‘I don’t trust them – they’re kids’

20th July 2018 at 00:00
As the founder of ‘Britain’s strictest school’, Katharine Birbalsingh is perhaps the most controversial head in the country. Michaela Community School has been widely condemned in the press and online for its ‘no excuses’ behaviour policy – and its rigid discipline even stretches to how its teachers take lessons. But what lies beyond the headlines and the Twitter arguments? Jon Severs travels to Wembley to see how this contentious approach works in practice

Katharine Birbalsingh is anxious.

You can tell by the way she speaks: a flurry of jabs; a feint; a dodge; constant, rapid repositioning.

You can tell by what she says: everything “out there”, she suggests, will stop her doing what she needs to do “in here”. “Out there” lurks in the shadow of every word she speaks.

And, most of all, you can tell by the way she runs her school. She loves her pupils. And she wants them to thrive. So she controls every single variable she can to ensure that they do. Because if she doesn’t, she says, “it all ends up falling apart”.

She has good reason to be anxious. Since it was opened in September 2014, no school has been covered by the national press, singled out for praise by a schools minister (Nick Gibb in gushing, persistent tweets), attracted criticism, collected disciples or been simply talked about like Michaela Community School, in Brent, north-west London.

Arguably, no head has been as praised and vilified in equal parts as Birbalsingh.

You could argue the school and Birbalsingh have courted the publicity – there is a book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers) and a collection of blogs on the “Michaela way”; there are conferences about the school approach, and the staff consistently talk down other schools.

Alternatively, you could see the school as a victim: it is overtly in line with government thinking and synonymous with the (in some quarters) much-hated free-school movement. It is, therefore, an accessible, vocal and physical target on to which some can direct their broader frustrations with education.

Either way, the school’s first set of GCSE results next year will be scrutinised, analysed and commented upon more broadly and publicly than we have perhaps ever seen before.

And yet, Birbalsingh’s anxiety seems to have little to do with results day 2019. Nor does she seem worried about criticism, nor affected by praise. At least not directly.

Instead, her anxiety appears to be rooted primarily in something arguably much more interesting: a lack of trust. She appears not to trust anyone to do what they are supposed to do. Not her students, not their parents, not even many of her own teachers.

That apparent lack of trust seems to dictate the model at Michaela: it underpins everything that happens there. And it makes for a radically different type of school.

The first thing you notice about Michaela is the number of staff. Or rather, the visibility of staff. They are scattered outside the front of the school as morning commuters head to Wembley Park Tube station, which is opposite the grey, seven-floor former office block the school calls home. They are posted at the gates of the school. They are littered across the “yard” where students in blazers huddle in small groups under the concrete legs holding up their building. There are teachers everywhere.

And they are all watching the children. Smiling, greeting them, having a joke occasionally. But watching. Constantly.

The teaching staff will have been here since 7.30am at the latest; the senior staff will have arrived by 7am for their morning meeting. They are all in “business” dress. They are overwhelmingly white and almost all look under 35 (Birbalsingh estimates that 80 per cent of her staff came through Teach First). The vast majority I spoke to were independently educated.

The children, in contrast, are a typical inner-city mix of ethnicities, mostly non-white. Around 49 per cent of students at Michaela are eligible for free school meals, 50 per cent have English as a second language (both figures are way above average), and 1.4 per cent have a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care plan (below the national average of 4.1 per cent).

“These are really challenging kids from really challenging backgrounds,” says Birbalsingh, adding that she would identify only one of the 480 pupils (it is a small school – four-form entry) as “middle class”. “Some of these kids ... these are kids who would be permanently excluded somewhere else, they would constantly be out on temporary exclusions, they would be non-attenders,” she explains.

Faith in the system

Birbalsingh says only five children have been excluded permanently from the school in the four years it has been open. However, 61 children have left the school voluntarily in the same period (Birbalsingh defends this number by citing the school’s “outstanding” Ofsted report: “Fewer pupils join and leave the school partway through their secondary education compared with pupils nationally.”).

