John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector.
Michaela Community School is housed in a converted office block, on a main road, a couple of hundred yards from Wembley stadium. I arrive at lunchtime and see pupils chatting happily at picnic benches in the very small playground. There is no litter.
In reception, there is a smiling portrait of the original Michaela, and her motto – “Work hard, be kind.” Better, I feel, than Mossbourne’s signed photograph of Tony Blair.
Pupils enter the dining hall, smiling and loudly reciting Shelley’s Ozymandias. They serve each other in well-mannered family groups of six and lunch is good – a sweet and sour wrap with rice followed by a modest portion of tasty cheesecake. The eleven year-olds I sit with are keen to know about me and to discuss their interests. These include astronomy, and they know how the move from geocentric to heliocentric views of the universe came about, including the role of telescopes in extending knowledge. Recent reading of Susan Wise Bauer’s “The Story of Science” enables me to keep up.
At the end of lunch, pupils stand up to express appreciation of their teachers’ work, for example in running clubs, making interesting lessons and helping them improve their behaviour. Each appreciation is followed by two claps, and the pupil making it receives a merit – provided he or she has spoken “loudly and proudly.” I’m surprised and pleased to receive an appreciation from a pupil with whom I’ve been discussing astronomy. The children leave for lessons in an orderly way and without talking, but happy and relaxed. The corridors are narrow, but the walls are not covered in scratches from passing shoulder bags.
Pupils do not chat in lessons, but neither do they sit like Trappist monks. They focus on their work and on what the teacher is saying, answering questions when asked. The level of intellectual challenge in all subjects is considerable. For example, the acronym “Profs” used by languages teacher, Barry Smith, provides a basis for pupils to compose sentences in French, to include past tense, reasons, opinions, future and subjunctive, and is introduced in pupils’ first year in the school. I’ve never seen anyone introduce the subjunctive at such an early stage, but the vindication comes when my fourteen year old guide, asked to advise the younger pupils, does so with immaculate pronunciation and accurate use of the subjunctive. Mr Smith later puts her through her paces, and I’ve not seen such a high standard of fluent and accurate French from a fourteen year-old English speaker.
Samples of English work are equally impressive. Pupils are taught to construct arguments based on evidence, and the quality of writing from twelve- to thirteen-year-olds in middle groups is of the standard expected for high grades at GCSE, or the first year of the sixth form. I’ve only once seen progress in writing of this quality, at Harvey Grammar School, Folkestone, in the early nineties. To achieve it in an inner London comprehensive school, with an entry chosen by lottery supervised by the local authority, is close to incredible. Miss Birbalsingh and her colleagues have walked the talk.
They have described exactly how they do it on the school’s website and in a book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – The Michaela Way”, available from the school at £14, with discounts for multiple copies. It covers every aspect of education from initial training to headship, and, as Janella Ajeigbe, head of Churchill Gardens Primary Academy puts it, “it has rewritten what is possible. I feel privileged to be a headteacher to learn from their examples.”
What is possible at Michaela is staff-training based on questioning everything, rather than receiving instructions from management. It is demanding and obtaining politeness, cooperation and hard work from pupils who have been used to treating teachers with contempt, not listening, and making no effort – snarls, sneers or smirks are dealt with “sternly and instantly”. Katie Ashford’s brilliant programme of early literacy teaching, reinforced in every lesson, is crucial, as it quickly equips pupils with the knowledge they need to tackle the rest of their work. This contrasts with the progressives’ continuous attempts to downgrade the role of literacy in education. Jake Plastow-Chasan, for example, was told at university to limit the amount of reading given to pupils assessed as dyslexic, as it was too hard for them. Michaela’s policy is to teach them to read and write to the same standard as everyone else.
All in all, this is nothing less than a clear and practical plan to overturn the errors that have beset British education, not just from the Crosland era, but from the system it replaced. I said last week that those of us who had supported Katharine Birbalsingh would want to stand and cheer. Now we need to roll our sleeves up.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way. Four copies, £20 plus postage from Michaela Community School, North End Road, Wembley HA9 OUU