Third Year (or: I stopped going to lectures)

After the blow of not winning a scholarship, I felt resentment building up about English Literature. I had read everything, and worked so hard, but it had not been enough. Not knowing anything about Dweck and ‘Growth Mindset,’ I declared that English was ‘not my thing,’ and proceeded to throw myself into other aspects of university life.

And third year was in some ways a really wonderful year. I worked for the university newspaper, and for the first time my work felt purposeful. I wasn’t serving drinks to make a pittance, and I wasn’t slaving over books to fail to win a scholarship. I was writing, writing, writing and copy editing; spending whole days and whole nights in the newspaper office over a production weekend, and making actual friends who also got a kick out of working insane hours to produce something concrete at the end of two weeks. I absolutely loved it.

Getting involved in university also had other perks. I found out that there were events that had free drinks, if you only knew the right people, and suddenly I had something of a social life. I worked in a shop, not a bar, so I had evenings free and could actually socialise the way other people did.

The downside of my shop job was, after Christmas (when they had employed a huge amount of extra staff to deal with the massive Christmas bonanza), they kept on far too many of us, which meant there weren’t enough hours to go around. I went from working twenty-five hours a week in term time to being rota-ed for about ten. It was not even enough to pay my rent.

But others who worked in the shop were sometimes flaky. Although my availability for hours was weekends and times when I did not have lectures or seminars, I would often get a call: ‘can you come in for six hours? Someone hasn’t shown up.’ And I would go in.

Third year was the year I started skipping lectures. I didn’t make a habit of it; except that I did, because they always called to offer me hours, and I always said yes. I didn’t want to miss classes, but I did.

When I turned up to the classes, I had done the basic reading but nothing more. I had stopped reading anything to accompany the texts. When I knew I would miss the lecture or the tutorial I didn’t read the text either. I was scraping 2.1s on my essays, which I would painstakingly draft and re-draft in the hum of the newspaper office in between churning out articles and re-writing other people’s. In the newspaper office, I learned the difference between a dash and a hyphen, and when to use a semi-colon. I learned how to check sources and get quotes and find stories. But I did not learn much about English Literature in my third year.

Before exams, the hours had dwindled ever more. Others were feeling the pinch; for some, this was their full time job, and they were working less than 20 hours a week. I resigned just before exams, hoping others could take my hours. I went for a newspaper-related scholarship. After all, I had given up evenings and weekends (in between shifts) to the newspaper. I thought I stood a good chance.

The end of third year brought both good and bad news. I did not win the newspaper scholarship. It turned out, being involved in university societies meant you made enemies as well as friends.

The good news was that I had a new job. I was working in a theatre, selling tickets. It was a different world. For one thing, I got to sit down all day for the first time in three years. For another, they were willing to give me ten-hour shifts six days a week during my university’s summer holiday (on the seventh day, I worked as a teaching assistant at a weekend programme for young people; soon, I was a drama and creative writing teacher there). And finally, when the phone wasn’t ringing or customers weren’t queuing, I could read. It was the perfect solution to my problems. No longer exhausted and run off my feet earning minimum wage, suddenly I could draw the wages of a king (€10.50 an hour!) for sitting and reading. I saw Riverdance five times, and loved it each time more than the last.

In the summer, I looked up my exam results online. 66%. I’d got a 2.1. In fact, I had dropped only one per cent from my first and second year results. The difference in not attending lectures and not spending 8 hours a day in the library was one per cent.

Next week, I will write about my final year of university.

You can read about my first year here, my second year here, my fourth year here and my fifth year here.

Second Year (or: desperate for a scholarship)

The summer after first year was filled with work – paid work, and library work. I was surviving on five or six hours of sleep a night and spending the day in the university library. I spent the summer in Dublin so I could keep up my job and my library schedule intact. I read for my courses, and I read for my soul. I read all of Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I still loved reading. My first year results were good. I didn’t get a first, but neither did anyone else on my course for that year, so I felt like I had done well. I won a prize for one of my courses, but when I went to collect it they said that it had already been issued and they couldn’t give it to me again. It had been book tokens. They re-printed the certificate, though, which I kept as a reminder that I was not, contrary to how I felt, stupid.

I had worked all summer so that I would not have to work during the first part of the year. The scholarship exams were in April, and term started in October. I had seven months to win the scholarship, and €100 a week to get me there, after rent. For lunch in my first year, I had bought a cup of boiling water (€0.35) and mixed a packet of powder soup into it. This year, I could buy a scone with jam (€1) for lunch. Life was good.

