Michaela

I expected them to be trudging the yard, eyes down, their minds manacled. I expected nervous looks between them as I asked them questions, afraid to utter the truth about their terrible life of drudgery. I expected officious, dry and humourless Vogonesque teachers, chanting out their instructions as the poor children chanted their replies.

What I got was …

I arrived during one of the lunch sittings and was escorted out onto the playground. I saw children. Some of them were playing. Some of them were chatting. All of them were happy.

As I chatted with some of the children, I was struck by their willingness to talk and by their articulate maturity. Inevitably, some were shyer than others; they’re children after all. But all spoke about their favourite subjects with openness and enthusiasm. What upset me, as a teacher of English, is that most of them said their favourite subject is maths.

And then we were into lunch. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in a school. The children entered the room reciting the words of a poem. They arranged themselves at tables. I was sharing my table with mostly Year 7 pupils, and a Year 9 pupil. We sat. Mr Williams-Yale then recalled the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, drawing out the positive and negative power of influence, before posing two questions for discussion: 1) Who influences you? 2) How do you influence others?

By this time, food and cutlery had magically appeared before me, brought to the table and passed to me by the children. We ate. We talked. The Year 9 girl at our table led the discussion with aplomb, but not before introducing herself to me with a handshake. She was incredible. Her chairing of the discussion ensured that everyone around the table was enabled to participate.

Suddenly, we were on to ice-cream and then the dirty plates and cutlery were gathered up and taken away, by the pupils.

Lunch concludes with appreciations. All pupils raise their hands to offer an appreciation, and my Year 9 girl offered an appreciation to me for my visit and for contributing to the discussion. I couldn’t resist raising my hand to offer an appreciation in return followed by one two clap clap.

I did think that perhaps the lunch was over all too quickly. But then, the logistics of getting children fed in a timely fashion dictate this. It will be interesting to see how this develops when the school reaches full capacity.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the school. What struck me was the silent focus in every lesson. It was impressive, too, to see SLANT in action in real classrooms with actual children. And it works. As the tour progressed, I began to wonder if there was a risk of the children losing a sense of individuality within the pace of the lessons and the direct instruction. I was, perhaps, worried that the children were being somewhat brainwashed to give standard responses. But then I actually listened to some of the answers – and questions – that the children were offering. I noted a lot of discussion between pupils, at the invitation of teachers, but unlike the kinds of discussions I’ve witnessed in most lessons in most schools, these were focused and precise. I was impressed in a Year 8 English lesson by a girl who politely challenged an interpretation offered by the teacher: she gave an informed, coherent, and plausible counter interpretation, supported sublimely by apt textual reference.

Our tour guides, two Year 8 pupils, spoke to us of their ambitions and their experiences of being Michaela pupils. They clearly valued the opportunities that the school is offering them. They were mature, articulate and – and this is impressive in children their age – interested in what we had to say. They asked our opinions of what we’d seen. They asked about our journey. They asked about our schools. These are children who can hold their own when talking to adults.

After my tour, I had the great honour of chatting with Ms Birbalsingh herself. I’ve seen bizarre criticisms of her on #EduTwitter. I’ve seen, too, her speeches, including the infamous Tory party conference one. But here she was, in person. In the flesh. And I was struck by her …

Now look. People who’ve seen me speak at ResearchED will know that I have a problem with the notion of ‘passion’ in education. I resent its use in teaching vacancy advertisements because of the implied expectation of suffering, or of uncontrollable emotion. But that isn’t to say that the term should never be used. And here I’m going to use it.

… passion. One of the criticisms I’ve seen of Birbalsingh is a suggestion that she somehow works against the progressive ideal of social justice. Just ten minutes in her company, or ten minutes walking around her school, will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Birbalsingh adores her pupils. Her kids. She is determined, almost beyond reason, to give these young people the best opportunities to lift themselves out of whatever conditions they find themselves in and to hold their heads up high as they mingle with all those public school alumni who dominate the hegemonic sphere of influence.

As we sat chatting in her office, I noticed the walls which were like those of a gallery: adorned by the most extraordinary artwork. This was a feature of the whole school. The walls around the building were minimal, but the children’s artwork was everywhere. And it was brilliant. Later, I mentioned to the art teacher how impressed I was and she explained how the artwork on display was the direct consequence of drilling. The children work on a particular skill or technique for a long time, enabling them to ultimately produce masterpieces.

After talking with Ms Birbalsingh, I was left to roam the school. This was the point in the day where I would discover the truth behind the facade. Perhaps, up until this point, I had been Mr Whymper, taken in by the apparently full grain barrels. So I went into lessons.

I had the joy of visiting another English lesson where the enthusiasm of the teacher was infectious. I visited maths lessons, art lessons, and science lessons. Everywhere, the children were focused, well behaved, and … engaged. Sure, a few kids looked like they’d prefer to be at home. But then, so do I most of the time. But to see an entire school so engaged in learning was a thing to behold.

I happened to be on a corridor during a lesson change over. It was silent. This is hundreds of children moving along corridors, up and down stairs, in silence. And moving rapidly. In my previous schools, lesson changeover was a key danger spot for poor and dangerous behaviour with children shoving each other on the stairwells, chasing each other on the corridors, and the noise would be horrendous. I once followed a boy down a corridor demanding he let go of another boy whom he held in a neck lock; upon finally releasing him, the aggressor told me this was “bantz”. Here at Michaela seemed like another world.

I did wonder whether I could cope with working in such a place as Michaela. I felt that perhaps I might find it too restrictive, that it would not allow a Maverick teacher to thrive; that creativity and autonomy had been replaced by, albeit very successful, routines and procedures. But then I remembered why I love the sonnet form so much.

The English (or Shakespearean) sonnet has a strict set of rules. It must have 14 lines, constructed of three quatrains in alternate rhymed iambic pentameter, followed by a rhyming couplet. Such prescription, such restrictive order. And yet … Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day. The tight structures of the form allow for great creativity of expression and sophistication of expression. A sonnet is a piece of rhetoric, a logical argument which turns at the volta. It is the perfect expression of human artistic endeavour, perhaps even the pinnacle of literary enterprise.

Perhaps, within the tightly controlled parameters of their school days, teachers and students at Michaela can thrive in the creative beauty that form allows.

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