Authority in Schools


One of the best questions from the Michaela Battle Hymn event was: ‘how would you draw the distinction between authority and authoritarian?’

It is a vital distinction, and one that must be disentangled rather than conflated.


My definition of an authoritarian state is one that maintains power by using violence to repress dissent. This definition can be tested by asking: do any authoritarian states refrain from using violence to repress dissent?

One major hallmark of authoritarian regimes, then, is using violence to suppress opponents. Examples of authoritarian regimes are Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Cuba under Castro, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Chile under Pinochet, Libya under Gaddafi, Uganda under Amin, South Africa under apartheid. What these regimes have in common is ruling through violent repression.


In Russia, 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power in 2000. In Libya, regime opponents of Gaddafi were hanged in purges and at least 25 assassinations between 1980 and 1987 alone. In Chile, Pinochet’s regime tortured thousands of prisoners and left over 3,000 dead or missing, forcing 200,000 into exile. In Cuba, estimates of Castro’s victims of repression range from 10,000 people murdered in firing squad executions and extrajudicial killings. In South Africa, 40,000 politically offending Africans were whipped every year, and hundreds were executed for treason; between 1960 and 1994, the South African government were responsible for 2,700 assassinations by secret security forces. In Zimbabwe, under Mugabe’s authoritarian regime from 1980 to the present, tens of thousands of political opponents: in one attack alone, 20,000 opponents were killed. In Uganda, between 1970 and 1979, Idi Amin is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 500,000 opponents. In Cambodia, over 2 million people were executed in mass shootings and buried in mass graves. With millions murdered at the hands of these regimes, a revulsion towards authoritarianism is understandable.


What is an authoritarian approach to schooling? If violence is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, one major hallmark of an authoritarian school might be using corporal punishment. In England, this is banned in state schools, since 1986. It remains common worldwide, in Africa and Asia, although many developed countries have banned it.

One behaviour consultant asked if we would use corporal punishment at Michaela if it were legal. Let me categorically state: we would never use corporal punishment at Michaela, even if it were legal.

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes.

By contrast, Michaela is a school of teachers educating children without any violence, torture or terror whatsoever, but rather with great love, passion and enthusiasm. We believe in adult authority, not in authoritarian repression.


There is a prodigious danger in conflating authority and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is brutally repressive; authority in schools is vitally necessary. If we undermine teachers’ and headteachers’ authority by tangling it up as authoritarian, if we shame school leaders for imposing authority and enforcing school rules, if we as a country are averse to authoritative schools, we put authority in crisis, and we undermine our own children’s education.

Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay ‘The Crisis in Education’ was prophetic. Although Arendt was an escapee of the National Socialist authoritarian, totalitarian, genocidal regime in Germany and the Holocaust in Europe, she argued against a ‘radical distrust of authority’:

‘by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority … handed over to the tyranny of the group.’

‘Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.’

‘The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.’

‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’

The consequences of attacking strict, authoritative school leadership as authoritarian have been disastrous. School leaders all over England feel uneasy about imposing too much authority, for fear of being denounced as fascist. As a result, new teachers and supply teachers are being sworn at and abused by unruly pupils all over England; bullying is rife; and low-level disruption is prevalent, as hundreds of teachers as well as the schools inspectorate attest. Thousands of children’s lives have been damaged as a result of vilifying authority.


It is time to throw off the shackles of guilt about adult authority. To establish clear adult, expert and professional authority and orderly discipline is a moral duty of school leaders. Benevolent authority reduces disruption, bullying and abuse. We owe it to all the children we teach in this country.



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Disruption of Teaching

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”

William Wilberforce 1791


Reading Tom Bennett’s book about behaviour, based on his many years of writing for the TES about misbehaviour in schools, a common theme emerged: teachers encountering disrespect and disruption of their teaching. These anecdotes are from just 50 of the 100 or more teachers that Tom included in the book, that are in themselves a selection of over 1,000 written to him at the TES over the years. Collectively, they stand in for the many 1000s of teachers who over the years have experienced continual disruption, but who do not write in to the TES about it.


“The class just won’t do a thing I say. I’m constantly fire-fighting for the whole lesson. I love this job (loved?) but if I can’t actually teach then I wonder if I’m cut out for it any more.”


“Pupils steal my board markers and erasers, and blame me for their misbehaviour: ‘your teaching’s rubbish’ is a typical example. They are terrorising me.”


“My pupils chatter so much that it actually becomes impossible to teach. My lessons are being hijacked. I can’t remember a moment of silence in the room with them.”


“I have a small group of boys who won’t take any discipline seriously – they just giggle when anyone tells them off, even the head. This is driving us teachers up the wall. The defiance is exhausting!”


“Mobile phones constantly interrupt my teaching. Loads of my year 10 boys spend all lesson texting.”


“When I ask a pupil to step aside for a quick word, they histrionically explode with, ‘Why?! Why?! What have I done? God!’“


“When I try to gently put my pupils back on task, or remind them of the work set, they shout back angrily, ‘I’m doing it!’ This irritating habit is undermining me.”


“I try to plan fun things, but my form moan that everything is boring.”


“The class joker is attention seeking: throwing pens, flicking ears, distracting others around him. He doesn’t care – he breaks all the rules and says he doesn’t give a damn about any of the consequences.”


“In my class, some of the pupils gang up on one pupil in really subtle, invidious ways.


