“Remember who you are. You’re Michaela. We’re a family. We stick together. It’s us against the world.” So went one of Barry Smith’s (now defunct) Sermons from the Bench, performed outside the school to dozens of silent students and astonished passers-by. “Us against the world” is also emblazoned in huge yellow letters on a smart blue background on one of the school walls.
There’s no doubt that Michaela fosters terrific team spirit. The children and staff are clearly proud of their school. Deputy Head Joe Kirby: “Imagine 150 pupils and teachers cheerfully chanting in unison, with beaming smiles, loving learning and loving life.” Head of English Jo Facer: “We want all our teachers to become Tiger Teachers, to see through a new paradigm: the Michaela Mindset.” Admirable and, if you believe in what you do, entirely logical.
Yet to me there’s an almost cultish feel to some aspects of Michaela, a real sense that only their staff and a few enlightened fellow travellers “get it” and that everyone else is wrong. In the previous instalment I noted Joe Kirby’s view that a lesson starter involving a video clip wouldn’t be allowed at Michaela as it is inefficient and not built for the long haul; in other words, not Michaela. In Battle Hymn this point is more strongly made. Much of the book struck me as aggressively binary: it’s our way, or a less good way. In fact, not just a less good way but a ridiculous way that no-one in their right minds would choose. It’s this, and the aforementioned slogan, that I find most interesting about Michaela: a deeply ingrained, almost zealous sense that pedagogically they are right and that anyone who thinks any differently is utterly, hopelessly wrong. At least that’s how the book comes across; as I’ve mentioned, in person things are different.
Trouble is, what I regard as unfortunate passages in Battle Hymn presumably reflect similar beliefs in school. For example, a comparison is drawn between presenting children with a Rubik’s cube, which didn’t go well, and giving them a cube and a solution, which did. The clear implication is that the former, more “progressive”, way is wrong. In this example that’s probably true. But I doubt that expecting children to engage fully with such a difficult puzzle without some help was ever very realistic. As such this example does little to persuade me to didacticism. Similarly, wall displays of student work are dismissed as “unquestioned orthodoxy…never used or scrutinised by anybody…[that] served no purpose other than to prettify the classroom…(besides, who can read it?)” As it happens I agree about putting children’s work on the wall; but there are so many other things that can helpfully be there. Displays are a great way to turn a classroom into a lively place where I want to teach and children want to learn, and if done well they can effectively support that learning. They do take time, but it’s worth the investment.
The vehemence of the language and the denial of any other view is of a piece with the somewhat “combative” (Joe Kirby) nature of other parts of the culture. Here are a couple of recent tweets from Michaela staff:
- “Discovery learning is…nonsense.”
- “Progressives have lost their nerve and don’t want teachers to be informed enough to choose”
Nothing particularly bad in isolation and yes, we’ve all seen far worse on that particular platform. But they’re part of a pattern. In another part of Battle Hymn a very new teacher – seven months into a career, with no training apart from that received at Michaela – states that in her subject “[PGCE students] are explicitly trained not to teach knowledge.” She goes on: “Overall I spend 120 minutes per week teaching knowledge to each class. For a progressively trained teacher, it’s probably closer to 30.” This is a remarkably forthright tone for someone so new into the profession: it would be contentious for anyone to be so dismissive of so many hardworking teachers and their professional tutors, let along someone with barely half a year’s experience. I wonder whether she was emboldened by the Michaela culture: “we’re so self-evidently right that I can, already, tell everyone else they’re wrong.” No wonder so many hackles have been raised.
I should add that the children were anything but combative. They were charming, polite, articulate – lots of things I hope my own children are. And in person the staff were the same, while nonetheless standing their ground. There’s an awful lot that’s good about Michaela and its students are lucky to go there. I just think that the projected culture does not always do the school many favours. After all, it’s perfectly possible to be for your kids without being against the world.