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?

24 thoughts on “Journey to Michaela Prime-A New Hope?

  1. JPA says:

    OK – I am so excited to read your blog (you know me – I used to work around the corner at Aldgate). I think we should work together on Secret Michaela Primaries!

    1. Here are my thoughts:
    Subjects – I’ve defined Religion, Literature, History, Geography, Science and Grammar as the six subjects who work together to enable our children to read and write well.

    So in a 25 lesson week my idea timetable is:
    2 lessons grammar
    5 lessons maths
    2 lessons PE
    1 lesson music
    1 lesson French
    2 lessons Art
    and then 12 lessons split between Literature, Religion, History, Geography and Science. The final balance is not that important – though science is the most difficult, conceptually.

    2. Homework – we write content grids for the term ahead in all subjects (N-6). It’s easier than traditional planning and it is the only planning I require. Teachers write and then reference the content they will teach, rather than the activities or learning objectives or development matters statements. Grids aren’t that great yet – quite a lot of wiki references and knowledge isn’t properly sequenced – but the more we do it the better we will get.

    After the content grid we do homework grids. Kids take a grid with approx 5 items to memorise home in their homework books and they self-quiz each night. Kids are quizzed in class. Not working properly yet – some teachers don’t quiz, some don’t check the homework, some parents can’t read the font that the homework was printed in (cursive).

    So each night, 1-6 (Reception from Jan and Nursery from Easter) have to do:
    *reading & record in diary
    *online maths
    *spellings by writing out in homework book
    *prep for the next day (Mon – Literature, Tues – Hist/Geo, Wed – Science, Thur – Maths) Michaela-style
    From Easter-ish French will be the Friday night homework for KS2.

    3. Maths is it’s own special and wonderful world. I disagree with the CPA approach but we are using the MNP books Y1&2 (and there’s the Maths Study Group – the mathematician who provides training suggests that MNP/CPA is an effective method)

    4. I’m not ashamed to say that Art is a ‘servant’ subject. They learn to draw (primarily), do needlework and clay to serve the other subjects. To be honest, literature, history, religion, science and geography are servant subjects to enable children to read & write. (And literature is the stories of English Literature, mostly in chronological order with some poems and plays thrown in – there’s no non-fiction work….why spend time inventing a non-fiction text to write about in your English/Literacy lesson. Why not just do some proper writing and reading in Science instead?)

    5. Trips – we’ve got 8 years in primary. Lots of time to do trips etc and we haven’t got the timetable complications of secondary. We’ve got money, a brill location (being in London) so doesn’t seem sensible to ignore the British Museum or Epping Forest etc.

    6. I don’t think that primaries are as traditional as you say they are. But then again I have visited a few secondaries recently and been dumbfounded at how juvenile they seem.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow you have really thought this out and are way more down the line in implementing things. I suppose that’s new headship for you! yes we need to meet up with some of the others who are thinking along the same lines. Maybe collaborate on writing subject booklets if we can get or curriculums (curricula?) to coincide since that is a mammoth task for little primary school to do on its own. So, like MCS, no DT or computing on your timetable? Think the idea of not doing non fiction in English lessons good and instead doing quality reading and writing in science/humanities. Not so sure about doing the stories of English literature in chronological order -you’d have to convince me on that – there is s much quality contemporary children’s literature out there. Though agree older children in particular need to read more of the classics. Sorry I missed the last maths research thing -intended to go but was just so tired on the night. Hope it is going well. When we meet you can me more detail, including how rest of staff are taking it


  2. olivercaviglioli says:

    Thank you so very much for sharing, and explaining in such depth, the state of play in primaries in relation to the ongoing discussions around Michaela’s approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kate says:

    Like you I started teaching in 1989. My mum, who was a teacher all her working life, cautioned me when I was an NQT that when a new teaching fad comes in your most sensible route is to hold on to what works while cherry picking the best ideas from the new… and then watch with amusement as the pendulum swings back the other way. This advice has served me very well.

    Your assertion that there are all these barmy progressive teachers out there seems to be based on a few anecdotes. In my current job I get to visit enormous numbers of secondary schools across the country and quite a few primary schools. I rarely see teachers at either end of the extremes ‘debated’ (although that implies a productive discussion) on twitter et al. What characterises success is commitment, passion for a subject, professionalism, open-mindedness and high expectations, backed up with a lot of love. I see this at both ends of the so-called traditional-progressive spectrum. What saddens me is the way teachers are rubbishing each other instead of learning from each other. Michaela recently published a very sad blog explaining why they were no longer accepting visitors, and I was appalled at the way some of those visitors had behaved. Then Jo Facer put on Twitter an extremely aggressive poem rubbishing any teacher who dares not to teach the Michaela way. How does any of this help the students who are supposed to be at the centre of what we do?

