John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Now that the euphoria over Michaela Community School’s results has calmed down, we can consider their wider implications.
First, the facts. Four times the national average of the new top grade of Level 9 – 18 per cent of all entries, with two pupils (from 850 or so nationally) this grade in all subjects. Two and a half times the national average at L7+, equivalent to the former A grade, and 58 per cent Ebacc passes, compared to a national average over recent years in the low twenties. I’ve questioned the validity of the “progress 8” measure, which sees everything in terms of scores in English and maths at 11, but this is still an astonishing 1.5.
The Guardian, no friend of Michaela, said these results placed Michaela among the best state schools in the country, an understatement. They represent the latest milestone in a long journey that has extended the idea of who can succeed academically from the 25 per cent of pupils in the grammar school era, via 50 per cent in the Newsom “Half our Future” report of the early 60s, to the over 80 per cent achieved by Mossbourne nine years ago. Over 90 per cent of Michaela’s passes were at Level 4 (old C) and above, and there are grammar schiools not far away.
Michaela has not merely broken the mould but, as Katharine Birbalsingh put it, “smashed it”. Discussions with teachers at the school’s celebration evening on Friday added to what I’d learned on my visit two years ago. First, the low-level disruption that plagues education in many schools, including some rated outstanding – pupils only do it when inspectors are there if they really hate their teachers – is eliminated during the induction “boot camp”. Pupils who have been used to setting their own behaviour patterns have to change their ways – a smirk across the table when a teacher is talking brings an immediate 25 minute detention, and teachers do not back down in the face of a tantrum.
Second, pupils are grouped according to their abilities and learning needs. Unlike almost all other schools that do this, however, the same attention to detail is paid to the teaching of lower-attaining pupils as to top sets. The one valid objection to ability grouping, that lower sets do not get their share of the best teaching, does not apply, and Deputy Head Katy Ashford, who doubles as special needs co-ordinator, is a key figure in making this happen. No stigma is attached to lower sets, and visitors mentioning setting in front of pupils may be asked to leave.
Third, Michaela’s teaching is consistently thoughtful and systematic. Maths in the first year is arithmetic, based on the computer programme Times Tables Rockstars. Mr Bullock, Head of Year 7, does not comment when I say that this should have been done in primary school, but it ensures that nothing is left out by the time algebra is introduced in the second year. Pupils then work on the programme Hegarty Maths, which tracks individual progress, and do so every day. Detention is there if they don’t, but the constant positive feedback makes them want to. This is another key feature at Michaela – everyone, including nearly all visitors, comes to want to buy into the system.
Despite the obstacles and abuse she faced while setting up the school, Birbalsingh, like Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne. started with one advantage – a new staff who shared her values, commitment and determination. The young teachers joining the school this year, including some from the private sector, and a physics teacher straight from the Higgs boson project, have this experience to learn from, as well as making their own contribution. Former deputy Barry Smith, who has applied Michaela principles at Great Yarmouth, has had to overcome opposition from established staff, and deal with a group of seriously, and at times violently, disruptive pupils and hostile parents. Birbalsingh gives credit to nearby Ark Wembley Park school for adopting Michaela principles, with similarly positive results, showing that the approach works beyond her own school.
There were no politicians at the celebration evening, leaving the field to the people who have done the work – the staff, and pupils who have joined the new sixth form – entry level 7 passes at Grade 7 or above, aiming for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the social mobility that these bring. It was a pity that Michael Gove could not be present at what is, in my view, his greatest achievement. But if the Conservative Conference in 2010 was Katharine Birbalsingh’s day, this was her night. And Michaela’s.