What if lesson observations were every week? How we reduced stress by observing staff more often.

Every year I commission a staff survey and every year – although the overall findings are always really positive – I  have to lock myself away to read it as it always makes me so cross initially!  It is of course done anonymously but with results reported separately for teachers and support staff.  Because we are a relatively small school – 1 form entry – the temptation is to try and second  guess exactly which miserable ***** it was who disagreed (and strongly) that ‘the SLT provides them with the support and guidance they needed to do their job effectively.’ The fact it was a teacher rather than a TA makes it worse.  Teacher results are always more positive than TA results. But not, apparently, in this case. And there are only 11 possible people it could be.  So I run through the eligible candidates, thinking about who this Brutus could possibly be. I summon my deputy (I know it’s not her) and together we run through the remaining 10 teachers and together decide it has to be teacher X and find ways to dismiss their opinion as totally invalid. Then we move on to pinpoint which Judas TA (from the 16 who completed it) does not agree ‘they are treated with fairness and respect.’ And so on through 100 or so criteria. I’m sure we don’t make for a very edifying spectacle which is why I make sure to give myself time to through my hissy fit in private.

Considering I commissioned the survey in the first place, you’d think I’d welcome the honest feedback. I suppose I assume that everybody thinks everything is absolutely marvellous, so am always disappointed that I get any negative feedback at all. In my heart of hearts, I don’t quite understand why people only vote ‘agree’ rather than ‘strongly agree’ that everything within my kingdom, I mean our school, is 100% amazing.  The anonymous thing is necessary, I get that, but so frustrating. It hurts that there is a member of staff out there who really feels that they are not treated with fairness and respect. Hissy fit aside, I want to hear what it is that has made them feel that way and to reassure that of course I value and respect them and if something has made them feel otherwise, I want to put that right straight away. But I don’t know who it was, so maybe they still feel the same now as they did in May, when they did the survey.

The day after I first read the survey, I re-read it and now I am able to have a bit of distance, be a bit more objective and to learn from it.  The most useful learning comes from statements where quite a few people disagree. Usually these are things I can put my hands up to with relative ease or are long running problems – for example 45% of teachers do not feel they are able to strike the right balance between their work and home life. The previous year it was 62% so we’re heading in the right direction although *gnashes teeth* 3 teachers ‘do not agree that senior leaders are looking at ways of reducing teacher workload.’ (Strangled cry of ‘yes we are, it’s in the bloody development plan; I’ve banned marking for God sake…deep breaths Clare, deep breaths)

The stand out finding from last year was that 37% of support staff ‘did not feel the received regular and constructive feedback.’  This was not entirely unsurprising – we knew only too well that we had never found a workable system for appraisal for TA’s and the SENCO started each year with the best of intentions regarding coaching those TA’s who worked supporting children with statements or EHCP’s, with other matters somehow taking precedence in real life. But in some ways it was also surprising; our major school development initiative that year had been implementing the MITA project (Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants), which I have written about here. It had been, by all accounts incredibly successful and we all wanted to build on it this year.  It involved a lot of feedback – including watching video footage of your own teaching – from one’s peers with some teacher involvement from the 3 teachers running the project. We deliberately did not include the SLT (apart from myself as I was part of the team) to make the project less intimidating.  But we appeared to have uncovered a desire for better, more regular structured conversations with line managers about how well TA’s were doing their jobs. What manager could ask for more! What a gift!

At the same time, I was anxious to do all I could to reduce the stress-load on teachers.  Reducing the workload might be a Sisyphean task, but I could try and make the work less stressful. Top of the list of stressors came lesson observations and teaching and learning reviews. How could I make sure I had an accurate picture of our strengths and weaknesses in the classroom in a way that was less stressful? We already didn’t grade lesson observations, but the termly half hour visit was still perceived as being incredibly stressful however much I chucked around terms like ‘developmental’ and ‘helpful.’

By chance, I was reading Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.  At the centre of his school improvement work, in the centre of his leadership in fact, lay a system where he (or other leaders) observed every teacher for 10 minutes every week for a low stakes observation, followed by a very brief 10 minute feedback session.  He goes through  and dismisses all the excuses about the impossibility of timetabling this and is pretty persuasive. (I’m not quite sure about how big his school is – obviously it is smaller than a typical secondary school – but I’m sure an adapted form of this could be used in even the largest school). I wondered if this might provide a model that enabled the senco to get around her TA’s, allowed us to build on the success of the MITA project, reduced stress in teachers and gave me a stronger picture than the traditional model we had been using. More than that, I hoped be a strong lever, as Leverage Leadership alleged, for further school improvement.  We were in a strong position that every one of our teachers was at least good – many were very strong indeed – and here lay a system of observation and feedback that would enable really great teachers to make incremental improvements every week, which when taking altogether would lead to a substantial school-wide improvement. In other words, we were embracing the UK Olympic Cycling team’s philosophy of going for marginal gains.

I was a bit wary about how staff would feel about it. It could come across as even more stressful. The SLT thought it a good idea so I dropped the idea into conversation with various teachers, stressing how light touch the approach was and promising no reviews by outsiders this year. these intial soundings were all positive. Then I discussed it formally in our end of year INSET day (held on June 23rd when the school was closed for the referendum) and no one objected, so in it went into our development plan.

Over an enjoyable dinner in early September with my two former deputies, both now head teachers in their own right, there was much chortling about how impossible I would find it to fit it in. This actually was a great spur to prove them wrong. We had already set up our new diner date for early December. I was determined to come back with tales of how well it had worked.

How it worked was as follows. We didn’t start until the third week back, to give people a bit of time to get to know their classes. In my experience, the first two weeks are full of realising you’ve pitched work too low or too high – so I thought a bit of grace time to sort that out would be more productive all round.  There are 8 class teachers plus the deputy who teaches groups in the morning. Of these 9 teachers, I would aim to see 7 a week while the deputy would see the remaining 2 (obviously she didn’t observe herself). The senco would dedicate Thursdays every week to seeing TA’s when they were explicitly supporting children with SEN, aiming to get through these every 3 weeks.  She saw each TA with each child – so where TA’s work with more than one child, she would do a different observation for each child (rather than per adult). The Early Years leader would use part of her nct each Friday to see at least two of her support staff (out of a team of 6) each week. I would then mop up anyone not included in the system (for example a couple of TA’s who do not work with  statemented/EHCP children at all), staying  5-10 minutes longer in the class where I was seeing the teacher so I could also take notes on their role. Notes were written up as bullet points on an excel spreadsheet and feedback was given during either assembly or the next break or after school. Sometimes if a TA was in class just before lunch/end of the day they would cover the last 10 minutes so feedback could be done then.

I immediately loved the new system. I got into classes so much more regularly and could give bite sized feedback that was acted on immediately. I also timetabled myself to sometimes go at unusual times – at the very beginning of a lesson as the children came in, or during story time – for example, to check that every minute of the teaching day was being exploited for maximum learning gain. Often feedback was all positive, with only the most minor point being picked up on (that green pen on your whiteboard is hard to read from the back of the class – try something with better colour contrast*[1]) or suggestions for how to build on what I’d seen rather than development points as such.  Often when there were points they were about getting smoother, slicker transitions, something we need to introduce as proper whole school system in due course. It did allow me to introduce things I’ve got waiting in the wings for the right time such as SLANT to teachers for whom it seemed appropriate. For example in one class children listened really well to the teacher but possibly in a less focused way when their peers were addressing the class. Getting pupils to track each other when talking has really increased pupil attention to each other. Most of my comments were generic about teaching itself – use of voice, transitions, questioning routines rather than subject specific as such, although these did feature.

