Classroom Managment · Education · School Leadership and Improvement

Why duplicating Michaela in Australia will be difficult.

You’d have to have lived under a rock in the Education space to not have heard about Michaela over the past 5 years.

Katherine Burbalsing’s “Tiger Teachers” have become world-famous. Dubbed the strictest school in Britain, Micheala is famous for being the “Trad” capital of the following:

  • Warm, strict, no-excuses discipline.
  • Knowledge rich curriculum.
  • Traditional teacher-led instruction
  • Silent corridors.
  • Centralized detentions
  • Simple mission statements: Work hard, Be Kind, Every Minute Counts, Knowledge is Power
  • Teaching students how to show gratitude.
  • Outstanding Ofsted ratings.
  • Outstanding academic performance from a low SES student cohort in a tough inner-city London neighborhood.

The Australian newspaper article about Michaela quickly had over 100 comments with almost all suggesting Australian schools should follow the Micheala success formula.

That is easier said than done.

Some aspects of Micheala are easier to duplicate than others.

Australia has a knowledge light curriculum. We have fluffy outcome statements that are mostly meaningless. Content is not clearly defined but schools can put their own interpretations on the outcome statements. We can do knowledge-rich if we choose. There is little accountability in Aus schools for what we teach in the junior years, so putting more knowledge in the curriculum is not difficult.

Getting our teachers better at explicit instruction will be a challenge but not an insurmountable one. The first thing we’d need to do is work on our Education faculties who seem intent on producing people who want to be “guides on the side”, or “facilitators of learning” rather than teachers.

Where we will have the most difficulty in copying Micheala is in the strict, no excuses discipline.

While much has been made about the recent poor PISA academic results for Australia, of more concern is Australia’s ranking of 77th out of 86 countries for the index of disciplinary climate. Our classrooms are some of the most disorderly in the world.

The Michaela model of discipline is based on two key aspects. 1. Students are expected to obey the adults. This is the strict part. 2. The adults and the students are required to show warmth, respect, and gratitude in all of their interactions. This is the warm part.

Students obeying adults is a concept foreign to some progressive educators. It is also a concept that is foreign to a significant number of students and parents in Australian schools. Obedience to authority is not highly valued in Australia. Maybe our convict past has something to do with that.

Michaela’s “force of nature” principal Katharine Birbalsingh found herself in a Twitter War by insisting that parents always support their children’s teachers.

She fearlessly weathered the Twitter pile-on as only she can.

Anyone who works in an Australian school knows that parent support can be lacking.

Many of our parents don’t back the teachers.

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Birbalsingh’s attitude is “Back the school 100% or find another school”. There have been some parents and students who have done just that and left Michaela. Birbalsingh is an advocate of school choice. If the ethos of Warm, Strict discipline at her school does not fit with your family values, she suggests you choose another school for your child.

That may work well in inner-city London where the school down the road is a few blocks away. It doesn’t translate well to rural areas where school choice is not possible. I suspect that schools around Micheala will have an oversupply of students who were not able to cope with the strict discipline of Michala and chose to leave.

In the Government school system in Australia, the bureaucracy rarely supports the school in a dispute with parents. We are often forced to back down and take violent, disruptive and at times dangerous students back after we have suggested to the parents that if they won’t support our school’s discipline policies they should find another school.

The other aspect of Michaela that would be difficult to duplicate, particularly in the Government sector, is family lunch. At Michaela, students have lunch together every day. Staff and students eat together.

Seemingly at odds with the rhetoric about being “the strictest school in England” almost everyone who visits Micheala comments on how friendly and happy the students are. They then usually mention Family lunch and the organized daily displays of gratitude. Students are taught to stand up in front of their peers and give public displays of gratitude. Stage managed as it sounds, affirmations at family lunch seems to be the Ying to the Yang of the strictness.

I have not seen family lunch attempted in Australian secondary schools. School lunches for us are a pie from the canteen or a vegemite sandwich woofed down while kicking the footy on the oval. We don’t have space or the infrastructure, let alone the staff desire to eat with the children.

Without this positive daily interaction, the strictness would not be balanced with the warmth. Many of the cheerleaders for Michaela focus entirely on the strictness and forget that without the warmth as well, student animosity and staff angst would be the end result.

Copying everything Micheala does is not the way to go but mimicking some aspects will move us forward.

Michaela had the advantage of building the culture from the start; a blank canvas to paint on. For most Australian schools adopting the warm strict, knowledge-rich approach will be a transformational project that will take years.

Some direction and support from policymakers would help get us started.

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