A Chemical Orthodoxy

A Pilgrim in Jerusalem: My Visit to Michaela


Michaela Community School (MCS) is a remarkable place. Legendary for its firm behavioural environment and commitment to no-nonsense teaching, MCS has shown what is possible given a little willpower. And willpower abounds. MCS is driven by Katharine Birbalsingh who has assembled an enviable all-star team of like-minded teachers.

Much cyber-ink has already been spilled about how MCS does things, and I would encourage all teachers and leaders to buy their book. At the bottom of this post I have also linked to my favourite blog pieces from their staff. In this blog, I just wanted to focus on two things which jumped out at me.

It is no secret that there is an ideological battle being fought over education. Fronts include philosophical areas like the role of knowledge and of the teacher, as well as more practical considerations like how classrooms and instruction are arranged.

One common debate surrounds group work vs. silent activity I am due to be talking this summer at the Teach First conference on this topic (would be great to see you if you can make it!). As part of my research I have been dipping into the concept of “Oracy,” which can be defined as “the development and application of a set of skills associated with effective spoken communication.”

Theoretically, oracy and group work do not necessarily need to go together, but oracy is often cited as a supporting factor in favour of increased group work in schools. Many would therefore argue that a “silent classroom” (like there are at MCS) and a lack of group work in lessons (like there is at MCS) fails to promote oracy in students and to develop vital speaking and listening skills which can address socioeconomic disadvantage (e.g. page 39 here). We would expect students at such a school to be quiet and poorly spoken.

This is not what I saw. The classrooms in MCS are indeed silent for large stretches of time. But oracy standards are consistently taught, modelled and inculcated. In every lesson I went to, teachers invited students to quietly talk to their neighbours about potential solutions to problems set. Student answers were corrected for grammar, diction, syntax, use of high level vocabulary and pronunciation. One student missed out on a merit for not “projecting” their answer, an activity promoted in each lesson I saw. Bearing in mind I saw around 15 classes each for a maximum of five minutes, seeing that level of oral discourse left a marked impression.

This attitude was continued at the odd-but-wonderful lunch session. Students belted out the lines to a poem in response to a teacher’s prompting. The teacher in charge insisted on a high energy recital, and modelled that behaviour himself. At lunch, conversations are structured around a topic and introduced by the same member of staff, who opened with an anecdote which was, again, perfectly orally executed. At the end of lunch he gave students the opportunity to stand up and make their “appreciations,” critiquing students for not addressing the room, using “umms” and other hesitations and not projecting well enough. He spoke about how important public speaking is and all students were explicitly encouraged to seize every opportunity to practise.

Take-home 1: You want to see oracy in action? Go visit MCS.

The other area that jumped out at me was the maintenance of relationships. The behaviour in lessons was obviously perfect. But this standard wasn’t established by cold and dispassionate teachers ready to pounce on any infraction in the name of “making an example” or “maintaining standards.” Early on in one lesson, a teacher approached a student who had not done their homework. Before issuing a detention, he spoke to him about how disappointed he was, how he expected more and how the student had let himself down. He spoke genuinely, and the relationship and warmth was clear to see. In every lesson I saw there was a warmth and a rapport with the students. The atmosphere was not tense in the slightest, teachers were freely joking and interacting positively with all students. Everyone was greeted, respected and treated with positive regard.

Deputy Head Katie Ashford spoke to us about how staff are expected to attend lunch and sit and talk with the students. This is a prime opportunity to build relationships with students, to extend the depth of feeling between the authority figures and those who they shepherd.

This is what Doug Lemov calls Warm Strict, an approach which enables teachers to build strong bonds with their students without compromising on sky-high expectations of behaviour.

Take-home 2: You want to see relationships in action? Go visit MCS. 

In short, there is a narrative to be flipped here. MCS is not a silent cathedral of oppression; where mute students flit from A to B under the watchful eyes of stern imperators. It is a school where students are encouraged to express themselves, to be bold and to be brave, all the time encouraged by teachers who genuinely love them.

My best MCS blogs

Joe Kirby’s (who no longer works there) entry on Hornets and Butterflies is probably the single most important education blog ever written.

I love Jo Facer’s blog about how teaching has become over-complicated, and how it must be simplified.

Dani Quinn’s Drill and Thrill is a must read for anyone involved in instructional design (so everyone) and has been a massive influence on me when building SLOP.

Marking is of course a biggie, and for this I link to Lemov himself about how whole class feedback is carried out at MCS.

For a taste of Head Katharine Bibalsingh’s passion for her school, see here.

For science, you 100% need to check out Pritesh’s blog. His work on simplified but effective instruction is vital.

And if you were in need of any proof from someone who wasn’t a nasty card-carrying “trad”, see what Ofsted had to say here.