Alongside these ‘drop-ins’ as we called them, the maths leader continued to coach and team teach with teachers new to our mathsmastery programme for the full hour during her nct, the early reading teacher has a coaching programme for all staff (teachers and TA’s) teaching phonics and rotates around them, sometimes coaching, sometimes modelling and our literacy lead is in different classes each week helping staff implement our new system that has replaced guided reading and to model how to give feedback on writing now that we do not remotely mark any writing. Obviously if during drop ins we had encountered concerns about teaching, we would have had to adapt the drop in programme for something more formal for the person concerned, but that is not where we are. I did see one (10 minute slot of a) lesson that did not work – it was in a guided reading lesson before we replaced them and exemplified everything about why we moved away from that model – independent groups busy doing activities that don’t actually help them learn much – so we had a discussion about what learning the teacher had assumed would occur and problem solved why reality and aspiration were so adrift and moved on.  I already knew this teacher is usually fabulous but under this system I was back the next week anyway, and the next and the next, so any sustained loss of form would have been quickly picked up. But the system allowed me to see it for the blip it was – we all make mistakes.

We also still do work surveys, although we now see pupils books in lots of different ways. Most staff meetings involve bringing books along for us to share together what’s working and what’s not and we now make sure every full governing body meeting and some committee meetings involve looking at pupils work. again, because books are looked at so often, problems are picked up early and the whole thing becomes routine rather than a make or break high stakes stress-fest.

All the staff doing the drop ins liked them and felt they knew so much more about learning in the school than previously. The senco managed, more or less to stick to her Thursdays-for-drop-ins timetable, although time for feedback can be an issue. Unfortunately due to ‘exigencies of the service’ the deputy is now teaching almost all day so has had to drop out of the rota after a few weeks – she maybe manages one a week on a good week. But how did the staff feel about them?

But by bit various teachers volunteered feedback.  One nqt said she loved the new system and found it so much less stressful (the previous year she was a TeachFirst trainee) and more helpful getting regular small steps to work on. One teacher who gets ridiculously nervous around observations said it really helped because now they happened so regularly she just couldn’t get herself all worked up about it. As a result I’ve actually seen her teach really well rather than impeded by nerves. A teacher new to the school who previously came from an outstanding school where, reading between the lines, observations had been extremely high stakes, said initially she thought it sounded a bit barmy and lacking in rigour but having had it for a term she now found it simultaneously less stressful but more rigorous – in that it actually moved her practice on more effectively. Previously she would go to extreme effort and put on an all singing all dancing show and be given very positive feedback. Whereas now we saw her bread-and-butter day in, day out teaching, warts and all, so she received feedback that helped her improve without feeling she had failed in some way. She could risk teaching normally.

In order to get a more rounded picture, I wrote a quick 7 question survey using Survey Monkey and attached it to the weekly calendar I send out every Friday, asking colleagues to let me see how it was going. Out of 19 respondents, 17 preferred in and 2 did not have a preference –so no going back, that’s for sure. The next question asked how useful was the feedback they had received.  11 (again out of 19) said it was very useful, 6 fairly useful and 2 occasionally useful. Considering some people are so strong that I failed to find anything of significance to feedback most visits and it is meant to be about mainly finding marginal gains, I’m more than happy with this.  Asked if they agreed with feedback given 10 said yes always, 7 said often and 1 said sometimes (1 person didn’t answer that question). Asked if they thought they had improved as a result, 7 said they had improved a lot, 9 said they had improved in the areas identified and the remaining 3 a bit. I can’t know for certain but I’m assuming that’s from the strongest teachers who are being tactful in the face of my not very helpful feedback.

Timetabling the drop ins was the biggest headache, so I was hoping that the staff were now so blasé about them that they wouldn’t need any prior notice and would be happy about me popping in at any time… in my dreams. 5 staff would be happy with this and 1 – the one who used to get really nervous – said she would be ok if she knew the day but not the time. The remaining 7 said a resolute NO, so I guess that is not going to change. Not yet anyway.

The other bugbear is time for feedback.  Sometimes I feel it would work just as well by email – as long as both parties reserved the right to ask to meet in person, either prior or post observation.  This really divided opinion. 5 said this was a great idea, 6 didn’t mind either way, 4 would prefer face to face but didn’t hate the idea whereas 4 hated it as far too impersonal. So next term – people will get a choice between email or in person – although the person dropping in will reserve the right to meet them in person if what they need to say is too complicated or needs the human touch. So I’m hoping that will save loads of time with 11 people opting for email.

Finally, I asked them if they would like the opportunity to drop in on colleagues themselves.  6 said they would find this very useful, 9 quite useful and 2 said yes but it would need to be for longer to be useful. The remaining 2 said no thanks, they would find this too awkward.  I also asked colleagues to email any further thoughts, although these comments would not be anonymous. Only 1 teacher did. She reminded us that when we launched the idea, sometimes the SLT were going to cover the class teacher so the class teacher could observe (and subsequently better guide) their TA.  In class they are too busy doing their own role to observe their TA as well, yet this would be really useful. We had forgotten this and it was great to get the reminder and something we must remember to do next term.

So overall it’s been a great success and one that we will continue to build on. It’s been particularly useful in enabling me to track the implementation of key development plan initiatives as week by week things move from being innovations to becoming routine.  Or not.  At my evening out with my former deputies I reported back that I had missed one week when I was ill, 1 week when everyone was either out training, on a trip, doing an art workshop or performing in a concert and the last 3 weeks of term when it was assessments and nativity plays I had done every week – 8 weeks in all. Next term I will skip the first week as we are doing pupil progress meetings and probably the last but intend to do every week. Some weeks I’ll be covering teachers so they can observe their TA’s. I’ve also started teaching year 6 science 1 lesson a week, so I will have to get myself dropped into at least occasionally.

It may not be suitable for all situations. One of my former deputies has recently taken over a school that was in a bit of a mess (though thought it was amazing). She didn’t think it was ready for this yet, particularly as she didn’t have a strong leadership team around her who she would trust in their judgements yet.  And it’s a bigger school so she would absolutely need colleagues to help out. She’s thinking about starting it with her leaders though.

If I could change one thing about how we implemented it, I’d change how we recorded it.  I copied Leverage Leadership and created a spreadsheet with a page per teacher. However, maybe they either are much more familiar with excel or used a different programme but this has been so unwieldly.  I finally now know how to use the return key and add a bullet point using excel but have to remind myself afresh every time I use it. Then there was the problem that if one person had the spreadsheet open, no one else could use it. We are only a small school so don’t think we need an expensive web based system like BluSkyEducation (although do leave a comment if you have a suggestion of a system that might work) so we will probably transfer over to a word based system next term.

Looking back, I’d never return to the old system. It seems so inflexible and uninformative.  This system tells me what I need to know about the school improvement journey, helps staff improve, reduces the stress they feel and reaches all staff – not just teachers.  I’m looking forward to our staff survey next May and hoping various key indicators show a marked improvement.  I’ll still be grumpy initially though.

[1] They’d only used the green pen for a couple of comments – not for the main text.

What if lesson observations were every week? How we reduced stress by observing staff more often.

Michaela Prime – is the atmosphere breathable?

This is part two of my thoughts about how well the kind of education outlined in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers- the Michaela Way,’ a book published in November 2016 featuring chapters written  by a range of staff at Michaela Community School. This part looks at the ethos and discipline. In part one I discussed whether didactic teaching emboss and a knowledge- led curriculum are suitable for younger, primary age pupils.

There seems to be concern in some quarters about the atmosphere at Michaela; the no-excuses discipline, the bootcamp, the stress on adult authority. Some worry that this atmosphere is toxic for children, and therefore, we may surmise, even less suitable for younger primary children than it is for secondary pupils.  Others argue that, on the contrary, while the atmosphere can be bracing at times, it is just the tonic our children need to excel. Indeed, maybe it is the ‘progressive’ atmosphere in schools that is poisoning our education system; by contrast traditionalism represents a veritable breath of fresh air.

Michaela likes to boast about how strict it is. It’s probably sub-editors rather than the school itself that styles it as ‘the strictest school in Britain,’ but we get the picture; it’s pretty strict. Would this ethos be appropriate in a primary school? Would younger children be able to cope with the demands? Should they have to?

I think this is a bit of a red herring.  There are already plenty of very strict schools around, in both primary and secondary phases. I have friends whose children go to their local Catholic primary who are terrified of the headteacher. The parents are terrified – not just the children; waking up in a cold sweat because they had a dream about forgetting their book bag kind of scared.  What appears to be different about Michaela, and what really appeals to me, is the ethos of kindness and love that is articulated. They are strict, but it is because they really care about the children and not for its own sake or as some kind of power trip and in a way that empowers, rather than crushes the children.