But studying for the scholarship exams was tough. You had to re-learn everything from the first year, including things I hadn’t especially understood the first time around, plus everything in the second year, including courses that hadn’t yet been taught. I went about it the only way I knew how. I read everything, learned quotes for everything, read critics’ essays and learned quotes from them. Somewhere along the way, I had lost any idea of having a critical thought myself.

While I ploughed the bibliographical furrows most the day, the lectures were increasingly disconnected from anything I had ever thought about literature, and the seminars left me feeling more and more out of my depth. I could not have spent more time in the library, but my ideas were all wrong. I had to give a presentation in one seminar. About halfway through my five pages of painstakingly prepared notes, the seminar leader interrupted me, shaking her head and saying, ‘no, no, no! You have got it all wrong. You haven’t thought about it at all.

I had read all the books, but couldn’t understand a thing. It was the intellectual equivalent of ‘all the gear, no idea.’

That said, I felt confident when the exams came around. I couldn’t help but feel confident. No-one else had spent the whole summer in the library. Some people had only started putting serious library time in from January. But I had always been in the library, and, like the slow and steady tortoise, I thought that would work. More than that – it had to work. I had to win the scholarship, and be free from financial stress; be able to eat lunch with my friends who I would surely make and keep when I could go out with them occasionally or buy them a coffee in return for the ones they had bought me. I went into that exam hall – huge and daunting, decked with immense portraits. I had my exam rituals and my lucky pens. I had read everything.

Immediately after the scholarship exams ended, I contracted the worst illness I’ve ever had. My body completely collapsed. But I had to work. With high fever, I worked two jobs under a ‘trial’ basis, only able to keep my tips. I collapsed and was sent home from one, and I stayed in bed and didn’t show up to the other one, which I had forgotten I had.

The day of the announcement came, and I had never been more nervous. I had managed to get a new job, and skilfully managed to get the day off. I silently hoped I would not return to the job, but would spend out my ‘emergency fund’ the rest of the year, safe in the knowledge my rent was paid for the following two years, and more if I did a PhD as I dreamed I would. I remember hanging around the English department with another hopeful before the ceremony started. The Head of English came out, and stopped. He looked at my friend. ‘You’re Tom,’ said the Head of English. ‘I am,’ he replied. The Head of English nodded and continued walking. He hadn’t said anything to me. That’s when I first thought: maybe I haven’t won it.

As it turned out, neither of us had. The long list of names was read out, and I stood with the others at the back of the hall, increasingly despondent. Afterwards, we crowded to the board to see our results. All the English hopefuls, five of us, had got 2.1s – enough to not have to take the summer exams that year. But none of us had reached the magic first – the 70% needed to secure a scholarship. The Head of English sidled up to us. ‘No Scholars in English this year,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a real shame.’ Given that he had marked the papers, we felt his expressing this sentiment was a little inconsiderate.

In the two months after finding out I hadn’t won a scholarship and was exempt from all exams, I both worked and slacked. I did not go to lectures. I did not go to seminars. I did not go to the library. I did, however, go to the university newspaper. I met some people and started to write. I hung around and hoped I could find a place there.

You can read about my first year at university here, my third year of university here, my fourth year of university here and my fifth year of university here.

Visiting Michaela: an update

Michaela had always been open to anyone who wanted to visit, and we would actively encourage all kinds of people to visit us. We were so proud of what we did, and we naively thought that if only those who disagreed with us could see it in action – see how happy the children were, and see how much they were learning – they would have to concede that what we were doing was right for them.

Unfortunately, our trust in teachers to do the right thing regardless of their preconceptions and biases was broken. Our guides began to report some guests being rude towards them and the school. Some guests were asking inappropriate questions of our guides, who were feeling increasingly anxious about dealing with these kinds of teachers. In December, we had to close our doors to visitors following a serious safeguarding concern. It has taken us some time to look into this concern, and to alter our policy on visitors to ensure our pupils are kept safe.

Since publishing that blog, we have been inundated with emails, Tweets, and direct messages from those who expressed sympathy that we had to take such action; supporters of what we are doing who had really wanted to visit our school. We knew we had to put something in place to ensure that those people would have a chance to come in.

Our pupil guides are incredible, but they are also children. Their confidence and articulate explanations can make even their teachers forget that sometimes, but they are still only children. When you visit our school, we are placing a huge amount of trust in you: to treat our children with kindness and respect, and to never forget that they are only kids – age 11, 12, 13 or 14.

