Policy and Practice

Is the “Michaela way” really just gaming the system dressed up as ideology?

Oh dear I find myself talking about Michaela Community School again. I don’t want to you get  a lot of stick talking about Michaela. Is it worth the effort?

On the other hand I feel as though the one or two or even three blogs that have recently been written about Michaela, demand an alternative view. MCS creates a politicised educational discourse. It has to expect alternative views.

I haven’t been to MCS. The teachers are probably great. I have nothing to say about their professionalism or commitment to teaching and learning. On the other hand the school has a politicised leadership somewhat enslaved to an educational ideology imported from the States.

Educationalists desperately seek pedagogic placebos. Boxes need to be ticked, excellence evidenced. In a field where evidence is complex ideology becomes an evidence of sorts both to satisfy OFSTED and to communicate what it is you stand for to the general public. In an increasingly marketised educational environment there is a  need to develop: a message, a sustainable business model and a competitive advantage.

Pedagogy as a marketing strategy

There are a lot of social problems that impact upon education. Generally speaking private schools don’t suffer those problems.  Schools in leafy suburbs suffer them a little and of course those who generate a reputation for being draconian suffer them less than their “bog standard” peers. Managing a cohort can be one route to success. Let us not be professionally naive MCS has a smart marketing strategy that presents an image designed to manage a cohort. It would be a scary place for many to send their children.   .

There is no surer way of scaring away problems than developing a careful reputation for being intolerant. It pushes the problem elsewhere. and makes others look as though they have the kind of problems you don’t. The strategy also appeals to a certain kind of person that buys into the fear and loathing that has surrounded education in the last five years. It’s a good marketing strategy. Cohorts become self selecting.

The problem of data that cannot isolate behaviour variables

Even better when the data designed to capture statistics on socio-economics cannot isolate behaviour variables. This is particularly true in inner city areas where recently arrived migrants may well be from a different social class or cultural background than their peers but have similar socio-economic data. They may be far more aspirational. The London effect is now thought to be driven by the aspiration of recently arrived migrants. Socio-economic data can be gamed.

I wonder how many of the so called “best leaders” simply play the OFSTED game. They may not have much insight into pedagogy or education but do know how to manage data. In fact data begins to drive pedagogy to a point where the best schools quite probably deliver mediocre educational experiences to better students. It makes the data work and keeps OFSTED happy. Being smart with data does work.

MCS and the question of scalability

What if every school became a Michaela Community School? Would adopting that model turn all young people into model pupils or rather would we start to see a lot of truancy? Large numbers of children just starting to disappear out of the system? Even worse would we just get a churn of failing schools that are subject to relentless political whims:”academisation”, sack the head teacher, employ super heads, super teachers, military personnel etc.

The Michaela way works while someone else is around to pick up the pieces but what if schools all started playing the same game. Just imagine if educational leaders started to ask themselves the question; why bother? Why not just say to parents; “you know what your child is simply not our kind of student. We don’t need that kind of student here. Its nobody’s fault why not send him / her somewhere else – you know it makes sense”.

I’m sure he / she would be much happier at some other school.You know it makes sense. I am a “dragon lady” after all:

As Birbalsingh explains, maybe Michaela isn’t right for every child. Maybe some children would be happier elsewhere. She calls herself  ‘The Dragon Lady’ and makes it clear to parents that being at Michaela means following the rules. There are no exceptions. But there’s no shortage of other schools for disgruntled parents to send their children.

It makes sense; business sense

It does make sense; it delivers results.There is no better way to win at the game of assessment than develop a system that is little more than “teaching to the exam” in over drive to a cohort of more conformist students whose parents are on-board.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Michaela’s style is direct. Some people will hate it They’re unapologetic about the knowledge building mission. Creating a rich, memorable knowledge base is definitely the top priority. Everything they do revolves around this central aim. This results in a very coherent school experience but to those us who’ve always worked in ‘normal’ schools it can seem extreme. It’s route one schooling: direct, effective, but not pretty. But maybe that just takes some getting used to.

Why waste time with a broader vision?  A commitment to society? Let the bog standard comprehensive down the road be put into special measures thinking about society.

Even the prospect of an unhelpful OFSTED inspection is turned into a PR opportunity:

They’ve also refused to compromise on ‘what Ofsted want’. They’ve come to terms with the fact that inspectors will almost certainly hate what they do. They’re supported by founding governors who are fully expecting a negative verdict next year.

The kind of parents sold on the idea that the education system is inept and failing will hardly be interested in the views of a watchdog that is seen as an implicit part of of the system.

I wonder if MCS is really the victim here? The lone wolf fighting the authorities and, its watchdog, OFSTED. Or is it playing a clever game targeting a niche audience? Exploiting a political mind set that equates education with failed progressive leftist views? Offering a conscience salving pedagogic balm to those accused of pandering to the rich. You have to admire the business chutzpah and the cleverness of it all but is it really what a good state education seeking social equity should be about?

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2 thoughts on “Is the “Michaela way” really just gaming the system dressed up as ideology?

  1. On the other hand, the research says if you have high expectations, the students rise to them and succeed. Why not apply that to behaviour for learning? You are assuming it won’t change student or parental behaviour, and difficult families will be lost. But what if they are changed?

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      If you have any research, which shows that high expectations are in a causal relationship with success I’d be interested to see it. My guess is that high expectations can be a double edged sword dependent upon individual contexts and the expertise of practitioners.

      Social variables, like high expectations, can prove difficult to deal with because they have emergent properties. In other words “high expectations” can affect other variables such as cohorts etc.

      Of course it is possible that difficult families are changed by MCS I leave it open for others to decide whether it is in fact that case that difficult families are changed or that they simply decide not to send their children to MCS because of the fearsome reputation the school is developing.

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