Michaela Community School: You Asked For Change, Is This It?

Deciding where to send your child for their education is one of the most important decision you will have to make as a parent. For some, this is the deciding factor when it comes to choosing where to live. Location, Location, Location is normally followed by good education, education, education. Try and purchase close to a good school, or pay for your child’s tuition. What about those who can’t afford to buy? They are at the mercy of the state school postcode lottery where high achievers are the exception for certain demographics.
Jan 2018

If you are fortunate to live in the London Borough of Brent, there is a school that is reversing the odds. Four years after its inception in 2014, Michaela Community School is a beacon of hope for what is possible within the state education system. There are no large playing fields, no Grade A listed buildings, no statues or plaques. Located in a converted office block in Wembley Park, sandwiched between a busy overpass and railway lines, the unassuming appearance of the building does very little to prepare you for what’s inside. The only indicator is a sign above the school fence that reads “Private School Ethos, No Fees” - Headmistress and founder Katharine Birbalsingh explains, “By private school ethos we mean high aspirations, aiming for Oxbridge, working hard, all the things you’ll notice here”.

Walking towards reception, you cannot help but notice the silence and calm around you.  Michaela feels unlike any other state school. My visitor’s badge is handed to me with a list of “Do’s and Don’ts containing some oddities like discouraging expressions of doubt or disbelief from visitors whilst addressing the students.

Standing outside the headmistress office waiting to be introduced before the start of our tour, my eyes are drawn to the row of artwork, by year 7 and 8 pupils, displayed on the opposite wall. They are of an extremely high standard, comparable to any GCSE artwork I have seen. As I stood in amazement, trying to juxtapose the age of the pupils and the level of work I was seeing, my train of thought is interrupted by the silent stream of pupils. Trooping to and from the school library at the end of the corridor in silence. The only audible words are “good morning sir” as they walk past or the occasional whisper.

According to Birbalsingh, silent corridors are very efficient between class change over.  “When you are a child from a background without the fortune to have lots of books at home, parents who sit with you at the dinner table sharing their thoughts on politics and philosophy, then you are depending entirely on your school to give that to you. We want 59 minutes out of every 60, we want to take advantage of that hour as much as we can.”

Headmistress and founder Katharine Birbalsingh
We continue on our scheduled tour of the school, accompanied by two guides Hayder (year 10) and Miriam (Year 9). With pride and purpose, they usher us into different classrooms whilst lessons are in session. The only acknowledgement as we enter the room is a nod or a hello from the teacher, every pupil remains focused on their work. Our presence seems to have no impact on the lesson. Hayder or Miraim would randomly select a pupil’s note book for our perusal. In the history class, the teacher declares that the pupils are now going to “show off” [their knowledge of the subject].  Following each question, pupils eagerly raised their hands and when called upon, provide the answer and a quotation from either the Bible, Quran and other books to support their answers. I found this most impressive.

Michaela was rated as outstanding by Ofsted and won a national mathematics competition for the second year in a row.

There are no classroom assistants because according to Birbalsingh, It is better to invest in high quality teaching staff. “We save money by not hiring teaching assistants. We have made other decisions that will ensure that we are able to survive financially because it isn’t easy. We’d love to have more money, but, if we don’t have it then I’ve got to find a way”. She adds “With more teachers you then have teachers who can create booklets and other teaching resources because they are not teaching constantly”.

Indeed at Michaela, all course material is prepared by the teaching staff. This demands a great deal of trust on the part of the pupils. When I put this point to Hayder, one of our guides, his response was unequivocally “Yes, we do trust our teachers”. It eventually became clear to me that Michaela was a joint enterprise to which staff and pupil subscribe. There is evidently mutual trust and respect.

Family lunch at Michaela Photo credit: Emmanuel Boateng Ankor

Meat free lunch begins with recital of poetry, followed by discussion on a topic of the day and concludes with a show of appreciation.

“The Michaela Way” has delivered some success, including being rated as outstanding by Ofsted and winning the Times Table Rock Wrangles national mathematics competition for the second year in a row. Underpinning this high level of achievement is a zero tolerance, no-excuses approach to discipline which has come under scrutiny from various corners outside the school, including the media. Birbalsingh’s response is; “I think the number one thing that any school needs to do, to be successful with children, is to make sure that the children are behaving. If the teacher cannot get silence in her classroom then the children can’t learn”.  “The Michaela Way” has come about through Out-of-the-box thinking and from “borrowing” and adapting ideas from other schools. For example, the Family Lunch is an idea adapted from King Solomon Academy and the appreciations we witnessed after lunch is an idea from Dickson’s Trinity school in Bradford. Birbalsingh adds: “I suppose there are some fundamentals that make us different; [so] you might not want pegs at the back of classrooms to hold their coats and bags, we do. Things like our very high standards of behaviour, desire to have the teacher at the front of the classroom teaching and our belief in knowledge”.

Despite all the achievements and accolades, for most people the verdict on Michaela Community School will be its first GCSE results. The headmistress is a little dismissive of this notion. “Sure, it’s a big deal, it’s our first cohort’s results, which is really interesting; the next exam day and all other exam days will matter and of course our A Level results also matter. Where our children eventually go after university matters. I think, sadly society puts a lot of emphasis on GCSE results and they don’t take A Level results as seriously.”

At Michaela, educating pupils so that they don’t end up dropping out at A Level or degree level is just as important as the exam results. According to Birbalsingh, that is achieved by having an excellent curriculum which is not exam focused. It is the complete education of a student that gives them a core strength, that means they can withstand the knocks because all of that mastery has come through from when they were younger and it holds them steadfast.

Michaela is named after Michaela Emanus, a languages teacher from St Lucia, a dear friend and colleague of Birbalsingh’s. Talking about her colleague who she lost in 2011 after a battle with cancer [almost teary-eyed] Birbalsingh says; ”She always used to say to me ‘Katharine where is the rigor?’ [Laughs] She was old fashioned, you know, she believed children were children and that we were the adults, she believed in obedience… it’s a personal sadness of mine that she wasn’t able to see our school."

Birbalsingh is modest when it comes to taking credit for Michaela. “It’s a group effort” she replies. Asked if there any aspects of Michaela that reflect her personality, after a short pause she says “I do think in the mornings when I look out at all the children and the heads of years put their hands up and all the children put their hands up and within seconds the yard is quiet and then the head of year will say  ‘right, everybody in your lines now’, and they quietly move and they grab their work packs and they swish around and suddenly the lines are there, I think it is a thing of beauty [laughs], I do. I stand and watch and go isn’t it magnificent. I love it. It’s like watching a mathematical equation, oh it’s just a thing of beauty. So, I don’t know if it’s my personality but I do love that [laughs]”.

The high standards and achievement at Michaela is unprecedented in an inner-city state school, especially one with pupils predominantly from low income families and first-generation immigrant families. It is unmistakable that for Birbalsingh and her staff, there is passion in everything they do. They care about those children, they care about the education system and they want to make it better. As a parent, I wish there was a school like Michaela in every borough of this country; with staff dedicated to transforming the lives of their pupils against all odds at no greater cost to the tax payer than the average British state school. That would be a catalyst for social mobility, a real revolution.