We are also placing a huge amount of trust in our guests to abide by our rules. I wrote before about some inappropriate behaviour of guests. Some people visit our school to soak up every piece of information they can, to find out more, to see what they can take back and implement at their own school. Some people visit with different motivations – to steal resources, or because someone has made them come when they would rather be taking ‘important’ phone calls while their pupil guides wait patiently for them.

It takes a huge amount of time to organise the visits, to complete the logistics, and to train and support the pupil guides. We are happy to take this time if it is to benefit those who are visiting with the right motivation. So, what we need to do is to work out how to tell whether someone is visiting our school because they want to learn something, or whether they are visiting our school because they want to undermine what we are doing.

When people visit our school with a motivation to undermine, not only do they write inaccurate and, frankly, untrue, things about what we do online (my favourite so far has been that teachers do not eat lunch with children – something every single teacher at Michaela does every single day) that damage other people’s perception of our school, but, far, far more importantly, that they put our children at risk. When people come, desperate to prove that what we do doesn’t work, in the face of the evidence in front of their eyes, they put our children at risk. We were hugely naïve to not recognise this sooner.

All staff at Michaela, including our Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, visit all kinds of schools all around the country. Our visits have massively impacted on what we do. We often cite King Solomon Academy, Mossbourne, and Dixons Trinity as influencing some of our central ideas and policies, but we have learned something from every school we have visited – even School 21, which many consider our polar opposite, has taught us lots. Because we go to these schools with the mindset to learn. 

So we have now established an application process for visiting Michaela. If you email info@mcsbrent.co.uk, we will ask you to fill out a short form, which will be reviewed by Katharine Birbalsingh or a member of the Senior Team to decide whether the motivation is right. Those who have been kind to us or about us, those who are interested and want to learn from what we do, are welcome to come in. Those who have been rude to us or about us, those who are motivated by the wrong things, are no longer welcome to visit. Any visitor acting in a way deemed inappropriate will immediately be asked to leave. Some schools charge up to £50 per person per visit. We are happy for visitors to come in for free, as long as those visitors are supportive and will not put our children at risk.

Our children are our top priority. Some of our guides are lower ability, and they have been genuinely upset by people visiting who do not like the school, who tell them that the school is bad, and that they are wrong to be happy at Michaela. We hope, desperately hope, that this new policy will be enough to allow those who wish to learn to come in, and to keep our most precious priority, our children, safe and happy.

If you are interested in learning from what we do, please email info@mcsbrent.co.uk for an application to visit Michaela.

First Year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

In a recent conversation about university, I remarked off-hand that ‘I hated university.’ Given that I spent five years there, this is, one would hope, a melodramatic piece of hyperbole. I’m going to write about university in a series of posts, partly to make peace with my time there, and partly to consider some of the pitfalls of the experience which I hope we will be able to prepare our children for in the future. These posts are personal, and I don’t intend for them to be representative of anything other than my own subjective experiences.

 

First year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

Why did I choose to go to university in Dublin? Looking back, it seems like a bizarre choice. My first year of university occurred before the ravages of top-up fees set in, and I was eligible for a full student loan at any UK university. Why travel to another country, with a different currency and, as a foreigner, have no access to student finance? I think the choice was a combination of arrogance and ignorance, not uncommon in 18-year-olds. Arrogance, because I had spent my life surrounded by loving family and wonderful friends, and I assumed I was completely content in and of myself and had no need of these pillars of support; ignorance, because I didn’t recognise quite how hard university would be – intellectually, socially, or financially.

My whole life, I had saved up to go to university, but I was not well-off. I had won an assisted place to a private school, and my fairly posh accent belied my actual circumstances. The long summer after A-levels, I worked two jobs – one five days a week, and the other the two remaining days of the week. I signed up for as many shifts as possible. I remember two things about my jobs that summer: one was walking home at midnight through the eerily silent small town as fast as possible to maximise sleeping hours; one was doing ‘split shifts’ (where you work the lunch shift, have three hours off and then work the dinner shift) and coming home in the three hour break and sleeping. I saved everything. I used to go to the bank and deposit hundreds of pounds worth of tips in pound coins and small change into my account weekly. (They hated me at the bank.)

