What can Australia learn from Michaela Community School?


I never like to criticise individual schools and, in this case, I’m quite hesitant to offer praise. However, I think it is in the wider public interest to draw attention to Michaela Community School, not least because if Aussie teachers have heard of it at all, it is likely to be through one of the online witch hunts or feverish blog posts that hurl abuse at the school.

Why does Michaela provoke such a reaction? Under the headship of Katherine Birbalsingh, Michaela is an avowedly traditional school with high expectations for all of its students. It teaches a knowledge-based curriculum and eschews the silly gimmicks that many schools pursue. It also happens to be a Free School. Let’s face it, Michaela needs independence because local bureaucrats would never allow a school like that to exist.

The English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, have now visited Michaela and released their first report on the school. Ofsted used to be a student-centred inquisition, promoting progressive teaching methods. However, it has reformed in recent years and no longer enforces a particular teaching style. It also shows signs of taking behaviour much more seriously as an issue. 

Here are a few quotes from the Ofsted report:

“From their starting points, all groups of pupils make rapid progress in a wide range of subjects, including English, mathematics, science, humanities, French, art and music.

Leaders promote equality of opportunity exceedingly well. Additional funding is used carefully. Leaders and teachers ensure that outcomes for eligible pupils, including disadvantaged pupils and those who have special educational needs and/or disabilities, are outstanding.

Pupils conduct themselves exceptionally well in lessons and around the school. They are polite, respectful and caring young people. Pupils know what steps to take to keep themselves safe from harm in a variety of contexts.”

I was particularly taken with the points about inclusion. I don’t believe that you make a school inclusive by offering alternative, dumbed-down versions of the curriculum to certain groups of students. I think this is the opposite of being inclusive. As I understand it, Michaela exemplifies the approach of making a rigorous, academic curriculum available to all:

“Pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities are encouraged and supported effectively. They make similar exceptional progress from their starting points at a similar rate to all pupils.”

Anyway, read the report for yourself and you will see that I haven’t just selected the best bits.

So why do I hesitate to highlight this praise? Because I assume that the online hate campaign are already sharpening their knives and this is just more fuel to the fire. But before you join in, pause and ask yourself one question: in pouring scorn on this school, are you really on the side of the righteous or are you actually one of the baddies?

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15 Comments on “What can Australia learn from Michaela Community School?”

  1. howardat58 says:

    Do the parents choose the school or does the school choose the parents (kids) ?
    What happens when a kid gets excluded ?

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I think that the parents technically have a choice of school although this can be complicated in London where many schools are quite full. I also think that they haven’t excluded anyone yet. However, I may be wrong on both of these points.

  2. Tempe says:

    Good news and also great that Ofsted is no longer imposing their version of good teaching & learning on schools. How amazing that a handful of English teachers managed to turn this situation around and help to reinstate explicit instruction as a legitimate form of teaching and knowledge acquisition as worthwhile. They are amazing. Hope these ideas trickle down to Aust. at some point.

    It will be interesting to see their results for the first lot of seniors to sit their exams. I can only dream of having a knowledge-led school like this is Aust. One day I hope it happens.

  3. Mike says:

    I’ve heard many good things about Michaela, but I’d be interested in finding out a bit more about the admissions process. My hesitancy about the free school movement in the UK generally (and the academy/charter movement in the US) is due to their comparative reticence when it comes to admissions – the advocates of these schools promote the academic ethos, the lack of discipline problems, etc., all of which I applaud, but I’ve found that when they are asked direct questions about the admissions process they tend to blur matters a bit. If it turns out that the children who attend these schools are something of a self-selecting group, that makes any judgement on these schools’ overall effectiveness a tad problematic.

    • Tempe says:

      I could be wrong but as I understood it this school is in a deprived area with 30% on free school lunches. Wouldn’t they have to take the kids in catchment?

    • The information about the school at the end of the report says that the number of disadvantaged pupils is above the national average and that the number of special needs pupils is at the national average. The comment on the support of pupils with additional educational needs is vague, I’d be interested in more detail about how they are effectively supported.

    • Mitch says:

      It’s also a bit different when parents and kids choose the school. They obviously believe in the ethos of the school and know that the school down the road will always take them if it doesn’t work out. It is much different to actually improving things as ‘the school down the road’ that must take all comers.

      • Mike says:

        My point exactly.

      • Mitch says:

        Sorry, reading your comment again I see you were saying exactly that.

        I agree. I doubt the effectiveness of schools promoted by the PBL crowd such as ‘High Tech High’ in Most Likely to Succeed or even broader ‘systems’ such as Steiner schools for the same reason. It’s a self selecting crowd. It’s only fair that I place the same scepticism to Michaela.

      • Chester Draws says:

        It’s a double edged sword, Mitch, the “self-selecting school”, because it isn’t the kids doing the selecting.

        I also work for a school that is optional to the parents, who send their kids to us over their local school. For the most part we get students that buy into our school, and as a result we do well — academically, sporting and socially, we outperform schools with the same economic intake.

        However, parents with real handful students will often pick us over their local school precisely because they think we will deliver better discipline (which we will, in general). Even though the parents have bought in to our system, the students haven’t. Their behaviour is as poor as the worst kids almost anywhere (excepting that we don’t get many actual criminals send their kids, so we have no gang issues). We get a lot of very badly taught kids, in particular, from parents who no longer trust the standard state schools.

        If you were a parent struggling to control a difficult child, why would you not try Michaela? If your kid had been badly taught at their previous school, why would you not try Michaela?

        So I doubt strongly that Michaela can avoid poorly behaved and poorly taught students.

      • Mike says:

        I understand the distinction you’re making there, but it still makes a huge difference. Enforcing discipline codes even with difficult kids is ten times easier when you have parents who are prepared to back you up (as opposed to parents who will call the lawyer if a kid is kept in for half an hour after school).

  4. monkrob says:

    Michaela are doing a great professional learning event on YouTube right now.
    They are talking about the mistakes they have made.

    Well worth a visit.

  5. […] What can Australia learn from Michaela Community School?, by Greg […]


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