The exclusion figure is low, she claims, considering the challenging children that attend the school. And that, she says, is because of the “systems” she has put in place. It’s these same systems that mean every child at Michaela is, according to her, more engaged than they would be anywhere else, higher achieving and better behaved than they would be anywhere else; even better people than they would be anywhere else.

And despite the beliefs of many of the school’s detractors and its disciples, by “systems” she is not just talking about behaviour management.

But let’s start with behaviour management, as that is where much of the controversy around Michaela lies. If you have heard of the school at all, it will have been because of the national press dubbing it the “strictest school in Britain” or it being labelled inhumane and draconian on social media.

This is in most part due to the rhetoric of the school itself about its “no excuses” discipline. It has a strict set of rules – around equipment, uniform, conduct, actions and more – and any deviation results in punishment (usually detention).

Those rules are seen by some to be extreme – silent transitions, detention for forgetting a pen and not buying one at the school shop at 7.45am, a demerit for “sneering” (two demerits in the same lesson gets you a detention) – and teachers at Michaela don’t accept context as a contributing factor for almost all indiscretions.

“What we say are exceptions are genuinely exceptional ... there is a difference between excuses and reasons,” explains deputy head Jonathan Porter.

“We ask ourselves, was this under your control? Could you have got home earlier, focused on this a little bit more? If so, then you get a detention. Our view is that there are many schools where what is considered to be exceptional is actually in the normal run of things.”

Strict does not mean lots of shouting. On the surface, behaviour management seems to be conducted via jazz hands and a borrowed script from a self-help seminar.

Teachers issue instructions with a theatrical flourish, a broad grin and a nagging, endless list of positive motivational messages, and the (many) routines that dictate how and when to chant (a poem in the family lunch or assembly, for example), SLANT (borrowed from US educationalist Doug Lemov, standing for “Sit up straight, Listen, Answer questions, Never interrupt, Track the teacher/text/speaker”), answer or be quiet are more West End ensemble than chain gang.

Some students embrace it, have learned every line and are desperate to be noticed for it. Others are just going through the motions. But they all do as they are told.

But they do so not necessarily because of the rules, but because behind all the performance and the scaffolds put in place is a comprehensive system of distrust. Will pupils voluntarily walk down corridors swiftly and silently to their next lesson, as told? Not a chance, says Birbalsingh, so she posts a teacher every 10 yards or so down corridors to make sure the children walk swiftly and in silence.

Not taken on trust

Can you trust kids to conduct themselves properly during the heavily structured “family lunch” (children serve each other a pre-set menu of food; they are given issues to discuss and then publicly show gratitude in short speeches to each other)? No, so you post teachers like sentries around the room so every child is in eyeline all of the time.

Can a child pay attention in class, even with a scaffold so tight they can’t breathe? Of course not, so you create a system whereby the teacher can monitor everything that a child is doing.

Should you let context become an excuse for behaviour? No, because the kids end up taking advantage – they manipulate you – so you have a blanket ban on excuses.

The scale of the enforcement operation is staggering. A child is never out of sight of a teacher or far enough away from a teacher to try anything. And if a blind spot does emerge, then the school is quickly on to it.

“I always say, ‘They make a move, we make a move.’ We realise there is a loophole – bam! We close that down,” explains Birbalsingh.

It’s an approach that has been labelled extreme, and Birbalsingh happily admits that it is. If it wasn’t extreme, she says, it would be “chaos”.

“Do I actually care about ties? Obviously not. I don’t actually care,” she says. “But we all pretend we care about the tie and looking very smart so they then think, ‘I am going to push back and make this tie short,’ as opposed to, ‘I am going to push back and bring in a knife.’ Teenagers need to have something to push back against, so if your standards are high, they push back at the top; do it at the bottom and it is chaos.”

For her, you either have complete control or no control. There is no middle way. Because you are dealing with children. And you cannot trust children.