“My school isn’t big on discipline. I try not to shout, but I have to wait ages to get quiet. I also find it hard to get them to line up. It’s really hard to stop the rising tide of misbehaviour. Now fights are breaking out.“


“All my classes take advantage of me, even top sets. After being assaulted and not supported by the school, I resigned.”


“A year 10 boy humiliates me by ignoring me, turning his back and talking to his mates when I’m talking. This is damaging the respect the rest of the class has for me.”


“Behaviour in my class is awful. One won’t do anything he’s told, and the rest copy and join in. Listening lasts about ten seconds, then some of them get up and walk round, and I am completely ignored. Tidying up is non-existent and they throw things around. They don’t care enough to stop, or about sanctions.”


“My year 5s are giving me trouble with low-level disruption all the time. They get loads of detentions and give mouthfuls of abuse if you tell them off. I feel so deflated.”


“They just keep talking and talking! I had two days off work last week because of stress. I used to love teaching, but now I am starting to hate it.”


“Some of my lessons have terrible levels of misbehaviour: talking, rudeness to me personally, not finishing work. Detentions, consistency, withdrawals, nothing has worked. I am at the end of my tether and I’ve started to get migraines. I feel so depressed… but I don’t want my career to end!”


“My class tell me they ‘aint f**king bothered’. They get up and wander around, showing texts and hitting each other. They just laugh at detentions, literally, and those that set them. They actually make me dread coming to school. I’m just counting the days until I can escape to a job other than teaching.”


“I have a class of year 10 girls who are really nasty to me. ‘Sir, you aren’t teaching us properly’, ‘Sir, you aren’t explaining it properly.’ Like a pack they complained to my head of department. If I try to discipline them, they complain I’m picking on them.”


“My year 9s’ behaviour is appalling. In a 40-minute lesson they still couldn’t line up or let me talk for 10 seconds, even though the head of department was there!”


“My year 5 class has a group (about a third) who wont go along with anything. They refuse to work, hide under tables, climb over tables, ignore me, distract others and generally do what they can to ruin my lesson.”


“Some year 7 boys are throwing things at me, sweets and rubbers. One called me a f**king b******. They do not see their teachers as authorities.”


“My year 9 and 10 classes torture me. I can’t handle them. Anarchy in unleashed every lesson.


“I have one student who is being constantly bullied by another student – persistent flicking, name-calling, taunting, even pinching. The head of year has told the parents that its being dealt with, but it’s not. Nothing’s being done, and it’s driving me crazy.”


“Kids throw paper balls at each other when I’m looking the other way, and they do the same to other teachers round the school. But I don’t want to punish the wrong kids!”


“The school has no sanction system; offenders simply get sent to the head for a conversation. Kids are late to class and refuse to enter, run around rooms and corridors, leave the room when you tell them off, swear, watch rude videos on YouTube in lessons, ignore teachers, ignore punishments.”


“Should I wait for silence, no matter how long it takes? With my year 9s yesterday I realised I would be there until I grew a beard. ‘If he’s not going to start til we stop, let’s keep going and he’ll be quiet all day!’ they said. How long should I wait? It’s become a game to bait me.”


“The boys in my form make dirty jokes, swear and speak to classmates like they’re dirt. The have zilch respect and just see lessons as chances to catch up with their texts or insults.”


“I teach a pair of year 8 twins who get into fights like I get into showers. They will fight with anyone, regardless of age, even those far older than them. How can I stop them?”


“Every day I enter school I walk l past pupils smoking – even worse, some of them are in uniform. Ignoring them seems like cowardice on my part, but I feel uncomfortable as they’re Year 11 and can legally smoke.


“My SLT say that bad teaching is what leads to bad behaviour. This basically means it’s our fault for the misbehaviour of a class.”


“I was involved in an incident on Friday in which both myself and a TA were assaulted by a pupil. I was punched repeatedly in the back and my TA was punched in the chest. The child has not been excluded and I am expected to teach the child on Monday with the TA who was also assaulted.”


“A pupil was caught with a knife in school, but three days of exclusion later he is back in school! Next week he’s back in my lesson.”


“I have two pupils who repeatedly kick off and hurt other pupils and/or trash the classroom. They throw everything about and scream as loudly as they can in lessons.”


“In a year 10 English class I am about to start teaching, everything seems to degenerate into a riot. The teacher is told to go f*** herself, things are chucked, pupils graffiti the tables, the kids walk in and out of the class at will, and they show each other porn on their phones. There is zero respect for the teacher. At one point one of them hugged her and she looked terrified. I am terrified to and mortified for her.”


“A girl set up a facebook page dripping with venom for the school, with about 25 teachers slagged off. She got a couple of days in the isolation room.”


“I told off a year 10 pupil for play-fighting in the classroom. He pushed me in the corridor. The outcome is the Head wants restorative justice so I have to meet the pupil, who is lying and denying it. His word is being treated as if it is as valid as mine.”


“A few days ago, a nine-year old girl hit me when she was angry because I wouldn’t let her work with a friend. The head said I needed some witnesses to the assault before doing anything. I thought I was an adult and a teacher? The girl refused to apologise, and came into lessons the next day as if nothing had happened.”


“One of my year 9 girls told me to f*** off in a lesson today, and when I told the SLT he asked if there were any witnesses. None of the children said they’d heard it. She denied it, so he said there was nothing he could do.”


“I’m in a reasonable school but as I walk past the corridors some pupils shout out ‘gay boy’ and similar comments. If I raise this then I’m coming out to my colleagues, which I’m not ready for. How can I teach these pupils if they can say things like that to me?”


