‘Free at last! Free at last! For more than a decade I have been fighting for my freedom and I have finally taken it back.’
Katharine Birbalsingh, 2010
For over a decade now, I’ve loved learning, teaching and thinking about education. I got hooked in 2003/4, when I taught in a primary school. Since starting secondary English, I’ve read enough to write some 200,000 words on education, decided to make teaching my lifelong vocation, and had one big realisation: on how schools can change children’s life chances, I agree with Katharine.
I agree with her that strict discipline, cultural capital and knowledge-led instruction are the best paths to academic achievement for pupils, and I’ve seen first-hand how well her behaviour system works. I agree with her that performance-related pay would destroy school culture and ethos, and I’m encouraged by her strong stand against it. I agree with her that OFSTED should judge by results, not methods. We both think graded judgements of lessons are counterproductive. When she says ‘the education system keeps poor children poor’, she says so, like me, because she wants to change it, to improve the lives and futures of our poorest children. I know Katharine, I respect her courage and I know her motives are true. I agree with her when she says: ‘if only all of us in the teaching profession could be free to think, how much better our schools would be.’
Free thinking has been on my mind recently. I’ve just finished reading Sir Clive Woodward’s inspirational autobiography, where he explains:
“England hadn’t managed to field a consistently world-beating team in more than a century. England hadn’t managed to win any significant team sporting challenge for thirty-seven years. In the players’ lifetimes, England rugby had never won a major series against the southern hemisphere teams…
“The England set up was more about maintaining the status quo than anything else. I’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in ‘the way’, a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority, and where change is anathema; a diseased organisational culture. I wanted us to free our thinking…
“By 2003, England had won the World Cup, and put together a run of twenty-one consecutive home victories and ten straight wins over southern hemisphere teams, a feat never before accomplished by any England team.”
What had to change was inherited thinking. I see this in schools, where I have not felt as free to teach, plan, nurture, assess, mark, lead or professionally develop as I’d like. Although I’ve learned a lot, I’ve also felt constrained by APP, PRP, OFSTED-‘outstanding’ lessons, skills-based units and 1-4 graded observations. When I’m observed, I’m told ‘knowledge isn’t worth much’. I see pupils forgetting much of what they are taught, and allowed to disrupt others’ learning. I go into classrooms and see learning style surveys. In CPD, I see snake oil research. When I challenge gimmicks, I’m branded ‘arrogant’ and ‘bigoted’ online. As Daisy Christodoulou says, ‘hegemonic ideas depend on suppression of evidence that contradicts them.’ As John Hattie says, ‘fallacious ideas of learning persist despite being contradicted by scientific evidence. ’ As Sir Clive says, ‘change is anathema’.
Leading at Michaela
Freedom to think and teach differently: that’s why I’m joining Katharine to lead at Michaela, as Assistant Head and Head of English.
A free school is free for parents and pupils to access the academic rigour of a fee-paying independent school, and free for teachers and leaders to think outside of the inherited thinking that many schools seem to persist in. For Michaela’s first year, 257 applicants have applied for 120 places.
Free to think differently
Our pupil ethos is tough love: strict discipline, sky-high standards and loving, caring support. Extended day opportunities allow our pupils to access the cultural capital that private school pupils take for granted.
Our staff culture is no nonsense: no levels, no graded observations, no PRP, no teacher targets tied to pupil progress data, no gimmicks. Everything we decide gets two checks: impact on pupils and workload for staff. Starting a school from first principles means we begin only with high impact ideas that don’t overload teachers’ workload.
Free to teach rigorously
A cohesive, cumulative, sequenced knowledge curriculum combined with robust mastery assessment ensures clarity, simplicity and visibility for pupils and parents, as well as specificity, reliability, validity and comparability for teachers and leaders. CPD focuses on improving the impact of our instruction on learning: evidence-based, actioned and evaluated CPD. Our English curriculum is already setting the agenda on literature and rhetoric, and will do on grammar.
An exciting team is taking shape. Consultative and decisive, Katharine’s leadership, both on vision and detail, is the most impressive of any leader I’ve ever met. Daisy Christodoulou, on the Board of Governors, is the person in education thinking hardest through the complexities of assessment redevelopment. Each one of us is a free thinker in how we vote and how we teach. I voted Lib Dem at the last election, and each election I vote on manifestos, policy ideas, track record, values and personal credibility, thinking freely rather than tribally. We have the courage of our convictions, and the humility to know we have loads to learn. There will be setbacks; how we overcome them is the test of the strength of our team.
Woodward says that “England won the World Cup in 2003 because for the first time in our history we had the most intense preparation, the most exhaustive analysis, the strongest process for nurturing a powerful team spirit and a strong, dynamic organisational culture.”
Free thinking changed English rugby. If we can make the most of our freedoms, we could bring about change in English schools.