What can we learn from an ultra-strict free school?by Patrick Alexander / March 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
The sign outside the Michaela Community School reads “Private School Ethos—No Fees.” Having taught in the state sector for ten years, this was tough to swallow. But Michaela, a small secondary school in north London, likes to challenge. In fact it is perhaps the most radical embodiment of the neo-traditional movement in British education, and the press have dubbed it “England’s strictest school.”
Founded in 2014, Michaela is a non-selective secondary and a free school—state-funded, but administered independently. It is situated in Brent, one of the worst boroughs for child poverty in London. One third of its pupils receive free school meals and half are eligible for the pupil premium, the additional funding given to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The same proportion speak English as a second language—Brent is 18 per cent white British.
On my visit, the pupils seemed perfectly happy, if a little serious in some cases (a precocious outlook seemed normal). As they moved patiently from the playground, up the staircase which has Aristotle’s theory of eudaimonia summarised neatly on the wall, they all addressed me cheerfully—“Good morning, sir!” In every single classroom I visited, pupils were attentive to an unusual degree and the subject content was unremittingly challenging.
“Family Lunch” was extraordinary. The whole lunch hall recited Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” in concert before food was served by pupils. All the children had eerily perfect table manners. Teachers ate with the students and there was a topic of discussion as there is every day. After lunch came “appreciation,” in which pupils took turns to publicly thank somebody for their positive contribution to school life. My neighbour at lunch—a chatty 12-year-old boy—seemed impatient to get back to class to learn more about Herodotus.
My last stop, a visit to the office of Katharine Birbalsingh, the founding headmistress, was initially tense. As I sat down I received, unsolicited, a voluble account of the social iniquity that meant that someone she had just interviewed for the job of school caretaker had been offered so few options in life. I told her that I had been a London secondary school teacher and was now a curious freelance writer.