“A girl in my class said I was a rubbish teacher today. I tried to tell her I was trying my best. What do you do when students criticise you as blatantly as this?”


“Today I was called a c**t by a year 11 boy. As no one else was there it seems he won’t get any punishment. Is a student’s word equal to a teacher’s?”


“My whole class has zero respect for me. I’ve been in teaching for years and never had one like this. Even when I give them whole-class minutes they don’t stop talking. I’ve done seating plans, called home, written letters, detentions, all to no effect. They are spiteful, enjoying winding me up. They make stupid noises and smirk when I tell them off. I feel like I’m losing my grip. Help, please.”


“One child in my year 5 class is so difficult that the whole class is constantly disrupted by his screaming and outbursts. He hits people and throws things when things don’t go his way. When did we allow the expectation that teachers were to put up with assault?”


“One of my Year 9 classes is unteachable. They won’t be quiet at all, they throw paper at me and each other as soon as my back is turned, and they have no respect for me. None of them seem to want to learn. Hardly any have a school bag, and every lesson I have to give almost all of them a pen. They take their phones out whenever they want. This isn’t teaching – it’s wearing away my will to teach. I don’t want to go in anymore, and I’m thinking about giving up a career as a teacher.”


“In my reception class there is a boy who is more violent than any pupil I have ever taught. He started with lots of anger issues, but now it’s more sinister. He will deliberately walk over to another student and hit them hard in the face. He climbs on top of girls and touches them inappropriately and unpleasantly.”


“I was recently assaulted by a pupil; the school has said that after a few days exclusion, he can come back into school and lessons.”


“I’ve just started in a school with serious behaviour issues. The children expect to misbehave and don’t listen. Pupils assault each other frequently – hospitalized in one case recently – and sometimes staff if they get in the way. Swearing is commonplace. The simplest request gets ignored, or a fight breaks out. Children sent out just run away. Detentions don’t happen because they don’t come back. Senior staff don’t follow up on anything either, so nothing improves.”


“Students ignore me, refusing to do what I ask them, such as waiting outside before entering the room, standing outside when they’ve been misbehaving, not throwing paper aeroplanes, etc. I’ve been reporting it but the students keep reoffending.”


“Some year 9 boys are bullying my year 7 son, starting from last term. I never knew how bad it was til he came home in floods of tears. They mock him so much about how he looks that he has asked me seriously if he can have plastic surgery when he’s older.”



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‘Isn’t is nice when things just… work?’ One of the most memorable advertisements of the last decade was the beautiful arc and elusive sequence of the Honda machine. Somehow, it was deeply satisfying to watch. It captured the elegant simplicity that meticulous attention to detail can create. It took over seven years to make.

When Doug Lemov visited Michaela, he compared it to a Swiss watch: “Michaela is a Swiss watch, engineered at the smallest most minute and technical levels. Every spring clicks into place to ensure maximum learning.” Watch the making of the traditional watch here: it is a beautifully delicate craft, a fascinating tradition honed and perfected over many, many years.


One of the chapters in our book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, is on detail, written by one of our new teachers, written in her first week of joining Michaela:

“When I visited Michaela, I saw the pupils in action; I saw them go about their lessons and transitions in perfect order; I saw incredibly happy pupils with a sense of purpose, taking real joy in everything about their school. Children materialise outside classrooms before the bell has even sounded, knocking quietly on the door and announcing politely that they have arrived.

“What is different about Michaela is the extraordinary attention to detail that pervades every aspect of the school, leaving nothing to chance; every second of the school day is used to its full potential. When I joined Michaela as a teacher I was able to see the sheer volume of details that are accounted for backstage.”

In Sarah’s chapter, she explains how such attention to detail and precision brings dovetailed consistency among all our teachers, and how it brings about calm, peaceful and happy lives for all our pupils. Michaela has been years in the making, and there are years ahead to hone the most minute and technical of its operations.


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‘This book should be banned’

A provocation? Incontrovertible? Iconoclastic? A landmark? This November, we are publishing our book, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers. Here is what 20 visitors to the school (and readers of an early draft) say about the book:


“An engrossing read- full of keen insights sharpened by implementation in the real and challenging world of running a totally different school.  The ideas are pragmatic and philosophical, familiar and challenging- always passionately argued.”

Doug Lemov, Managing Director, Uncommon Schools


“Katharine Birbalsingh and her team at Michaela are inspirational teachers from whom we all have much to learn. This book is their testament and my gospel.” 

Michael Gove, MP, Former Secretary of State for Education


“This book should be banned. If a parent of a teenager gets hold of it, they’ll ask why their son or daughter’s school can’t be as good as Michaela. And the uncomfortable truth is, it can. Every school can. They just aren’t. And that could make a lot of educationalists’ lives very difficult.”

Toby Young, Director, New Schools Network


“Michaela has only been around for a couple of years, but already it has changed the way many people think about education. This book explains how, and shows the incredible things that can be achieved by a small group of people with vision, energy and passion.” 

Daisy Christodoulou, Head of Assessment, Ark Schools


“Visiting Michaela was for me a life-changing experience. The triumph of progressive, child-centred education and all the follies associated with it had led me to despair that our inner-city children would ever be able to obtain the knowledge that they need for a successful and socially integrated life. In Michaela I saw that this despair is entirely unjustified, that good teachers can instill knowledge and discipline into every child, and that a school can be a happy and fruitful home to children of all kinds and all origins. This book lucidly explains the philosophy behind Michaela’s approach, and its arguments are incontrovertible. Michaela is the model free school that all our schools should imitate.”

