Michaela Community School: isolation, mindless obedience, and broken wills

Michaela Community School in Wembley found its way into the news recently, with a letter sent to a parent threatening disciplinary consequences to their child for late payment of meal fees.

This is, obviously, disgusting. It might also be illegal.

I went to a private school  -  one which, like many private schools, had a fixation on tradition and discipline. I'll save you my own sob story, but let's just say it was a deeply unpleasant experience. Michaela, however, is one of the Tory government's "Free Schools"  -  schools which don't charge parents a fee, instead having won a bid for public money. They're funded by the taxpayer, but they aren't under the control of the local authority. They're essentially unaccountable to anyone but Ofsted, whose powers are very limited.

So here's a video, shared by the school itself, in which Boris Johnson spends eight and a half painful minutes extolling its virtues.

In the school's own words -

Michaela Community School is a non-denominational, non-fee paying, 11 - 18, mixed Free School which opened in Wembley Park in September 2014.

Michaela brings the values and advantages of a private education to young people of all backgrounds by providing a highly academic curriculum and strong discipline.

Having experienced the 'values' and 'advantages' of a private education which glorified 'strong discipline', these two paragraphs palpably raise my blood pressure. Alarm bells begin to ring.

Once I see a piece of fluffy praise shared by one of the teachers, one which reads like the script for a cult recruitment video, those alarm bells get louder.

Then I found another staff member who had shared a piece of feedback which he received from one of his students -

"Before I used to be extremely lazy in French and I continuously did not put my hand up, but I redeemed myself." Children do not write this kind of thing about their teachers unless prompted or coerced. Note that the student's name, while obscured, is included here. The idea of soliciting feedback in a non-anonymous form (and remember, even without names, handwriting would be an easy way to identify a student's feedback) and expecting it to be objective and truthful is absurd.

As it turns out, the teacher who shared that feedback, Barry Smith, is Michaela's Deputy Head. He has his own blog, and it is chock full of worrying statements.

Silence, chanting, and rote learning

The kids go to the 4th floor at 1.30 to get changed. They change in silence. They then read in silence until everyone in the changing room is ready.

I say 'silence' and some of you are imagining oppression, coercion, child cruelty. It's really not.

Some of the time we'll not actually be silent. We could be chanting Kipling or a bit of Shakespeare or Invictus or Ozymandias. Often teachers are firing questions at the kids. These could be science, French, maths  -  it really depends who is on changing room duty.

Children are being taught Invictus by rote. They are expected to chant it out together instead of talking to each other, or not talking at all. It's Victorian. This isn't during class time, it's when they are changing clothes. Mindless repetition is used to fill their cognitive capacity. Can you name any real-world benefit to memorising poetry? We're not talking about studying and analysing it, we're talking about mindless rote learning.

Unquestioning obedience to authority

At first, it'll feel a bit weird for some of you working in silence and following the text with your ruler. I don't care. That's how we do it in this class. The first couple of minutes might feel odd, you might be going, "Head hurts! I hates Mr Smith! He does my 'ead in!" The first few questions might be hard, the next few will be a bit easier for you, the next few a bit easier again and, by the end, you'll be begging me for more work, you'll be loving it so much! I promise! I'd never lie to you! Trust me! I'm a teacher!

I'm an adult. I automatically have, or should have, authority over kids.

Some of you hate that concept, I imagine. Sorry if it offends. But I'm not going to lie to you. We're grown-ups, they're kids. It's not a democracy, I am a dictator, a benevolent dictator, but it's my job to protect kids from their worst excesses. It's my job to lead that lesson. As I see it.

"I promise! I'd never lie to you! Trust me! I'm a teacher!" These are statements that no child should ever be compelled to believe. My schooling taught that teachers were infallible. It never even occurred to me that I could question what they said, it just had to be obeyed. Looking back, there was a huge quantity of outright bullying from teacher to student. A child should never, ever be told that anyone else is infallible. To do so teaches them that they have no power over their own lives.

Do you ever have a lesson and get kind of goose bumpy? Shocked at just how thoroughly lovely and biddable and compliant kids can be? (I chose those words very deliberately. I like kids doing what they're told.) Well, it was like that. This history lesson was like one of those "Hey, become a teacher! It's great! kids love learning stuff!" adverts. Only it was true!!

Getting goosebumps from children being 'compliant' and 'biddable'? I am not comfortable with that at all.

How students view teaching staff

Some kids, depending upon the culture of the school, think that teachers, just by virtue of their job title, are there to be abused. Some of these same kids throw stones at policemen and firemen and ambulance men. These kids have learnt to be anti-authority and they've learnt not to fear consequences. Do I want kids living in fear? Well, a bit, yeah.

Emphasis from original. He actually, genuinely chose to stress the word 'fear'.

Mental wellbeing of students

Barry Smith does not consider students to be capable of experiencing pressure and stress.

I really don't like all this talk of 'intolerable pressure' and 'stress' on school kids.

In my experience most kids are bone idle unless you're right on top of them. They're not stressed out. They're making excuses for lack of self-control.

