Like many others, I’ve been reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers lately, and it is a wonderfully invigorating experience. I am quite familiar with the ideas and practices of Michaela Community School, and warmly supportive, as my regular readers will know. But there are still many points in the book that provoke further thought and reflection.
Lia Martin’s essay contains a fascinating account of what it took to convince her fully of the necessity for a no excuses culture, and an unapologetic emphasis on high academic achievement. Like many others in the teaching profession, she was burdened with the idea that insisting on high standards of behaviour and academic excellence for everyone would mean that some were unfairly treated. Shouldn’t their personal circumstances and challenges be taken into account?
The turning point was when Lia visited other schools, and saw in practice what the ‘some excuses’ culture was doing for pupils, especially those with the most difficulties. Lowering expectations for them became a self-fulfilling prophecy, condemning them to following their emotions and impulses and failing to acquire knowledge. They were being deprived of exactly what they needed: people who believed that they were capable of behaving and capable of learning, and systems that would train them in the habits needed to make progress.
Lia had not realised until that point how pervasive and how damaging the excuses culture is across the education system. Having attended a grammar school herself, she had not had first hand experience of the low expectations and poor behaviour that are so widespread.
It is really important to know how bad it is. This is something for which Michaela are often criticised. They are accused of being divisive because they point out that they are different from most schools, that they achieve far higher standards of behaviour and learning because of their relentless, practical, detailed focus on discipline, habits and memory. But I am glad that they make this distinction. I don’t think education reform is going to come from those who are comfortable and complacent with the standards achieved by the majority of schools. It is going to come from those who face up to how bad things are.
This is one of the reasons I am glad that I went to a comprehensive school myself, although I didn’t learn very much there, apart from in the sixth form, which was of course academically selective. I’m glad I experienced a hellish NQT year in a comprehensive, being blamed for the poor behaviour of pupils in a school with no proper systems of discipline. I’m glad I experienced the nightmarish helplessness of being branded ‘satisfactory’ in another comprehensive where management were obsessed with achieving ‘outstanding’ by following the fads approved of by Ofsted inspectors.
But most of all, I’m glad there are brave and thoughtful people who have written books and founded schools and helped me to make sense of all these experiences, and the burden of bad ideas which has caused them, for me and countless other teachers and pupils. Getting to know these people, online, through books and in person, has opened up the possibility of dedicating my professional career to building something better. I’ve suffered, but I’ve found redemption.