Vol. 39 No. 19 · 5 October 2017

One, Two, Three, Eyes on Me!

George Duoblys on the new school discipline

5588 words

Jack​ could be a handful after lunch, so I always made a point of getting things off to a positive start.

‘Do you know what I’m going to do if you have a good lesson today?’ I asked him.

‘Will you buy me a beer, sir?’ he replied.

I laughed. Jack was 15. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘but you’re not allowed to tell your parents. Now get on with your work.’

‘Sir’s gonna buy me a beer,’ he boasted to the boy sitting next to him.

Later in the lesson, I was addressing the whole class: ‘Can anyone give me an example of an attractive force?’

‘I am extremely attractive, sir,’ Jack said. There were titters from some of the boys.

‘Jack, that’s your warning,’ I told him.

‘I didn’t get a reminder!’ he protested.

‘I gave you a reminder when you first walked into the room. I was waiting for everyone to stand behind their chairs in silence and you continued to turn round and look at Kenny.’

‘Oh my days,’ he muttered, loudly enough for most of the room to hear. ‘What’s this guy’s problem?’

‘Right,’ I said, voice raised a little, ‘that’s your twenty minutes. I’ve tried to be positive with you today so I don’t appreciate …’

‘Why you giving me twenty minutes?’ he interrupted, a frown carved into his forehead. ‘I didn’t even say anything.’

‘Jack,’ I replied, ‘the whole room just heard you say: “What’s this guy’s problem?” You’re lucky I’m not giving you a two-hour straightaway for defiance.’

I turned around to look at the rest of the class. A few were smirking. Others gazed ahead at nothing in particular. They’d seen all this before.

‘This is discrimination,’ Jack said. ‘I’m gonna speak to my dad when I get home and we’ll see what he thinks about it.’

‘OK, Jack,’ I said, turning back to face him. ‘That’s it. Pack up your stuff.’ He gaped at me. ‘C’mon,’ I told him, ‘time to go. I’ve tried to be nice and you’ve thrown it back in my face. You’re disrupting my class and I’m not going to stand for it.’

I walked round my desk to my laptop. I quickly typed an email to ACS – Active Classroom Support, a roster of senior teachers who patrol the corridors to collect misbehaving students from their classrooms – then went over to Jack, picked up his planner and logged a one-hour after-school detention. That was the sanction for continuing to break the rules once you’d been given a reminder, then a warning, then a twenty-minute detention.

‘Don’t touch my stuff!’ Jack shouted, visibly angry now. He grabbed the planner from my hand.

‘Jack, you need to give me your planner or I’m going to have to take this further.’

‘I don’t care, man,’ he mumbled, kissing his teeth. He threw his planner into his bag and headed to the door.

‘You’re going to regret this, Jack,’ I called after him. There was no point telling him he would now get a two-hour detention. He knew the rules. He walked out, slamming the door behind him. For this performance he might even get excluded for a day and sent to the Reflection Room (REF).

I turned to the class, my heart beating hard. ‘Sorry about that, everyone,’ I said. ‘Let’s get back to the lesson.’

Until I left my job as a physics teacher last December, incidents like this punctuated my afternoons. I was working at the City Academy in Hackney, a brand-new comprehensive built to replace Homerton House Boys’ School, which had become notorious for ill-discipline and gang activity. Rather than try to reform what was there, the idea was to knock the whole thing down and start again, using central government cash and private sponsorship.

The best-known of the schools built as part of New Labour’s ‘Academies’ programme is Mossbourne Community Academy, less than a mile away from City, which was built on the site of Hackney Downs School. A grammar school turned comprehensive in 1969, Hackney Downs was closed in 1995. Mossbourne’s first head, or ‘principal’ as they are often called in academies, was Michael Wilshaw, who subsequently became chief inspector at Ofsted.

Both City and Mossbourne began with a single cohort of Year 7s (11 and 12-year-olds) before building up to a full school and sixth form after seven years, which gave their heads time to decide how they wanted to run things. It helped that they didn’t have to win over a jaded staff, and that they had more money than local authority-run schools. Both schools chose to enforce a strict behaviour code. At City, the disciplinary scale – reminder, warning, detention, removal, REF – is applied consistently throughout the school. At Mossbourne there are no reminders or warnings: one strike and it’s a detention; two strikes and it’s a longer detention or you’re out of the class. In 2015 pupil exclusion rates in Hackney schools were 25 per cent higher than the national average.

