Three things I learnt from Michaela

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Michaela Community School in Wembley.  Here are three things that struck me.

1 Free schools can serve a valuable purpose

I can’t think of a better advert for the Free School movement than Michaela.  I’m sure that Michaela’s teachers were highly effective in their previous schools, but clustering this small group of ambitious, creative, passionate and dedicated teachers, all of whom share a strong social purpose and a belief in knowledge-rich education, is enabling these teachers to have a much bigger impact than they could have elsewhere.  Educationalists throughout England and from around the world are visiting Michaela, and other schools in this part of London are looking over their shoulders.  All the while, students at Michaela are receiving an education which I’m convinced will empower them to top universities and beyond.

2 Let teachers teach

When I worked at Burlington Danes Academy, teachers were asked to do just three things: plan, teach and mark.  At Michaela, they strip this down even further and encourage teachers to simply teach.  Planning takes place at the start of the school year so new teachers walk into a framework of resources which includes knowledge banks, quizzes and tests.  Marking is minimised, with a preference for feedback in class and self-testing/marking, rather than written dialogue between teachers and students.  I don’t think we give teachers enough time or coaching on refining their classroom delivery, and I support Kris Boulton’s post from last week that teachers’ precious time is best spent honing the craft of delivering their lessons, rather than designing their own curricula.

3 Work life balance requires tough decisions

Michaela’s Assistant Head Joe Kirby wrote at the weekend about hornets and butterflies, recognising that schools need to stop doing some good things in order to protect the wellbeing of teachers.  On lunch duty in the playground Joe told me that most of Michaela’s teachers leave at 5pm each day (still a long shift given the fact that lessons start before 8am).  Michaela’s leadership have clearly made some tough decisions about what to leave out in order to protect their teachers.  Headmistress Katherine Birbalsingh admitted that they don’t do bake sales, and I’ve already noted that marking at Michaela wouldn’t conform to the marking policies of most of the schools I know.  Perhaps it’s time for other schools to make courageous decisions about what to leave out, in order to enhance what they leave in.

Michaela is unique.  Ms Birbalsingh has a crystal clear educational philosophy and she’s assembled a team which shares her passion and values.  The blank slate offered by the Free School programme has enabled Michaela to deliver on its promise that knowledge is power, and as it grows I’m sure that it will attract teachers, students and parents who seek an unalloyed model of an ambitious, no-nonsense, knowledge-rich education.   Just like at King Solomon Academy, I’m convinced that student outcomes at Michaela will prove once again that students from low income backgrounds can truly excel in a traditional, academic curriculum.    Ms Birbalsingh and her team were incredibly generous with their time and advice yesterday and I hope that other school leaders are able to make a trip to Wembley to capture for themselves some of Michaela’s innovative and ambitious spirit.

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Notes from a departure lounge at Belfast Airport

I write this after a miserable day in Northern Ireland trying to recruit a few teachers amongst the impressive PGCE students at Queen’s University Belfast.  The unsurprising reality is that most trainees who choose to take a PGCE in Northern Ireland want to teach in Northern Ireland, and I return to London empty-handed (apart from two rather cumbersome pop-up banners which the good people at Flybe have kindly checked into the hold at no extra cost).

While in Belfast I met with a couple of recruitment agencies who link southern Irish teachers with English schools, but they tell me that English schools are a hard sell: Irish teachers still enjoy three months’ holiday and decent status relative to other professions, alongside pay that compares to salaries in England.

The teacher crunch is well documented and will only get worse as (a) the economy picks up, (b) more students enter our schools (c) budgets are tightened and (d) international options increase, particularly in the Middle East.  Some schools are already taking drastic measures to fill their staffrooms: I know of one school on the south coast which recruited more than a dozen teachers from Canada last year.   I’m told they’re not repeating the exercise this year.

Before we look at possible solutions, let’s take the threat posed by the Middle East for a minute.  We know that teachers in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar can earn comparable salaries to UK with no tax, plus a generous accommodation allowance to sweeten the pill.  While teaching affluent children in the Middle East might not provice the social fulfilment offered by gritty English schools, it seems to me that many teachers feel disheartened by the high stakes, low autonomy culture at work in England, so I can understand why some teachers might choose to swap this high stakes, low autonomy culture in England for a high stakes, low autonomy culture (with better weather, pay and lifestyle) in the Middle East.

Here’s some solutions to this growing teacher shortage:

  1. Take a leaf from the NHS’s book and recruit teachers from abroad. As I noted above, this isn’t always an easy sell.
  2. Bigger classes
  3. Use technology to reduce contact time with teachers.
  4. Retrain teachers from surplus subjects (perhaps PE, the arts, DT?) into shortage subjects.

I find options three and four most viable. Schools like School of One in New York are pioneering online learning platforms which adapt to the needs of individual students and would seem to suit certain subjects, such as maths.  We might not want students to receive all of their maths tuition in this way, but if we can’t recruit great maths teachers then 2 hours of online learning (in a class of 50 in the school hall with a few Teaching Assistants) combined with 2 hours with an excellent maths teacher (in a class of 25) might be a solution.

As for point 4, while we would want our children to be taught by mathematicians and physicists with a passion for their subject and a first class degree, we might need to be more pragmatic and offer re-training programmes for teachers in surplus subjects.   Excellent training, combined with a supportive department, might enable a strong teacher of DT, for example, to successfully deliver Key Stage Three maths.

None of these solutions are optimal, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good as we tackle our clear and present teacher shortage.