Sympathy for the Devil: my day at Michaela

Just out of shot: children hanging from their ankles for breathing too loudly
A couple of days ago I was chatting to a builder friend. He had a client who worried him. ‘Thinks that people are breaking into his house and moving things,’ he told me. ‘Showed me a tiny crack under the stairs. ‘That was them,’ he told me. ‘They drilled into that.’ But when I said that no drill could reach down there, he said, ‘Ah but they got special drills.’ When I asks them how they got into the house, he said, ‘They’ve got a master key.’’ And so on and so on. This guy never left the house, and no matter how you disputed his theories, he always had an answer. His beliefs were evidence proof. Nothing you could say would change his mind, and any evidence for against the premise would be enlisted as further proof. 

Which brings me nicely to the Michaela Community School in Wembley, where I spent a day this week once again boggling at their systems, their kids, and its buccaneer warlord, Katherine Birbalsingh, who makes Javert seem weak willed and forgiving. The title of this blog post, according to some, should be 'Joyless child factory crushes dreams like tin cans.' Michaela School is so famous that it even manages to grind the gears of people who haven’t heard of it.  Birbalsingh, is feted and berated by different constituencies; she is the avatar of a style that has some people hooting and genuflecting like acolytes, and others reaching for their epi-pens and biting hard on their bridles. The motto on the poster outside is ‘Knowledge is Power.’ Uniforms and rules are enforced like a divine liturgy. You know where you are with Michaela. There is little chance you would mistake it for Summerhill.

But it’s a school of surprises. Michaela was named, not after a character from a Dickens novel, but after a teacher from St Lucia, who died of cancer and 2011. Her example so inspired Birbalsingh, that she ‘wanted to see Michaela’s name on every blazer.’

Jars of children's tears

The behaviour is extraordinary, and I’ve seen a lot of schools to calibrate that opinion. Every class I visited worked monkishly as the teacher led the activities; pupils tracked the teacher carefully; they started work promptly and with gusto; they glided from room to room as quietly as canoes on a current. Put it like that you can hear people grinding axes already, and racing for their quills so they can draft open letters. Surely demanding silent acquiescence is an act of tyranny to the natural state of the child, they say, which should default to lively, jocular and demonstrative. 

A teacher at Michaela, crushing another child's dreams
To be sure, the extraordinary contrast the school presents to most of its peers is indeed initially quite alienating. ‘This is too strict’ you think, as children file in one column between lessons and into class. But the transitions, my God. One lesson ends, and another begins, in about 2 minutes, max, from packing away to pen on the next task. The whole school, over four floors. There are synchronised swimming teams that couldn’t match that. The goal is to maximise the learning time; the rationale is that children in private schools have advantages they never will, but one thing they have is a Spartan approach to learning. Work hard, never give up, practice. 

One common complaint you often hear from people who have never visited the school (but  still have very strong opinions about it) is that this kind of regime crushes enthusiasm, curbs the love of learning, and reduces education to a giant quiz. But every child I spoke to, from lesson to lesson told me how much they loved it. When I asked them what their previous schools were like, the were unanimous. ‘Alright,’ said one girl,’ But it was really noisy and there was too much mucking about to get much done. Here we learn loads and the teachers really care about us.’

Don't Care Bears

Care? This is a strange word to hear in a school where children are galley slaves to rote learning, or so Cassandras would prefer to believe. It might suit people who disagree with its philosophy to demonise its exponents, but the truth refutes the easy slur. There’s a whole section in the school training manual on kindness. The school motto on the outside is ‘Knowledge is power’ might make opponents clutch their pearls, but the real school motto is ‘Work hard, be kind,’ something you see sign posted a lot inside the building.  

‘If we mess about then we’re being selfish to other people,’ said one of my guides, which was echoed by another boy I spoke to at lunch, and others. They were all explicitly concerned that being civil to others was an act of community, both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable.

Children were 'forced to be kind to one another'
Ah, lunch; now there’s something that has to be seen to be believed. Lunch (or family lunch as they call it here) is like nothing you’ll have experienced before outside of the SAS. Children enter at 12:30 (on the dot of course) and- and this is where you feel the medication start to kick in- are led by a teacher in a poetry battle chant as everyone files in. You have to be there to experience 120 children all howling Kipling’s ‘If’ or Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and absolutely nailing every line. Some critics claim memorising poetry is crude and utilitarian, take it up with Benjamin Zephaniah, who is in no doubt: memorising texts is essential to understanding them in action. 

Once you drop down this rabbit hole, you don’t get out. Pupils sit in groups, at tables named after universities. Each pupil at  the table has a role: hand out water, serve food, collect plates…one of them is even designated to talk to guests (‘Can you tell me more about what a Tsar does please?’) and it’s terribly civil. There’s a topic of the day and each table sticks to it pretty well. Service is communal, and runs to the clock like they’re defusing a bomb. Food is vegetarian and halal so everyone can eat together. If Navy Seals ran a langar it would be like this. 