My two sons went to different secondary schools. At the first, the discipline was terrible, particularly at KS3, and he was kicked down the stairs twice by pupils, his books went unlooked at and unmarked – and not in a ‘let’s look at your book in class with a visualiser’ kind of way either.  Several of his teachers just didn’t look at his work – and once he cottoned on to this he stopped trying very hard.  Of course, within this mess, some teachers were fantastic. But the structures weren’t.   At the second (chosen in reaction to the first), authority was draconian. Screaming in children’s faces for not having their shirt tucked in or eating a chip with your fingers – majoring in humiliating children – my son detested the regime (though he liked individual teachers and it’s obvious to me, if not to him, that many staff were really passionate about empowering inner city children through education). There are at least three secondary schools who operate this kind of authoritarian regime within a couple of miles to where I live – it’s nothing new. So for me, Michaela represents some calm, sensible middle ground, between brutal authoritarianism and lassier-faire  regimes where the authoritarianism is pupil-led, by the scary big kids. I wanted somewhere neither feral nor oppressive. And yes, of course I am aware that other alternatives exist – not quite so hard core as Michaela. The school most of our pupils transfer to for example, seems to mainly get the balance right.

What I love most of all when I read about Michaela is the explicit ethos of kindness. This seems very ‘primary school’ to me – although as it is described in their book, it seems like Michaela are doing this even better than how we do it – beating us at our own game. A good few years back, I attended the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH). This fantastic training on leadership taught us about leadership styles using the Goleman model.  This model contrasts visionary leadership (called authoritative leadership in the LPSH) with commanding leadership (which LPSH dubbed ‘coercive’ or ‘authoritarian).  Visionary leadership is often highly successful whereas commanding leadership can have very negative effects. Visionary, authoritative leadership inspires people and explains how and why people’s effort contributes to the dream. Commanding, coercive authoritarian leadership by contrast, looks superficially similar but has a quite different emotional tone with its ‘do it because I say so’ mentality that people instinctively rebel against. What Michaela seems to have done is work hard to get pupils as well as staff to buy in to their vision of kindness, gratitude, hard work and empathy. In the chapter by Jonathan Porter, ‘No-excuses Discipline Changes Lives,’ he is clear that at Michaela they reject the old-school Miss Trunchball-style authority-for authority’s-sake approach, just as they reject more democratic or affiliative approaches as the leading paradigm for adult:child relationships. When people accuse Michaela of terrible crimes against childhood, I think what they have failed to distinguish is the difference between being cruelly authoritarian because you like controlling people and strong visionary leadership that encourages and motivates people to do amazing things they never realised they were capable of.  That’s the kind of leader I strive to be most of the time (though as Goleman makes clear, all styles have a time and a place; in a crisis you might need to be authoritarian to get people out of a hole).

Our school has a strongly articulated set of values. We believe in trust, friendship, togetherness, thankfulness, compassion, justice, peace, forgiveness, creativity, endurance, hope, responsibility and awe and wonder. (Yes it’s a long list – not exactly pithy).  We refer to these values with children all the time in terms of developing as a good, moral person; be compassionate, take responsibility, be a peacemaker. But what I realise we don’t do enough of – and should do – is link these values with learning for pupils. We do more so with staff, spelling out how these values must shape how staff  interact with children; we don’t really make those kind of links with children. We don’t make enough of how amazingly lucky children are to be receiving this excellent gift called education; about how excited and grateful they should be to be given this brilliant present. At Michaela they do this a lot.

Sometimes they do it in ways that I’m not comfortable with.  I’d spend all day sitting at Barry Smith’s feet learning about how to teach French from him, but his chapter ‘Top of the Pyramid’ – which is all about inspiring pupils to work hard so that they can be better than other people – doesn’t chime with my values.   I don’t believe in pitting school against school.  In church circles, the metaphor of a farm in the outback is sometimes used to describe two different ways that churches can see their membership.  In the outback, land can be farmed and livestock kept close either by using fences – to keep dangerous animals out and to stop livestock straying off into danger; or by having a really deep well in the centre of your ranch that naturally attracts livestock to stick around. Some churches use a ‘fence’ approach, policing their congregations to toe the line; outside of the fence lies danger, bad people.   Behave lest you will be cast out beyond the fence!  Others are more like farms that have a deep well at the centre; animals are naturally drawn to these safe sources of drinking water; why would they want to stray too far from their source of life?  Such farms don’t need to categorise people as ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the fence. There is no fence; only people closer or further away from that which they need to thrive. In a bounded set, your position, in or out is all important.  In a centred set, it’s the direction you are moving – towards or away from the centre – that matters.

So rather than tell children they are really lucky to come to our school because our school is better than the other schools, and children from our better school go on to be better people, I want to explain to the children that school (in general) is a wonderful life-enhancing opportunity for them – and how children in some countries do not have the opportunity to go to school and how sad that is for them because they miss out on so much that is good and exciting and interesting. And how grateful we should be to all the grown-ups in this country for agreeing that education is such a wonderful thing that all children in Britain deserve. So all the grown-ups – even those who don’t have any children – agreed to give some of their money to the government, so that every single child could benefit from this wonderful opportunity. And the richer grown-ups had agreed it was only fair that they give more of their money than the poorer ones. (I never miss opportunities to tell children about the great good that is taxation; taxation being the hallmark of any civilised society. British values and all that. Besides, they need to know in the same way their parents can’t just get money from the cash machine on the wall but have to work to earn it, neither do governments have any money save that which people agree to give through taxation.)

So what I need to develop is something like this:  Without education life would be so boring and empty.  You wouldn’t be able to read any amazing stories so you would never have met Beowulf or Boudicca or Theseus or Varjak Paw or Stanley Yelnats or Hermione Granger. You wouldn’t know about all the amazing people who have done incredibly brave, difficult things like Mary Seacole or Harriet Tubman or made awesome discoveries or great inventions like Alan Turing or Charles Darwin or Ada Lovelace  – so you wouldn’t be inspired to try and do something amazing with your own life. You wouldn’t have learnt about equality from Guru Nanak or forgiveness from the Prophet Mohammed or compassion from Jesus or endurance from Moses or selflessness from the Buddha.  Because you come to school, all of these stories now live in you; they are part of you. When life is tough you can go to them to learn about resilience, courage, hope and doing what is right.  When life is good they can spur you on to doing what you can to make this world a better place, to search for the hero inside yourself, to be the very best ‘you’ that you can be.

Learning can be really hard sometimes and you will learn to develop grit and determination in the face of challenges. But do you know what – when you finally learn your 7 times table or how to add fractions or you finally understand what a really hard poem is saying you will feel so proud of yourself and feel so exhilarated. Well, the people of this country believe in you – they believe you can do it – you can rise to the challenge and you will be successful.  They will never give up on you so never give up on yourself. Work with us and we will help you do things you never believed were possible.

Education: because you are worth it. The state’s gift to you, little one. Use it wisely and be grateful.

(Obviously this is a primary school version stated in primary colours.)

Knowledge-led curricula should promote the value of knowledge on their own terms; not on some instrumentalist premise about how we can be better than other people.  We don’t want to look down on people; we want to be in a position to raise them up. (I really don’t like that chapter, do I).

But there are loads of chapters I do like.  The pyramid that Barry Smith is talking about is, I think, based on this triangle used throughout the school. (I may not have the wording 100% correct as this is the version we use where I am headteacher and I think we adapted in slightly; you get the gist.)

motivation-triange

This triangle narrates the vision behind the school to the children (and it is perfectly possible to narrate this vision in a centred, rather than bounded way.)  The staff work here, it implies, because they want to help you become the sort of person who behaves well for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do and not as a tactic to avoid trouble or build reputation, although it will start as that. The triangle exemplifies a journey in moral development. I think it would work even better if the top level was ‘so I can help everybody have a great future.’  I shared this with the staff about a year ago, in a low key way. Having read Battle Hymn and about family lunch and bootcamp and the daily sermon and how demerits are always explained in terms of the school’s vision, I am definitely going to relaunch this and make it much more centre stage.  It sets up the route map we want our children to go on. Young children all start seeing being good as primarily about not getting into trouble as I know only too well from too many sessions sorting out KS1 scuffles.