“I don’t trust them, they are kids, that is what kids do,” she says. “They learn very quickly and they do whatever they need to do to make sure they get what they want.”

Of course, if you do not trust children to behave, it is unlikely you will trust them to learn, either. So it is not surprising that distrust is the foundation of pedagogy at the school, too.

Birbalsingh is a firm believer in a knowledge-rich curriculum. In her view, you construct learning to provide children with the foundational knowledge they need to succeed and become creative, engaged citizens. That means lots of facts, delivered in carefully constructed sequences, with constant repetition of key concepts linking it all together.

“You can only be inquisitive about something you know lots about,” she says. “You can only have independent thought about things you know really well. And how do you know it really well? By learning those basic building blocks by heart.”

This aim does not necessarily have to lead to a very direct form of instruction. There are plenty of schools that want the same result but deliver it through expeditionary learning, project work and other methods deemed by some to be “progressive”.

But at Michaela, those things are not an option. Not because of the research that, depending on how you interpret the term “direct instruction”, suggests that it is more effective to teach in a “direct way” , but because Birbalsingh simply does not trust children to learn in any other way, based on her experience in challenging schools.

“People will talk about brain science, but I tend not to refer very much to that,” she says. “I tend to do things on common sense, informed very much by a number of years of experience. It is just part of who I am. I just know it, and I see it in the kids.”

She says she cannot afford to trust the children to learn in “progressive” ways because they are already so far behind when they arrive at the school – there is no time for wrong turns.

“We are having to catch them up. There is so much catch-up that needs to be done. When they arrive, they know very little,” she claims. (In 2017, 61 per cent of children in Brent reached the expected standard in writing, reading and maths in key stage 2. The national average was 61 per cent. See bit.ly/SatsBrent)

Birbalsingh also does not trust children to learn in “progressive” ways because she says they do not know how to “work”.

“Too many inner-city kids do not work that hard. It has not been modelled to them, [and] they are given access to a lot of stuff that is ‘more fun’,” she claims.

But, most of all, she does not trust them because they are kids.

“Some people feel that when there is that buzz, there is learning,” she says. “I don’t think that. I think they are talking about who they want to kiss behind the bike sheds. I think to get them buzzing about ideas, you have to have them in a more organised environment where they are able to get their mind away from who they fancy.”

Knowledge is power

So you won’t see group work at Michaela. You won’t see discussion tasks beyond very limited pair work. You definitely won’t see expeditionary learning or open-ended project work. Instead, you see lesson after lesson where a teacher will walk children through knowledge content from the front, punctuating their lecture with drills, quizzes and recall exercises.

And you won’t see tangents at Michaela. You won’t see too many questions, either. Free interpretation of the content is discouraged: the teacher is the expert. So literature, for example, is delivered to you with the meanings and interpretations already baked in.

This limits the risk of a child wasting any time, because you are giving them no opportunity to waste it (and you are assuming, of course, that they will waste it if left alone). This limits any chance of them misinterpreting the content, too, because you are not giving them the opportunity to misinterpret it (and, again, you are assuming, of course, that they will misinterpret it if left alone).

Are the children engaged? In most lessons, they certainly pay attention; but engagement is trickier to gauge.

“You really have to focus, because the teacher is at the front, always checking you are following,” one Year 10 pupil tells me.

The benefit of the style of teaching is that children have little choice but to focus: the teacher can always see what they are doing and hear if they are talking off-topic (or rather, talking at all).

But does that student feel like she has a stake in the learning, that she is free to form her own views about the content, that she is more than a passive consumer of facts?

“In Year 7, you were not really encouraged to think,” she replies. “In Year 8, it was probably 5 per cent. In Year 9, probably 30 per cent. But in Year 10, all the time we are encouraged to think.”

Birbalsingh concedes that the pedagogy is changing as the children get older. She admits that the learning scaffolds have had to come down, that she has to trust them more. But she says this is only possible because of the work done lower in the school. “They can only do it because in Years 7 and 8 they have been scaffolded so much that they know what to do,” she stresses. “If you just leave kids, then they do not know what to do.”

