests. She and her staff truly value knowledge and respect, and that’s why the school oozes with both. Secondly, the teachers are tremendously consistent: in their praise, their language, their expectations; in their passion, their subject knowledge and resolute belief that every single child can and will succeed. They ruthlessly adhere to their policies and principles, holding children and parents to account for behaviour and their own learning. Michaela very firmly places responsibility of the shoulders of their students, but also gives them the tools and knowledge to do this: failure does not seem to be a word in their vocabulary. Those expectations free everyone up to be exceptionally successful because every child recognises what the school is trying to give them.
Teachers are thus able to teach at pace, in incredible detail and at, in some cases, an absurdly high level. In one of Jo Facer’s Year 8 books I came across knowledge that wouldn’t be out of place in one of my A level Tudor textbooks. Again, in the vast majority of books I saw the children were able to write fluently and eloquently, often using complex terminology. Conceptual understanding also was very impressive, both orally and in written work. And yes, though we did have a tour from two brilliantly proud Year 8s, we were later able to roam freely, walking into any lesson we wished: there was nothing to hide.
I have to say, walking around Michaela made me feel like a child in a sweet shop. I kept smiling and nodding along, saying “Yep! Yes! Of course, absolutely!” Again, I knew what to expect, but actually seeing it – wow.
Gosh, this has all come off rather gushing! But it’s hard to not praise something which feels so right. Michaela is why I got into teaching and what I always wanted for my students. They’ve managed it, and so can we.
*And yet I’ve done exactly that.