‘So why don’t we hit people when we feel cross with them Hamid?’

‘Cos you’ll get in trouble.’

Remember that visionary leadership inspires people and explains how and why people’s effort contributes to the dream.

‘Hamid we don’t hit people when we feel cross with them because that just makes them cross too. So now we’ve got two cross people. That’s not what we want. We want no cross people. I wonder if you could have done something else when you felt cross? I know, you could have told Zahid that he was making you feel cross.’

In one of my favourite chapters on no-excuses discipline Jonathan Porter reiterates the importance of explaining why rules exist and encouraging pupils to think about what the school would be like without them. He absolutely repudiates imposing sanctions on pupils without narrating to them the reason for the system’s existence.  He contrasts the US style ‘do-as-I say-because-I say-so’ regimes found in some charter schools and one animated by a vision of kindness, gratitude, hard work and empathy. The former is indeed a toxic environment that breeds resentment and disaffection; the latter an atmosphere that allows for flourishing.

It is also an atmosphere predicated on respect for teachers.  Alongside Jonathan’s chapter, I also really liked Hin-Tai Ting’s on respect.  More than that, Hin-Tai moved on my thinking.  He contrasts the respect that Chinese pupils have for their teachers with the respect more usually found in British schools. Before Michaela, he assumed this was an artefact of living within an authoritarian culture. Were that to be the case, then I’d put up with tutting and eye-rolling any day rather than live under an authoritarian regime.  But working at Michaela changed his mind. Here, because they narrated why disrespect was not acceptable in terms of learning to become a responsible citizen and not at all by means of pulling adult rank; as a result children at Michaela behave respectfully towards all staff.

This is something I really want to get us to do. It’s not like we are a million miles from it; we certainly don’t like eye rolling or tutting but this narration thing is going to take some work for some staff. In particular, some staff who do feature lower down the hierarchy and supply teachers (especially supply teachers) who, when respect is not given by pupils, bristle and pull rank, sometimes in ways that aren’t particularly respectful themselves. Then the child is really disrespectful and someone in the SLT has to sort out a big old mess.  The narration approach allows the child to keep their dignity; nobody is being humiliated into submitting. Rather they are being taught what is a civilised way to behave. Rolling one’s eyes and tutting are rude.  We need to be polite and kind to each other, not rude.  If you think something is unfair, then at the right time come and discuss it. Not now in the heat of the moment. Of course as soon as one member of staff doesn’t toe the line and pulls rank then the whole system gets put into disrepute. As Katharine Birbalsingh said over and over at the launch of Battle Hymn ‘we all row together.’

I can see why bootcamp week is so important in getting both pupils and staff onside.  Particularly the repeated explicit explaining about accepting the role of the adult in the same way that we accept (well sort of) the authority of a referee in sport. They are there to make a decision so that the game can go on. They are not there to get it right 100% of the time. We could have referees more like that and have endless interruptions while cameras are looked and the second and third referees confer – but it would make the game really boring.  Learning time in schools is too precious to waste doing endless autopsies about who ‘was also calling out.’  Of course there should be some sort of mechanism were serious miscarriages of justice are addressed; Michael Fordham writes well about this really well here.

Part of the problem is with the word ‘strict’. Some people here this and hear ‘harsh,’ ‘severe’ whereas others hear ‘precise’, ‘scrupulous.’ Without doubt the routines at Michaela are precise and scrupulously upheld by the staff.  Sanctions for non-compliance are consistently applied in every classroom.  Jonathan uses the example of a pupil ‘Tom’ who found following rules very difficult at primary school but who learnt, after a couple of wobbly weeks, to allow the rules to contain him in a way that actually set him free. Tom’s difficult family background was not taken into consideration to cut him some slack. And Tom rose to the high expectations set of him.  If we give children the message ‘you couldn’t possibly cope with this’ then I guess they won’t. Beside the sanctions at Michaela are so mild. Get two demerits in a lesson and that’s a 20 minute detention doing a bit of revision. Er, that’s it.  We are harsher at our primary school – we make a point of not allowing reading to take place because boredom is part of the punishment. But actually, reading Michaela has made me reconsider. Michaela has made me more liberal!  Presently we tell the children – you have to sit in silence and think about the choice you made and what better choices you could have chosen instead.  Of course they probably don’t think about that at all – they mainly watch the clock or try and catch the eye of a friend. What is doesn’t do is help them buy in to our vision of school as a precious gift that mustn’t be wasted.  From next term, reading your knowledge book it is.

However, it wouldn’t do to be fundamentalist about no excuses.  I get it removes grey areas and stops weak-willed liberal folk such as myself perhaps being too soft. But I’m sure what the policy really is in practice is ‘no excuses 99.9999% of the time except on very rare occasions that are so unusual it is difficult to specify in advance what exactly they might be.  But that’s not very pithy and also gives unhelpful wiggle room both to staff and to students. Once students know that there is a chink in the disciplinary armour then you get into students contesting decisions – wasting time – getting annoyed when what they see as their valid excuse is not taken into consideration. But, as Tom Bennett says in this great blog on inclusion and behaviour, ‘exceptions must be exceptional.’  Tom’s article is so good on the tensions between inclusion and setting firm boundaries for behaviour that I suggest you read that rather than me trying to witter on about it, but I will make the following points.

First of all, we should start using different language to describe what happens when a child’s behaviour becomes so extreme that it jeopardises the education and/or well-being of everybody else.  If I go to my G.P. with some condition that is too specialised for her to deal with, she doesn’t expel me from general practice; she refers me to a specialist who knows more about this particular problem.  There’s no stigma or blame attached, it is just obvious my problem needs looking at by someone who looks at that sort of problem all the time.  Why can’t children with emotional and behavioural problems that need specialist attention be perceived in the same way?

Secondly, primary school children are obviously younger than secondary children (who knew!) Particularly in the early years and KS1, they are still learning emotional self-control.  To go back to the above example of Hamid hitting a child because he feels cross, it matters a great deal whether Hamid is three, six, nine or twelve.  At three it is fairly unremarkable (though of course needs firm dealing with), at six it should be unusual – with maybe one or two children taking a bit longer to accept this is unacceptable and to be able to use alternatives instead – by nine specialist help is being brought in to help the child. And I’m assuming a twelve year old who hits people when they are cross is in danger of permanent exclusion. (See what I mean about language? How much better would it be to say ‘is being transferred to the specialist unit for the time being’ – which I suppose happens in secondary schools with behaviour support units).

The idea of a pupil at Michaela hitting another seems unlikely, but I am sure it would happen at Michaela Prime from time to time. Hamid (who is of course not actually called Hamid) is based on a real child.  Not only does he hit children when he is angry with them, he sometimes hits them if he thinks someone else might be angry with them.  He is a bit of a lone ranger who sees his role in life as punishing wrong doing.  Except his own of course – which he perceives as people receiving their just deserts. So for now, when he feels the kind of burning anger that makes him want to lash out, he is allowed to remove himself to the side of the classroom, get his ‘angry book’ and draw in it whilst he composes himself, any work missed being made up in his own time. And it is working, instead of lashing out, he draws intricate cartoons of angry monsters and then within 5 minutes is back on track.  Now he needs to grow out of this pretty quickly; he is not going to be having his angry book when he is in year 4, but for now it is working. Michaela Prime could have its strict routines and no-excuses discipline, but it would also need to be able to find ways to help those whose emotional development is not yet age appropriate.

Perhaps half you now think that’s cruel and draconian and the other half outrageously namby-pamby.