Roger Scruton, Philosopher


“One of the more baffling things about contemporary schooling is the idea that it’s wrong to tell kids stuff they don’t know and that strong discipline is restricting. This book confronts these kinds of claims with an insightful blend of evidence and personal testimony that is as compelling as it is heart-warming. What also emerges from the teachers at Michaela is a profound devotion to the children in their charge. One that views knowledge, high expectations and the privileging of community over the individual not as a form of restriction, but as a form of emancipation.”

Carl Hendrick, Head of learning and research, Wellington College


“The Michaela story is one that should make everyone sit up and take notice. The book captures the impassioned commitment of the staff, some of the challenges, plenty of the remarkable successes and lots of the practical details. It’s a provocation to anyone running a school but, more than that, it’s hugely impressive and inspiring.”

Tom Sherrington, Headteacher, Highbury Grove School, Islington


“Michaela Community school succeeds because the focus is on absolute achievement by every child – no ifs no buts. Katharine Birbalsingh’s leadership shines through on every page.”

Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall


“This book explains how the Michaela team are building a school which embodies a love of learning so consistently and effectively that it can be felt in every lesson, transition, and interaction. Regardless of whether you find their methods challenging or inspiring, this book prompts its readers to re-assess the biggest questions facing our education system today.”

Natasha Porter, Former Deputy Headteacher, King Solomon Academy; CEO, Unlocked Graduates


“These essays are an audacious, welcome and timely clarion call from the coal face of education. These dispatches from the front line of the culture wars, as played out on the streets of inner-city London, are as instructive as they are empowering. Michaela is a testament to the emancipation of human potential through an intellectually rigorous, canonical, disciplined education. Full of life-affirming common sense which is tangibly helping liberate young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, enabling them to desist from the poverty of aspiration and thereby fulfil their potential, and in so doing get the best education – and preparation for life – possible.”

Lindsay Johns, Writer, broadcaster and Head of Arts and Culture at Policy Exchange.


“This book is compulsory reading for every teacher before entering the classroom. These rich testimonies come from the teachers of Michaela who describe themselves as ‘tiger teachers’, giving  poor children access to  knowledge, rigour, testing and competition.  As Wole Soyinka says “A tiger does not shout its tigritude, it acts.” These teachers are words made flesh, they see their students flourish in a context that sees our children and teachers primarily as scholars, just like they do in good Independent schools. Those of you who still believe that a knowledge rich Curriculum is not for the likes of poor inner-city children, should read this book and repent for your sins.”

Dr Tony Sewell CBE, CEO, Generating Genius


“Contrary to those who imagine that a knowledge-based curriculum and knowledge-through teaching are oppressive, my overwhelming impression on visiting Michaela was one of joy – joy in the teachers at being able to teach the subjects they love, unencumbered by bureaucratic irrelevance; and joy in the pupils, as secure knowledge gave them confidence, fluency and freedom in wholly new worlds. This is emancipatory education. I have rarely felt so optimistic about what state education might finally achieve for all.” 

Christine Counsell, Director of Education, The Inspiration Trust


“The beauty of the Free School programme is that without it, there would be no Michaela. Love them or hate them – and there are plenty of people who do both – they bring something fresh and unique to the English schools system. And in this fascinating book, they set down exactly what they do and how they do it.”

Jonathan Simons, Head of Education, Policy Exchange


“This is an inspiring and thought-provoking read. The staff at Michaela have deconstructed English secondary education, and rebuilt it from the ground up, thinking only about what schools should do, rather than accepting what they usually do.”

Andrew Old, Teacher and Blogger


‘The core root of the word “prejudice” is to pre-judge something. And it would be wholly wrong to pre-judge what is going on at Michaela School. If, like me, you haven’t visited the school, then read this book. It is packed with evidence-informed examples of pedagogy which is inspiring remarkable learning in Michaela’s students. You dismiss the Michaela project at your peril!’

John Tomsett, Headteacher, Huntington School, York


“Michaela is an inspiration. I stood in the middle of those kids and felt I was watching a revolution in education – giving kids the facts, the knowledge, the grammar, the confidence to achieve anything in their lives.”

Boris Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs


“Michaela is a trailblazer for a new kind of school: one that actively invites scrutiny, challenge and debate about its methods; that walks every word that it talks; that understands exactly what it wants, but isn’t afraid of installing updates whenever necessary; and that for once lives up to the hype surrounding it. Its obsession with detail, consistency, civility and high standards is a landmark for any other school that thinks it already does these things. This book is utterly consistent with that philosophy. Few schools would be so open about their methods and values, and here teachers and school leaders can find the blueprint of Michaela’s ambitions laid out in a series of personal accounts, written by the people who made it happen. This book, like the school itself, should catalyse debate across the UK about why and how we choose to teach our children.” 

Tom Bennett, Behaviour Advisor to the Department of Education, and founder of researchED


“This book explains how this iconoclastic Free School became unashamedly knowledge focused. You meet the pupils – they are happy, well behaved and incredibly knowledgeable. This school is driving social mobility every day.”

Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Reform


“Pioneers get shot at.  As you read, don’t look to simply agree or disagree.  Let the use of research embedded in classroom practice, experiences of the people who teach there and the anecdotes lead you along the Michaela way.  Knowledge is power, pedagogy is traditional and no frills, discipline is no excuses and workload is reduced as impact not effort matters most. Its mission is to do things differently, to do things better, to make a difference to young people’s lives and futures.  Told with missionary zeal, this is their story. Michaela may be marmite but we are a better school system for its existence.”

Stephen Tierney, CEO, The Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust


“This collection of essays provides some fascinating insights into the Michaela world and what can be achieved with leadership, determination, and a willingness to challenge the status quo.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, Chief Executive, Inspiration Trust


“Michaela has re-written what is possible. I feel privileged to be a Headteacher in 2016 learning from their examples.”

Janella Ajeigbe, Headteacher, Churchill Gardens Primary Academy

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We have a tough intake. There are some very bad habits that many of our pupils have been in, some for seven years or more, some for an entire lifetime. When I ask in one of the first assemblies how many have short tempers, 80% of the year of 120 put their hands up. When told on arrival at secondary school to interact more politely, many of them snarl, smirk or sneer, perhaps having ignored adults for years. When reprimanded, blame and excuses are default reactions: ‘it’s not my fault!’ ‘He made me do it!’

In all of the many schools we have taught in as a team of teachers, induction for new Year 7 pupils lasted one day at most, and was rushed, stressful and scary for the youngest year group. They were often jostled, harried, hustled, bullied and intimidated by those pupils much older than them. Teachers were so busy firefighting on all fronts with all year groups that they had the least time to nurture and protect the youngest cohort. As a result, many Year 7 pupils start school terrified and terrorised, and in future years go on to inflict this intimidation on new pupils, stealing or hiding their bags, blazers or kit.

At Michaela, we take the most time for our youngest pupils, with 7 days to set them up to succeed in their first steps on the start of their seven-year journey at secondary school – without any older pupils there at all. We recognise that they have to navigate the new demands of some 10 different teachers, and 120 pupils in their year group, very different to their primary schools, where they tend to have one form teacher all year and sometimes only 50 children in their year group. Bootcamp gives the new kids seven days to adjust these new challenges and rise to our high standards.


Bootcamp at Michaela teaches our pupils the mindset and habits to succeed at school.

We teach them our routines meticulously. We teach them how to enter a classroom and time them in competitions so that they can do so in under 30 seconds. ‘Every second counts!’ we tell them. We teach them how to hand out their books: each row works as a team to hand out books and sheets and booklets in 5 seconds. We tell them that in other secondary schools, it takes longer than 5 minutes to hand out books. We tell them that we save hundreds of hours of learning before their GCSEs with such careful attention to detail.

We teach them all our school rules, the consequences that follow from making wise choices, and the consequences that follow from making unwise choices. We explain in minute detail what we give demerits for and what we give detentions for. We clarify precisely how to avoid detentions. We tell them how to behave in a detention so there is no ambiguity, confusion or lack of clarity. We teach pupils how best to respond to a demerit: not by arguing, sulking, protesting, complaining or grumbling in the moment, but by staying calm, practising patience, keeping their self-control. We teach them exactly what to do if they feel that a demerit or a detention is unfair: to find the teacher later and explain. We also tell them that teacher’s word is final, and will not always be perfect: for learning to work for everyone, sometimes imperfect decisions must be taken swiftly. We give them lots of scenarios, and together as a class we discuss how best to react. We share stories about self-control and teach them why it is so useful and so important for learning and in life.

We tell our pupils that the reason their teachers at Michaela are so strict and so tough on them is because they care about them so much, because they believe in them so much, and because they love seeing them succeed and improve and achieve. It is our intention that this positivity, warmth, care and tough love pervades every interaction we have with pupils in school, even when we are disciplining them. One of my favourite lessons in bootcamp is teaching them our philosophy of stoicism. We explore the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus: ‘it’s not events, but our judgments that disturb us’; ‘anger is weakness; self-control is strength’; ‘do not complain: think your way through difficulties’. It is a breathtakingly empowering philosophy for kids who often have been surrounded by a paradigm of blame and excuses their entire lives. It gives them control of their choices, reactions, responses, habits and ultimately, their destiny.

In my chapter in the Michaela ‘Battle Hymn’ book, I explore how we teach our pupils about habits, responsibility, equipment and attendance; about intelligence, knowledge, learning and their unique self-quizzing homework; about kindness, integrity, trust, reputation and preventing bullying; about perseverance and gratitude. We tell them the stories of Malala Yusufzai, Victor Frankl and Nelson Mandela, and how to apply the life lessons to their own lives: to overcome their own difficulties, setbacks and frustrations with courage and persistence. Bootcamp gives all teachers and pupils a shared repository of enduring wisdom, virtues, values, guidance, stories, paragons, parables, lessons, poems, quotations and mantras, such as: ‘success is never final; failure is never fatal; it’s the courage that counts.’

In bootcamp, we frontload many of the life lessons that pupils will experience their tutors and teachers teaching them over the coming months and years ahead. It sets our pupils up for success at school and in life, changing the bad habits of a lifetime for good. I’ll be talking about and taking questions (and challenges!) on how bootcamp works at our event on 26th November.


Bootcamp teaches pupils to understand exactly why we do everything we do

How do pupils respond to such startlingly high standards, such strict reprimands, such intense drills for handing out books and entering lessons, and such fearsome intolerance of excuses and irresponsibility?

