Category Archives: free schools

Debating #Michaela Last Saturday: Time for a “7 Up” anyone?

I was there in the flesh on the front row of the #Michaela debates at London’s City Hall last Saturday. I loved it. It was great fun – a very polite interchange of views that made for much more engaging CPD than you’d normally receive by a series of PPT presentations on just one topic with perhaps 2 minutes for questions afterwards.

It was a shame to see that some who were not in attendance got huffy on Twitter because either they felt #Michaela as an event was dominating their Twitter feed, or perhaps they were just feeling left out, or miffed that #Michaela as a school was getting so much coverage. It’s true that #Michaela is a controversial school, have a look at their website at to find out more. They do seem to do stuff that has connotations of the Charter Schools in America, which we smile wide-eyed at and laugh and snigger at when we watch their YouTube clips online. The rumours, which may or may not be true, include children being made to walk corridors in absolute silence between lessons.

I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t have to worry about it, because 1) I don’t teach there, and 2) I don’t have a child attending there. Perhaps I should have a moral conscience about it or something, as it does affect the wider educational eco-system we live in. And who knows, some future extremist Minister for Education may use #Michaela as a precedent for insisting ALL schools in the UK may follow suit. That’d never happen though, would it? Would it?

The double clap made me laugh, which headmistress Katherine Birbalsingh playfully got us to do at the end of the day. We saw a brief video clip of students at their school doing it. Can’t hurt, I guess.

Katherine Birbalsingh was a superlative orator, and I tweeted so. Her entire team from #Michaela were a highly polished set of debaters. I wondered if they had rehearsed their gig together beforehand to give each other tips on where to put the intonation on particular words in their delivery. Katherine was very charismatic, a great leader no doubt. Her team of teachers all quite young and idealistic perhaps? If so, then it’d be understandable if what some teachers say might be true: is #Michaela a bit of a cultic school environment?

I don’t know if it’s true that they only have year 7 and 8 students at the moment, due to having started from scratch with admissions right from the get go only the other year. If that’s true, I think we need a BBC or Channel 4 documentary to chart the progress of this scholastic social experiment, a bit in the style of the “7 up” type series done years ago: “Show me the boy of 7 and I will show you the man”. I wonder if you compared students who went to #Michaela and a ‘normal’ school now, and then in 7 years, 14, 21 and 28 years from now, whether there would be any interesting trends that emerge in destination data and progress made through life. What would their choices and limitations in life be? Career wise and otherwise? Would #Michaela students be more or less successful, and how? Would they be limited in some ways? Would they tend to end up in highly structured environments? How many would be entrepreneurs and innovators? Would they be more or less rigid in their expectations of others around them once in the real world? How would they cope with lack of structure and people who don’t conform to society’s rules?

It was interesting that none of my tweets appeared in the live feed displayed to the room on a TV screen on Saturday. Maybe the organisers were filtering out based on some criteria for tweets that conformed to some rules unknown to me. Or maybe my tweets weren’t that interesting. I don’t know…

I think for me personally, my biggest take-home from the day was that debates with starkly opposing viewpoints represented by the debating party are an exceptionally valuable form of CPD. It mattered not whether the views represented were false dichotomies. The end result was that you heard something talked about from a variety of points of view, which provided an enriching and highly nuanced package of delivery. Most of the debates left you with a middle-ground feeling (PBL vs direct instruction/drilling, no-excuses discipline vs a more reasonable approach, personalised learning vs classes in sets receiving direct instruction without differentiation, schools doing whatever it takes and becoming social workers vs not getting involved much at all outside the classroom and putting teacher well-being first through prioritisation). Of course the last debate was hilarious – Jonathan Simons, a non-teacher, arguing in favour of performance related pay to a room full of teachers – even he changed his position at the end!

The middle-ground debates though covered most of the angles. If they had been turned into transcripts with rebuttals and audience Q&A too, it would probably read like an excellent exegesis. No turn really left unturned and all angles critiqued. I think you could compare it to a form of Socratic dialogue, where the audience takes the less vocal role of Socrates. The Socratic line of questioning seems to follow its own implicit and tacit course. The conclusion is, everything having been heard, there is rarely any black and white.

My own feeling on leaving was that as a unique environment and its own system, #Michaela probably works. As do any other systems with their own rules and boundaries. For a time. It’s where the actors within the system then have to leave and enter other systems that interests me.

#Michaela wasn’t promoted or marketed much on the day by the way, not explicitly. Just in case you wondered. I felt it was more about the discussion of the issues at hand that were the focus, and not the school itself.

It was an entertaining day. I’d recommend going if there is another opportunity like that.