A Visit To The Michaela School, Wembley
Updated: Aug 22
Imagine that you worked in a school that for the last 30 years had paid no attention whatsoever to ‘new developments’ in teaching and learning. Would that school be any the worse for it? Another way of putting this is to state that, in the last 30 years, has a single new idea benefited teaching and learning in secondary schools. Some ideas for teaching and learning have been re-packaged and called something else. Flipped learning, for instance, means doing background research ahead of a lesson – the universities had already thought of this. I am being specific about teaching and learning. The same cannot be said for other aspects of school life. Pupil welfare measures, for instance, are better and great strides have been made in protecting students and staff in schools. On the specific point of teaching and learning, I am not sure what has been improved by endless fads.
Recently, on Twitter, a poster circulated which described twenty teaching ‘fads’ from the last few decades. They were all there, lined up like the usual suspects: the four-part lesson, marking in different highlighters, group work, brain gym, target setting and so on. A recent history of teaching and learning ideas supported by little or no empirical research evidence whatsoever. One idea that was not listed on the poster was maintenance rehearsal of information, the bedrock of all learning. It is the reason that sports teams practise the same drills, actors read their lines repeatedly, musicians repeat the same piece and language teachers reinforce the same verb conjugations. Rehearsal works, as one hundred years of psychology will verify. True, the techniques have elaborated: visual mnemonics, for instance, aid rehearsal by elaborating upon information. Ultimately though, learning starts with rehearsal in order to acquire knowledge. Rocket science lesson complete.
Ask a sample of stereotypical Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail readers to paint their vision of the perfect secondary school. What would they answer? Strict discipline, teacher-led lessons, smart uniforms, respect for authority, a hint of nationalism and a return to tried and tested forms of learning. This describes The Michaela School in Wembley where I visited with two colleagues last Tuesday. The strictness actually begins with its visitors, rather like the way that some tourist venues do, with a prescriptive list of do’s and don’ts. The ‘do not’ list included not disappearing into the toilet to make phone calls which, one can only assume, is a reaction to their experience. Like the tourist venue, once the rules were established the welcoming process started.
Two student guides appeared, introduced themselves and shook hands with closely-rehearsed eye contact. A child is unlikely to understand how to greet someone unless taught. This was the shape of things to come: ‘Knowledge Is Power’ says the school mantra, but to know anything you have to be taught. These guides had been taught: how to introduce yourself, how to walk into a room, how to talk to guests. We began a tour. The corridors were like a library: silent, with art prints on the wall. “Can we visit the library?” I whispered to the guides. They nodded. Even in lesson changes corridors are silent, in order to ensure a fast changeover without disruption.
The Michaela School lessons keep to a well-honed structure. In their book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, a collection of essays written by the teaching staff, I had read about lessons beginning with quizzes to review previous content. Rehearsal and review of content is a key part of their learning policy. By the time we walked in, the lessons were already underway and, in every room, a ‘visualiser’ was used to project the teacher’s note-taking on books and worksheets. I did not see a quiz, but did see a thumbs up and thumbs down response to simple yes or no questions. Every lesson was quiet, led from the front, with every seat facing the front and a pacey rhythm. I also noticed that there were few displays, save for the odd poster, and remembered reading in the essay collection that teachers at the school do not spend their time putting up wall displays.
Before lunch we visited the library. It was empty of people and full of books, including books that the librarians could not get out of the boxes quickly enough. There were contemporary fiction works available, but I was drawn to the multiple copies of Marcus Aurelius, The Bronte sisters, Tolstoy, Twain, Dickens and Conan Doyle. I saw no children reading these books - the obvious response to seeing such collections is always, “Yes, but do these books get read?” At the same time, I find it hard to imagine that so many Penguin Classics would be ordered to simply remain on the shelves.
I mentioned that no valuable contributions to teaching and learning stand out in 30 years. Still, there was the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, if that counts; the English section sets out the ‘canon’ of desirable reading. Collectively, in secondary schools, there has been an unwillingness to really promote these great works. When children do not read, the vacuum gets dutifully filled by iphones, Fortnite, social media and those app things they all have now. In a silent school, with a strict ban on iphones and no distractions, there is at least a chance that more of those works will be picked up.
I sat on a lunch table with six students. During lunch the whole school sang, in unison, repeating the deputy headteacher who led the lyrics. At least two students were given demerits for not singing loudly enough. The merit and demerit system is how, by the way, these rules can be enforced. A collection of demerits leads to a detention, just like a merit can lead to a reward. As lunch was served each table discussed ‘guilty pleasures’ as a topic for the day. Luckily this discussion was stopped quite quickly, or I would probably still be in there talking. It stopped for selected students to stand up and say what they were grateful for. Secondary school students in the UK live in a country where the government ensures that every child gets an education at no little cost to the taxpayer. Not many generations ago, of course, there was no education system for all children. It is a paradox that in having more and more than any other generation ever, the default position is to focus on what we do not have. Here was an appreciation for what the students had; you forget how empowering it is to take stock and be grateful.
After lunch we left the school, but not before snapping the photograph above. Years ago, I worked at a boarding school which had historical connections to the Royal Navy. In the reception area, and on the parade ground, it was common to see a Union Jack. Additionally, photographs of the Queen and other members of the royal family served as a reminder about the national identity that schools once embraced. After I left that school, I thought I would be unlikely to see British flags and photographs of the monarchy ever again in a secondary school. Outside of The Michaela School in Wembley, the first thing that struck me, as I walked up to the reception, was the Union Jack fluttering in the breeze. It is rare to see one in a British school. For years, the Union Jack had been associated more with The British National Party than mainstream education. No one wanted to own it. After leaving Michaela’s reception I saw a letter from Buckingham Palace, thanking the school for good wishes following the Queen’s wedding anniversary to Prince Phillip. The Michaela School, it seems to me, are reclaiming something more than teaching and learning.
There is not a school in the country that invites guests in only to show them what’s under the carpet. You tend to see the good side of schools as a visitor. However, I don’t think anything I saw was out of the daily routine. The Michaela School is getting visitors, including Boris Johnson, because it has taken the unusual step of returning to a very formulaic, traditional education. The teachers are in full control; the pupils are learning and, regularly, they are named and shamed for not reaching the standards. Ultimately, I find it hard to see how the school is doing anything but helping them, even if the students do feel under pressure. By the time you compare this experience with any schools where bullying is out of control, lessons are disrupted easily and students walk around with an ‘ihunch’, a quick cost/benefit analysis will tell you which students are better off. Michaela’s students sit GCSE exams for the first time this summer; if the results are favourable, watch the other free schools and academy schools replicate the model.
The Michaela School students were very welcoming and I would highly recommend a visit if the opportunity presents itself. Given that the typical professional inset course can set your school back £250, for the cost of a tube ticket to Wembley Park, you can meet some very interesting children and staff.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way is edited by Katharine Birbalsingh and is published by John Catt Educational