However, she says it is less free than the Year 10 pupil perceived, and certainly, compared with most other schools, the content is still delivered much more from the teacher than would be usual at that age, and the level of student voice – particularly in interpretations – is still minimal.

Surprisingly, some of the routines also remain in Year 10.

In Year 7, while the content and model of teaching is very secondary, the delivery feels very primary. Students do activities like rolling numbers – a fun little song, essentially, for learning times tables that would not be out of place in KS1. The teacher routines to get children to focus, or to start a task, are also very similar to the “1, 2, 3… eyes on me” that you see in most primary schools.

Meanwhile, students are constantly told how much time they have left for a task, as if they cannot be trusted to look at a clock – or read one.

And even some of the resources are aimed at younger pupils.

“I think [literacy expert] Ruth Miskin is amazing,” says deputy head and Sendco Katie Ashford. “The English staff have been on the Ruth Miskin training and, you know, [the intervention] is targeted at five-year-olds, so we have had to adapt, but it is really good.”

When some of these techniques and tools are still used with the 14- to 15-year-olds (not the Ruth Miskin resources), do the students not feel patronised? Ashford says that it is an explicit choice of the school to enable children to remain children.

“One of the nice things about Michaela is that we help to preserve these kids’ childhoods because they are not exposed to so many of the things they are in other schools, just because of the nature of our rules. It is really nice because it keeps the kids young. So we can get away with [using resources for slightly younger pupils] in here. The kids do not feel patronised by them.”

A Year 9 student refutes that, but sees the methods as useful all the same.

“I do feel patronised, yeah,” he says. “But then, I understand what I get out of it – a great education.”

Porter doesn’t understand the fuss: the Michaela model, he explains, is very similar to that adopted in traditional independent schools, where the upper/lower school divide tends to be Year 9. “There is a very good reason for that,” he says. “That system understands better that Year 7 and 8 are still in the primary model. We very much reflect that in the way we teach.”

And yet, there seems to be a problem with that comparison. Certainly, the children are not trusted to be adults at Michaela, or seen as such, when it comes to learning or behaviour, but they are expected to act like adults in terms of their decision-making ability out of school. “No excuses” means teachers want students to make rational decisions, for example finding a quiet place to work if their home life is horrific, and have adult-level appreciation of risk and decision-making. A brief skim through the research around the teenage brain by the likes of Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore will show you how problematic that is. In an independent school, you are less likely to encounter this problem – the homes (or boarding houses) of the pupils tend not to have the same challenges as in deprived communities.

Does the school recognise a potential issue here? “For us, it is about ‘what is effective?’” answers Porter. “Pedagogy, like the stuff in Year 7 and 8, and the expectations we have about behaviour are the most effective, and most effective in this type of area, as it holds everyone to such high standards. We are not attached to some sort of view to where the border is between child and adult. We just do what works.”

“What works” is an interesting concept at Michaela because what that means in practice is so centrally controlled. How much freedom do teachers have at Michaela? Very little. The school is explicit in how it wants students to be taught, and it does not employ anyone who does not buy into that.

What happens in the classroom is heavily dictated and controlled. Birbalsingh says that to teach disadvantaged children, to help them close the gap with their advantaged peers, you need to be an exceptional teacher. But the truth is, she says, you may only get four or five of those in the school.

Lesson control

So do you trust that the rest of the teachers can do a decent enough job? No.

“You cannot fill the country with extraordinary teachers. You need systems that enable ordinary people to be able to do a good job,” Birbalsingh explains.

At Michaela, there is a minimum standard of teaching dictated by the workbooks every teacher works from. Birbalsingh says these in-house textbooks created by each department ensure that every child gets the essentials, no matter who is teaching them, as they provide the basic knowledge content to be taught and the explanations and questions to be given to students (many schools are creating similar books, though used in various different ways).