Since leaving City, I’ve visited several schools to take a look at the way they do things, including some where the teachers are not in the habit of challenging poor behaviour.

‘Do I have a volunteer to write the formula on the board?’ the teacher asked one Year 7 class. A dozen hands shot up.

‘Melissa,’ the teacher said, holding out a pen to a girl sitting at the back table.

‘Sir!’ shouted Abdul, the boy next to her. ‘How am I getting violated like that? You always pick girls!’

Chatter sparked up instantly at the other tables. ‘OK, everyone,’ the teacher shouted above the noise, ‘let’s come back to me, please.’

Eventually the class settled down.

‘OK Abdul,’ he said wearily, ‘you can go next, after Melissa.’

At City, Abdul would have been given a reminder, a warning or detention; some teachers would have seen his use of the word ‘violated’ as rudeness: an immediate one-hour. The students know this, so they’re less likely to call out for the sake of a cheap laugh (though some, like Jack, do it anyway). At Mossbourne, I sat in on a Year 10 biology lesson on a Friday afternoon – 14 and 15-year-olds, set six out of eight – and watched as the lesson unfolded smoothly and without incident. Even at City, this would be a tricky time of the week, the teacher having to stop frequently to gee up or dress down another disengaged or disruptive student. Mossbourne’s strictness makes such labours unnecessary. Zero tolerance means zero time wasted.

This ‘every second counts’ mentality is the basis of practices that would be unthinkable in most schools. To take just one example, both City and Mossbourne make students line up at the end of breaks: they stand silently and wait to be led to their classroom by the teacher. At City, teachers escort their class everywhere; anyone who talks in the corridors is given a twenty-minute detention. At Mossbourne, students walk by themselves between lessons; teachers stand at strategically chosen positions along the corridors and give detentions to students they catch breaking the rules.

Both schools are proud of their rituals. At lunchtime, students at City sit in the same place at the same table every day. The canteen contains fifty white tables, each with a seating plan. The plan comes with a rota that assigns jobs to the students: number 1 collects the cutlery and crockery and lays the table; number 2 collects the food and serves it up; number 3 clears the table and takes the dirty dishes to a trolley. The jobs rotate every half term, so each of the six students at each table does each job once during the year. The system ensures that three hundred students can be fed at a twenty-minute sitting. They all eat the same food. At some point during lunch, a member of the Senior Leadership Team will lead the ‘reflection’, a short speech or story based on a theme outlined in the assembly at the beginning of the week (‘high expectations’, ‘British values’, ‘marginal gains’), followed by a five-second pause in which students are expected to think about what’s been said.

One of Mossbourne’s rituals is the incantation at the beginning of each lesson, performed once the students are all standing silently behind their chairs. On the teacher’s cue, ‘Throughout this lesson …’ they respond in chorus:

I aspire to maintain
An inquiring mind,
A calm disposition
And an attentive ear
So that in this class,
And all classes,
I can fulfil my true potential.

In language classes it’s chanted in Spanish, French or German – or in Latin.

If fulfilling one’s true potential means performing well in GCSEs, then the methods used at City and Mossbourne seem to work. City was in the top ten schools in the country according to the ‘value added’ measure, which assesses progress made since primary school, in each of the first three years its students sat GCSEs, while every year close to 90 per cent of Mossbourne’s students obtain five A*-C grades, English and maths included. (The national average is around 53 per cent. In 1995, the year Hackney Downs School closed, the figure there and at Homerton House was 11 per cent.) It is on this basis that schools like these are held up by politicians as examples of what can be achieved by leaders with a clear vision and a strong will. They are praised for having demonstrated that traditional methods – discipline, high standards, chanting, setting in nearly every subject, including PE – can succeed in comprehensives (both Wilshaw and City’s original principal, Mark Emmerson, ran comprehensives in East London before becoming academy heads).

Their supporters hope that the likes of Wilshaw have finally beaten back the tide of ‘progressive’ education methods that rose in the 1960s and 1970s, propelled by the 1967 Plowden Report on primary education, which held that ‘“finding out” has proved to be better for children than “being told”,’ and that the most successful schools had dissolved the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’. It recommended reorganising the timetable to allow children to follow their own interests, and changing the look of classrooms. Rows of desks were replaced by light and airy spaces in which pupils could sit at tables or on the carpet; the walls were papered with their colourful work.