Apart from Barry’s chapter ‘From the Top of the Pyramid’ there is one more I really dislike; ‘Dani Quinn’s Competition is Crucial’.  Dani tries to convince us that being bracingly honest with pupils about how well they are doing in relationship with one another is actually, in the long run, doing them a favour because true self esteem comes from

‘being able to face the challenges and setbacks of the world outside the school gates, knowing that you have the resilience to cope with it, knowing from experience that working harder and acting on advice is an essential response to achieve success.’ (Battle Hymn p 134)

Well yes, but Dani believes that this sort of enviably copious self-esteem comes from being tested and knowing where they stand in relationship to others. She contrasts this with pupils (presumably in other schools) who are oblivious to how badly they are doing. I contest this.  Children who struggle academically know exactly how badly they are doing and feel terrible about it, even when their teachers go to great pains to disguise or minimise differences.  The problem with public ranking of children  – how ever kindly done – is that it is rubbing the faces of children who know only too well how much harder they find things in their failure. The younger one is, the more difficult this is to cope with. It’s pretty hard when you are an adult or almost adult! When I was 16, I moved for sixth form to the French Lycée in London (Le Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle de Londres). I moved schools because although I wanted to do science A levels (I wanted to be a doctor at the time), I also wanted to do French – but doing 4 A levels was unheard of at the time – particularly mixing and matching sciences with languages.  For some reason that have nothing to do with growth mindset or applying myself, I had found learning French at school really, really easy. The final O level exam was an hour and a half paper. I’d finished it in 20 minutes. I got an A (there were no A*’s in my day). Apart from the native French speaker, I was the best at French in my school by a long way, though my accent was very –er, English.  Imagine, if you will, the horror of transferring to a school where everybody else speaks French fluently, either having it as a mother tongue, or having been taught in French since the age of 5. I was in the English stream so my science A levels were fine – apart from a few hilarious moments trying to ask the very French lab techs for specific pieces of equipment – Pictionary with laboratory glassware – but French A level was taught entirely in French.  If you asked how a word was spelt, it was spelt in French. If you asked for a definition, it came back in French.

‘Qu’est-ce  que blême’ veut dire?’

‘Ça veut dire ‘blafard.’

‘Qu’est-ce  que ‘blafard’ veut dire?’

‘Ça veut dire ‘blême.’

(They both mean pale, by the way)

The worst bit of the week was La Dictée. This was marked with a starting score of zero, with +1 for every correct word and -1 for every incorrect.  Scores were read out to the class by the teacher starting at the bottom.  I was always bottom – except for once and boy did that guy get some stick ‘you scored lower than Clare man – you loser!’ I think my very first score was about -85. I did get better week on week and around January I got a round of applause from the whole class when I finally broke even and scored 0.  At 17 this was uncomfortable but I could laugh it off. At 13? I think I would have been reluctant to try if it meant being so exposed.  I’m trying to imagine what Dani would say to the adolescent me. I’m sure she would be very encouraging that my score had risen from – 48  to – 26 and big this up as the most improved score. Maybe this would have motivated me? All I can say is that with younger primary children in particular, for children who know only too well that they can’t write as well as their peers, this very knowledge becomes such a stumbling block they can become increasingly reluctant to even try to do something, especially when they fear their effort may be made public or it is some sort of official test.   And what about children with a diagnosed learning difficulty? Guess what child with  Down Syndrome*[1] – you are bottom again! Like every week, like you always will be – how ever hard you try. Of course Dani didn’t write her chapter as a mandate for primary schools. She is writing from a secondary school perspective about secondary school pupils. It’s me who is hauling it into a primary context – maybe she would exclaim ‘of course I don’t think it would work in a primary school!’

Dani seems to see a dichotomy between publically ranking children and deluding children as to how well they are doing compared to what’s ‘normal’ for their group. Our nursery children, despite us trying really hard to blur things, already know that some children are better at certain things than others.  I just don’t accept that children sail through school thinking they are doing fine when they are not. There is only one group for whom this may be true: the ones who find academic success comes easy. Especially the arrogant, cocky sort who have never had any sort of rival. For these kids, competitions with other children like them from a bigger pool might be instructive.

I also refute Danni’s statement that most pupils don’t participate in external competitions and there is little opportunities for authentic competition within schools. Where does she get this from?  In Tower Hamlets through the Tower Hamlets Sports Foundation we have inter school competitions almost weekly across a whole range of sports.  Plus accelerated reader in class competitions, mathletics, timestables rockstars, auditions for plays and performances, interviews to be a play leader. This is not unusual – it is what schools do.  I think Danni is talking about the ‘80’s.

So then, I’d be adamant we needed some kind of filtration before sending children into a Michaela- type atmosphere, removing the ranking and the looking down on other schools, bigging ourselves up by comparing ourselves favourably with other people. If something is really good, it doesn’t need to do this. Like the deep well on the ranch, people will be drawn towards it. Truth is its own propaganda, as Gandhi possibly said.

But looking at ourselves through a Michaela lens allows us also to see the toxins in our own atmosphere.  Rightly rejecting authoritarianism, we have become squeamish of anybody having any authority over children, even wise, authoritative leadership that might make things better rather than worse. This is an over-reaction.  Visionary leadership that seeks not its own end but the empowerment of others should be embraced rather than feared. Where the atmosphere is kindness, gratitude, hard work and empathy, whether at Michaela or elsewhere – there all may thrive.

[1] Yes I do know that having Down Syndrome does not necessarily mean you will be bottom of the class as children with DS are on an ability spectrum with some well able to read, write etc. and some go on to get degrees. The bell curve, however, is shifted to the left – even it is does overlap with the bell curve of children without DS – and having a mild or moderate learning difficulty is more common.

Michaela Prime – is the atmosphere breathable?

Journey to Michaela Prime-A New Hope?

How far, and how suitable would the pedagogical and behavioural approaches espoused with such passion and publicity by Michaela Community School be in the context of a primary school? Would a Michaela-style primary work? Would it be appropriate? Should we be leaving the safe, familiar orbit of contemporary primary practice, embarking instead on the journey to Michaela Prime?*[1]  I am not the only primary practitioner to wonder what such a transplant might look like.

Which is unusual, because usually the discussion is about how secondary schools could emulate the best of primary school practice, rather than the other way around. It is a commonplace to hear about secondary teachers visiting years 5 and 6 and being astounded by the high quality work the children routinely produce. I remember one visit by our local secondary where the English teachers looked at the page of typed A4 text I had given the children to read and explained that they would never think to give the children so long a piece of text to read; they would assume that it would be too difficult for a sizable minority of children. Yet here was the whole class reading and responding without difficulty.  Our local secondary school is, by the way, an outstanding institution and gets some of the highest GCSE results in the country despite its very challenging intake, with pupils making exceptional progress. I remember thinking ‘blimey, if that’s what the expectations are in a truly outstanding school – whatever are they like elsewhere?’  And then seeing my own children’s exercise books when they were at their respective secondary schools (not the one cited above) and being frankly appalled. And those endless battles over shoddy homework my primary teacher colleagues and I moan about when our own teenage children –  all of whom were writing at a level 5 standard in year 5 –  scrawl some diabolical, badly spelt, unpunctuated, ungrammatical, scruffy rubbish for their history homework that would barely scrape a level 2 – and refuse to do it again ‘because my teacher says it’s ok.’   Even the one who went to one of the top performing schools in the country – progress 8 above 1.  And then watching Educating Essex/East End/Cardiff and while admiring the compassion, passion and tenacity of the teachers thinking that the behaviour was awful.