The structure of the lesson is also dictated. It is always a variation on: recap of the last lesson’s learning (through drills or quizzes), teaching of new knowledge and a mixture of whole-class and individual drills for understanding and application.

Ashford is keen to stress that the books are not scripts. She says they are simply a resource created by experienced teachers who know the subject best (books are created at least a term in advance, with each topic tackled by whoever is specialist in the topic being taught, though it is usually a more experienced teacher), freeing the class teacher from planning and workload. The teacher’s job is to adapt the resource to the class in front of them.

“What do we want our teachers to be thinking about?” she asks. “I do not want my maths teacher to have to be thinking up hundreds of questions, I don’t want my English teacher having to write out an explanation for the Gunpowder Plot – I want all of that curriculum-level thinking sorted in advance by the subject experts. You want your teachers to be thinking about the in-lesson learning – ‘Here is where we want to go. What are the small steps to get to that goal?“

Do the teachers still feel like teachers when much of what they do in the classroom is decided by someone else? Yes, is the unanimous answer. Because these are teachers who want to teach this way and they have gone to Michaela because it lets them. And they know that they will get the opportunity to dictate at some point, too, by writing one of the workbook chapters (though these are vetted by senior department staff).

Less trust, more freedom

And in a sector ravaged by workload issues, there is a benefit to working this way: every teacher at Michaela says they do not take work home, that they have a manageable workload and negligible stress. Because of the workbooks, planning is minimal.

The trade-off for less autonomy in the classroom – less trust, essentially – is much more freedom at home.

“You need to be able to have a system that supports you to have a normal life,” says Birbalsingh. “Some schools, while they do an amazing job, they have to have their teachers give everything. Our days are intense, but teachers are not spending their evenings marking. They have their weekends.”

It will come as little surprise, though, that teachers are not trusted to just get on with this tightly prescribed teaching model.

Observations at first appear casual and relaxed. Teachers and senior leaders are expected to use free periods (of which they have quite a few, for the moment) to wander into the classrooms of colleagues for 15 minutes and then email over some feedback. Everyone is observed in this way by everyone else, so you could feasibly have a NQT observing a member of SLT.

The teachers all stress how helpful this is, how low-stakes, how collegiate and empowering. There is no grading of the lesson. The observations are brief, they are not pre-planned.

But after every observation, the observer sends an email to the observed teacher with feedback, and copies in the senior team. So SLT are “seeing” multiple lessons (“They read them all,” says Birbalsingh).

“Those emails are [also] counting how many observations are being done, how many [each teacher] has done, and every half-term I will look at those stats and if they are not observing or being observed, we change that,” says Birbalsingh.

She estimates that there are around 20-30 feedback emails per day (the school has 40 staff).

So, teachers are being observed much more frequently – and publicly – than in most other schools. And just as the teachers constantly have eyes on the students, the SLT have eyes in every classroom.

On top of this, heads of department check how well students are performing on weekly quizzes, they will check the quiz questions being set and also check in with their teams in various other ways.

“I see every English teacher once a week, sometimes even more than that,” says Ashford, who is assisting the current head of English. “Every week I will ask them to photocopy three random bits of work from each class, and I will be able to see where they are. So I am checking the learning is happening but I am also putting in place improvements and some really responsive CPD.”

Then there are also two formal exam periods each year, where all children in the school take formal assessments and the results are analysed.

Data collection is, therefore, still pretty comprehensive and teacher accountability is hardly light-touch.

Which is interesting, because if everything is so dictated to the teacher, if they are not trusted to try and teach without all these scaffolds, how much responsibility can that teacher really have for the results? Is it really their fault if a child’s progress goes awry?

The teacher could easily point to a student’s home life as a reason for any deviation from the desired progress path. Certainly, the message that these children come from severely deprived backgrounds is reiterated at every opportunity. Birbalsingh, it seems, does not trust her students and does not trust her teachers, but she trusts parents and the communities these children live within even less.