They raise their standards; they start believing they are capable of more than they thought possible before; they shed their bad habits of complaining, arguing and making excuses; they feel empowered. They actually start to enjoy themselves. They enjoy trying to beat their 30-second record time for entering their classroom as a form. They enjoy knowing that they have reduced the time taken to hand out their books from 5 minutes in primary school, to 30 seconds on day 1 in rows, to an astounding 5 seconds by day 7. Everyone enjoys succeeding.

We want all pupils to understand exactly why we do what we do. Once pupils know the logic behind our expectations – that they are purposeful, designed to give them advantages over their competitors and to boost their long-term success and lifelong happiness – they are happy to accept them and willingly strive to meet the sky-high standards. Soon, pupils begin to understand that the rules are not arbitrary and hateful, imposed because teachers want power over them or because we dislike them. Almost all pupils grasp that it is precisely the opposite: we are tough on them because we care about them, because we love seeing them succeed, because we want them to achieve, because we believe in them, and because we are prepared to take the tough choice to hold them to the highest standards that we would want for our own children.


Bootcamp is highly effective for new teacher induction

When we started in 2014 with our first bootcamp, I thought its major advantage was that it changed pupils’ habits. By 2016, now that we have run bootcamp three times, I’ve seen that there is another, equally important advantage: not only is it life-changing for new pupils, it is a game-changer for new teachers, too. Reading the blogposts of our new teachers Mike Taylor and Hin Tai Ting, demonstrate that new teachers are able to start with maximum authority, certainty and confidence so that they swiftly earn the respect of the older pupils they teach. In the bootcamp chapter in the Battle Hymn book, I explore how powerful bootcamp is for inducting not just new pupils, but also new teachers, into the school.



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Discipline is life-changing

Discipline is vital in schools. I have seen it change the life chances of children denied it for years before they arrive at our school. Talk to those who joined the army, and they will also tell you that military discipline changes lives. Ask J.D. Vance, for instance. Vance grew up in a part of America rife with poverty, unpredictability, divorce, violence, abuse, drug addiction and obesity, surrounded by a blame and excuses culture. From 9 months old he was given Pepsi to drink. Aged a (self-described) ‘pudgy’ 18 he joined the US marines. ‘They’ll teach you discipline,’ he was told. It was ‘a life-defining challenge’: ‘Life had taught me I had no control: psychologists call it learned helplessness,’ he writes. ‘Every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Every interaction was a revelation. I had never felt empowered with such responsibility. I had underestimated myself. I’d never see things the same way again; I’d changed my whole perspective. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willpower.’ Vance, the first in his family to go to University, graduated from Yale Law School and is now happily married with a fulfilling career.

There are three main reasons why discipline is so important in schools. It prevents bullying; it improves learning; and it empowers children.


Discipline prevents bullying

Bullying is a huge problem in English schools. The Annual Bullying Survey has the following statistics from 2015:

  • 43% of young people see bullying at least once a week.
  • 43% of young people have been bullied.
  • 50% of young people have bullied another person.

The National Centre for Social Research estimated in 2010 that around 77,000 young people aged 11-15 are absent from state school, where bullying is a reason given for absence. There are thousands of young people who are frightened to attend school every day because of bullying. Bullying damages children’s lives, and the damage often lasts.

In schools where teachers lack authority around school or control in the classroom, bullying metastasises. The statistics on bullying are shocking, but this first-hand account of a school visit reminds us of the emotional impact bullying has:

‘Noise in the classroom escalates, and fights break out. Martin, a chubby boy, is often bullied: he is teased for being fat. Aggressive onslaught is continuously waged against him. Martin constantly attempts to defend himself against the humiliation as others taunt him. He begins to cry. The sight of Martin’s tears sends the boys into a frenzied, victorious uproar. The classroom meanwhile is descending into full-scale chaos, punctuated by vain attempts at behaviour management. Ade, feeding on the heightened tension, rants: ‘Martin’s a f***ing b**ch, man. Martin’s a f***ing b**ch, man.’ On and on he repeats his chant. All is chaos and the lesson ends. Outside in break, the disruption spills into playtime in an escalating cycle. Next lesson, there is groupwork. The children talk about who their worst enemy is and they all agree it is Martin. One says, ‘Martin needs to get beat up today.’ They talk about how Martin ought to be stabbed. One shouts across to him, ‘Watch out! After school I’m going to break your nose,’ then tells the others: ‘I’m gonna beat him, bash him after school.’ Others reply enthusiastically, ‘no, no, do it in PE.’ Another shouts, ‘Martin, you got no friends at school.’ Another shouts, ‘what are you looking at you little fat pig, you look like your mum!’ ‘He’s probably so fat he can’t get in the car!’ Oi! Fatboy slim!‘ Later that day, Martin is crying out of sight in the sheds. ‘I am sick of these boys picking on me and they keep picking on me and I don’t know why.’ He says he just wants to go home. It is rarely a safe place for him to be.

Discipline in schools can help prevent bullying from ruining lives. In schools where classrooms are orderly, where breaks and corridors are calm, where teachers are firmly in control, and where there is a culture of discipline rather than disruption, staff can be much more effective in preventing, responding to and reducing bullying. When we ask Michaela pupils whether they see any bullying (we ask this all the time), they all say no. I press them: ‘what, none?’ ‘None.’ ‘What about unkindness?’ ‘If there is any, we tell a teacher, and that stops it straight away.’ We keep asking this, and keep teaching pupils to let us know as soon as they see any unkindness whatsoever. We deal with it swiftly to prevent it escalating. All Michaela teachers continually remind pupils that it’s everyone’s responsibility to prevent bullying. Ask them when you visit, and our pupils will tell you they feel very safe and very happy. There’s no complacency though – social media and outside influences mean that all schools have an uphill struggle on tackling bullying. Discipline can contribute to minimising bullying, which all schools want to achieve.