As a result, I paid for the first term of accommodation and had enough money to not work for my first term at university – if I could live on just under €70 a week. I wanted to focus on reading English and really understanding English Literature at university level. My understanding of what university would be like was formed by Kingsley Amis and Vera Brittain, and was hopelessly out of date. I envisioned evenings spent reading in a common room with hot chocolate, debating the vicissitudes of Victorian literature with equally eager scholars. The reality was somewhat different.

One anecdote perhaps sums up this first year at university. I clearly remember Freshers’ Week because I was reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement. This may well differ from many people’s Freshers’ Week experiences. I shared a room with another girl, and I remember her getting ready to go out. A swarm of other first years came into the room, where I was tucked up in bed in pyjamas, merrily reading. They valiantly attempted to persuade me to join them on their clubbing adventure. I had not been to a club before (I did go clubbing a grand total of five times in my career as a student. I hated it each time) and adored my book. I stayed home and read.

I attended every lecture, even the 9am ones. I queued for the library at ten to 9 every morning. I read everything on the reading list, and I read around each book. I sat at the front in lecture theatres. But I was also horribly out of my depth. I didn’t know what ‘dichotomy’ meant, and this turned out to be quite a pivotal word. Derrida and Fanon absolutely boggled me. I had literally no idea what Foucault was saying. I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, stupid. Stupid, alone, and very far from home.

A few months in, I plucked up the courage to say this to a fellow first year. To my shock, he said: ‘me too.’ I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like everyone else was having a brilliant time; but the reality was, I wasn’t alone. That conversation gave me the courage to go to my ‘mentor’ – the lecturer assigned to first years to be your helper. She was extremely kind, and said we could look into a transfer to a university closer to home if I was really homesick. But I explained that I wasn’t actually homesick. I was just sick of being broke. By term two, I was working long and unsociable hours – 6pm to 3am Thursday, Friday and Saturday – in a bar. The wages would just about cover my rent, and I lived off the tips. That meant I had between €50 and €120 a week to live on, depending on how busy we had been. Enough to live, and enough to eat; and for that I was very grateful. But closer to home I could get a loan.

The lecturer gave me some advice – if it was money I was worried about, I should stay put. The university offered an extraordinary scholarship programme – free accommodation, including a free evening meal, plus the annual ‘student charge’ (around €750 at that time) paid until the end of your degree, including your postgraduate, and all your postgraduate fees. It seemed too good to be true. All I had to do was pass the scholarship exams in the second year.

The hubris of youth burning bright within me, I decided to stay. I threw myself even more into my studies and stopped resenting work. I had a new goal: win a scholarship and stay in university.

 

You can read about my second year of university here, my third year of university here, my fourth year of university here, and my fifth year of university here.

Top reads of 2016

Education reads:

Doug Lemov: Reading Reconsidered

I wrote at length about Lemov’s book – safe to say, it will revolutionise your teaching. Everyone should read this – not just English teachers. Lemov deeply considers the best way to read with classes, but also how to blend fiction and non-fiction for optimal understanding.

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I also wrote at length about Chua’s book, which we now all read at Michaela for our staff CPD. Chua’s book is wildly funny, but also exposes a totally different paradigm for thinking about kids and discipline.

Roger Scruton: Culture Counts

My whole way through university, I thought I was stupid. I didn’t ‘get’ post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Foucault or Derrida. It turns out, there is an alternative way of viewing culture. Reading Scruton felt like a warm blanket. For others, this book might feel like more of a scratchy towel in its challenge. Whatever your values, this is a must-read for anyone interested in curriculum.

Michael Puett: The Path

This book is eminently useful for the way it showcases the Eastern paradigm. I stole an example from it in my speech at the Michaela book launch, with the toddler who says ‘thank you’ mindlessly, growing into the adult who can use the word with thought and understanding, to challenge the idea that explicitly teaching children (knowledge or behaviour) does not lead to adults who flail without the structures of a school.

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Vance’s tome details his life and upbringing, and interweaves through this narrative some fascinating statistics. It gives educators pause for thought on what is really needed to ensure poor kids succeed, and triumph against not only poverty, but the ideas and values that keep poor kids poor.

E.D. Hirsch: Why Knowledge Matters

This is the best of Hirsch’s books yet – a lucid and compelling case for knowledge. It is the number one book to read if you’re interested in the knowledge debate, or if you’re still not sure that teaching knowledge is the best way to raise academic standards for all children.

 

Other non-fiction:

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

If you love the Romantics, and you especially love the Romantic ladies, this is a must-read. An eye-opening lens on Shelley’s life and her mother’s influence on it, with the male poets an intriguing sub-plot (for once).

