My Visit to Michaela Community School

“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life”, reads the framed quote from Mohammed Ali on the wall of Katherine Birbalsingh’s office at Michaela Community School. Katherine is the Headteacher at Michaela, and although we had taught at the same school, but not at the same time, and although I have been recommending The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers (my review here) to everyone who will listen, we had not met until today.

I am glad to say that I do not view the world now, at 52, as I did when I was 20. I have spoken and written (here) about the journey I have been on in my understanding of education. Je ne regrette rien? Not me. I made many mistakes as a teacher, middle leader and school leader. I hope I have learnt from them, I have certainly changed my mind on many things.

The first thing to say about Michaela is that it feels so natural, so normal. This is how adults and children should be, how all human beings should be. People smile. A lot. They all say hello. They don’t raise their voices. They talk quietly in public spaces. There is no litter, and certainly no graffiti. Adults look happy and unstressed: everybody seems to have time. No one is rushing.

The building is in excellent condition. There are no messy or negative notices, no blu-tacked bits of paper. There is stunning art work everywhere, produced by pupils and framed. But the corridors are calm spaces, there is plenty of blank wall, you don’t feel the need to rush about.

Michaela is located a stone’s throw from Wembley stadium in north London, right across the road from Wembley Park tube on the Metropolitan and Jubilee lines. The children at the school are typical of London schools, but their school is far from typical. The teachers are young; as they are in many London schools.

My introduction to how all pervasive the culture of Michaela is came as I sat in Reception. I had arrived slightly early so was able to see the calm of the main office. Michelle, on the desk, answered the phone and at one point I heard her taking what was, obviously a call from a supply agency – big business in London. “Our attendance is very high”, she told the cold caller, “we don’t need supply staff.”

What is happening at Michaela is so revolutionary that people come from around the world to see it – the letters of thanks in the folder in reception testify to that. This means the school is inundated with visitors. They have to have pauses in some weeks. But if you can visit please do, you will never think the same way about schools again.

My visit included a conversation with Katherine, a tour by two superb pupils, one in Year 7 on his first ever tour and the other Year 9. I saw a few lessons and was able to look at work in the Knowledge Organisers in use, and prepared by the school staff. Being a tour guide is a role the pupils had applied for. I then had lunch at one of the family tables with six Year 8 pupils, conversation with Deputy Head Joe Kirby and Head of Humanities Jonathon Porter. This took place on the outside playground, a place most schools do their best to steer guests away from.

It really is impossible to do justice to Michaela in one short blog. The school is a place of beauty. It is simply a beautiful thing to see human beings so obviously happy and flourishing.

In all the conversations I had during the course of my visit there was a common thread: philosophy. That might sound rather grand, call it ‘world view’ if you like. But with the Head, the staff, the pupils conversation turned to free will, how we make choices and the consequences of our actions. The school has adopted a Stoic approach to life. This is not a surface gimmick. My Year 7 tour guide was able to explain it. Jonathon and Joe had a fascinating conversation about Stoicism as I chatted to them on the playground, Katherine made reference to it not only theoretically or in the life of the school but by the example of her own journey to establishing this amazing place.

The school is firmly committed to a knowledge based curriculum and understands that memory is the basic building block of learning. Children learn by heart. Including some of the great poems of the English language. My Year 7 guide quoted Kipling’s If to me when I asked him to explain Stoicism. He knew the poet, he could recite the whole poem. The Year 8 pupil sat with me at lunch recited Ozymandias. Pupils all sang Jerusalem by heart at the beginning of lunch.

Lunch time topics for conversation are introduced by staff once all pupils are seated. It was knife crime today. On my table we did have some conversation about that but the pupils were too interested in asking me questions. Where was I from? Why was I visiting? What did I think about predestination? Was I a literalist or non-literalist in my understanding of the bible? It was fabulous.

Once lunch was over there was a time of ‘appreciation’, pupils put their hands up to share something to appreciate, ending with two claps. Pupils thanked teachers, one another, people they had met and – gracious hospitality – me.

On the playground Year 10 RE pupils asked me about the doctrine of the Trinity and faith versus works.

In lessons pupils sit in silence. Speaking to answer questions. They ‘track’ the teachers with their eyes. This is one of the loveliest things in the school. Pupils and teachers make eye contact all the time. In lunch when a pupil gives their appreciation the other pupils don’t look at their laps in embarrassment, they track the pupil, turning to where he or she is standing.

I was at a meeting recently where, after hearing about underachievement in schools, I strongly disagreed that what we needed was more ‘pupil voice’. What we need is more learning, more knowledge, I said. In eirenic form the Chair tried to say that ‘we are all saying the same thing.’ I don’t think so.

I hope Katherine will be able to establish more schools and am delighted she has asked me to be part of the steering group for that. I hope that we will be approved to open two new secondary schools in the diocese of Liverpool and that they will be on the Michaela model.

I have long said that it is so strange that human beings are frightened of their own young. No one at Michaela is frightened. The adults know that they are adults and the children feel safe because the adults are in charge. Yes, it is a traditional style of education, but human beings need tradition, true radicals are rooted in it. No wonder that free-will was so often a part of my conversations at Michaela. They know that freedom is best enjoyed with clear boundaries and from a strong base of knowledge. They understand original sin, that without knowledge and wisdom human beings make poor choices.

So much of what happens in Michaela, despite it not being a Church school, reflects a fully Christian understanding of the way the world is and of human nature. A church school based on the Michaela way would be powerful indeed, and as Jonathan and Joe talked about at lunchtime could harness the riches of the Christian narrative.

Michaela is not alone. As a school it stands in a developing movement in British education with links to similar movements in the United States and all based on research and well argued positions. I have written about these before (here). 

Je ne regrette rien. Not me. But there’s still time do something better.

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