The Plowden Report was commissioned by a Conservative education minister in 1963, but was the product of an educational establishment – teacher-training colleges, teachers’ unions and local authorities – which believed in comprehensive education and progressive teaching methods. A generation of teachers was trained with these values in mind, and local authorities remodelled classrooms to suit ‘child-centred’ learning. Whatever misgivings Westminster may have had (the Conservatives were returned to power in 1970 after six years of Labour government, and Margaret Thatcher became education secretary), there was little it could do, since local authorities were responsible for running schools.

Since then, however, there has been a slow and determined clawing back of control by central government. First the new methods were mocked. The ‘Black Papers’ published in Critical Quarterly between 1969 and 1977 decried the ‘levelling down … towards a uniform mediocrity’ produced by comprehensive education. The tabloids gave lurid descriptions of the radical approaches taken in schools such as William Tyndale in Islington, whose ‘open’ learning periods gave children the freedom to do as they pleased, both inside and outside the school, with sometimes chaotic consequences. (The derision of progressive education has continued all the way down to Michael Gove’s description of the education establishment as ‘the Blob’.)

Later legislation was designed to curtail progressivism. The 1988 Education Reform Act, which introduced a national curriculum and standardised testing at ‘key stages’, gave parents the (largely illusory) right to choose where their children went to school, and schools the opportunity to withdraw from local authority control and receive their funding directly from central government. The power of teachers’ institutions was eroded (teachers’ unions lost the right to negotiate salaries in the 1980s) and their autonomy reduced (Ofsted was established in 1992 to regulate teaching practices and monitor standards; fast-track teacher-training schemes have weakened the control of the unions and training institutes over professional standards). In the 1960s the educational establishment was powerful enough to change the way children were taught throughout the school system; today, it is largely the government that dictates the agenda.

The schools – academies and more recently free schools – set up by the government have been granted considerable freedom in the approach they take to pedagogy. Some have imported methods from the US, borrowing in particular from a network of charter schools called the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP). At these schools the motto is ‘Work hard. Be nice.’ Highly qualified but often inexperienced young teachers deliver carefully structured content to students, pushing them to ‘climb the mountain to college’. They are notoriously strict: articles about KIPP quote parents calling it the ‘Kids in Prison Programme’. Whatever their misgivings, KIPP school pupils in every age-group get better test results than their peers at other US schools across a range of subjects.

KIPP’s pedagogy is based on the principle – which can be traced to the work of the educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch – that the attainment of ‘cultural literacy’ depends on the acquisition of a body of ‘core knowledge’. The point, on this view, is to establish first of all what is to be taught, not how it is to be taught (a preoccupation with how is taken to be the hallmark of progressivism). Once the content has been decided, the task is to refine the process by which it is transmitted to students; cognitive psychologists’ work on the application of behavioural science in the classroom is pulled in here. These ideas have been popularised recently by Doug Lemov, an American former teacher whose book from 2010, Teach like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on a Path to College (the second edition expanded the number of techniques to 62), was a bestseller in the US and can be found on the shelves of school heads all over the UK.

KIPP places measurability before all else. Its 12-page Framework for Excellent Teaching encourages teachers to plan ‘backwards’: start by working out how an outcome can be assessed, then determine the learning objectives accordingly. As Daisy Christodoulou, whose book Seven Myths about Education (2014) has been influential in bringing Hirschian theories into British educational discourse, puts it: ‘If you want to improve something, you have to be able to measure it.’

Earlier​ this year I visited the closest thing there is to a KIPP school in the UK: King Solomon Academy in Paddington. King Solomon is run by Ark (Absolute Returns for Kids), an educational charity set up by a group of financiers in 2002. Ark runs academies across the UK, as well as a teacher-training institute, professional development programmes and various initiatives in Africa and Asia, including a growing network of low-cost private schools. Until recently, Christodoulou was its head of assessment.

