What exactly is a good education? 

With the next Michaela event less than a week away I thought this timely. During the autumn half term break I observed a fellow teacher describe the practice that goes on at the controversial Michaela School in London as sickening and damaging to children. Michaela (and all who sail in her) certainly seems to have a divisive effect among educators, you’re either for or against, part of the cult or desperate to liberate the world from its absurdity. I’m one of the few in the middle. The practices at Michaela don’t sit well with my own philosophy of education but to dismiss their approaches without taking the time to understand how and why would also be at odds with my beliefs, personally I think it important to consider a situation from every angle. I’ve always been keen to understand why, that curiosity has never left me (I’m certain it drove my teachers to distraction) and is one of the reasons that I attended the last Michaela debate (which I wrote about here). Upon meeting a number of its the staff, I found that they were no different from any other teachers I had met. They weren’t the draconian figures critics would have us imagine, they were intelligent people who cared passionately about children and were doing what they felt was best for the community which they served. I guess that’s why I felt the scathing tweets one teacher receieved in response to her show of pride in the school and its students were a little unjust. Aside from that, to behave in an unkind and undignified manner is not really the behaviour we should be promoting in our profession. Ever curious, I attempted to engage in a debate as to how these harsh criticisms of the school had been reached. Sadly to no avail. I was described as “misguided” and stealthily blocked.

Maybe I am misguided? Maybe I should dismiss Michaela for the cult that it is? Or perhaps it is important to draw my own conclusions from an informed position? After all, the concept of dissoi logoi encourages us to make decisions based on careful consideration of all points of view. I’m humble enough to know that I don’t have the answers as to what makes a good education, there are far more intelligent people out there who’ve devoted their life to this question and still not found the silver bullet. I have had my own experience of education though, both as a student and a teacher and I’m under no illusion that my viewpoint will have been skewed by this.

My education was a good one. I was taught well enough to go on to further and then higher study as well as being cared for sincerely by dedicated teams of teachers in both my primary and secondary schools.

 But what if they could have done better?

You see, I was the FSM/PP child. Today I wear that badge like a badge of honour but at school it was more like a mark of shame. My mum worked three jobs to keep us above the bread line and I always felt less of a person when other children would make reference to the grey estate (the council estate where I lived and where my parents, sister and niece still do). Of the 137 students in my year group that left in 1995, a significant number of us went on to study A levels, many continued on to university – a number even going to Russell Group institutions. None to Oxbridge. I’m sure there were many reasons for this. However, in retrospect and with experience on my side, I can confidently say that our lack of knowledge inhibited our opportunities. Somewhere along the line the school made choices, perhaps they made excuses for us because we came from tough backgrounds with low aspirations. The truth is we didn’t know what to aspire to because no one had ever shown us what was out there. It would never have entered my thinking to consider a university like Oxford or Cambridge because they were just for posh people. There was a decision somewhere in the curriculum to teach Daz 4 Zoe rather than Dickens and to teach me enough to go on to study A levels rather than excel in them. 

As a teacher I did the same. Jemma, a brilliantly talented student from a tough background with a tendency to be lazy, was a prime example of this. Jemma was from the same estate as my mum and dad, she was the oldest of three and had to care for her siblings whilst her mum went out to work. Her attendance was not great. She did have a lot on her plate but most of the time she chose not to come in because she knew she was bright enough to get by. Rather than stretching Jemma, we made excuses for her not wanting her or the school results to fail, we continually saved her throughout. Extra classes, coursework catch-up sessions (often after deadlines had passed), staff even did home visits to prepare her for GCSEs in the hope that she would pass. She did, with 8 As and 2 A*s under her belt she went off to a local sixth form college, certain that she was on the path to a better life we felt Jemma was a success story. A few years later whilst out shopping, I came across Jemma working on a till in a discount shop. Making conversation I asked how her further study was going as I had just assumed that university was the natural progression. Jemma swiftly corrected me. She hadn’t gone to university, she hadn’t even completed her A levels. Her reasons? A levels were too hard, there was too much knowledge she didn’t have; stuff she’d missed through absence and stuff that had been deemed redundant on superficial curricula geared to passing tests rather than the promotion deep and long-term learning. Effort had been an issue, she’d become so accustomed to teachers saving her at the last minute that the practices of dedication and determination were alien to her. So when it was her sole responsibility to organise her learning and workload she was completely inept and gave up. She chose the easy option because that’s what we’d taught her to do and the education we’d given her didn’t prepare her beyond the test. We should have been tougher on Jemma (and others like her), we should have expected more and we should have taught her better. 

