Curled up in a chair next to the Christmas tree looking out over the Northumberland countryside, I’ve now finished the Michaela book and it’s left me with far more questions than answers; the book makes valid points about where our education system appears to be failing, only my response to the proposed answers is a resounding ‘but what about…?’ I’ve picked out 4 areas that have done just this:
1. The ‘no excuses’ ‘no labelling’ approach to expectations around students’ behaviour and potential achievement is refreshing. Social background or additional needs should not be a barrier to students achieving and I do think we need to stop defining students by labels and just focus on ensuring every individual student achieves their full potential.
My ‘but what about…?’ follow up here is that the Michaela view of achieving appears to be measured by whether or not a student gets into a Russell Group university. Their curriculum, ethos and values appear to be based around this objective but what about vocational or creative career paths? What about apprenticeships? What about the needs of the local workforce? We need more than Russell Group graduates and students shouldn’t be made to feel they have to leave their local area to be successful – we’re not all in London.
2. A knowledge based curriculum has its merits and the cognitive research on memory does point towards greater amounts of ‘learnt’ knowledge giving quicker mental processing when presented with new information as the brain has more points of reference. Teaching in Humanities, I cannot argue against the importance of factual knowledge being a strong component in teaching and learning.
My ‘but what about..?’ here centres on the apparent rejection of anything other than drilling knowledge. I agree with Joe Kirby’s argument that broad cultural and historical knowledge improves academic achievement but I don’t see how recalling knowledge alone does this. At 18 I couldn’t recite a single poem, had no understanding of classical music and had no idea which historical figure I’d like to invite to dinner but I could analyse data using spreadsheets and argue my categories in a card sort and Cambridge let me in! The comments made about activity based learning just being to make lessons engaging and technology adding very little to the learning process in Jess Lund’s chapter are just examples of extremely poor quality teaching not justification for the Michaela way. If you are planning a lesson, every element from the direct teaching to the activities students will undertake to the amount of time devoted to each should always be dictated by the learning and this needs to be balanced between knowledge and skills.
3. Family lunch, high levels of parental support, spotless uniform and a culture of kindness and respect are all, without a doubt, the ideal for any school and it is lovely to read about students with impeccable manners.
Yet I still have a ‘but what about…?’ with this too. Michaela has been set up from scratch, with generous funding, a building they could choose how to use and develop this with 120 students added at a time and in an area where there is a variety of other schools to choose from. Other schools aren’t in this position; how many canteens can sit a whole year group at once? Schools serving areas of deprivation often mean parents are disengaged with education after having poor experiences themselves and are suspicious of ‘the system’ and external agency involvement. Michaela can get 120 sets of supportive parents from Brent each September and hold firm that parents follow the Michaela way but what about those working in schools (with no local alternative) who struggle to get parents to agree to ensure their child attends school let alone ensure they have a clean shirt every day? This isn’t about making excuses, just that the context of Michaela, whatever the authors might argue, does make a difference.
4. Jake Plastow-Chason and Sarah Clear’s chapters on initial teacher training and unqualified teachers raise important points about the situation in teacher training. With teacher recruitment and retention facing difficulties and research showing 1 in 10 leave teaching within a year, we need to rethink how we recruit and train teachers as it clearly isn’t working at the moment. Comments on the importance of subject knowledge and the lack of time given to this by training providers is something we need to address.
My ‘but what about…?’ here is a reaction to the proposition that you don’t need a qualification to teach. I know excellent unqualified teachers but if we are trying to promote respect for the teaching profession, I’m not sure taking away the ‘professional qualification’ is the right way to go about it. The increasing diversity of routes into teaching will have made the quality of training for teachers variable but I believe taking out higher education institutions from this and leaving training only down to schools could make this variability worse; teachers should be reflective and engaged in making decisions on how to best ensure the learning of students in their classrooms and high quality training supports teachers to do this.
The Michaela school will, without a doubt, continue to cause debate and it’ll be really interesting to see how it continues to grow and develop; their first set of GCSE results will be eagerly awaited by those waiting to say ‘I told you so’ on both sides of the debate!
For me, reading about ‘The Michaela Way’ has made me reflect on my own teaching, and that in my school, and I’ll be taking ideas and questions back to school in January to build on and improve what we do. But, ultimately, I still feel that the Michaela Way isn’t necessarily the right path for everyone.
Next in my holiday reading pile ‘The Slightly Awesome Teacher’.