Keep it simple

It’s really difficult to boil down the most important messages from my short time visiting Michaela Community School. In discussing with people afterwards, I kept hearing myself say: ‘the really key thing is’, ‘the most important aspect’, ‘the best thing’ until I realized the futility of trying to rank each an every special aspect I was seeing.

A week later, I think I’ve got it: keep it simple.

The things that struck me are no different to those that have struck other visitors: silent corridors, with students moving purposefully between lessons; silent classrooms, broken only by the sounds of teachers teaching with joy and passion, students asking questions about the learning out of curiosity, and students turning to one another to whisper their ideas to reinforce their learning; exceptional politeness from every single student in every single interaction; extraordinary quality of student work. I could go on enumerating each tiny miracle I saw.

But I think it boils down to simplicity. Michaela have stripped away every educational gimmick and are just teaching very well. Their behaviour system is simple: merits for hard work or kindness, demerits for getting the details wrong (including failing to track the teacher adequately), meaning pretty much impeccable behavior because the standards are so high (and I believe three demerits escalates to being removed from the classroom). (A useless aside: everything is logged on iPad or iPhone apps, which took me a while to get used to as in assembly when registers were being taken it sort of looked like everyone was texting.)

Lessons are the simplest I have ever seen, and without doubt the most effective. Teachers read with their classes, stopping frequently to check understanding or to add detail and engage their classes with expert ideas or embellishments (or, in one instance, one-man drama performances to illustrate a point). Then students write silently about what they have read, while teachers and teacher fellows (like uber-TAs) circulate, checking for understanding and helping out. Then teachers go over the writing as a whole class, spending more time on the questions they noticed students struggled with while the children self or peer-assess in green pen. And sometimes, the whole sequence isn’t finished, and the lesson just ends, and that seems to be ok. No-one dies because there wasn’t a plenary or card sort or group work or shouting. Lessons at the tail end of the year were tailored in an incredibly specific way; watching a teacher go over and over and over one single concept, with constant questioning, I was interested to be told as she circulated ‘only 19% of the class got this one right,’ thus clearly explaining the focus taken from the needs of the class.

So the assessment is also simple: heaps of multiple choice questions, which are tracked meticulously by teachers so they can re-teach concepts more of the class are struggling with. These quizzes are done electronically and students receive immediate feedback.

The curriculum is also refreshingly simple. Students study English, Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography, ‘Religion’ [they ‘hate acronyms’), ‘Sport’ and Art. The curriculum is radically skewed towards teaching reading, writing and Maths, with extra time for English and Maths, but without teaching reading as a generic skill – instead, the curriculum planners understand that reading is also about your general knowledge (schools withdrawing students from humanities to teach reading: be warned).

The curriculum is based on something called ‘Knowledge,’ which the Michaela teachers like a lot, and so do their students. Their students chirpily explain to any visitor that they will ‘remember what they learn’ forever; as they explain sincerely and clearly: learning is not just about passing exams, but rather about having knowledge stored in their long-term memory, making them ever smarter.

The normal frills of schools are there in a way – termly trips, a reward event on the last day. But no parents’ evenings draining teachers’ energy; no endless marking of every exercise book; no half termly assessments to grade and complete data entry for.

So, does it work? This radically simple alternative to education? I was convinced in the Autumn term, when Katie Ashford shared paragraphs of year 7 students from the lowest ‘stream’ and they were of astonishing quality. And now there is ‘evidence’ for the data-minded among us: students are making startling progress on the GL assessment tests in reading, writing and Maths. 100% of students made expected or greater than expected progress, and average progress in levels was between 4 and 5 sublevels. Students’ reading ages have soared over the course of the year, with pupils making an average of 20 months progress in 10 months.

But all the Michaela crew will say is ‘time will tell.’ They are humble: the school is new, with only one year group. That too is part of its enviable simplicity. If the school can keep its focus on these simple things as it grows, it will be the making of a revolution in education.

The problem with progress

I feel like I’m hearing a lot about progress recently, and not just from “Progress 8.” More and more, our dialogue about education seems infused with progress – first there was “progress within a lesson,” now, progress over time. And what’s not to like? Clearly, the children in our care should be moving on, and improving day to day, year upon year.

And once I think I would have welcomed this: our focus on the C/D borderline, driven by league tables and a desperate need to stay afloat with budgets tied to student numbers, seemed to ignore both the top and the lowest achievers.

Or did it? In the fortunate position of working in small schools, in my experience we’ve always focused on pushing every child, even the lowest achievers, over the C-threshhold that will undeniably open more doors to them. I’ve written about how in my school 95% of students walked away with a C or above in English Language – and that my biggest regret is the 5% we didn’t get, when I knew it was possible. In my previous school, that figure was 98% last year – I wish someone would write more about that! (Caroline, Lizzie… I’m looking at you!) Moreover, the top were not left to languish; in my new school’s last year 11 cohort 35% achieved A or A* grades.

My problem with progress is not concerned with the top achievers. Any measure forcing schools to also stretch those with high prior attainment seems sensible. My problem with progress is when turning an F into an E carries the same incentives as turning it into a higher benchmark.

Cognitively speaking, I can’t find evidence that any child is not capable of achieving a C in English; all I can find evidence of is that they’re not capable yet. Some students need more time; through a variety of factors, whether that be poor attendance (so often linked to other social issues) or being in the early stages of learning English, or else labeling with any of the various acronyms denoting their ‘difficulties’ with learning. All this tells me is that they need more time, more attention, more intervention. And we need higher expectations.

Too often, students coming into secondary school with low prior attainment are victims of a social system which engrains disadvantage and ensures a cycle of poverty, and of an educational system not yet advanced enough to work through those gaps in their learning. The problem with progress, for me, is the potential there is to further engrain this problem, so that we end up fulfilling the low expectations society has had for certain children from birth.

I’m not sure I can ascribe to a system where an equivalent D represents a good thing. I’m tired of people telling me “that’s a huge achievement for that student,” because it might be, but we can do better; they can do better. We need to have bigger ambitions of our own ability to transform the life chances of every single child; not just the borderline children, of all children. In the new 9 to 1 system, I need to know what represents the ticket to the future, so I can ensure all students achieve it.

We don’t have to look far to see schools which are coming close to ensuring that all their students have access to any life they could desire; King Solomon Academy in London has used high expectations and epic amounts of work to secure useful outcomes for almost every student in their care. Then, of course, there are America’s high performing Charter Schools which send every child to university.

The problem with progress is when it comes with a lack of an end game. It is the kind of word which makes it acceptable for professionals to say: “we can’t change society/the welfare system/the class system/the parents” – when in fact we can change the outcome, and overturn the whole.