    Michaela students have not yet sat any GCSEs. Meanwhile, the American KIPP schools on which it is modelled are hugely controversial. Much of what they do runs counter to the consistent messages from the most robust research of the last 50 years, for example on the importance of oral work for cognitive development. It seems a bit early to be rolling out their programme nationally and cross-phase.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment. If there aren’t lots of secondary schools out there on the barmy end of the progressive spectrum I am only too pleased – as my blog said, I have never come across a classroom like that ( well not since the very beginnings of my career) and while I’ve visited and worked with a fair few primary schools I probably only know 4 secondary schools at all well and three of those are not just outstanding but exceptional in terms of results. But I have read so many really sad stories on line of secondary teachers being destroyed because they didn’t follow a particular ‘ progressive’ line that I just can’t say the phenomenon doesn’t exist. If it’s less prominent than I fear- great. And I’d agree that almost all teachers


    2. thanks for you comment Kate. I tried replying earlier but wordpress make it really awkward – I must of accidently touched something and lost the whole lot. So here goes again. I did say that initially -for a long time actually – I didn’t believe that there were all these madly progressive schools out there. Indeed, if there really only one or two I’d be delighted. But I’ve read so many stories via blogs about secondary school teachers leaving teaching because their lives had been made hell by SLT who insisted on progressive methods. Also reading Daisy Christodoulou’s’ Seven Myths’ reinforce that it is, at the vey least, a tendency. If it is less widespread than I or Daisy) think then that is great. I also agree that mot teachers care a great deal for their pupils and work hard to try and help pupils succeed. I like some chapters of the Battle Hymn better than others – in some the tone grates. But if they have a recipe for happy children who achieve highly and are excited about learning more, that is got to be worth learning from. I didn’t say we should roll it out cross phase, it was more of a thought experiment – what could reasonably be transferred. The KIPP elementary schools that I’ve seen on YouTube do not appear to have the same happy, excited vibe that Michaela seems to have. I agree about oral work – I did add in a little bit at the end saying primary children would need more but if I were writing the piece again I’s put more stress on that higher up the piece. he definitely do some talk partner work at MCS – I remember reading about it somewhere – but I’m sure I’s want a lot more. Maybe because at primary level we are developing speech and vocab alongside writing – particularly for disadvantaged children who often have poorer vocabularies. Finally I agree we should all try and debate with kindness and respect. I particularly hate tribalism of the us good, not-us bad sort, from whatever quarter.


  4. Your post is interesting, particularly the point about presentation standards dropping at secondary school. Yet, at the risk of sounding primary bashing, I do feel that, when it comes to handwriting, it is perhaps the case that primary teachers do not always appreciate the need for pupils at secondary level to write at speed. A lot of year 7 children appear to have been told that they needn’t bother with cursive writing if they find it hard, or that they can hold a pen in whatever way is comfortable for them. As a result, I think you would find most secondary teachers are astounded at the slow handwriting speed of some year 7 pupils. It is easier for a primary teacher to keep slow writers behind at the end to finish work, or take out children’s “golden time”, but at secondary level a pupil will have maybe 6 subjects a day, all involving some writing. The poor slow writer would have a detention for each subject if they were forced to redraft their work every time it was scruffy. So, rather than accept a mere 2 lines of neat work from the slow hand writers, we would rather have a page of scruffy work if that means that they get all the relevant points down.


    1. I don’t think that is primary-bashing at all. In fact it would be really useful for secondary schools to write a little list of all the little niggles primary schools could try and fix so they really are secondary ready. For example after sats we are going to make yr 6 bring in their own stationery every day to get into the habit. I hadn’t realised about the handwriting thing – it probably varies a lot between primaries but we to would rather have decent quantity than a couple of beautifully written lines – a balance between the two ideally. Also it is easy for us to make pupils stay in the following break if they haven’t done enough which I suppose is impossible for you. With my own kids though it was just pure laziness when they were scruffy!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. JAJ says:

    🙂 Yes – new headship is a very interesting position to be in. But I forgot to say that I was really interested in your review of teaching pre-National Strategies.

    Definitely want to meet up as have lots to learn from you and lots to ask about.


  6. Really interesting to have the historical perspective on some of these debates. I was in school in the 80s but have only been teaching for 6 years, so I’m always fascinated to learn what happened in the intervening period! Thank you for taking the time to write it.