Then it’s back to silence and suddenly pupils and staff are asked to give thanks to people in their lives in short dedications (‘appreciations’), which is quite something. ‘I’d like to thank my mother for helping me cope with the weekend. On the count of three….’ and everyone claps twice, neatly, simultaneously. Then onto the next one. Students were straining their arms in the air to be picked to do this, across the whole dining room. Then, like a Busby Berkely musical, the cohort streams out and the next one lands, and the process reboots. It is a far cry from an average lunch where, according to one of my old dinner lady colleagues, ‘the kids catch up with who fancies who in between telling us our food is shit.’

Lessons are intense. The students have all been habituated in how to behave in such microscopic detail that each room feels like a Holiday Inn: every one feels like the last. This is deliberate. The norms that permeate the school are reinforced in every circumstance. In many schools you see different rules for different rooms, and zones, and teachers; here, there is a calm understanding that there is a school culture, commonly understood. 

Why so serious? Challenge. The more civil the behaviour, the greater the focus, the more they learn. I never forget attending an INSTED on gifted children and asking how to implement their lovely ideas in a challenging class. ‘Oh, you can’t do this kind of stuff if the class is noisy or challenging,’ I was told. Of course not. If you’re firefighting all the time, not only do you lose time, but if you can’t rely on all students to behave to a certain degree, your palette of activity options is reduced, and your lesson is diminished, length and breadth. The point of good behaviour isn’t to build robots; the point of good behaviour is to do beautiful, wonderful things in the classroom, to expose children to challenge and possibilities they would never encounter otherwise. 

And that’s what I saw here. The difficulty setting was high. The school writes its own textbooks, on the grounds that many textbooks are stuffed with patronising, time-wasting infantilising material (and I’d agree incidentally). No pictures or wacky cut’n’paste activities here. In fact, not a glue stick anywhere, as they decided what the hell did gluing something into a book have to do with learning anyway? Instead I saw exercise book after exercise book bulging with fulsome paragraphs and detail. Book after book after book. Even children with learning difficulties showed great progress. The philosophy, I was told, was to focus on what they were capable of, not their incapability; to appreciate the learning need but not to fixate on it as a maximum. I have no problem with that.  

It’s a small school, and scaling up is their short, mid and long term challenge. The curious thing is that it gets torn apart by commentators, most of whom, i can only presume, have never been to the school, spoken to the children or seen the impact their extraordinary approach to rigour and following through creates. 

The proposed new site
I left, as I have before, impressed. The kids are happy, and totally loyal to the school. Parents for the most part love it. Every staff member is so down with the ethos I wouldn’t be surprised if they all had tattoos (or micro chips in their neck). There’s even a member of staff who left teaching but returned to the profession to work there. The achievements of the kids- measured in book work, attitude, behaviour, enthusiasm and engagement (yeah I said it) is remarkable. Critics of the school have to process and explain away these facts before they can ride off on high horses.

Would I want every school to copy Michaela? No, of course not- they have to find their own way. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, and many prefer schools to be a little more groovy and chilled out. And that’s fine too, if that; what you want for your kids. I value plurality in our system, and nature demonstrates that mutations are often desirable for a species’ success. Michaela has caused a stir because, I think, it confronts many people’s preconceptions about what is possible with inner city kids. But it would be a shame to bash a school because it wasn’t the same as every other one. 

I wish it well. And I wish more people would go to Michalea to see what the fuss is about before they join in with the Twitchforks and synthetic outrage. 


I can’t leave this without a brief reference to #lunchgate. Because people will just read the preceding and say, ‘Ah, but #fruitgate.’ There was a Twitter storm a few months back because allegedly a pupil had been given detention because their parents couldn’t afford a catering fee. Veins in foreheads popped everywhere as people raced each other to virtue signal. To compound the apparent calamity of it, there were typos in the letter. What followed was a dreadful demonstration of instant experts, town square mob justice, and public shaming like the Salem Witch Trials. The media did what it often did and printed one side of the story verbatim, while the school- understandably- couldn’t respond in detail without breaching professional confidences. 

So I’ll mention that:

  • It wasn’t a punishment. Kids miss paid-for activities all the time in other schools, like trips.
  • A long process had been followed before that point was reached
  • No pupil or family entitled to FSM was involved in this
  • The Family Lunch breaks down unless every pupil participates
  • The pupil was fed. Every pupil in that school is guaranteed to have a lunch. I reckon in most schools you’ll see dozens of kids go hungry, but no one notices. I prefer the system that feeds kids even when it doesn't have to, and makes sure of it. 
  • All families are made aware of the deal when they start school
  • Families who, even if not FSM, still struggle, are offered assistance. 

