London’s Michaela School is an inspiration for all

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 2 February 2018

The north London suburb of Wembley may be the home of English football. But until a few years ago, that was probably its only claim to fame. Besides football matches and the occasional rock concert, there were few reasons for international visitors to include Wembley in their London itineraries.

That changed in 2014, at least if you are a traveller with an interest in education reform.

Four years ago, Michaela Community School opened its gates. And a stone’s throw from Wembley Stadium an education revolution began.

With colleagues from The New Zealand Initiative, I visited Michaela School last year. We had been told this was the most remarkable school in Britain and we had to see it.

Upon arrival at Wembley Park tube station, you would probably never guess. It is an area with “regeneration needs” – a town planning euphemism for run-down, brutalist 1960s architecture. Michaela’s school building, a converted office block just across the road, is no exception.

But once inside the school, you immediately know there is something special about the place. In its reception, you are greeted by a wall of newspaper cuttings about the school, profiling visits from ministers, mayors and members of Parliament. The hallways are so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Students and staff are exceptionally polite.

Some might associate this atmosphere with private education, the traditional red brick schools that lead students to Oxford and Cambridge. But Michaela is a school in a less than affluent neighbourhood; its students do not have privileged backgrounds; quite the opposite, in fact.

Michaela holds all students to the highest expectations. And no matter their backgrounds, they are challenged to learn to the highest standards. They are guided through a broad and rich curriculum. They get to know many writers, facts and figures. They are immersed in a world of knowledge.

While at Michaela, we met the school’s charismatic headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh. New Zealand-born Birbalsingh studied in Britain to become a teacher. She then worked in several schools around London when she became a national celebrity with a single speech delivered to the Conservative Party’s 2010 annual conference in Birmingham.

In her speech, Birbalsingh delivered a broadside to Britain’s state education system. In no uncertain terms, she blamed a culture of low expectations and political correctness for falling education standards. It was a speech that won her standing ovations from the Tory party faithful – and got her sacked from her teaching job.

Four years later, Ms Birbalsingh had the chance to create a school that is different to those she had so vehemently criticised. This school is Michaela, which was established under “free” (or what we would call “partnership”) legislation.

In many ways, Michaela School has chosen the opposite path to mainstream schools. Which other school’s vision statement expects pupils to not just be polite but “obedient?” Which other school would proclaim to “encourage competition and allow our pupils to win and lose?”

Michaela’s knowledge-rich, teacher-led approach is the antithesis to the skills-based, child-led approach prevalent in many schools. At Michaela, not everyone is a winner always, and by definition not everyone can be exceptional.

But it is this tough and aspirational approach that drives students’ achievement – particularly for those students who encounter little inspiration or encouragement at home.

Michaela promotes discipline and an academically rigorous curriculum. It is a traditional approach to education. Crucially, though, it equips all pupils – regardless of background and starting point – to have sufficient knowledge of the world to transform it in the future.

As we were guided around the school by two impeccably dressed and outstandingly polite students, we could see the spirit of learning in action. The students were fluent in French, they knew dates in history, they designed the most amazing artworks.

That Michaela School is performing well is immediately visible. But it was also officially confirmed when Britain’s education regulator Ofsted reviewed the school last year. In the first review since it opened in 2014, Michaela got top marks throughout.

Ofsted’s inspectors noted the “lively and engaging teaching” and students’ “exemplary” attitudes to learning. The school was praised for its “calm and safe learning environment.” The report stated that Michaela’s students “develop a love of books and reading.”

Altogether, Ofsted concluded that Michaela is outstanding in every way: in the effectiveness of leadership and management; the quality of teaching, learning and assessment; personal development, behaviour and welfare; and outcomes for pupils.

As our new government starts to review New Zealand’s NCEA assessment system, it is worth looking abroad for inspiration and ideas. Admittedly, Michaela’s approach may not be easily replicated. Nor would it be suited to every community. But its very success should be reason enough to ask if there are some lessons we might learn.

My Initiative colleagues and I certainly returned inspired by our visit to Michaela School. We are now looking forward to hosting a dinner lecture with Katharine Birbalsingh on May 31. New Zealand must hear her school’s inspirational story.


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