Howard C. Cutler: The Art of Happiness

This was the year I decided to try to calm my mind and quell my anxiety. Spoiler: I have not succeeded (yet). But this was one of the most helpful books in providing a different perspective on happiness, with some genuinely excellent advice to be mindful of in a modern world obsessed with acquisition and status.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed

I read this book in the summer (and if you know anything about Michaela you probably don’t need me to explain why) and found it both hilarious (in its tone and humorous examples) and troubling. Why do we feel like we can hurl insults at people on the internet in a way we never would in real life? Anyone interested in this should also watch the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Undeniably the most fascinating royal family in the history of the world, Montefiore’s tome explores the very beginning of their dynasty right through to the bloody and harrowing ending. This historian’s gift is to render those of the past in a convincingly human light, with details and insights from correspondence carefully chosen to humanise the fated monarchs. 

Fiction:

Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Drabble’s central character in this little book defies every expectation of her society. A virgin when everyone around her is experimenting, then rapidly reversing to become an unwed mother who keeps her child against all the advice. The heroine will fill you with hope and admiration at her calm perseverance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

This book deftly interweaves ideas about race, class, history and geopolitics. The central character’s experience of moving from Nigeria to America and back again, with all the cross-cultural difficulties anyone who has lived overseas can empathise with, is intertwined with a quite beautiful love story. The shifting lens of the story is beautifully crafted, as we follow the heroine, who tells much of her lengthy tale to us at the salon, revealing her hopes, dreams, and fears in the most beautiful prose I read all year.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

This is the first of a long series of novels that document the lives and loves of a family living just before the Second World War. The cast of characters is large, but through different chapters you slowly begin to sense them knitting together, as they negotiate the start of the greatest upheaval of modern times.

 Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April

I bought this book on an absolute whim, loving the idea of four strangers on holiday in a castle in Italy. A wonderful period piece, the whimsical nature of the chief perspective lends a childish delight and joy to all she sees. A life-affirming read. 

Zadie Smith: NW

This is my favourite of Smith’s novels yet. I loved the setting – near my school, I felt this gave an insight on the area I’m starting to get to know – and the relationships between the characters. At the centre is a strange relationship between two schoolgirls who have grown into very different adults, and surrounding them a cast of eternally intriguing others.

Joanne Harris: Different Class

This is a fantastically fun read, with a twist mid-way through that led me to frantically re-reading the first half of the novel to work out how I could have possibly missed it. Set in a traditional private school with a relentlessly modernising Headteacher, this novel also contains pertinent insights on education! 

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Despite my shameless love of murder mysteries, I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before this year. A summer holiday to Devon changed all that. (Prior to reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ my other choice for this slot was ‘Gone Girl,’ which is great by the way.) Christie is the absolute master of this genre. I’m now totally addicted to her novels. 

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve spent a lot of this year working on (and teaching) nineteenth century fiction, and I’ve come to enjoy it more than I could have possibly anticipated. Anne Bronte is the lesser read of the sisters, and this novel is disconcertingly modern: dealing with a painful, disastrous marriage, and forbidden love, you quickly forget that this is a novel not set in our own time. I would only caution do not read the blurb of the book which will absolutely ruin the plot twist. 

William Boyd: Any Human Heart

The wonderful Liz Cowley gave me this book, and it is now one of my all-time favourites. We follow the central protagonist through his journals, experiencing his life and all its adventures, longings, desires, failures. Deeply moving.

Visiting Michaela

When I first visited Michaela, it was in July of 2015. What I saw on that day changed my view of education forever. I left the school in a daze, both dazzled by what was possible. Many of our recent recruits tell a similar story. Some applied for a post on a whim, not really sure what our school was about. The visit changed everything. Reading about our school is great. Seeing it in action is something else.

My visit proved the catalyst for my involvement with the Michaela project. Today, I still feel a little starstruck when I walk into Katharine’s office, or watch Olivia Dyer teaching, or hear Katie Ashford speaking. I feel so lucky and so proud to work at Michaela.

At our event in November to launch our book, people had come to us from so far away. Their joy was palpable, as they came up to various Michaela teachers. ‘We’ve been up since 5am! We’ve read so much! We’re so excited to be here!’ was something I heard so often, I had to pinch myself. I am so lucky to work at Michaela.

On Twitter we have said to people: ‘don’t believe us? Come and visit!’