Many private and grammar schools have programmes of study which go beyond the demands of GCSE and A level specifications, the examinations being almost incidental. They prepare academic students for further study and foster necessary attributes to succeed in these types of environment. This isn’t saying that all students are catered for brilliantly and it certainly isn’t a call for more grammar schools, it’s merely an observation and from which a number of questions:

  1. What can state schools learn from the private sector to increase the social mobility of the working classes? 
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a traditional approach to education and what can we learn from this? 
  3. How can we develop better programmes of study so that we teach the best of what has been to develop more learned, articulate and confident young people?
  4. Can we obtain a best of both approach that serves the vast majority of children in our care, giving them a life of opportunity?
  5. Can a single school offer a curriculum that caters for the needs of all students offering them the opportunity to follow the path which suits them best or do we need different schools for different paths? And if we do, who decides the path of a child, at what point is this decision made and how is it made? 
  6. Can we ever achieve equity in education? 

I’m not professing to have answers but I think that it is worthwhile for any school leader or teacher to consider the questions. When entertaining the notion of how can I make things better we do make things better simply by reflecting and improving the provision in our own classroom, department, school etc. It is difficult to do this when you only look from a single, blinkered perspective.

Often we are blinkered by the constraints of time, external pressure and our position within an organisation. How often do you hear the academic year being compared to a treadmill? And we all know what happens if you try to look left or right when we’re pounding away on that treadmill! So it’s important to press the stop button and take stock of everything else around us as we might be missing out on something much better in our efforts to get to the finish line. 

If I hadn’t have changed schools during my career I would still consider that I was doing what was the best for the children I taught without a second thought. I’d have always made excuses for Jemma because she had a tough life and I’d still continue to make sure those students passed the test to continue onto A levels rather than having a deep and broad knowledge from which true understanding could grow. Listening to the likes of Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick and Andrew Old in the same forum as Debra Kidd, John Tomsett and David Cameron has given me a more rounded view of education. A fresh perspective doesn’t mean I’ve gone to the dark side of the traditional approach, far from it, but I do see the merits of its philosophy. My experience means that I’ll give my next Jemma a pen when she doesn’t have one but I’ll expect her to bring that pen to every lesson, it means that there’ll be a consequence if she doesn’t do her homework or have equipment, it means that I’ll expect her to copy up work she’s missed because she couldn’t be bothered and it means that I’ll expect more of her than just passing a test because I’m not developing her personal accountability if I don’t have high expectations of her. Tough love in a no excuses culture. A lot like they’re doing at Michaela I presume, they’re just doing it in a different way. Whether their approach is right or wrong only time will tell but conclusions can only be drawn from an informed perspective not from a position of ignorance. Surely a good education is one that opens the door of opportunity not one that perpetuates the cycle of getting what we’ve always got? If we want to develop social mobility we need to expect more from working-class children and give them the tools to exceed expectations. We need to equip our students to excel in any context. Surely this is what a good education is about? 

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6 thoughts on “What exactly is a good education? 

