Back to the Future 2 – tradition and modernity in London and Cumbria
See Back to the Future 1 here
I’ve written before about the ethos of my school, the practices that make it special and the values that make it an energetic learning community. Last week I visited a very different school, yet saw many of the same approaches exercised. Our school is just over 300 years old. We held special events to celebrate our tercentenary. We even commissioned commemorative mugs, a book and new school ties. The existence and longevity of ‘this school in this place’ is a big deal to us. Michaela Community School in Brent is very much a new kid on the block, with much less of a sense of establishment, but actually just as much – if not more – of a sense of ‘traditional values’.
Mine is a school that enacts its ethos, its ‘unwritten constitution’ through a number of catchphrases that permeate the culture of the days, weeks and terms. We say “No unteachable classes” – behaviour expectations are high and our pupils value the way this lets them just get on with being learners. Unlike at Michaela, we don’t have particular routines or mechanisms that staff have to follow in order to achieve this expectation, but the result needs to be achieved just the same, and we work collectively in classrooms, corridors, outside spaces, departments, leader and pastoral teams, and support staff roles to ensure this. At Michaela, all this is more explicit, and more standardised. Partly, I guess through the newness of the set-up and the need to show ‘we mean business’, but also to create a brand, a Michaela way, a new set of norms.
We say “We set the standard” – so there is a belief that uniform, manners, listening, following instructions, meeting deadlines, telling the truth, all these things are part of the education we offer. I certainly do not think we’re unique here – most teachers would agree that schooling is about more than just the exams and the grades. Michaela teachers, like many others in many schools, support these values too. As class teachers, they work with children supporting ‘resilience’, ‘character’ and ‘personal development’ in subject learning, though you’d never see a lesson named as such on the timetable or one of these traits labelled as a ‘skill’ to be learned. Within the new Ofsted framework, though, this is something that’s now commented on – I wonder if we’re all supposed to be ticking boxes and taking measurements, and how others are going about this?
Bandwagons, trendy or otherwise, have not been widely welcomed in my school. When you’ve been around for 302 years, you know that these things come and go, and eventually settle back into an established pattern, particularly in a rural community with little competition or movement between schools. We’ve dallied with some Kagan techniques, some are now well-embedded; we’ve huddled in groups in INSETs to discuss PLTS strands; the necessity of mechanistic 3-part lessons came and went, and meanders in and out of provision at different times – but the bottom line comes back to delivering lessons that enable pupils to make good progress over long periods. We concentrate on the outcomes, and allow flexibility in the means of achieving them. At Michaela, lessons are planned and structured in a certain way to reinforce the values of the organisation – lots of consistency, lots of reading, lots of facts, lots of challenge. The aim is that this method becomes a new, a rediscovered, tradition in education.
We talk about “the power of silence”, of periods of independent work in lessons where there is no talk, and full concentration is directed to extended writing or reading, of low tones in group talk and sensible queuing and moving around. At Michaela “silence is golden” and loose talk is minimised. Lunchtime chat is guided. There’s no talking allowed in corridors. I wonder how this will look in a few years time when the school is fuller, with older, more independent and potentially less pliable pupils. The Y7s and 8s currently in the school will also be its first full sixth form. They’re certainly aware of their position as the vanguard in the school – maybe that will be enough to keep them on board.
I live in the catchment area for my school and am surrounded by pupils from all year groups. We’re not called a ‘community’ school, but we are – I’m asked questions about homework while watching the rugby, and deal with enquiries about blazers while in the Post Office. Local people walk through the school grounds during the day; we’re not gated and locked in like many schools, and like Michaela is. My son went through the schools in our town, sharing peer group experiences from infants through to sixth form, and was never picked on for being a ‘teacher’s kid’. Our most powerful catchphrase is “Would it do for your child?” We think that if you wouldn’t entrust your own child to your school, your system, your colleagues, why would you expect anyone else to? We currently have 8 teachers’ kids in Y7 alone, including the headmaster’s. Many people see Michaela as strangely different; I saw the school as welcoming and ambitious and others see it as unnecessarily strict. Do Michaela staff bring their children to school with them? Will they as the year groups roll through? Maybe that’s a way to judge their eventual success. Time will tell.