If kids at Michaela don't do homework, and this is monitored very tightly, they are guaranteed a detention. The kids know. There is no escape. There is no doubt. There is no 'stress'.

If kids break the rules twice in a lesson, this could be fiddling with your pen and then later on turning around to smirk at a mate, they'll get a detention. Guaranteed. No escape. No doubt. No uncertainty. No 'stress'.

Does that sound like 'intolerable pressure' to you?

We don't do 'tea & sympathy' we do 'pull your socks up!'

We'll help you pull your socks up, but we won't let you make excuses.

This is how schools used to work. As time progressed, we realised that childrens' mental health was not only a serious concern, but also a barrier to learning in many cases. We started to try to incorporate better ways of doing things. What we didn't do was stick our heels in the mud and declare that mental health issues were simply disobedience.

Let's also address the 'no excuses' discipline that Michaela prizes so highly. This assumes that teachers, or other adults capable of administering punishment, are universally correct, informed, and well-intentioned. They aren't. 'No excuses' is code for unquestioning obedience to unaccountable authority simply because it is defined as authority.

This is what children are learning. Any expression of agency is "whinging". If that's not a recipe for unaccountable authority, then I don't know what is.

Rejection of the 'new'

Complete rejection of new techniques has never worked for anyone, in any field, ever. In particular, I'm not surprised to see that word  -  'aspire'  -  showing up. 'Aspirational' is a Tory buzzword  -  one which says that any failings in your life are down to your own lack of hard work, and putting any blame on external factors like systemic racism, sexism, or class divides is a cop-out.

My traditionalist education held a dim view on technology of any kind, and the Internet in particular. Expensive facilities went underused as ideology trumped reality. As a result, I'm particularly apt to notice the same kinds of sentiment in other educational institutions. The Michaela website has plenty about their core syllabus of 'traditional' subjects  -  maths, languages, science  -  but not a word about IT or computing.

That is, until you read their blog post about their cyberbullying policy. This is a long one, so emphasis is added for clarity.

Social networking can be addictive, massively time-consuming and, quite frankly, vicious. That's why we insist that every single Michaela parent monitors their child's use of the Internet very closely. No Michaela pupil should ever have more than two hours per day of screen time, be that TV, Internet, games consoles, texting or any form of social networking. It's simply too easy to send a message or a photo in the heat of the moment that one might later regret.

By far the easiest way to keep your child safe, happy and free from bullying, is to restrict and monitor their screen time and to simply ban them from social networking sites. Rather than fritter time away on social networking, or playing computer games, encourage your child to take up a sport or other character-building pastime. And remember too our message at Michaela  -  'the more we read, the more we know.'

Through firm but fair discipline and a 100% ban on mobile phones we will keep your child safe at school but, to keep your child safe when s/he is not at school, every single parent must monitor their child's Internet usage and texting. As the adults in their lives we need to protect them through clear parameters consistently applied  -  there is no other way. One day they'll thank you for it.

Our advice is:

No child should have access to a Facebook account

Families must discuss, be vigilant, and if necessary, ban their children from using, social network sites.

Let's encourage our children to have healthy hobbies, to read, to sit with us around the dinner table in discussion and to watch the news with us  -  together as a family.

Let's not allow our children to become isolated, obsessed by social networking, texting, computer games  - activities that isolate and break the family connection.

The message is clear. Children should be taking up "a sport or other character-building pastime". An interest in technology is not "character-building".

There's more to this, though  -  note that isolation from extracurricular social media means the school's message, alongside any parental message, is undiluted. When you cut a child off from competing worldviews, it becomes much easier to form the worldview you want. Also, remember that this kind of restricted communication makes it much harder for a child to seek outside help in a situation where they are being abused. Michaela's policy is everything an abuser could possibly want.

Education is a field in which many people have very different opinion. Ask ten people how it should be handled and you'll get ten different answers. What's important to remember here is that Michaela is state-funded. Your tax pays for it. While most would presume that publicly-funded organisations should be expected to conform to evidence-based policies based on the consensus of experts in the field, this is not the case with Free Schools.

Schools like Michaela are experiments, with children as the guinea pigs.

Children today have more agency in their upbringing than ever before. The democratisation of learning that the Internet has brought has changed things. To move backward and deny them a voice cannot end well. Not to mention that individuality produces innovation  -  you can't expect excellence when you're doing everything you can to force every child in your care into your outdated vision of an obedient, unquestioning drone.

What can we do about it? I'm not sure, to be honest. The Free Schools programme leaves them extremely insulated from accountability. The only organisation that might have powers to step in would be Ofsted, but I'm unsure what even they would be able to do.

So, I'll leave it open to you. Do you have an educational background? Are you familiar with the legalities of the Free Schools programme? Are you a Michaela parent, or even a Michaela student, and want to share your thoughts and experiences?

If so, please post a comment, or drop me an email to [email protected] if you'd rather speak privately. If you want to share something in confidence and/or anonymously, please use email and say so in your message.

Let's leave Victorian-style education where it belongs  -  in the increasingly distant past.