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.