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.

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Michaela Prime – is the atmosphere breathable?

4 thoughts on “Michaela Prime – is the atmosphere breathable?

  1. Thank you so much for this. I really feel it outlines where I am coming from in terms of behaviour management. I think school rules should be restricted to what is important but they should then be applied consistently by all. The effects of an inconsistent behaviour system on a school is actually toxic, especially I would say in primary, and particularly for those children who already experience this at home. We must not forget those who come to us and thrive precisely because it is the one place they do know where they stand.

    For those who need specialist help, I think schools are in a better place to help them if they are not fire-fighting poor behaviour or low level disruption as well.

    The benefits of a good consistent behaviour management system are huge and can be achieved without the need to veer to the extreme of being draconian.

    Like

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree it’s particularly gratifying when a child arrives having never been set boundaries in nursery and then within weeks they ‘get’ it doesn’t work like that here and happily conform to social norms. I had a parent last week come and thank me precisely for this. She said before she was actually scared of her three year old but now she realised she could insist on things at home because she saw that her daughter coped fine with this at school. She said family life at home has been transformed as a result and she actually enjoys her daughter rather than pussy fitting around her every whim. She said her daughter is so much happier and less anxious for having boundaries.

      Liked by 1 person

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