Because [provocative statement alert – Quirky Teacher, find a chair and possibly, smelling salts] I reckon the ‘progressive problem’ is really more of a secondary problem.  By ‘progressive’ here, I am meaning the bit where ‘chalk and talk’ is frowned on and the teacher as the ‘guide on the side’ is championed; pedagogical progressivism as it were. As contrasted with behavioural progressivism or possibly curricular progressivism.  We don’t all come in neat little packages with all our ‘progressivisms’ – or ‘traditionalisms’, neatly lined up.   But if it is pedagogical progressivism we are talking about, I don’t think discovery learning has really been the dominant paradigm in primary school since the national strategies came along in 1997. (Except in the Early Years, which operates in its own strange universe).  I remember the excitement, the frisson of getting my hands on a bootleg copy of what was then the National Literacy Project and being so excited that here was all this explicit ‘stuff’ we were directed to teach the children; text types and grammatical structures and punctuation and all sorts. This, after years of children being expected to learn to read by osmosis and to rediscover the entire cannon of western culture afresh on a child-by-child basis.  When I started teaching in 1989, we were meant to do the ‘integrated day’. Now that really was ‘progressive.’  You’d have 5 different activities going on simultaneously with one table of children doing screen printing while another taught themselves some maths, another table wrote a story whilst the fourth table composed something on glockenspiel with the last group doing a history project. I kid you not.  Actually, only the really devoted put up with the glockenspiel but seriously, that was how we were meant to teach.  You didn’t so much teach as track who had finished what. The whole of Friday was given over to ‘finishing off’ with those who had finished everything doing ‘choosing’ for the rest of the day.  There was also a fair bit of designing fancy borders for written work and colouring in illustrations as all writing had to be ‘published’ for a real audience in order to be meaningful for the child. After a while, desperate to have time to actually teach some maths to the whole class, I would do something radical – behind closed doors natch – like teach the whole class art at the same time one afternoon, so leaving the morning free for some maths with the added bonus of being able to tell all the children at the same time something about the art we were doing. This was really seen as terribly bad practice, so I did it furtively. There were no such things as lesson observations or Ofsted in the olden days, so doing your own thing on the sly was a bit easier.

So take it from me, the primary sector was once deeply pedagogically progressive but ran enthusiastically en masse towards the more didactic alterative proffered by the strategies around about the late 90’s.   Instead of Michaela we had ‘the Three Wise Men’ report, the National Strategies and David Blunkett allowing primary schools to focus almost entirely on English, maths and science.  This led to the de facto abandonment of the National Curriculum. That’s not to say we embraced a ‘knowledge curriculum’. But it was the death knell of the teacher as primarily facilitator and rebirth of the teacher as one who taught something to the whole class at the same time.  Whereas secondary schools had a revised National Curriculum in 2008 with its stress on personalised learning and greater emphasis on pupils’ understanding of the concepts, ideas and processes of subjects and on cross-curricular themes, the later Rose Review of the primary curriculum –a wholesale skills based approach – was never put into practice since it was junked by the Coalition government who came into power shortly after it was published. Due to this accident of history, the ‘progressive problem’ is much more a secondary phenomenon than it is a primary one.

It is interesting to note that the Rose Review was intended to move primary teachers away from their didactic focus on the retention and recall of facts and instead to promote personal development, more speaking and listening, more ICT: skills for ‘learning and life’ i.e. to make primary schools less traditional and more progressive. Indeed the Cambridge Review of the Curriculum led by Robin Alexander criticised the Rose Review for not going far enough in attacking primary traditionalism with its privileging of retention and recall of facts, valuing of ‘shallow’ as opposed to ‘deep’ learning, and teachers who operated in ‘transmission mode’.  Both of these heavyweights were alarmed by how traditional primary teaching was and were trying to make it more progressive.

So when I first discovered through the twittersphere the progressive versus traditionalist debates, I must admit at first I was one of those who simply didn’t believe that anyone – save the odd lunatic fringe – was actually doing any of this ‘progressive’ stuff. I was, apparently, in denial.  But then I remembered a very odd course I’d been on, promoting outstanding teaching.  This course, which was cross phase (i.e. included secondary teachers) advocated telling the children absolutely nothing and instead, getting the children to research the topic you were meant to be teaching them. So in a history lesson, the teacher would set up various stations; one would have some books about the period under study, another some photos, another a website, yet another some audio tape of something or other. The children were on a carousel and would spend 10 minutes at each station ‘researching’ with the aim of discovering what the teacher could have told them in 10 minutes.  It was the integrated day all over again, but within one subject.  Then I also remembered a friend – a secondary school teacher – sadly recounting how he had been graded as Requires Improvement because during his yearly lesson observation the observers had arrived too late to see Year 9 act out the trial scene from…whatever book it was…and read aloud the speeches they had painstakingly written and instead came for the 15 minute section where they had to listen to the book being read to them by the teacher. I thought he clearly went to a school run by madmen but slowly I realised what I saw as isolated incidents of barmy tyrants running crazy schools was, in fact, as testified on twitter, rampant in secondary schools.

However, Michaela is bidding us all to up our game and however more traditional primary schools might generally be than secondary schools, clearly the example of Michaela throws down a gauntlet. Michaela-style traditionalism is explicitly knowledge-led.  Imparting knowledge is at the very centre of what it does.  Whereas primary schools, however didactic in their teaching methods, tend to be more skills-focused, with whatever knowledge the skills are currently wearing being seen as more of an accessory than the educational star of the show.   That children may acquire some scientific knowledge as a result of learning the scientific skill of analysing results is seen as a fortunate by-product, collateral grace, as it were.  Would a shift to the Michaela knowledge-led approach be suitable for younger children?

We first need to tease out what we mean by ‘the Michaela approach’ because upon the Michaela table d’hôte there are several things the school espouse that don’t necessarily have to go together.  There is the advocacy of explicit, didactic teaching, the unequivocal stress on knowledge, there is the ‘no excuses’ discipline policy, the commitment to reduce teacher workload, its disavowal of powerpoint as akin to some sort of thought-crime, its philosophy of inclusion, the way it works with parents and its professional development ethos. There are lots of schools that have a very strict ethos; the Harris Academies, or Mossbourne for example, but not in the same way that Michaela does and without the other elements of the Michaela approach. It may be that some of these strands would be effective with younger children whereas others wouldn’t. Let us now consider each element one by one and reflect on whether this approach would work on Michaela Prime. There’s a lot to talk about – too much for one blog so I’m going to split this up. In this part one I’m going to look at didactic teaching and the knowledge-led curriulum.

Didactic teaching

As I have already argued, as far as I can see, in the primary schools I have visited as well as the ones I work in, almost all of the teaching I see from year 1 onwards involves a teacher, or possibly teaching assistant, standing at the front of the class and telling, explaining and modelling stuff to children.  After all, sound-grapheme correspondences are hardly going to explain themselves are they?  Or what each numeral represents, or the maths operator signs. You can’t ‘discover’ what a fronted adverbial is all by yourself. For all of this you need experts who know what they are talking about.   As a result, in primary schools, we do bucket loads of standing up the front telling children stuff. Occasionally this might be interrupted to do a special project for a few lessons; for example where I work years 3 and 4 have just done ‘dramatic maths’ for a lesson a week for a few weeks. But that was on top of their ordinary maths lessons and was more about getting maths into drama than drama into maths and was consolidating what they had already knew by applying it in a dramatic context (find the axe to rescue Red Riding Hood by using co-ordinates) rather than teaching new content. Similarly, children might respond in a ‘groovy’ way to initial teacher input, but the input is still teacher-led and imparts facts. E.g. year 1 children are taught didactically by their teacher that in the past, certain materials like plastic had not yet been invented, so toys were made out of other materials such as wood, china and metal. The children might then be asked to respond by writing labels for our collection of old toys to make our toy museum; labels that include what materials the toy is made from. Because their writing goes on cards next to exhibits rather than in an exercise book does not make this lesson suddenly madly ‘progressive’ or an exercise in pandering to a childish demand for edutainment. If you can do something in a way that is even more interesting than recording knowledge in an exercise book and it doesn’t incur huge opportunity costs along the way – then why not do the more engaging of the two options. Unless we want to make a fetish of avoiding ‘engaging’ opportunities at all costs and are phobic about anything that might stray into being ‘fun’.  The museum idea had the added benefit of getting the children to read everybody else’s work as they acted as tour guides to their parents after school.