And they do. We’ve had to organise new systems to deal with the massive influx of visitors. And we didn’t mind that, because so many people came, saw, and took back ideas and methods to use in their own schools. Countless visitors sent us glowing letters of thanks, praising our lovely school and, in particular, our lovely children. We framed the letters, and read them out in assemblies. The children glowed with pride: they felt so lucky, and so proud, of our school. And we were happy to spend the time to spread the ‘good word.’ Our pupils were so proud to show guests around, and explain everything they knew about their school.

Now, not all visitors were respectful. We’ve had visitors cancel at the last minute – the day before, or on the day, causing untold difficulties with the administration at our end. We’ve had visitors turn up with seven of their colleagues unannounced, expecting it wouldn’t matter how many of them there were. We’ve had visitors make dietary requests at lunch, as if we were a restaurant and not a school. We’ve had visitors become annoyed because their specified date or time was not available. We’ve had visitors email on Sundays, following up their Saturday email, asking why no one has got back to them yet, as if we were a business, and an eternally open one at that. We’ve had visitors demand to speak to various Heads of Department or Deputy Heads, as if those people didn’t have a school to run.

None of these demands are quite as disrespectful as what some visitors to our school have done. We have had visitors take away lesson materials, even out of pupils’ books. We have had visitors rifle around a teacher’s desk; even her drawers. Visitors have frequently interrupted a teacher while they are teaching, sometimes only to ask where the toilets are. We have had visitors filming our lessons without permission, or taking photographs of our children. We have had guests asking children what set they are in, even after being explicitly told to not mention setting to our pupils as we do not share this information with them. We have had visitors talk loudly to pupils who are desperately trying to concentrate on their silent practice, or their teacher’s instruction. We have had visitors hide in the toilets, making long phone calls, while their guides stood waiting for them, unsure of what to do when the guest asked for an extension on their thirty minute tour afterwards. We have had visitors talk to each other, loudly, in the back of the classroom, disturbing the learning of our children.

 So we have had to chase visitors down to delete images or wrestle our materials from them, and start reminding people before they visit of the etiquette of a school, and begin emailing out our prospective visitors with guidelines of how to behave, and what to do and what not to do.

And then there was worse. Much worse.

More recently, we have had hostile visitors. People who have come to our lovely school, only to look for what is wrong with it. Some have written blogs and Tweets, deliberately misrepresenting our school, and containing factual inaccuracies of things they have not understood, but have not bothered to ask for more information about. Visitors who have come with an agenda to destroy, not caring about who they are hurting in the process: the children.

We have had guests aggressively questioning the children taking them around – year 7, year 8, year 9 pupils. People, teachers, who have bombarded our children with leading questions, perplexing them and upsetting them: ‘aren’t the lessons boring? Do you hate this school? Do you think your teachers are too controlling? Do you feel oppressed? Isn’t this school much too strict?’ One visitor told a pupil over lunch: ‘your teachers aren’t teaching you Science properly. There is a much better way to do it,’ and proceeded to explain he could teach him science using football.

This week, over lunch, one of our pupils in our lowest attaining group, who is also a guide for visitors, sat with our Headmistress. Deeply shaken, she said: ‘Miss. They say our school is bad. I don’t know what to say to them. I love our school.’ She did not want to be rude to the guests, but she did not know what to say. Katharine, who had before wanted to open our school to those who wished to learn, began to question the wisdom of our approach.

Our concerns reached their apex this week, when one visitor, a non-teacher, raised a safeguarding concern with our Headmistress about the aggression the pupil guides were enduring from another visitor, a teacher, who was on the same tour. And of course, we take safeguarding concerns very seriously.

So it is with great sadness that we are closing our doors to guests for the moment. Although parents of pupils attending our school are always welcome at any time, we need to protect our children. We need to focus on educating them, and keeping them safe. We opened our doors to guests so we could share the love and the joy of what is happening here. Instead, our children have been compromised by the political blindness of some of our guests, who haven’t come to have their minds opened, but have instead come seeking confirmation of their prejudices, and have put vulnerable children at risk in order to do this.

We will still share through blogs, through Twitter, through images and videos we take, what we are doing at Michaela. And in the meantime, we will try to find a way that we can have visitors in without putting our children at risk. We do want to keep our doors open to teachers who are genuinely interested in what we are doing. The difficulty is distinguishing between those guests, and those who are putting our children at risk. We hope to have found a solution to this in early 2017.

Thoughts on ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands