Why Michaela can never be generalised

Michaela Adapted

This post is nothing to do with the overall theory and educational approach of Michaela School. It is not a critique which suggests that there is anything about the way in which it is doing things which is wrong. It also is nothing to do particularly with whether or not society will ever any longer tolerate a ‘one size fits all’ approach to schooling – of any kind. I have not visited Michaela, and I have not even read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers yet (it’s taken its place in line on my Kindle though).

Rather, it is about inevitable features of the school which makes it fundamentally different to the majority of similar schools which might follow, and perhaps which might be worth bearing in mind when its public exam results start to roll-in and (hopefully) people also reflect down the line on the success of its ex-pupils in life beyond education. It’s going to be a while before we can truly assess the model of education which it’s espousing…

Michaela is both trail-blazing and it is unique – and it is this uniqueness which means that they are going to be hard to replicate. For a start, as David Didau and Katharine Birbalsingh acknowledge, good schools create a belief in their children that their school is special, and that they are in some way the fortunate ones for being there; a special in-group which is defined by how much better it is than the ‘out-group’:

“This is, I think, how successful schools in disadvantaged areas operate. They create an in-group where ‘we’ are different to everyone out there. ‘We’ feel privileged to be in the in-group and appalled at the idea of what it must be like to be a member of the out-group. ‘We’ notice everything that makes us different from ‘them’ and we revel in the differences.” (From The Learning Spy)

“If you read nothing else, read this by David Didau. It is so spot-on in everything it says. It chimes with my years of experience in a variety of schools and it is for these reasons that at Michaela, we do as David says: we talk about being ‘Top of the Pyramid’. Many schools do this. It is a trick of illusion used by teachers in their classrooms and heads in their schools. “We are better than them” is the sentiment. We can behave better, work harder, strive more, and these attributes make us ‘better’. We aren’t failures like the kids who choose gang life over a life of hard work. We are better than that. At Michaela, we so believe in the sentiment that we have ‘Top of the Pyramid’ painted on the wall. We are the best. We are so damn good, we are going to give those boys at Eton who think they are the best a real run for their money. Think you are the best Eton? You haven’t met Michaela yet.” (from To Miss With Love)

Why do schools do this? It is a psychological trick to help create self-fulfilling prophecies, where children work in line with the aspirations which they have now acquired due to their belief that they actually have everything to play for in life. Perhaps it’s quite allied to Growth Mindset theory.

Of course, the danger is that many children – particularly cynical and increasingly worldly wise teens – are likely to see through this unless they genuinely are privileged to be at a particular school due to the special features it objectively has compared to other schools. (Which is easy to convince yourself of if you are at the only Grammar, or Independent School in the area).

However, Michaela literally has these objective features in bucket-loads, without it needing to be academically selective or fee-paying, and hence I think that its generalisability needs to be viewed with caution.

To explore why this is the case, let’s look at 3 areas: Their Head, their teachers and their pupils.

The Headmistress – Katharine Birbalsingh.

By any fair assessment, Katharine Birbalsingh is an incredibly impressive person to have running a state-funded school. She had an international upbringing, went to Oxford, and taught in 5 inner-city secondary schools in 10 years. She developed her belief in a knowledge-based education when it was still rude to talk about it publically, and became so passionate that she made headlines at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference by speaking-out about the British education system.

Not only is she the Headmistress of Michaela, but she was also its founder – the school is there because of her vision and her efforts, but – despite being utterly dedicated to its own success – she is still heavily committed to fighting the wider cause of knowledge-based education:

Birb

The Michaela pupils will see Katharine appearing on national television talking about Michaela’s uniqueness and vision. They will also see the regular rafts of visitors to the school – including camera crews – and have it consistently reinforced to them that “this school is special!”

When Katharine actually stands in front of the school and then does indeed tell them with great conviction that they are the “top of the pyramid” – the lived reality will make her own authority to say this very hard to contest. This is no game-playing illusion creation, she genuinely believes it, and she will appear to have an almost mythical status when declaring her visionary words, compared to most inner-city secondary school heads.

I have no doubt that the children will rise to things accordingly. Good luck to the rest of the Headteachers across the globe to match that!

The Teachers:

“So the idea of reserving all the clever teachers for the brightest seems wrong.” …

“To reserve the cleverest staff for the brightest children because they will want to discuss more Shakespeare is both unfair in my opinion, and simply not true. At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years.