I reckon the problem with this sort of approach is when it is seen as suitable for year 10. With younger children, because their reading and writing skills are in their infancy, what they can read and write about is so limited, so adding a bit of extra ‘wow’ to make the game worth the candle is a great idea.   Just like year 5 who are learning the recorder and can only play about 4 notes – enough for jingle bells anyway.  Their teacher adds a backing track and suddenly it sounds amazing and they are as pleased as punch with themselves.  But when you are 14 and have the world of knowledge available for you to read about, backing tracks and making museums and such likes are unnecessary gimmicks. So with the caveat that the younger the children are, the greater the need to embed some of their reading and writing  – and occasionally maths – in a real world context, then I don’t see any problem at all in saying that the vast majority of teaching at Michaela Prime will be didactic. As it already is in most primary schools, most of the time. Especially in the mornings when we teach English and maths. More of afternoons later.

A knowledge-led curriculum

Dominating all else in primary schools, warping all that lies within its purview is the accountability field. Since primary schools are held accountable via sats for English and maths and not for all the other subjects we are meant to teach, English and maths get the lion’s share of everything.  Now I really don’t want to get too bogged down in the arid skills versus knowledge debate, which often seems to turn on semantics, but it seems to me that in learning English and maths learning how to use these tools (skills) is just as important – and takes up more time – than learning the knowledge inherent in these disciplines. Certainly, previously there has been a tendency to see English and maths as all skill. Whereas reading and writing cannot even get started without knowing what words mean, what the sound-grapheme correspondences are, what the graphemes look like. However being able to blend those phonemes together into an actual word is surely a skill – and one that can take some children a really long time to learn.  Similarly, children just have to learn that certain numerals correspond to certain quantities whereas other squiggles are instructions (or operators) to do something with the numerals.  And while I’d go to the stake for saying that children need to have automatic recall of their number bonds to and within first 10 and then then 20 and excellent times table knowledge, they also need to understand when multiplying numbers might be more useful than adding them. Is this a skill or knowledge?  There are limits on transmission teaching – especially in maths. I can explain to you again and again why multiplication is a quicker, more efficient method than using repeated addition, but at some point, each individual child has to ‘get’ why – to see it for themselves in some magical internal process that can’t be drilled into being, but has to be…dare I say…discovered? But not discovered in a vacuum – discovered by scaffolding from an expert other, as Vygotsky put it.

However, it is fair to say that in the stress primary teachers lay on children really grasping what the maths they are taught actually mean, there has, hitherto, been some throwing out of the baby with the bathwater.  Not enough time spent on learning times tables, for example –although the demands of first the SATS mental arithmetic test and now the arithmetic paper mean that every school I know has been drilling children in these for at least the last 5 years. 10 years ago we would have shied away from drilling until we were really sure the children ‘understood’ what multiplication actually means – these days we get that some children learn by rote and then understand whereas others understand and then learn by rote. My bête noire is poor knowledge of number bonds.  How many children become overwhelmed by maths around about year 4 because they are still counting 5+7 on their fingers?!  No wonder they find understanding column methods hard because all their working memory is taken up counting on from one 1-digit number to another.  I blame the numeracy strategy for over-prioritising number lines over partitioning methods (5+7=5+5+2=12) that involve calculation allied with instant recall. We need to spend far longer on ensuring no child leaves ks1 without all their number bonds in and within 10 secure.  Never mind the phonics check, bring in a number bonds check too – even more important – but harder to learn – than times tables. We teach using the mathsmastery curriculum which does devote a considerable amount of time to number bonds. Not enough for all children to have them securely, unfortunately.  So we drill the children in them frequently, often using this marvellous game (which also tests table knowledge for those further along the line).

So what with reading, writing and maths dominating the curriculum and teachers perceiving what they are doing as teaching skills (even though in fact they teach a fair bit of knowledge), and knowledge-heavy subjects such as history, geography and science having miniscule amounts of curriculum time, knowledge has taken a bit of a back seat. Or possibly has been relegated to the boot. So in the afternoons when primary schools finally get around to teaching something that isn’t English or maths, at that point, it may be that some schools – maybe most– (who really knows) come over all progressive.

I confess a good few years ago we did have a brief dalliance with the International Primary Curriculum which does operate in a progressive paradigm both in terms of what the teacher does and what is taught; students first researching whatever they are meant to be learning about and then recording it. It’s actually really hard for 9-year-olds to research stuff properly. The teacher usually ends up telling them or making resources where the knowledge they need is so explicit that they might as well have cut out the middle man and just told them in the first place. The naturally curious, self-motivated middle class girls quite liked it; everyone else found it frustrating and boring.

The IPC used to market itself by telling us about its exciting year 3 topic on chocolate.  The logic seemed to be, because chocolate is nice to eat, learning about the history of chocolate will be more interesting than learning about the history of the Romans.  Actually both are fascinating – but which is more important?   Which is more powerful in helping you understand more about British and European history, how Christianity became a global religion?  Knowledge may be power, but some knowledge is more powerful than others.  Since curriculum time is a precious, finite resource, we must spend it wisely on teaching areas with the biggest pay-offs for the children. The IPC developed in the context of International schools serving Western children of the oil industry employees in Middle Eastern states where learning about the Tudors was irrelevant to, say, Dutch, Swedish and Bengali children growing up in Qatar. So it intentionally had topics that were as generic as possible, focusing on transferable skills.  But for schools based in Britain, surely learning mainly about British history makes sense.  And just as importantly, which has more resources readily available to the hard-pressed teacher, Aztecs or Romans?  Which is more likely to further skew the teacher’s work:life balance in the direction of burnout?

I think we can all take it as read that they won’t be doing the IPC at Michaela Prime.  I think they’ll be doing something more like what we started this September – influenced a great deal by what I had read about Michaela and in particular blogs written by staff who work there. I remember being particularly shocked when I read something by the headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh saying that we should expect children to remember the knowledge we teach them so that 5 years after we taught it, they still know it.  I was shocked not because I disagreed but because up until then, I hadn’t ever thought about what we taught the children – except in English, maths and possibly science – in that way. Before reading Katharine, if the National Curriculum said to teach year 4 the Aztecs, we’d teach it. Whether they remembered anything about the Aztecs by the time they got to year 5 was not something that had ever, in my wildest dreams, occurred to me.  But now someone had said it, of course it was important. Why were we teaching history to primary pupils anyway? (Secret generally understood guilty primary teacher answer: to get them to do more writing, without calling it literacy and maybe to up the amount of art they do – I mean writing in role as a soldier stationed at Hadrian’s Wall and making a papier mâché  Egyptian mummy  is  history, isn’t it?)  So with Katharine’s words ringing in my ears, and then reading all about knowledge organisers from Joe Kirby and how they  specify, ‘in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory,’ I took another look at our curriculum and decided we could do better.

The overweening problem in the primary curriculum is time.  With the mornings colonised by English and maths, that leaves us with 10 hours a week to teach 10 subjects plus PHSE, or 7 and a half if we want to include an end of day story, which we do. In our school, PE and music take up one afternoon – being taught by specialists while teachers have PPA– and French another part afternoon. So that leaves geography, history, RE, art, DT, science and computing crammed into 3 afternoons.  171 hours a year or, if we divide time equally between these 7, 28 and a half hours each a year.  You can see why double counting making an Egyptian mummy as both art and history appeals now can’t you?  But if we want to do history properly – teaching the children some actual historical facts for example – that possibly they may remember into adulthood and certainly will help them with their GCSE’s – then we need to think really hard about exactly what facts, dates and people we want them to know about given the very limited time they will actually have to be taught this.

Our solution was to divide the year into 3 week curriculum blocks, each fitting into a 12 week ‘term’.  So in each ‘term’ a year group will study four different subjects, each for 3 weeks*[2]. When the 3 weeks are over, even if the teacher hasn’t finished, they have to start the next block on the next subject.  This focuses the mind wonderfully – unlike our old block system where topics went on and on endlessly and then we ran out of time for certain subjects altogether. Sometimes these terms are shorter than calendar terms – for example in the Autumn term we’ve just had there were two spare weeks at the end for a mini topic on Christmas which included RE (based on some element of the significance of Christmas for Christians), rehearsing and doing a nativity play, a literacy focus on poems with a Christmas theme and a Christmas party. Next term is 12 weeks and the final term is 13, giving us a spare week at the end of the year for taking your new class for a couple of days, doing some art for your new classroom, learning some more poems (we have a poetry week at the end of every half term with all classes learning a poem by heart and performing it on the Friday) some extra phse reflecting on the year and having a class party. When Easter is earlier it does mean the second ‘term’ gets split across the Easter holidays – which is annoying. Personally I am all in favour of decimalising the date of Easter but since I am unlikely to be Pope anytime soon, I doubt that’s an argument I’m going to win.