  7. JAJ says:

    Art – I haven’t excluded DT I’ve just redefined/am redefining art. I’d rather the kids left in Y6 actually able to draw, use watercolours, cross-stitch, basic sewing (an apron by hand), clay modelling, papier mache (and if I had suitably trained staff) woodwork – carve a spoon or bowl or something. Art is more craft & drawing than the way the national curriculum have defined it. And I’d rather they worked on their craft skills than did the design bit of DT. One of the things that makes you really good at designing is understanding the materials/crafts work in the first place. And two hours a week is 3 days over the year – you can’t really master a craft with three days work!

    ICT – still working on it. I think the new curriculum is a bit silly. The coding people always have models and other non-ICT people saying, ‘Oh I learnt to build a website overnight’ – well, then I don’t need to waste the kids time on it if it’s so easy and intuitive. Coding was harder when we only had the turtle and logo. The kids use computers though – during lessons.


  8. E2200 says:

    As a primary teacher, I read the Michaela book and stumbled upon this blog. Absolutely fascinating and completely fantastic. I’ll be very interested to see where you go with this.

    JAJ: With my computing co-ordinator hat on (not ICT — ICT is only one component of the broader subject of computing) I think the computing curriculum is poorly understood and therefore poorly taught but I think it’s highly undervalued. I liked the Michaela book but its antipathy towards computing was preposterous. I teach them to type HTML code straight into Notepad to make websites. They can give it a go by themselves but there’s a lot to learn so it really captures their imagination when they realise they’re doing “proper” coding with a plain text editor which they’ll all have at home. Ideally, I’d like to see them graduate from Scratch in Y3-4 to HTML/CSS in Y5 and Python in Y6 but because the staff don’t have the confidence to teach it, we’re nowhere near there yet. The problem with computing is that unlike in history or RE, where you could just about get away with having as much knowledge as you’re actually transmitting to the children in a given subject, you have to know a lot more to troubleshoot.


  9. JAJ says:

    But why? (Ignore the ICT label – I was just too lazy to keep typing Computing) Give me a justification for teaching coding in primary school? There’s lots of things that primary kids find really interesting that are also really useful to help them become educated people – bread making, basic first aid, reading Harry Potter, going to see West End productions..but I can’t fit everything in…so I choose the things that I think are the most important.

    And you’re not allowed to use enjoyment isn’t a criteria for inclusion in the curriculum 🙂 (because a) the kids in primary enjoy most things and b) there are things they don’t really enjoy (at first anyway) that I still include.

    Here’s my reason not to dedicate more than 9 hours or so per school year teaching computing explicitly (that’s a whole morning workshop per term)
    a) It’s ubiquitous. Even in low-income schools the children will get experience at using digital equipment
    b) Computers become more and more intuitive by the second. You had to learn to use a typewriter. A baby can navigate an ipad before he/she can talk.
    c) Current coding will outdate itself before the kids get to use it as adult professionals
    d) The concepts behind coding lie in mathematics and I think you’d probably do as well/better by having an extra maths lesson if you want to understand the logic
    e) The concepts behind wireless technology, 8 hour batteries etc could/should be taught in your science lessons.

    I really am curious to know what you think?

    Interesting point about the point at which a lack of knowledge becomes difficult (troubleshooting in RE is easier than in computing)… 🙂


    1. Our children get 24 hours coding a year- (two three week blocks of six hours). Why? They are going to be really disadvantaged at secondary school if everybody else is at the very least proficient in scratch and they no nohing. On top of that we have a weekly code club and some are learning python. Without going all 21c skillsy I just don’t think you are educated these days without it ( children I mean.) it’s also the modern equivalent of Latin, but more useful


    2. Also my computer science studying says by teaching them a specific language – probably scratch- you are teaching them the core concepts inherent to all programming. So in this sense their knowledge won’t become outdated, rather it will be built upon. (Hence the Latin analogy)


  10. theback71 says:

    I did reply but dunno if wordpress lost it! Basically, great blog; been thinking how/if Michaela ways fit into primary especially since reading book and seeing KB speak last week; used to do the blocked teaching thing previously; would you be willing to share a week/term timetable and poss one of the KOs?

    More importantly, Michaela Prime is WAY COOL – need school named that for the name if nothing else!

    Look forward to next blog!


  11. ndavies71 says:

    just revisiting this with SLT in prep for Sept – but KO link above doesn’t work!! Are they hidden elsewhere?? my email is I do follow you on twitter and have tweeted you some stuff (mainly about your last fab blog using the fibonnacci clock which, if ok with you, was going to use for staff CPD session (though obv i’ll credit you!!) – but Michael Tidd pointed out you may not get my tweets/replies if you don’t follow me!! THANKS!


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