King Solomon is a long, rectangular 1960s block on a back street near the intersection of Edgware Road and the Westway. When I arrived, I was buzzed through a set of black iron gates about six feet high. I went through three sets of double doors, then a receptionist signed me in and gestured to some seats on the other side of the foyer. I sat down to wait, surprised by the shabbiness of the place. At City – a glass palace built at the tail-end of New Labour’s time in office – the foyer was like a corporate lobby, with a polished black floor, low tables and designer chairs. King Solomon’s had faded black chairs, soggy like the seats in an old railway carriage; the floor was freckled and beige. It felt like a normal school. There was, though, a first indication of the KIPP mentality: lettering on the girders running along the ceiling, white against a royal blue background – ‘Climbing the mountain to university’; ‘Whatever it takes’.

An eager-faced man in his early thirties, who turned out to be the deputy head, asked me who I was waiting for. I gave the name of my friend, who works at the school. ‘Great,’ he said, ‘come with me and I’ll take you up to where the briefing happens.’ On the stairs there were more slogans: ‘There are no shortcuts’; ‘Work hard. Change history’; ‘Education = freedom’. Upstairs, Max Haimendorf, the headteacher, was leading the staff briefing. An Oxford biology graduate, he was 29 when King Solomon opened eight years ago, which at the time made him the youngest head in the country. He had come through the Teach First scheme, which recruits graduates from elite universities and trains them on the job in disadvantaged schools. I watched as staff members raised their hands and he invited them to speak; one by one, they blasted out their messages. They were a startling bunch: young, attractive and predominantly white. There are around forty or fifty teachers in the school. I was told that Haimendorf is the only one who has children.

One woman praised a fellow teacher for the hard work they’d been doing with a particular student. ‘One, two, three!’ she shouted. The rest of the room responded with two staccato claps. I was asked to introduce myself; they were used to visits from people like me. He wished us all a great day and his new model army dispersed with a buzz. At King Solomon the teachers always seem to be in a rush, but the students are largely insulated from this: they arrive at 8.20 and remain in one room for most of the day, leaving it only for a 15-minute break in the morning and half an hour at lunchtime. In most schools the students move from classroom to classroom; at King Solomon, the teachers come to them.

This is one of the many ways in which the school has tried to make the learning process as efficient as possible. All the lessons have a similar structure. They start with a ‘Do Now’, a short task designed to engage the students’ brains while the teacher prepares the lesson. This is followed by short, pacy activities aimed at establishing a new concept through repetition. Lessons end with an ‘Exit Ticket’, another short task designed to check whether the students have learned what they were supposed to over the previous 55 minutes. The schedule for the lesson, the ‘agenda’, is written on the board; the teacher ticks off the tasks as the class completes them.

These practices are lifted from Lemov’s book, Teach like a Champion: ‘Do Now’ is number 29 and ‘Exit Ticket’ number 20. Posters in every classroom bear the acronym SLANT (number 32): ‘Sit up straight, Listen hard, Ask questions, Nod, Track the speaker.’ (In King Solomon’s primary school the A stands for ‘Articulate positively’ and the N for ‘Nod intelligently’.) The wall of the staff toilet is covered in multicoloured, laminated rectangles, one teaching tip per rectangle: ‘Tight Transitions’ (number 30); ‘Without Apology’ (number 5); ‘Explain Everything’ (number 48).

Some of the teachers observe Lemov’s techniques more closely than others. During a Year 6 maths lesson, the teacher praised his class for the quality of their SLANTing, and used ‘Call and Response’ (number 23) to instil the right habits.

‘One, two, three: eyes on me,’ he said.

‘One, two, eyes on you!’ the students chorused.

There are posters bearing the word PRIDE – standing for ‘Professionalism, Reflection, Integrity, Determination, Enthusiasm’ – in every classroom. At the end of each lesson, the teacher rates the class according to how well the students have demonstrated each of these qualities. A score of 1.0 is awarded only if every student has displayed the virtue in question; 0.75 if one or two students haven’t come up to the mark; and so on down to zero. The five scores are added up and recorded. The average total for each class will eventually encompass every lesson it has taken in the school year; classes with a PRIDE score above a certain value are rewarded with trips or activities. It’s like a batting average in baseball: a way of measuring qualities that aren’t accounted for in exams.

‘Every class is named after the university its tutor went to,’ a Year 7 tutor told me. ‘There’s Keele, Greenwich, Oxford, Nottingham, Falmouth, Harvard, Leeds.’ Her class was Clare, named after Clare College, Cambridge.

‘So why isn’t this class Year 7 Cambridge?’ I asked.