Staff constantly warn children about “out there”. The ways of speaking, dressing, even walking in the communities these children live in are disparaged, and warnings about gangs and bad influences abound.

And Birbalsingh is clear that many parents cannot be trusted to be role models for learning.

“[The students] do not necessarily have the home backgrounds to support them in their learning,” she says. “They also just aren’t in the habit of working at home. We have to build that in from the age of 11 ... We say ‘sit up straight’ because some of these kids, if they were allowed to, would go to sleep on the desk the whole day. Why? Because their parents let them play video games until 3 in the morning. And we bring the parents in and they say they will stop them and then they don’t ... Their parents care about them, but they just don’t know. They do not have the knowledge we have.”

To counter this, the school has an extended day: 7.55am to 4pm (3pm on a Friday). And if they have the majority of the pupils in detention (which they sometimes do, according to some of the students), they can keep them even longer – until 5.30pm (manned by one person for the whole school – so no individual teacher detentions, says Birbalsingh).

The school tries to create an alternative family unit: children are constantly told that this school is where people love them, this school is where people care about them, this school is a safe space and “out there” is not (besting even the primary model, most children will retain the same teachers year in, year out).

But to leave it there would not be in Birbalsingh’s character. If she could, you get the sense she would post one of her teachers in every home (and be unapologetic about it), to make sure that every child had the right environment in which to learn.

Obviously, she can’t do that, but she does reach into those homes: parents are given advice on when their children should do homework, when they should eat, when the phone should be taken off the child, at what time the child should go to bed.

For some, this might be the last straw. It would be easy to read the above, and combine it with the rest of this article, and picture Birbalsingh as some sort of dictator, aggressively extending her tentacles of control, driven on by paranoia and distrust. But it’s not like that at all.

Birbalsingh is a teacher who has spent her career working in schools in deprived communities. Her experience in those schools – and witnessing the failure of schools with these young people – has informed what she believes is the right way of helping these children succeed. What you see at Michaela is not a pursuit of individual power or glory, but rather a relentless desire to put her belief about what works into action.

It is a selfless desire. She feels she is one of those children. Their failures are her failures; their successes are her successes. Everything she does is for them, to an obsessional level, and perhaps even to the detriment of her own wellbeing in the form of the hours she works and the level of effort she puts in. Her staff don’t take work home, but you get the sense that Birbalsingh never really leaves this school and its pupils.

You may not agree with her approach, but it does force you to ask important questions about what levels of autonomy, trust, prescription and control are “right” in a school. It forces you to question how far a head’s influence should reach into the classroom, how much individual pressure a head should take on, and how much difference a school can really make.

If you are left unsure about what those answers might be, you are in good company. Because behind all the bravado, rhetoric, tweets and blogs, Birbalsingh seems unsure, too. While she struggles to trust the children, the teachers and the parents to do their bit, it seems she can also fall victim to not trusting herself.

Visitors are quizzed relentlessly about their impressions of the school: she wants to see what they see, to see if she has missed anything. She questions what she does constantly, re-evaluating whether she has got it right. She changes her mind frequently, as her teachers and she attests. And she struggles with the very thing many struggle with about Michaela: where does personal responsibility sit within this system?

Birbalsingh articulates this tension most clearly about her relationship with parents, but you sense it could be applied to everything else she does in the school, too.

“The difficulty I have is that I personally believe your life is not as rich if you do not understand personal responsibility. I don’t want to stunt families’ lives. I do not want to prevent parents from being responsible ... I do not want to encourage learned helplessness.

“But, on the other hand, you want the children to succeed. So you are saying, ‘We want you to take responsibility for the child,’ but also, ‘You are failing your child, so we are going to step in, but only for a while,’ but then they are still not taking responsibility, so what do you do? It is really difficult.”

Jon Severs is commissioning editor at Tes. He would like to thank the staff and pupils of Michaela Community School for enabling him to spend so much time in their company, and Katharine Birbalsingh for being so open and honest for this article

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