I know schools where kids arrive hungry and leave hungry. I know schools where injustices happen all the time- where children have their educations hobbled or robbed by bad behaviour that isn’t confronted; where students are permitted to sit through a lesson without working; where days and weeks are blown on building polystyrene pyramids in history lessons, and the last three days of December is a series of DVDs  and free lessons. You tell me where the real scandals lie in education. Ask yourself why we don’t get angry about this enormous theft of opportunity- wasted time, misspent resources. And if you judge a school by one instance where you disagree with policy, but don’t understand the whole culture going on behind it, then I fear you judge in haste. 

No school is perfect, so even if you still disagree with their policy on this, it's a one event against a backdrop of astonishing opportunities being built with children from low-income families. If your bar is 'never stumbles once' then you'll spend your life being very disappointed with people. 

The school received hundreds and hundreds of hate tweets, emails, DMS, Facebook messages, because if the public exposure this brought. The teacher involved was subject to the vilest threats and promises of violence. The public shaming gathered pace, and a school was battered, and staff who do nothing but sweat and toil for the good of children, were looking over their shoulders on the bus and avoiding social media. But as long as everyone had a good vent, eh? 

Oh, and the teacher involved in #fruitgate, Barry? He’s one of the best teachers of MFL I’ve ever seen. His kids love him. They have a command of French that is stunning; I’ve never seen anything like it in my career- they spoke with better vocabulary, accent and confidence than most undergraduates I’ve heard. The sight of the social media salon banging keyboards like bombs at him, was terrible. I expected more solidarity than that from teachers. I expect it from below the line trolls and sofa jockeys. But if we start screaming SACK THEM the minute we meet a school philosophy we don’t understand or disagree with, then we have lost the capacity to tolerate differences of opinion. Most teachers I know are better than that, thank God.  


  1. So it sounds wonderful. One day I'd like to see it for myself. I've been in other schools that have tried to emulate this and I'd say they failed. It's really hard to strictly enforce rules like walking in silence between lessons whilst still creating a loving, caring atmosphere. In other schools, setting these high expectations can lead to an atmosphere where teachers and students alike are in a constant state of tension. And that's not good for anyone, I know, I've seen it. Basically, it's a risky approach, that seems to have paid off in Michaela.

    1. It's no more risky than the 'no consequences' behaviour policies and they are not scrutinised in as much detail, nor did anyone send death threats when one of these schools fail Ofsted or have complaints of bullying in another. I have worked in schools with relaxed behaviour systems where teachers were in a constant state of tension, with children who were bullying them with the headteacher's backing. The rules written down don't indicate the nature of people who created them or enforce them (or not as the case may be). I've been to Michaela and it is as Tom describes. People who want it to be a joyless, robot factory are going to be disappointed but I suspect that's why many won't go there in the first place.

    2. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not in the hostile camp. I would love to work in a school like this. All I am saying is that what they have achieved is not straight-forward. I would like to understand what others miss when they try a similar approach and it back-fires. I would imagine it has a lot to do with staff wellbeing, marking policies, etc.

  2. I caught their Head of English at the wonderful ResearchEd (thanks for that too, by the way Tom!) and was impressed. In an education system hopelessly infatuate with the radical solution - and often the more crackpot the better - Michaela seems to have gone back to basics: that's enough to upset many of the Education Illuminati. I've sat in (many many) more than my fair share of tooth-grinding CPD sessions where sugar paper and Post-it notes abound. I've drawn trees and found my spirit guide. I've self-berated with the best of them (who knew you were supposed to treat children as *individuals*? I had no idea!). BUT in all this never have I seen the level of hostility reserved for that Michaela teacher following her account of the school. The only conclusion I could come to is that they must be on to something, right? Let's face it, I'd work there tomorrow... except I have an after school session to find my inner child. I just hope there are enough Glue Sticks...

  3. A splendid defence of high expectations. I've never been to Michaela, but I respect what they are trying to do. It's all about the school culture isn't it? Kids accept the adult authority and in return get an excellent education. That's the deal, and both elements need to be in place for it to work. Sounds like Michaela are nailing this, and I hope that it can be shown to work over the long term as they become a fully-fledged school with exams and stuff.

    Tom, as Behaviour Tsar, what influence do you have to get schools to take this deal seriously and lead a culture of learning? I'm asking for a friend, obvs.

  4. Sounds like a fascinating place to visit. I've not been there, so anything I say has to bear that in mind; but as a teacher, it doesn't sound like somewhere I'd choose to work. School isn't just about education, it's also about preparing children for the world. And Michaela doesn't sound like any part of the world I've ever been to. But good luck to them - if it gets results, and the kids flourish, who am I to argue?

  5. The More articles I read like this, the more angry I get at just how cataclysmic the Labour party and the Liberal Left as been for our education system.

    Fantastic article.

  6. I think your sickeningly sweet, startlingly sycophantic and sanguine review of this school has given me diabetes. Is this some kind of paid sponsorship?! Or did they make a "donation" to a charity of your choosing. The "M. Yself" fund for poverty relief, perhaps?


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