‘Quite a few of our teachers went to Cambridge,’ she explained, ‘so we have to name those classes after their colleges instead.’

‘I would​ rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school,’ the Tory MP Nick Gibb said in his first week as schools minister in 2010, ‘than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.’ Most of the teachers at King Solomon do have a PGCE, but the school invites graduates to do a stint as teaching assistants after they finish their studies, with the option to be trained as teachers on site if they enjoy it. The school puts a lot of stress on the idea that university should be its students’ goal. I have used the conventional terms Year 7, Year 8 in my account, but they aren’t used by the school staff. Instead, a Year 1 class – made up of five and six-year-olds – is the ‘Class of 2029’, the year those children will take their A-Levels and go to university. It’s another example of KIPP’s influence: in a photograph in one classroom, the students wear black T-shirts with bold white lettering: ‘Class of 2022. Work hard. Be nice.’

Teachers often clap in a particular pattern to gain the class’s attention, and the students join in for the final two beats, signalling their understanding that it’s time to listen. If a person says something worthy of praise, students and teachers alike are encouraged to click their fingers to show appreciation. The clicking is a constant accompaniment to discussion in lessons. The Year 7s I saw took it very seriously, ostentatiously waving their arms as they clicked their fingers (or thumping their fists against their palms if they hadn’t learned how to do it yet), while the Year 11s did it with a sense of irony, far too cool, at 15 and 16, to show respect openly.

The flipside of ‘being nice’ is the public chastening of those who don’t conform. In one class a boy shuffled to the front, head bowed under unkempt black hair. He read from a piece of paper on which he’d prepared a speech. ‘I’d like to apologise to my class for getting nine demerits this week,’ he mumbled.

‘Project, please,’ the teacher said.

‘I’d like to apologise to my class for getting nine demerits this week,’ the boy repeated, more clearly. ‘I affected myself, my teachers and other students in my class. We’re only taught things once so I need to make sure that next time I control my behaviour.’

His speech over, a few students clicked their fingers.

‘Thank you,’ the teacher said. ‘I think you made a good point about only being taught once; remember, you need to follow every instruction straightaway. Go and sit down and let’s have a much better end to the week.’

I was curious what effect King Solomon’s approach would have on the students’ attitudes, and decided to address the question when I was given a few minutes to speak to a Year 11 class. ‘What do we mean by responsibility?’ I asked, ‘and how does the idea relate to your education?’

‘It’s about having a duty,’ one girl said.

‘And it’s about ownership,’ a boy added.

‘So, when it comes to your education, who has the greater responsibility: you, or your teachers?’

Many of the boys in the group believed it was the teachers. ‘You’re only as good as your teacher,’ one of them said. ‘You might have a good teacher who can’t control the class, or a bad teacher who can, but either way you’re not going to learn anything.’

‘At the end of the day it’s our future,’ one of the girls retorted. ‘We’re the ones who are going to have to sit the exams, so we’re the ones who have to do the work.’

We took a vote. Those who believed the teacher had the greater responsibility won by a slim majority.

King Solomon is widely admired, but hasn’t actively sought to make an impression on the consciousness of the public. The same cannot be said of Michaela Community School, a free school that opened in Brent in 2014. Its head, Katharine Birbalsingh, came to prominence with a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference in which she denounced a ‘culture of excuses, of low standards’. In 2016 there was a fuss when Michaela sent the parents of one student a letter telling them that because they were £75 in arrears on lunch payments, their child would be eating in isolation until the debt was paid. Since then there have been features on the school in the broadsheets. ‘Is this the strictest teacher in Britain?’ the Sunday Times asked, recounting that a girl received a detention for accidentally dropping her pencil case. Lemov would call this ‘Sweat the Details’ (number 40).

What receives less attention than Birbalsingh’s zero-tolerance approach to discipline is the pedagogy it underpins, which takes the ideas of KIPP and King Solomon to extreme lengths. Birbalsingh has published a book on the subject, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, which has been praised by Christodoulou, Gove, Gibb and Lemov as well as Boris Johnson, Roger Scruton and the journalist Toby Young, who co-founded the West London Free School.* Recently Michaela joined City, Mossbourne and King Solomon in being rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

There is an invitation to visit Michaela on the school’s website. (For a while recently, visits were suspended; one of the teachers explained on her blog that ‘not all visitors were respectful,’ and some had been openly hostile to teachers and students.) I took a tour late last year. The influence of KIPP is clear even before you enter the school grounds. As you leave Wembley Park tube station, you can see the sign on the other side of the road: ‘Michaela: Knowledge is Power.’ I announced myself through the intercom and entered through two sets of doors into a cosy reception area, bright and clean and quite unlike King Solomon’s foyer, with a print of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the wall. I signed in, sat down and read the instruction sheet given to all visitors (‘Do not ask the children about setting, or talk about setting with teachers in front of students. Do not use the words “bottom” or “top” set’).

