Despite Tom Sherrington’s humorous claims, Teach First graduates are not part of a cult. Neither are the staff at Michaela School (Tom didn’t suggest this by the way). They are a team of people committed to what they believe in (pretty much like every other teacher I have been fortunate enough to meet) and are behind their Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh one hundred percent. I can see why sceptics would claim Michaela to be a clique, maybe they are niavely confusing a highly effective, tight knit team (the best kind in my opinion – similar to Manchester United in the halcyon days of Alex Ferguson) for something it is not. Events like Debating Michaela are necessary to help cynics like me understand what the school and the people in it stand for as well as broaden our horizons by experiencing some expert orators in action. There will always be haters but it’s difficult to pass an opinion until you’ve experienced something so I’m reserving my judgement for a little longer. Not to worry, this is not another gushing post about how wonderful the school is, I’ll save that to Toby French who has done that much better than I ever could in his blog post following a recent visit. If I’m laying my cards on the table, then I’m happy to say that fundamentally we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, Michaela and I, so even if it is nirvana, it is still probably not the place for me. The purpose of this post is to share how vital it is to look at the world of education from different perspectives in order to form a balanced view.
Last weekend I visited City Hall. It is both an impressive and imposing building on the South bank of the Thames and quite a way from sunny Bolton! My mission was to see what all the fuss was about by attending Michaela’s second debate: The Rematch. I had planned to go to their previous event, however, due to unforeseen circumstances had to settle for the YouTube catch up clips (which are well worth a watch and available here). When I booked my ticket, my friends, family and work colleagues thought I was mad. Why would you spend money and go in your own time to listen to someone harp on about education? A few years ago, I would have adopted the same attitude, I worked hard enough for the kids when I was in teacher mode so listening to other teachers talk about education would be a busman’s holiday. Funnily enough, Saturday felt like down time, I really enjoyed it. It was also an opportunity to recharge and refocus my enthusiasm when the last big push with Year 11 is needed. An event like Debating Michaela is the secret garden into other worlds, ones you wouldn’t normally experience. The debates were all interesting and the speakers were outstanding. Watching relatively inexperienced (as pointed out by John Tomsett) educationalists go head-to-head against sages of the stage was enthralling to see. Meeting some of the people who inspire me didn’t disappoint either. I’m always dubious of meeting people I admire after a bad experience with Emeli Sandé a few years ago but we won’t go into that (the mental scars are still too raw), it’s safe to say that this didn’t happen here where my educational heroes more than exceeded my expectations. Katharine herself proved throughout the day why she has managed to pull off something quite unique at Michaela. Her infectious personality and no-nonsense approach, tied up in passionate rhetoric is precisely why her team are willing to go over the wall with her.
For me, the day was about so much more than just debate. It encouraged me to challenge my perspective on a number of things which the motions alone would not have done. First and foremostly, I considered my stance on Teach First graduates. I’ve always been somewhat negative about this initiative as I’d felt it was attracting the wrong type of people for the wrong reasons. On what basis had I founded this view? Little more than anecdotal evidence and cognitive bias. What I found from being in an audience strongly weighted in Teach Firsters was that these people are equally as passionate about working with young people as teachers who had taken traditional routes into the profession. In addition to this though, what was noticeably evident were the characteristics that almost all of them displayed: strong subject knowledge, confidence, commitment and tenacity. Looking back at my progressive education I have a lot to thank my teachers for but I can now see that aspects of it were somewhat lacking. I would have benefitted from a broad and rich curriculum steeped in subject knowledge and cultural literacy. Retrospectively, I question whether we were left wanting because of the programmes of study themselves or my teachers’ lack of subject grammar? It is reassuring to know that the children in the care of the TF army (and the generation of teachers who are coming up through the different ITT routes) will not have to worry about this aspect of their learning. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the talent that comes from Teach First and have softened somewhat in my opinion of this initiative as a result of my experience at City Hall.
The art of debate itself is not something I am accustomed to, neither my educational background nor subject specialism lend themselves to it, so the opportunity to watch the oratorical cut and thrust was a learning experience for me, something which I could take back and develop further with students. I agree with the sentiments of the Michaela ethos that every child deserves every opportunity, I can see how being able to understand the rules of debate and engage confidently gives students another string to their bow. It is also important to learn how people can passionately disagree in a respectful way (a skill that some adults would also benefit from).
Joining an audience of unfamiliar faces reminded me of what it’s like to be a student at the beginning of term or starting part way through the year. Even as confident as I am, I was nervous and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. There are established friendships and acquaintances at events like this so it’s important to make everyone feel included just as the whole organisational team did (Barry Smith was a fantastic meeter and greeter). However, once you were in the audience you were on your own. This is where I am eternally grateful to Daisy Christodoulou. We struck up conversation and she made every effort to include me when talking to others. I’m not going to lie, Daisy is an educational hero of mine, achieving so much in such a short space of time, I have the utmost admiration and respect for her. Her book Seven Myths about Education has been one of the biggest influences in my own philosophy of late (I’ve written about this previously here) so her debate was the one I was looking forward to most. Both Daisy and Peter were brilliant. During the debate they argued so eloquently that, had I no bias whatsoever, I would have been almost divided. In fairness, Daisy gave a slightly more compelling argument and I did have a little cognitive bias so it was a done deal.
This brings me onto my next point of learning for the day, cognitive bias. Despite expert execution and convincing arguments to the contrary, my original stance on all of the motions remained unchanged. This was reflected almost unanimously by the rest of the audience which just shows how hard it is to win hearts and minds. The strongest speaker of the day in my opinion was Jonathan Porter but I voted in favour of John Tomsett, choosing to value anecdotes over evidence. Why is this so? Why would my heart over rule my head? I identified with the points Jonathan made, frequently nodding in agreement with his case, yet I still went with some excuses which is ultimately where my own ideology lies, John runs a school with a love over fear ethos which is how I feel all schools should be run. So despite every effort, Jonathan failed to convince me otherwise although I’m sure he won’t be losing any sleep over it as there were plenty of people happily in his camp.
My unrelenting bias made me think about how we recruit students and staff our schools. Clear vision and purpose are vital. Headteachers have to communicate their ideals effectively and concisely to parents, students and staff (potential and existing). If this is not done well dissent in the ranks will ensue. It’s not about being exclusive, it’s setting out your stall and then giving people choice; your ethos/core purpose will fit with an individual or it won’t, either way is ok but if these individuals find that it doesn’t then perhaps the school is not for them. How much time is spent trying to cajole disgruntled students, parents and staff who want the aspects of the school which suit their needs but aren’t willing to go all in? This was my biggest take away for the day. Katharine and her team have set out their stall. They are professional, warm and welcoming but their way is the Michaela way and it’s not for everyone. People are under no illusions as to who they are as a school. No one is forced to work or study there, everyone has a choice. Rather than condemning something that I know little about I’m keen to know more, take whatever lessons I can and whilst the Michaela way may not work for our school in our setting it does appear to work for them so you can’t help but admire that.
I learned a great deal from Saturday, a great deal about human nature (both from the people who attended and the ones tweeting on the sidelines) and about the importance of different perspectives. Whilst the wonderful speakers didn’t manage to change my opinion, they did manage to get me to consider different viewpoints and accept that whilst I have my bias, it is important to always view the world through different eyes.