If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.” (my bold emphasis) [from To Miss With Love]

It is clear that Michaela have super bright (according to the post above) and super committed (according to various other criteria) staff. Including Birbalsingh, 14 individual members of Michaela staff have their own blogs, and 3 other members contribute towards the Arts blog.

MICHAELA STAFF BLOGS

Almost without doubt, teachers there will have been individually challenged at some point by people beyond the school with regards to their allegiance to Michaela, and, whilst it could of course be argued that the current hostile climate towards the school might make it hard to attract staff (which wouldn’t be the case if it was a standard model of schooling), the fact that it does have that situation means that only the most committed teachers are likely to be teaching there. Teachers who – again – are going to be highly dedicated to proving that the model can work.

It is also possible too – and I will happily be put right on this – that the current fame of Michaela could attract able and dedicated teachers from a far wider area than is the norm for state secondary schools.

In other words, it cannot be expected that the vast majority of schools could ever have such a similar body of committed professionals working for them – unless they managed to stand-out from the crowd and – by default – draw nutrients from other schools.

The Pupils

What is immensely impressive about Michaela is that it is an inner-city school, without special entry requirements, which appears – from the media available online – to be predominantly made-up of people from British ethnic minorities. As was mentioned with the staff, it is quite possible to imagine the disproportionate degree of hostility directed towards Michaela as being a negative factor which shouldn’t be the case if their model of education became widespread. However, even with the difficulties they face, Michaela appear to have a waiting list for each year group, and – though the children may well be from a great spread of economic backgrounds, and bring with them a broad spread of academic aptitudes – I think that there could be little doubt that they will all have supportive family backgrounds. What family would send their child to such a publically controversial school otherwise?

Again, I could be very wrong about this, and am happy to be told so, but I imagine that most children don’t arrive at Michaela now without their parents being highly committed to the project which the school is pioneering. In other words, as with the teachers, there has been a degree of natural selection for Michaela pupils which means that whatever the school does, it will be unusually strongly supported by the parents (for a state school). Of course – as with independent schools – there will always be a cusp of parents who want to believe in you, but are nervously waiting to be convinced, and – at any moment – could back-out of the project. However, I simply can’t see the make-up of the parent body at Michaela as being representative of what you would get from a randomly sampled state school across the country, even if Michaela’s educational philosophy was to become the dominant form of schooling.

Summary

So, what is my point? My point is that, whatever trailblazing, pioneering, prejudice-busting, paradigm-changing effect Michaela might have on our education system down the line, it – in itself – will never become a template that could become a normal model within our education system.

This is irrespective of the rightness, or adoptability of knowledge-based education as a whole: Michaela is always going to be a unique and un-generalisable point in time – whatever it manages to open the doors to down the line, and this will need to be borne in mind when the public exam measures of school success start to flow in.

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4 thoughts on “Why Michaela can never be generalised

  1. Twenty years ago Greenpeace we’re in your face and stirring it up. Their activists seemed to regularly make the national news; and now? Green policies are mixed in with the mainstream, Greenpeace has apparently subsided from their confrontational stance. Why? Because the world moved towards their position or was it too hard to sustain? Or a bit of both? And so too with Michaela? Isn’t this was statisticians call regression to the mean? But if you believe in a knowledge based curriculum perhaps it will move the mean, even if only slightly, once the exam results improve and the alumni glitter!

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    • I think you are absolutely right. In this sense Michaela are semi-sacrificial – breaking-down the walls of what is seen as both possible and permissible. In the process, both the circumstances for schools will change, and with them, what is required to make such a school scenario applicable without such unique ingredients needing to be in place.

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  2. Perhaps to take it further the analogy of an ecosystem of ideas subject to evolutionary pressures may work. If we could combine the memes of teaching together in a ‘DNA’ of a school that ‘work’ (minimum expenditure of energy for maximum effect) it would then be desirable to replicate it. Perhaps the free school system will enable this natural selection until a dominant ‘meme nucleus’ arises?

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    • I think ultimately – at the very large scale of things – this is what is happening. I’m not sure that it will work quite so tightly at the micro-level – which – in all honesty the Free School movement represents. Partly I think that is because the definition of what ‘works’ (in your point minimum expenditure of energy for maximum effect) is, in itself, a matter of dispute. What is the ‘maximum effect’ that we agree on – productivity? Civility? ‘Happiness…’?

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