The teachers like the new system. It makes them feel less guilty. On top of everything else teachers endure, they feel guilt about not being able to teach all the subjects properly because there isn’t enough time – as if they had any control over that.  Now they don’t feel guilty. I say ‘you must teach geography for the next three weeks and then stop’ and they do. The finite number of lessons and not too distant cut off point make planning a sequence of 9 lessons really straightforward.  No timewasting fluffy activities, lots of whole class reading and then some writing – but proper geographical writing, not literacy with a vague geographical theme. Yes, Egyptian mummies and Roman shields still get made – in art lessons! We can still use a topic approach – the artwork just comes after the humanities. Often the humanities learning links to what we are learning in literacy. For example, year 4 study Beowolf in English, learn about the Saxons and Vikings in history and make a fabulous Grendel in art.  The children seem to like it too. Certainly it could be dry and boring in the hands of a teacher with poor expository skills, but any teacher worth their salt will be able to bring the subject alive and make it engaging in its own right.

At Michaela they have subject teams who produce subject booklets for each year group. This is not an approach that transfers easily to a one form entry primary school!  The main problems with introducing a knowledge-led curriculum into primary schools would seem to be logistical rather than pedagogical. We are not subject specialists. There may well not be a single person on the staff team who has an A level – let along a degree – in the subject we want help with. Text books for the topics we want to teach don’t exist. Non fiction books are expensive and not always pitched at the level we’d want.  For art and computing, we buy in expert help. For the content heavy humanities plus science, we’ve had a go this year. These CGP books for ks2 history were a start but contain far more information that it is possible to cover in the time given – but we really need to write better material for ourselves for next year. That will be our job for staff meetings in the summer term.

At Michaela they do two trips a year – the whole year group going out at the same time.  I don’t know what’s typical for a secondary school, although I don’t think my own children went much more frequently.  However, I’d want more trips than that.  Maybe if the school were situated somewhere remote the cost:benefit analysis would be different, but since we are situated just outside the City of London and have three museums in walking distance (The Museum of London, the  Museum of Childhood and the Geffreye Museum) and can get to Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral in 20 minutes on a bus and the South Kensington museums in not much longer, it would be criminal not to exploit this, especially since not many of our children visit this sort of place with their families.  We tend to do a trip every half term – trying to get it to fall within the weeks when that particular block is occurring. On top of that we have visitors into school – the London Sinfonia with year 1, for example, or Spitalfields Music with years 3 and 5, or various arts organisations.  Where possible we schedule these to happen in the morning – to interrupt English and maths- subjects that get plenty of air time, rather than taking precious time away from subjects that do not get enough time anyway. Of course, trips need to be planned well to augment what is going on in class and not just as a diversion.

But how do we make sure that children remember what we have taught them? At Michaela the knowledge organisers are revised for homework. Pupils quiz themselves on one knowledge organiser from one subject every night. They cover up the concept, write out the definition and then check they have got it right, checking themselves again and again for at least 30 minutes until they are sure they are ready for their quiz in class the next day. Would that work with primary pupils?

At primary school, our first priorities are that children learn to read fluently and for pleasure and know their times tables and number bonds. Nothing is more important for their learning than this. So while we do give children their knowledge organisers for homework, it is a lot less intense than the Michaela regime, since we want them reading at home and learning their number facts at home.  And doing some Matheletics. So, the weekend prior to each block, the knowledge organiser is taken home and shared with parents. This is a good way of parents knowing what their child will be learning in the coming weeks.  They are encouraged to read their knowledge organiser every day.  Then the first weekend of the first week of the block, children do a multiple choice quiz with their parents based on the knowledge organiser, which they are encouraged to consult to find any answers they do not yet know.  The second weekend they do a second quiz, again consulting their organiser if they need to, then on the last Friday they do a final quiz  in school without their knowledge organiser. Almost all children score 9/10 or 10/10 in these final quizzes.  But here is the important part. Unlike Michaela, we do not have knowledge organisers for all subjects. We do not have them for art, DT or computing – so when the topic block is one of these subjects, children revise from a previous block and have a quiz from that subject.  As Joe Kirby reminds us in his chapter on homework as revision, the overwhelming consensus from cognitive science is that we should quiz ourselves frequently on stuff we have learnt as testing, especially testing a few weeks after material has been learnt, interrupts forgetting. We haven’t been doing this long enough for us to see whether children actually are retaining information in the longer term. But I’m certainly going to introduce end of year super quizzes to gauge how well it has worked.  One thing I haven’t done yet is gather all the knowledge organisers and quizzes into one ‘knowledge book; for each year group. This is then used not only for revision but also a source of work for if a teacher is off sick, a child is sent out of class or hasn’t got their library book or PE kit etc.   Then they read their knowledge book.

In conclusion, then, the didactic teacher-led approach of Michaela is easily transferable to a primary setting – mainly because that is pretty much what most primary schools do anyway, at least from year 1 up and with the possible exception of the afternoons. Having a knowledge-led curriculum would have practical challenges given the primary teachers are generalists, and that the primary curriculum is ludicrously over full, but there is nothing inappropriate about a knowledge-led curriculum per se for younger children.  I would wish for more trips and visitors to enrich the curriculum than happens at Michaela – particularly in schools lucky enough to be situated within easy travelling distance of great cultural centres. At Michaela they do use talk partners. However, given the younger age of primary children and the importance of them being able to communicate confidently orally as well as on paper, there would be more talk partner and paired work and in the unlikely circumstance that Katharine Birbalsingh should ask my advice prior to setting up a primary school, I’d strongly advocate some drama work prior to writing.  I’d also tell her that  I don’t think the sky would fall in if every now and then the children at Michaela Prime worked in a group to discuss something. For example, while a thorough knowledge of RE is important, part of RE is also about working out what your own commitments are and group discussion is invaluable for this.  Persuasive writing means being able to respect and indeed argue in favour of points of view you actually disagree with, so opportunities to orally debate and argue with peers are a necessary part of a primary curriculum. There’s also no chapter on maths in the Battle Hymn. I’d be adamant that primary children need a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach alongside high quality teacher exposition.  So maybe I’m advocating a Michaela-lite approach.

What Katharine and the Michaela gang have done is move the Overton window of educational debate towards the traditional. The Overton window is a term from politics which describes to range of ideas that the public (or in our case the teaching profession) will accept. Anything outside of the window is dismissed out of hand as mad extremist claptrap. So, for example, some Tories were dismayed when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party because it meant that the kind of Socialism they thought had been discredited for ever was now perceived as a valid option.  Only a very few of years ago, traditional teaching would have been laughed out of town. Now discussion of it flows through the blogosphere, the Battle Hymn is flying off the shelves and people flock to see Michaela with their own eyes.

In part two I will reflect on the approach to behaviour at Michaela and maybe more.  Will their ‘no excuses’ philosophy work in a primary setting, and if it does, should it?

[1] Call me childish, I just think Michaela Prime sounds cool –like a planet far beyond our galaxy that would take a long and possibly perilous journey to get to. Much more fun than referring to ‘a Michaela-style Primary School.’ Then adding ‘a new hope’ seemed irresistible.  Maybe Part 2 will be ‘the Enquire(er) strikes Back?’ Followed by Part 3:  The Return of the Vygostki. Actually Michaela should henceforth be known as Rogue One…ok I’m going to stop now…

[2] Yes, the maths doesn’t quite work with there being 7 subjects and 3×3 week blocks . So the odd numbered year groups do 2 lots of geography and one lot of history, vice versa for the even numbered year groups, you only do art or dt in a given term, not both and for one term out of the three a year group will skip either RE or computing and your art will be done…in the morning!

Journey to Michaela Prime-A New Hope?