WeROssma visit Michaela Community School
Michaela is one of the most high profile schools in the country. Its head teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh has been referred to as the strictest teacher in Britain. This is what we found…..
We arrived to a friendly welcome and checking of identification documents; they won’t be caught out on safeguarding! We were given a list of do’s and don’ts which seem to be absolute common sense, but suggests that some previous visitors may have abused their host’s hospitality. We were then introduced to a Year 7 girl and Year 8 boy who would act as our guides. The first thing that strikes you is the formal and polite confidence that both children demonstrate. They look you in the eye, shake your hand and warmly welcome you into their school. We are then led up the stairs to the first floor and the beginning of our tour. No staff member is present. The students conduct the tour entirely by themselves. The pride they have in their school is evident as they keenly show us from classroom to classroom. The library is particularly impressive, not for its size or design, but for its content. Whole rows of Tolstoy, Dumas and Dickens dominate the eye line. Our year 8 guide was happy to engage us in a conversation about his favourite book ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ explaining the plot articulately and then quoted ‘the green eyed monster’ from his favourite Shakespeare play Othello.
Activity in classrooms was very industrious. Students were constantly quizzed on their knowledge, verbal feedback was immediate, and clearly planned through the use of visualizers. What came across strongly was every teacher’s clear expectation that when they are talking they have the students’ complete attention. Every member of staff would use the same verbal cues, our favourite being “3,2,1 SLANT”. SLANT is something that Michaela have cleverly adapted from the work of Doug Lemov and basically stands for:
- Sit up straight
- Answer questions
- Never interrupt
- Track the teacher (follow the teacher/eye contact)
This acronym could be seen everywhere around us and was constantly being reinforced by all members of staff. Expectations were continually repeated and instructions constantly given. Every child in every lesson knew exactly what was required of them. Another noticeable part of what we saw was management of time in the classroom. No time was wasted. Lessons had pace. Assessment and feedback was continual. They had even devised a system of handing out and collecting back in books in a matter of seconds – just to maximise learning time.
By the time we reached the 5th floor of the school we were already astounded by the level of engagement and understanding that the students were demonstrating. Then we went into Year 9 French with Barry Smith. We had never seen a Languages lesson taught in such a way. Barry kindly put on a little show for us in which he began creating a sentence in English off the top of his head that the students had to repeat in French. Watching 25 students translate his English into French in unison was incredible to watch. But the fact that he was able to stop and correct individuals during this demonstration was particularly impressive. Barry was able to pick up on everything from incorrect use of pronouns to improper use of pronouns. When he finished we had to resist the urge to burst into applause! Our hour long tour of lessons had ended and we thanked our guides as they returned us to reception.
We were then taken out into the yard area which has basketball courts and table tennis tables. It is here that you are reminded that these students are like students in any other school. They ran around, they laughed, they competed with each other. The atmosphere was very relaxed and you got the impression that all the students got on very well. Year 7 and half of year 8 were outside, the other half of the school were having lunch. We had conversations with a few of the staff who were on duty and were happy to answer our questions. The students were very keen to show us the work they had been doing, and many were using lunchtime to quiz themselves and each other using their knowledge organisers and quizzing exercise books. After 30 minutes all the students were brought into lines and led inside for lunch. As the students were patiently queuing, a member of staff was asking Maths questions to the students who responded with hands up and eager answers. As the students from the other half of the school exited the canteen into the courtyard, we entered the canteen for ‘family lunch’.
We had heard of this concept before and were aware that it happens in other schools – but it needs to be experienced first-hand. We were beckoned into the canteen by the head teacher who showed us to our places. We sat at the head of various tables, each table had 6 students. Each student had a role to play in the serving and clearing of food and plates. At the beginning of the lunch Jo Facer spoke to the students about today’s topic of conversation – the importance of grammar. She asked the students to discuss examples of poor use of grammar. As we sat and tucked into our fish and chips we were amazed at the level of discourse that was taking place between 11-13-year-old children. One of us got into a conversation with a Year 8 student about Antigone and was amazed when we explained that we had only read Sophocles at A-Level. The manners of the students were impeccable. At the end of the lunch we witnessed the students giving gratitude. This was amazing. Students were invited to stand up and give thanks to someone, a teacher, a friend, a family member. Each student was encouraged to do this in a clear and confident voice. Some faltered but all were encouraged. There was no eye rolling or examples of cynicism from the students. They had absolutely bought into this concept. One student even gave gratitude to us for having come to visit them.
At the end of the lunch Katherine led us out of the canteen and kindly gave us 15 minutes of her time in which we could ask questions and comment on what we had seen. Perhaps the most telling part of the conversation was when we expressed admiration for the level of knowledge the students demonstrated, Katherine admitted that she avoided subject based conversations with the students as they know a lot more than she does!! And so ended our tour of Michaela.
We are well aware of the reputation Michaela has in education circles. We are well aware of the view of many that it is an oppressive, regimented and unhappy place to be. All we would say is go and visit. Please go and visit. The enthusiasm, passion and commitment from all the staff was palpable. Even the most cynical amongst our profession will be impressed at some level. Speak to the children there. Look at their faces. Listen to what they talk about and the degree of knowledge that they possess. Admire their manners, friendliness, openness and kindness. Then make up your mind…..