Few months ago I had asked Katharine Birbalsingh if I could visit Michaela. She had said yes and we had a date in the diary. Then came the tube strike and I had to cancel the visit. On 22nd March I finally got to visit the school along with Targinder Gill and Steve Penny.
Michaela is a bit like marmite, people either love it or they don’t. Unlike people who decide they don’t like marmite after trying it, people who don’t like Michaela are mainly those who have just read about it or have been influenced by others who also haven’t visited. People who have seen the school for themselves may also find some things they don’t agree with and that is ok. What these people don’t do is heap criticism on the school for the sake it. What they say is something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t do it this way but if Katharine can make it work for her children then good on her.” They don’t want to try and close down the school which, to my horror, Katharine told us, many have tried to do.
We started the visit in Katharine’s office. It’s impossible not to take an instant liking to her! She is a smart, extremely funny, passionate and intelligent woman. After spending a few minutes with her we were introduced to our two lovely guides who took us around the school. They were very good ambassadors and freely answered all our questions. We first went to Barry Smith’s French lesson. The pace was fast and there were lots of questions and answers. As soon as Barry asked a question hands shot up. The whole class was engaged and you could tell they were enjoying themselves (fun and enjoyment aren’t alien words to people who like a knowledge based curriculum!) The cynics amongst you may think that the guides had been told where to take visitors and which classes to avoid. Not so! Steve and I both have a science background and we asked if we could see a science lesson. So, up we went to Olivia Dyer’s science lesson. The lesson was about to end but the way Michaela works means every second of every minute is used. The books and worksheets were quickly collected and put away. While they waited for the lunch bell to go Olivia asked them Biology questions. Again, they were all eager to answer and hands went up as soon as Olivia finished asking the question.
We then went and had family lunch. Again, staff were very happy for me to choose where I wanted to sit. Every single student I met impressed me. They are happy, confident and are able to have a conversation with adults they’ve just met. Eating together as a family is becoming a dying art. People either don’t eat together or if they do, they do so in front of the television. The fact that Michaela has started the tradition of eating together is to be appreciated.
During lunch two students talked about the debating club they are a part of. There are not many state schools which expose their students to debating, so I was impressed that Michaela does. One of the boys on my table told me that he now reads a lot and not only does he read more than he used to, he actually enjoys it. They were interested in who I was and what I did. They asked really insightful questions about governance. I hope some of them will become school governors themselves as they have got asking challenging questions sussed!
If you read some comments on Twitter you would think that students in Michaela are put in straitjackets! I’m happy to report that this is not the case. There was conversation and there was laughter but there is a high expectation of good behaviour. One of the guides told us that his primary school was an outstanding school but not as far as behaviour was concerned. I asked one of the boys I had lunch with what was the best thing about Michaela and he didn’t have to think. His response? There is no bullying. Being a product of a convent school where nuns expected us to have impeccable manners, I was happy to see that every single student we met was politeness personified! Many people think that by enforcing good behaviour Michaela stops children from being happy. I think the opposite is true. It’s because there are clear expectations of behaviour which are consistently applied by all the teachers which results in happy children.
No account of Michaela would be complete without a word about the staff. Tarjinder said the staff are beautiful! I agree. They are good role models and even on this short visit it was clear that there is a very good relationship between the teachers and the students and in this relationship the teachers are the adults! The teachers expect a lot from their charges. “Aspiration beyond the local bus stop” as Barry put it! As far as the staff are concerned, there is no reason why these children cannot be doctors, engineers, members of Parliament, teachers etc. Having seen and spoken to the children, I agree!
One of the boys I had lunch with asked me if I would like to work at Michaela. The commute won’t be the easiest, but having seen the children and staff, I wouldn’t mind being a Michaela governor!
I think the last words should be those of a student. One of my guides told me that he had come to Michaela as this was the school he had been sent to. I asked him that if he was given a choice now, would he go to a different school. He replied, “No Miss, I don’t want to go anywhere else as this school makes me want to work hard and do my best.” What else can you ask of a school?
Tarjinder has also blogged about our visit.
Blogs by others who have visited Michaela or work here are collated here.