Earlier last term, three of us were encouraged by the head to go and see a school that would challenge our thinking about the way we do things at CVC. Michaela Community School is an 11-18 (though it only has Y7 and Y8 so far) mixed free school in Wembley Park and is certainly unlike any school we have ever visited or worked in before (http://mcsbrent.co.uk). It has become well-known for some of its approaches to, amongst other things, the curriculum, teaching and behaviour management. On their website, they proudly claim that they, “bring the values and advantages of a private education to young people of all backgrounds by providing a highly academic curriculum and strong discipline…Traditional subjects are given additional lesson time in our longer school day to give pupils a better grounding for further study.” We certainly knew before we arrived that the school’s practices, vision and ethos would give us plenty to chew over in the days, weeks and months that followed. Our meeting with the headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, made clear that we would be surprised and challenged by what she described as ‘the Michaela way’ and encouraged us to visit any classroom we liked. Below are some reflections on specific aspects that stood out during the visit:
Behaviour: The first thing we noticed, as we were shown around the school, was how calm and quiet it was (eerily so, it seemed at times), even during the change over between lessons. Students at CVC are very well behaved and polite, but here they all walk to the left of a grey line that ran the length of each corridor and there was minimal talking. Posters on the wall of corridors state that ‘silence is golden’. Bags are not seen; students carry their work in folders. Everything is done quietly and very efficiently. No-one steps out of line. Our two delightful Year 8 guides were immaculately dressed in their school uniform, included a blazer and tie. The sheer politeness in the way the students answered our questions as they led us round their school made it clear that they had been well drilled.
All teachers consistently used the phrase ‘3-2-1, SLANT’ in lessons (stemming from Doug Lemov’s book, Teach like a Champion), which stands for:
Sit up straight
Track the teacher
As such, all students sit facing forwards with their arms folded when they are not writing in their books. Not a second of lesson time is wasted, and these high expectations are drilled into students and enforced in every aspect of school life. With no low-level disruption, teachers can get on with teaching and pupils are focused and, consequently, knowledgeable; teachers do not need to learn and employ a range of behaviour management strategies, as they are unnecessary.
Lunchtime is not the free time for students that it might be elsewhere (though they do get some time to themselves). Formal lunch in the dining hall is led by a teacher and structured to the minute. Everyone sits to eat a school dinner, which explains how the site is completely free from litter! There is a timetable on the walls detailing the different sections of lunchtime (serving, eating, clearing), so every minute is accounted for. Each year group eats together in the dining hall and students adhere to a seating plan. A member of staff sits at each table of six and there is a daily topic that must be discussed during lunch. The topic on the day of our visit was ‘Why do you think the Headteacher chose the school motto to be ‘work hard and be kind’?’ Collective responsibility is evident – every student has a set role to help with the lunchtime process, whether it is serving the food, clearing up or pouring the water. They also show their gratitude with a series of ‘appreciations’ which include a brief explanation of their choice and then clapping in unison. Having not expected al this, it looked quite surreal at first but the respect that pupils showed each other was very impressive. They were learning lessons for life.
We thought that sustaining this to the same degree as pupils get older and the school grows will be a challenge; an existing school trying to replicate and impose this would have far more of a challenge. However, with systems having been embedded in the school from the outset, with all staff committed to ‘the Michaela way’, and with a clear consistency in their approach to student behaviour, the school has secured very high standards. As visitors, we were shocked and impressed at the same time; we had never imagined that such a controlled and regimented environment could exist. It perhaps begs questions about whether critical thinking and individualism are encouraged. Nevertheless, with precious limited hours to teach new demanding and rigorous courses, we could see the benefits of the school’s approach in being able to maximise teaching and learning time. As a result, while at CVC we might not want to replicate all these approaches, we did reflect on whether time is lost due to unnecessary distractions. Certainly, the clarity of expectations and the consistently enforced by all make for an even more pleasant and calm environment where learning is never interrupted.
Lessons: The classrooms we entered at Michaela were all set up in rows, facing the front. The ‘Michaela way’ sets clear expectations for the conduct during lessons; the teachers we saw were at their desks or standing at the front of the class whilst pupils sat facing the teacher, tracking their every move. Group work? No, there is no group work. There is no ‘think, pair, share’. Teachers teach, pupils follow and repeat or do as instructed.
The class sizes at Michaela were larger than most we see at CVC and the pupils have an extended school day of 8.00am-4.30pm. Pupils know where to sit; they have to put their homework ‘practice books’ out open on their bench (this book is shared across subjects). Michaela believe strongly in the value of key vocabulary and spellings and the children have daily homework to practise writing out key terms correctly. This forms part of two hours of centrally-organised homework that all pupils complete every night without exception. The work is then either peer or self-marked and corrections made as necessary. Every pupil has their equipment laid out purposely on their desk; no bags are taken to lessons, appropriate books for the morning session are carried in hand to the classroom. The pupils have learnt that ‘talking stops learning’, they understand that the ‘Michaela way’ is different to primary school and that they cannot chat to their neighbour or ask the person sat behind them for a pencil sharpener at any point during lesson time, otherwise demerits will be awarded.
All the lessons seen during our visit were teacher led from the front of the classroom. Teachers gave clear instruction, pupils engaged and responded quickly and enthusiastically. The MFL lesson we observed was fantastic: fast paced and full of vocabulary, all in the target language. The enthusiastic teacher proudly shared with us his view that we would not see pupils with such an excellent spoken command of the French language in other schools. He went through key vocabulary clearly and loudly, pupils repeated this several times to ensure that the pronunciation was perfect; each error was carefully corrected. The teacher then built up sentences in French, selecting pupils to speak their part by a simple wave of a finger. All 32 were fully engaged, responding and speaking excellent French; we had to remind ourselves that they were only Year 8 and not a GCSE class. The pace during the lesson, along with the pupils’ absolute focus, meant the amount of content covered within a short period of time was impressive. It was clear how the exemplary behaviour led to every minute of lesson being used for learning. There were no distractions (except for having us visitors in the room!) at any point and pupils were buzzing with pride. The teacher then explained that part of the reason the pupils were progressing so well, was the emphasis on studying French phonics and written form of the work. “You will not see pictures or videos in this classroom, they are the work of the devil”, he mockingly declared.
We only had time to see a small sample of lessons, and the languages lesson stood out. Naturally we questioned in our own minds how far the ‘Michaela way’ would be effective all the time for all subjects in our own context. We’ve seen, in our own school, excellent examples of collaborative work between pupils and believe there can great value in appropriate group work done well. We continue to value challenging open questions and discussion, particularly where it suits the demands of certain subject disciplines. The visit forced us to reflect on how carefully we evaluate, (and not confuse), both the curricular ‘what‘ as well as the pedagogic ‘how‘. We have continued to consider how far we diverge (and converge) on both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ since our visit and can see the strengths of both schools’ approaches.
So, there was much to learn from, and to admire about, Michaela. The most distinctive difference to any other school we have visited that stood out was that the perfect behaviour of the pupils, along with their excellent focus and attitude to learning, which allowed teachers to use time extremely productively. The visit helped us to reflect on our own behaviour systems and how much we expect pupils to achieve every lesson. We would like to thank Katharine Birbalsingh and her dedicated team for welcoming us and we look forward to encouraging more of our colleagues to go and see what is happening there for themselves.
For a fascinating insight to life at Michaela for a teacher who has just started working there (Jan. 2016), read Jo Facer’s recent blog here: http://readingallthebooks.com/2016/01/09/starting-at-michaela/