Discipline improves learning

Discipline eliminates disruption from the classroom. In schools that some fifty of my colleagues and friends across England have taught in, low-level disruption is prevalent, damaging pupils’ learning and teachers’ instruction. Read Frank Chalk’s book on the chaos, disorder and abuse resulting from an absence of discipline. Read this NQT’s account of how draining it is to deal with unrelenting low-level disruption in lessons. Read Francis Gilbert’s account of being jeered at, abused and humiliated as an NQT. Read Charlie Caroll’s account of life as a supply teacher across England, with fights, bullying and threats. Read Katharine Birbalsingh’s account of teaching in a school rated good by OFSTED, where bullying and fights were prevalent, and where pupils tell her: ‘the others are so loud and create so much havoc that I can’t learn’; they plead: ‘make them stop talking, Miss, stop them interrupting, make them listen to the teacher.’ OFSTED estimates that on average in England, 38 days of learning every year are lost to low-level disruption. In just one year, over 8,000 children were temporarily excluded for assaulting teachers in England. Would we be happy for our own children to learn in such disruption?


What if, instead, every lesson was calm and focused? At Michaela, as every visitor testifies, every minute is maximally focused on subject learning. There is no low-level disruption in lessons. Pupils can concentrate, listen and learn. There are no distractions of chat, gossip, crisps, sweets, drinks, notes, phones, insults, surreptitious bullying or fights in lessons. All pupils have the chance to learn in peace, quiet, order and tranquility. As a result, all pupils feel safer and happier, especially quieter pupils who were bullied at primary school, but even those pupils who bullied others before: they feel better about themselves because they shed selfishness and learn the habit and discipline of empathy. Every pupil can learn, because every teacher can teach. Even brand new and unqualified teachers who have never taught before are able to teach without being overcome by disruption, disrespect or defiance. When deference is the norm, even aggressively overconfident students who arrive boasting they “ruled their last school” learn to respect adults and defer to their professional judgement and decisions, first time, every time. The first-rate education that can take place in such a calm atmosphere is exciting, both for teachers and pupils.


Discipline empowers children

 At Michaela, every day, we see no-excuses discipline empower pupils with responsibility in their lives. When a child makes an excuse or blames someone else as the reason why they were distracted, they disempower themselves. They make themselves helpless and put improvement out of their control. We tell them – to acknowledge a mistake, to be tough on yourself, to learn the right lesson is not easy – but it is the most empowering choice for the future. To ask the simple question: ‘what could you do differently next time?’ is much more likely to improve a child’s life and future prospects than to indulge excuses, blame or irresponsibility. How is it kind or caring to deny a child in school the high standards and candid feedback that I would want for my own child? In the short-term, it may feel harsh to hold our pupils to the highest standards, but it demonstrates real belief in them. At Michaela, we are clear, direct and tough with them: ‘You can do better. You can hold yourself to higher standards. I have faith in you. I want you to achieve and succeed. I want everyone to trust you, everyone to respect, everyone to admire you in your life. You can make better choices.’ No excuses discipline can be deeply affirming. Pupils respond to it. They raise their game. They improve fast. They grow in self-belief. Instead of asking, “why me? how is that fair?” they internalise the question: ‘What can I do differently next time?’ All teachers reinforce this question all the time, whenever any pupil makes an unwise choice. Pupils become more and more responsible, happy and proud.

As a result of our culture of no excuses discipline and responsibility, pupils have changed their life trajectories. We have pupils who arrived from PRUs, who have been permanently excluded from several schools, who brought in weapons to previous schools, who ‘ruled the last school’ through aggressive intimidation. They are now thriving. They are focused in lessons, learning loads, feeling successful, and being kinder at home to their siblings and families. They are no longer aggressive, angry, disrespectful, fragile or egotistical. They are happy. They are on the path to success. No excuses discipline has propelled them to change scowling, sneering or snarling body language into polite, respectful and considerate interactions. No excuses discipline is, in our experience at Michaela, nothing short of life-changing.

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Drill and Thrill

Is drill demotivating and demoralising, killing motivation and pupils’ ability to think for themselves?

We use drills a lot at Michaela. Every lesson, six lessons a day, multiple times per lesson, learning at Michaela is an unrelenting regime of deliberately designed, subject-specific practice drills.

Far from demotivating, we’ve found carefully designed drills to be highly motivating for the pupils in our school, as self-reinforcing cycles of drill and success, drill and success create upward spirals of positive momentum and motivation. Drill does not kill motivation; instead, it can thrill kids with their own unprecedented achievement, if we get it right. We are not talking about drilling to an exam specification, nor drilling to the test or exam, nor drilling number of marks per question – not at all. We are instead talking about drilling useful subject facts and knowledge that will stand the test of time for years to come, far beyond exams. Drill does not have to be mindless; indeed, it must not be if it is to succeed.


Why drill?

In practice, what you do matters as much or more than how long you do it for. We have learned insights from Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov and Anders Ericsson to apply to our curriculum and instruction on practice. There is astounding, independent convergence from several fields of research: from cognitive psychology; from the science of expertise and deliberate practice; and from the empirical, data-driven research into improving teacher practice.

