It’s not just Michaela, it’s a movement…

There was much (justified) excitement and debate around Michaela Community School’s first set of GCSEs. Given the challenges they’ve faced, to do so well is marvellous. We now have another world-class state school of which everyone should be proud.

That said, if it was just MCS, it wouldn’t tell us much about system improvement more widely.

However, having dug around, some wider trends can definitely be identified. And I’m pretty excited as it is now clear to me that MCS are not an exception, just one of the most high-profile examples of a much bigger shift.

From conversations I’ve had with people across the country three things keep coming up:

  • More and more places are adopting whole-school “warm-strict” approaches to behaviour – and seeing dramatic improvements as a result;
  • More and more schools are really embracing a knowledge-led curriculum – and experiencing significant benefits from this; and
  • Those that have seen improvements in attainment and progress put much of it down to either or both of the above, instead of quick-fix interventions.

Whilst social media has raged, schools of all type, place, and size have quietly got on with adopting warm-strict and knowledge-led practice. Critics of the approach have been so busy arguing with others that they’ve missed what’s happening in front of them.

Obviously it varies from place-to-place. For some it’s knowledge organisers and low-stakes quizzing replacing endless exam questions and book marking. Others introduce subject-specific lessons instead of generic topics. Phone-free and whole-school detention policies are spreading too.

Every time something like this happens, lives are changed. Teachers find they can just get on and teach! Their workload is reduced but they can also spend more time on their passions and making kids smarter.

Most importantly, pupils are better able to enjoy learning quality stuff in calmer environments. Quiet or anxious members of a class thrive and their efforts are more easily seen and praised. Previously disruptive children discover their capacity to absorb, appreciate, and analyse complex materials. They feel better about themselves as a result of success. Relationships flourish; communities built.

Where once it may have seemed as though schools doing these sorts of things were eccentric or isolated, we’ve reached the point where large parts of the country now have such institutions, and parents and professionals are starting to seek them out because of their positive reputations.

I know from my own experience at Bedford Free School how exciting the transformation is. Like Michaela, we based lots on things we’d seen at King Solomon Academy and Dixons Trinity. When we made the shift, there weren’t too many other examples we could point to.

Now hundreds of people a year visit Bedford Free School to see the impact there, but they can also go to dozens and dozens of other schools that use a warm-strict/knowledge-led combo – including Magna, Reach Feltham, Elstow School, Dixons Kings, Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, Morehall Primary, Phoenix Academy, Havelock Academy, Queen Elizabeth’s Academy, Angel Oak, Brenzett C of E Primary, St Cuthbert’s… The list could go on and on.

I’ve been lucky to see so many schools in action over the past couple of years as I’ve quietly got on building the network. Nowadays, a decent chunk of my time is signposting people who get in touch to places worth visiting to see specific practices in action.

There is still a long way to go before every child benefits from the magic mix that works so well. But adoption is accelerating – I can think of at least three medium-sized school groups that are making a wholescale shift this academic year, alongside dozens of others individual ones. And they’re just ones I know of, there will be many more.

Importantly, they’re doing so not for test results or cynical reasons, but because they’ve seen with their own eyes how calm, friendly, inclusive, and effective such places are.

A once quiet scattering of like-minded individuals is now a large community of professionals. It will only grow in size too, as once people have tasted this kind of thing and seen what is possible, they don’t go back, and then bring other people over with them. Isolated individuals have become entire departments and then schools and trusts.

So it’s not just Michaela, it’s a movement. And ultimately hundreds of thousands of children are going to have their lives transformed for the better because of it. What an amazing time to be in schools!