Warm words about Michaela are pasted up everywhere, with posters carrying quotes from people like Gove, Gibb and Johnson on every staircase. In the loo there were examples of work the students had produced. As I was shown round by two students – they kept one eye on the countdown timer to make sure the tour didn’t last longer than thirty minutes – I witnessed the good manners and rapt attention of the students in class, the teachers energetically leading lessons, the emphasis on knowledge and direct instruction. ‘Work hard. Be nice.’ It was impossible not to be impressed. I watched a class of 11 and 12-year-olds identify cells with half the normal number of chromosomes as haploids and those with double the usual number as diploids. A Year 9 class (13 and 14-year olds) was ticked off by the teacher for confusing the Reform Act of 1867 with the Great Reform Act of 1832. The enthusiasm of the students in a French class, as their teacher barked out words for them to translate, was near feverish.

‘Why are those students wearing their PE kit in a science lesson?’ I asked my Year 9 tour guide as we passed one classroom.

‘They must have had PE today,’ he said. ‘If you have PE then you come to school in your PE kit.’

‘So you do all your lessons wearing sports gear?’


‘Why do you do it like that?’

‘I guess it’s more efficient.’

‘And what’s this black line running down the middle of the corridor?’ I asked.

‘We have to walk between lessons in silence,’ he said, ‘and this line tells us where we’re not allowed to cross.’

‘How do you feel about that?’

‘It’s good,’ he said, after some thought. ‘I hear in other schools the students can go wherever they want, which just wastes time when they could be learning.’

At one point a group of students bustled past us. I expected to hear chatter and laughter, but there was nothing, just sideways glances accompanied by the rustle of school uniform and the squeak of rubber soles. City and Mossbourne have teachers policing the corridors, while at King Solomon the students are allowed to have quiet conversations. How does Michaela manage to keep such a tight lid on behaviour? Some clues are there as you walk around the building. A poster on the classroom walls displays a pyramid, red at the bottom (‘Avoid demerits and detentions’), through shades of amber (‘Get merits’; ‘Impress teachers’; ‘Work towards a great future’), to green at the top (‘It is who I am’). Where the signs at King Solomon mix aspirational messages with a reminder of the need for perseverance, at Michaela they focus on steely determination: US AGAINST THE WORLD; STAY STOICAL.

‘Year 7s study the Odyssey,’ my guide told me as we joined an English class, showing me a copy of the textbook the students were working from. ‘Mr Kirby [Michaela’s deputy head] rewrote it, taking out the chapters we don’t need to read. It saves us a lot of time.’ Michaela’s pedagogy borrows a lot from Lemov, but some crucial elements are its own. Lessons are planned centrally, not by individual teachers, and delivered using textbooks made in-house; instead of marking, the teachers give verbal feedback; and differentiation – catering differently within a lesson to students of varying ability – has no place at the school (the setting takes care of that problem).

I asked a science teacher how the school went about teaching higher-order skills; how did the students learn to use their knowledge in unusual or unfamiliar situations? He stopped me mid-sentence: ‘Well, you know we don’t teach skills here?’

‘You don’t teach skills?’

‘Nope. We do one or two practicals a term, and in terms of teaching the skills that go with them, well – you can see them here.’ He showed me a list of keywords relating to the scientific method: ‘independent variable’, ‘dependent variable’, ‘control variable’, along with their definitions. The students’ job was to learn the definitions.

I watched him teach this section to a Year 8 class. In one ten-minute stretch, he was the only person to speak. The classroom, like all the others at Michaela, including those used for music and art, had desks arranged in rows, so the students’ eyes remained fixed on him at all times. The disturbance caused by my walking in was nullified with a click of his fingers: ‘Tracking me.’ The small number of eyes that had darted my way returned to focus on him. He was explaining a concept in some detail. ‘Eyes down.’ The students bowed their heads over their booklets. He began to read from the text. ‘Tracking me.’ The students raised their heads and settled their eyes back on him as he explained the next concept.

