Visiting Michaela

As with many things, I find myself somewhat behind the curve when visiting Michaela Community School in Brent this morning.  Without doubt, more has been written about this school in the 4 years since it opened than any other school in the country.  I found this recent post from Adam Boxer useful, it contains links below to blogs written by the staff – seemingly a part of the job description for working at Michaela.

The school prides itself on “being different from other schools” which was the message being delivered to Year 8 by the head Katharine Birbalsingh within a few minutes of my arrival. Being “different” inevitably attracts attention in itself, but it is also part of the mission of the leadership to “spread the word”.  They are not content with creating a great school in a corner of London, the bigger goal is to revolutionise the system.  And so, I joined the steady stream of daily visitors wanting to know more.

Having read so much about the place, much of what I saw was what I expected. Impeccable behaviour in classrooms, and seamless, silent transitions between lessons. The chanting of Invictus at lunch time, followed by the daily topic for discussion and then an “appreciation”. What struck me most was the relentless focus on oracy (not that they call it that) with not a single mumble being allowed to pass unchallenged in lessons or elsewhere.

But my main reason for visiting was to see the maths in action and in particular to get an insight into teaching of lower attaining groups at KS3.  The sets are given different names and at no point is anyone allowed to utter the words “bottom set”. I was told in hushed tones which set I was seeing.  The approach makes sense although in my experience it doesn’t really matter what you call them, kids work out pretty quickly which set they are in.

Central to the maths curriculum is a set of booklets that have been created by Dani Quinn and her team. They become the structure and central resource for the lesson.  I saw them being used in the following ways:

  • As a reference for the instruction part of the lesson where sections might be read out aloud by the teacher or the pupils.
  • Some parts were fill-in-the-blanks, scaffolded tasks as a lead-in to independent work.
  • As a source of individual questions to be modelled by the teacher
  • As a source of individual questions for pupils to do on mini-whiteboards
  • As sets of questions for pupils to work on independently
  • And, as I was told by a student, as a revision resource

Although they are used as a core resource, teachers were using the booklets very flexibly, not in any way seeming to be constrained by them and often veering off-piste to do some additional mini-whiteboard questions, for example.

All groups have the same booklet but the lower set(s) would be expected to proceed at a slower pace and therefore not cover everything in there.  I don’t see a way around this. If you are going to set students then of course the lower groups will have to either learn fewer topics or cover them in less depth.  Bart sums it up when he joins the remedial class in a new school:


I have many thoughts on setting in maths still flying around but that will have to wait for another day. In the case of Michaela, what was interesting was that the lower sets are no smaller in size.  I counted 24 in a bottom set Year 10 and was told that there must have been some absent.  There are simply no behaviour issues in these groups and the insistence of seeing every single whiteboard means that nobody is left behind. I realise how much I rely on circulating the room and providing individual instruction with my smaller bottom sets.  I saw little of this. Instructions and corrections were mostly being given from the front of the room even if they were targeted at individuals.

Another component of why this works was the use of self-reporting.  I have all but given up asking questions like “who didn’t understand that?” or “who got that right/wrong?” I would always prefer to see actual evidence of understanding on whiteboards or in books rather than asking students to self-report by putting hands up or by using Red-Amber-Green cards to show level of confidence. But what I saw at Michaela was a classroom culture where pupils seemed to be showing honestly where they were at. There was no stigma attached to being right OR wrong.  “Is there anyone in this room that doesn’t understand that?” Two hands shot up immediately. A short whole-class discussion ensued based on the student articulating clearly what they didn’t understand with another whole-class example. To have this quick verbal check in addition to formative assessment of student work is very efficient. In another lesson, when a student just said,“I don’t understand” this was immediately thrown back with “you need to ask a specific question”.

What I didn’t see was any use of Powerpoint.  Michaela teachers are masters of the visualiser. Everything I saw on screen was skilfully projected snippets of the booklet or some other printed material or their modelling of solutions using pen and paper under the visualiser with the occasional show-call of student work.  PowerPoint is not banned and they would use it for particular images or animations that benefit from it, but the point is, there is no “clicking through” a presentation as the structure of a lesson.

Visiting any school is refreshing and enlightening – I am very grateful that I am being allowed to use some of my Year 11 gain time to do so.  We can learn so much from each other, but mustn’t get carried away with the notion of “it works there so it will work here”.  Contexts vary, and as I discussed with Ms Birbalsingh before I left, the fact that Michaela has started from scratch with both its pupils and its teachers is a unique situation very different from trying to improve an existing school, especially when it comes to expectations on pupil behaviour.  It’s inspiration for making changes at your own school, not an instruction manual for how to do it.

Would I want to work there? Well yes, who wouldn’t want to work in an environment with impeccable behaviour, excellent resources that the team has created and continually refine, and therefore has a strong sense of ownership in. The relatively low contact time (13 hours per week on average, 19 max) is somewhat offset by the high amount of “duty” time – the high presence of staff is key to maintaining the behaviour. But that still leaves quality time for collaborating as a team, especially as time is not spent creating PowerPoints.  My current school won’t be seeing the back of me anytime soon, though – a daily commute from Wandsworth to Wembley Park is certainly not what I’m looking for right now!



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