  1. Thank you for writing this Kelly. I think the problem with binaries and sides is that we tend to associate some behaviours and ideas with one and not the other. I’m usually grouped on the prog side, even though I’d choose, well, if not Dickens, certainly Hardy over Daz 4 Zoe any day, whatever that is. Though the assumption is often that those of us who promote a more child centred approach for education, also promote a dumbing down of texts, which simply is not true. Great literature is great literature. I might differ in how I’d teach it, but I’d teach it. Similarly, taking into account a child’s circumstances doesn’t mean bending over backwards to remove all sense of agency and responsibility for them. In the example you give for Jemma, I’d be keeping her in school, not excluding her. But I’d also expect that we taught her some self regulation. My problem with overly strict behaviour codes is exactly what you describe – the create a dependency on authority that leaves children unable to cope with freedom and responsibility once they have it. They give up and drop out – we see this from the high graduate drop out rates of KIPP students in the US. Rigour, self regulation, high levels of challenge – they are not the preserves of a traditional view, though they are often claimed to be. I think this confusion is at the root at much of the conflict you describe. Tomorrow I fly off to work in Hong Kong with over 100 children. We’ll be making theatre and looking at the theme of tradition in relation to Chinese culture. What is this? Arts? Geography? Sociology? A great education seeks to get children to think deeply; to interpret and apply their knowledge; to consider their place in the present world and their intentions in the future world. To me, that means going way beyond tests. I don’t think that puts me in opposition to teachers like Joe Kirby and Jo Facer. I think it brings us together.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I completely agree Debra. Insightful as always. We do our best to keep the “Jemmas” of this world in our school whilst expecting the best from them. Tough love. Again I’m in total agreement with you about the assumed polarisation of sides. I think that there are merits in a variety of approaches and you’re spot on with your observations about a great education. I would never say we’re in opposition with those perceived traditionalists, I think were just paving a different path to the same end. The worry as you so rightly pointed out are those schools who exclude children and give up on them. Increasingly, academisation and the like gives unscrupulous schools more power to do this for the wrong reasons, not in the interests of what’s best for the individual child or the majority of the children which they serve. This is a wrong that we need to challenge and only by debate and bringing these behaviours to the forefront of conversation will we do so. It’s a shame you’re in HK because I’m sure you’d see the value in the Michaela event if you were around. Have a great time over there, the work you’re doing is very worthwhile and I can’t wait to hear about it when you get back!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. N

    Great blog. I am all about the centre, like you. Listening to views from both sides is key. But that includes the people on the ‘traditionalist’ side, whose blogs often read as incredibly scathing and aggressive to other schools. Being able to engage in debate and, in my opinion, take the good things that are happening in both sides (like you appear to be doing brilliantly) is the best way forward. Unfortunately, the headteacher of Michaela seems unwilling to debate and blocked me on twitter for the simple mention that there are 2 other schools in Wembley in the top 1% of schools in the country for progress (yes genuinely, that is the only thing I said to her before she blocked me…!) – that strikes me as just as dismissive of other schools as some people are of Michaela.

    Listening to each other, rather than preaching our own perfection is surely the right answer.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. The Michaela debates are precisely the vehicle for listening to every angle. They are great. I’ve always found The Michaela team more than willing to listen to the alternative perspective and engage in the debate. Maybe drop them an email and pay them a visit? They’re always extending an invitation to cynics like me! I’m hoping to visit next easter hols perhaps you could join me?

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  3. Jill Berry

    Interesting post, Kelly.

    I think the thing I find a bit depressing is how often those who seek to promote one way of doing something try to do so by actively (and sometimes aggressively) criticising the alternative.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since I started teaching in 1980 it’s that there is no one simple route to success. I think I was a better head because I taught in six different schools – across state and independent sectors, selective and comprehensive, single-sex (both all girls and all boys) and co-ed – and I taught in a 4-18 school, a 7-18 school and several 11-18 schools, as well as teaching adults at nightschool. Context is key, and different types of school, or different approaches within one school, can work for different children, or groups of children. I’d like to see greater tolerance, fuller appreciation of nuance, the recognition that compromise can be a strength not a weakness, and a little less certainty about what works best, I think.

    What we have in common is a commitment to giving young people the most positive start in life. I wish this bound us more than separated us because of our commitment to expounding the BEST way to do that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Insightful as always Jill. I struggle to comprehend when professionals fail to have an appreciation of different approaches in different contexts. A variety of settings has given me a much more rounded approach, experience has also taught me to use the mistakes I’ve made in the past as a learning experience to make sure the next time I do it better. Meeting on the common ground and being willing to listen with the intention of hearing rather than responding is a great way to start a collective move forward. Hope you’re well.

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