He was covering a lot of ideas in a short space of time, and the students seemed engaged. But I wondered how well they would retain what he was telling them. I wondered too about whether they really understood the need to control variables that weren’t being tested; whether they’d be able to spot that the design of an experiment was faulty; or whether they appreciated the difficulty of, for example, making psychological experiments repeatable. Were these students being taught to think for themselves? There is a difference, here, between the traditional approach of City and Mossbourne on the one hand, and the Hirschian methodology adopted by Michaela and King Solomon on the other. Mark Emmerson and Michael Wilshaw insist that controlling pupils’ behaviour makes it possible for teachers to get on with their job, but they believe that tailored lesson-planning is an important part of that job. The KIPP ethos allows teachers no such autonomy: their role is reduced to the transmission of an existing body of knowledge by means of a set of optimised techniques. There’s no doubt you can increase your test scores this way, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that something has been lost.

‘The library doesn’t stock magazines,’ my guide at Michaela said proudly as we surveyed the shelves.

‘Why not?’

‘They don’t help us learn.’

I asked my other guide, a boy in Year 7, whether he likes reading.

‘I do,’ he said, with a pained expression, ‘but I should really read more non-fiction.’

‘What do you read at the moment?’

‘Comics and sci-fi stories.’

‘You don’t enjoy them?’

‘I do, but they don’t help me learn.’

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Vol. 39 No. 20 · 19 October 2017

George Duoblys describes the highly intrusive and controlling disciplinary methods used in some schools (LRB, 5 October). In my experience, the closer students get to GCSE exams the more rigid and structured the regime becomes, and this is because the goal is not autonomy but performing well in exams. GCSEs are norm-referenced rather than criterion-referenced, so the distribution of grades has to fit, roughly, a bell-shaped curve. When schools improve overall in this system, the grade boundaries change and the best-placed schools continue to work it to their advantage, while other schools may improve but are still left ‘failing’ their students. If assessment were criterion-referenced, in which case it would in theory be possible for all students in all schools to achieve a five-GCSE pass rate (including English and maths), the effects could be so radical as to undermine the secondary education system as it is now constituted.

John Quicke
Patrington, East Yorkshire

Vol. 39 No. 21 · 2 November 2017

George Duoblys misunderstands our school, Michaela, in important respects (LRB, 5 October). He likens us to KIPP, the charter chain in the US, when there is little resemblance. KIPP does not plan lessons centrally. I have visited KIPP schools: teachers plan their own lessons. Teachers’ work/life balance is central to the Michaela ethos, so we reduce workload where we can. Nor is it true that Michaela does not believe in skills. Of course we do. We just believe that a better way to achieve these skills is to give children knowledge. In my twenty years in education, never have I seen pupils so vibrant, questioning and confident. Why did Duoblys not question our pupils and compare their understanding of the world to that of pupils elsewhere? Perhaps this would have challenged his apparent scepticism about knowledge, order and discipline. Michaela families are grateful that their children are kinder, happier and more motivated than ever before. Teachers from all over the country have implemented our methods in their classrooms and have watched their pupils change for the better.

Katharine Birbalsingh
Michaela Community School, Wembley

I read George Duoblys’s piece on academy schools with mounting horror. The schools resemble both Gradgrind’s academy and the setting of Gillian Cross’s children’s horror novel series The Demon Headmaster, in which an anonymous principal obsessed with order hypnotises students to achieve total conformity, intending to use them to extend his dominion over the world.

The children at Mossbourne, King Solomon, Michaela and City will not be taking over the world: they are being trained in obedience, conformity and knowing their place. Despite King Solomon’s emphasis on university as the ultimate destination, these students will struggle to succeed at any kind of higher education. Whether in the Russell Group or the ‘modern’ universities such as mine, we prize the inquiring, flexible mind over the reliable processor of information – as do decent employers. Research shows that privately educated students struggle to cope with autonomous study in higher education: in the schools Duoblys writes about, the children get private school attitudes without the concomitant liberty. It’s significant that few of the teachers have children: I wonder how many of them would subject their own offspring to the same regimen.

Aidan Byrne
University of Wolverhampton

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