Drill prevents forgetting, boosts automaticity, improves transfer, according to Daniel Willingham in his chapter ‘is drill worth it?’ He collates decades of research in psychology and concludes that drill is ‘one of the most effective ways to overcome the bottleneck of working memory’ and ‘it is virtually impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended practice.’ Put like this, it is key to learning, and foolhardy to dismiss drill as killing motivation. Drill isn’t dispensable; it is indispensable for learning. The question Willingham asks of us is, ‘what needs to become automatic?’ That is a question for teachers to answer for each subject.

There is a recipe for maximum improvement from practice’, says Anders Ericsson, the world-leading expert on deliberate practice: first, he says, ‘a good teacher’: someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate [them] … who can provide useful feedback, and who can design practice exercises to overcome particular weaknesses.’ Eriksson’s recipe is focus, feedback, fixes and habits. Close attention to every detail of performance, ‘each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.’


One of the books I’ve most often returned to in the last few years in teaching is Doug Lemov’s book, Practice Perfect. “Many educators perceive drilling as pejorative ‘drill and kill’, the enemy of higher order thinking.” Doug argues that we have put the cart before the horse: it is not that drill detracts from higher-order thinking; it is that higher-order thinking depends on drill.


In sport, as Doug points out, drill distinguishes the best from the rest. Doug spoke to a basketball coach with an 81% win rate, the highest rate in history of the sport, winning 10 championships in 12 years. His secret was his drills. “He repeated drills until his players achieved mastery and then automaticity. He designed his drills to intentionally distort the game to emphasise and isolate specific concepts and skills. The culture in which those drills took place was humble, selfless, relentless.”

I also love the story of Barcelona football club, one of the most successful football clubs in Europe over the last decade, winning the Spanish League 8 times in 12 seasons and the Champions League in Europe 4 times in 12, an astounding record. Their secret? Part of their success comes down to drill. As one player puts it: ‘It’s all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch.’ What are the lessons we can learn for teaching, from drills driving improvement in sport? Doug draws out several lessons for how best to improve practice in his book. Here are six of his rules:


  1. Encode success

Practice makes permanent, not perfect. If pupils are practising but failing, they encode that failure; if they practise succeeding, they encode that success. The success rate of practice should be reliably high.

  1. Practise the 20%

The law of the vital few is a pattern cited by economists that suggests 80% of the results comes from 20% of the most vital few inputs. Which procedural knowledge and habits do pupils most need to automate in your subject? Identify the 20% of things you could practise that have 80% of the impact. Practise them with obsessive attention to detail.

  1. Achieve autopilot: fundamentals are freeing

Stress learning all the way to automaticity so that pupils have processes on autopilot. Automating fundamentals frees the mind for more complex decision-making, problem-solving and critical thinking. Drill the fundamentals to free the mind to be creative when it matters most.

  1. Craft precise drills

Drills strive to maximise the amount of mental energy focused intensively on a discrete concept or process. Challenge yourself to define small, specific processes. Break down complex skills into narrow steps. Craft precise drills for each of them in isolation.

  1. Build everyday routines

Make drills the norm and turn them into routines.

  1. Shorten the feedback loop

Make feedback focused, specific, actionable and acted on instantly.


How we use drill at Michaela

We apply Doug’s six rules in every subject, every day: every Department Head is tasked with deciding the 20% most vital habits for pupils to achieve automaticity on, then to craft precise drills as everyday routines with instant, actionable, acted-on feedback. Specifically, here are just some of ways we use drill in lessons:

  1. Written recaps

At the start of every lesson in every subject, we begin with recap questions that all pupils write the answers to. We then give instant feedback on the answers (and spellings) that pupils self-correct and self-improve.

  1. Oral questions

At the end of every lesson in every subject, we finish with oral drill questions that pupils answer individually, often being ‘cold-called’ by name to answer, sometimes with hands up for a visual glance at how many think they know the answer. The energy and excitement that these drills have created in lesson at Michaela is palpable.

  1. Choral response

Throughout lessons, we use lots of questions with one-or-two-word answers that all pupils reply to in choral unison: What is the process that plants use to convert sunlight into glucose? “PHOTOSYNTHESIS!” The volume gives an indicator of how well or weakly the class knows the answer!

  1. Quotation drill, annotation extensions

For learning poems, Shakespeare speeches and quotations from novels or plays, we use incremental gap-fill exercises that remove more and more words until pupils can write the entire quotation, poem or speech from memory. Watching 100% of pupils scribbling furiously to get on to the annotation extension is a joy to behold.

  1. Poem chorus

We also recite poems and speeches several times a day before school, in assembly, before lunch and to end lunchbreak. Their smiles are beaming as they recite some of the greatest words ever written!

  1. Times Table Rock Stars

Bruno Reddy’s website makes drilling multiplication motivating. Our Year 7 pupils use it every evening. Many love it, especially excited by the chance to compete against other schools online.

  1. Reading, Reading, Reading.

Every single lesson. Every single day. It’s one of the 20% tasks with 80% of the impact.

  1. Writing, Writing, Writing.

Every single lesson. Every single day. It’s one of the 20% tasks with 80% of the impact.


Drill can thrill. It is up to departments to decide and design the most motivating sequence to pupil mastery, fluency, automaticity and ultimately, subject expertise.






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