It should go without saying that for students to have the best chance of learning, schools need to provide them with a calm, orderly, and supportive environment. This isn’t always the case in Australian schools. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks Australia as having some of the least orderly schools in the world — coming in at 70th out of 77 on its disciplinary climate index.
In a survey of 15-year-old students, two in five say their classmates don’t listen to what their teacher is saying and almost half say there’s noise and disorder in most or all of the lessons. And data from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey shows the majority of graduate teachers are not confident in managing the classroom. That’s no small matter. It unnecessarily robs students of learning and well-being.
The OECD estimates that 15-year-old students in poorly disciplined classes are about seven months behind in their learning, compared with their peers in more disciplined classes. They’re also more likely to feel like they don’t belong, are less satisfied with life and are more likely to suffer from bullying.
If the national behaviour crisis is to be turned around Australian schools must tear up the progressive educational playbook. It doesn’t need to be this way. At the Michaela Community School in North London of which I am principal, we embrace traditionalism. And this leads to success for our students.
At this free secondary school, our teachers do the teaching — it’s not outsourced to the students. We have clear rules and expectations that are understood by all our students, staff, and parents. Our desks are in rows and the teacher stands at the front of the class where they drive the learning. This requires teachers to provide sharp explanations and monitor for understanding.
Our belief is that the teacher is the authority in the classroom. We do not have grouped desks where children are facing each other, or where children are leading the learning while the teacher is more a facilitator of learning, The result is that our students are engaged, they learn, and they flourish. When you provide consistently fast-paced and highly interactive but traditional lessons, while maintaining high expectations of pupils, and offering a supportive school culture, excellent outcomes follow.
We’re not without our critics and naysayers, but their objections to what we do are ideological, not empirical. A good many critics wouldn’t know the first thing about schooling — especially in challenging school contexts. Many are well intentioned, but misguided about how students need to behave in order to learn successfully. And self-proclaimed social justice advocates may echo all the right slogans, but most have little understanding about how to actually combat educational disadvantage.
This is the undeniable truth: without the schooling they need, poor students will simply remain poor. That’s why it’s no understatement that we’re transforming the lives of our students. We’ve shown that disadvantage doesn’t need to be destiny.
You don’t need to take my word for it. We have thousands of guests who visit from all around the world every year. They get a glimpse of what we do. They take with them insights to adopt in their own schools. Britain’s independent school inspectorate — OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) — awarded us an ‘outstanding’ rating in all performance categories.
Our students’ academic results are among the best in the country. As a result, our graduating students are now attending the world’s best universities. Above all, we produce students who are kindhearted, community-spirited and well-rounded.
I know that Australia can be home to many Michaela-like schools. But that will take overturning the progressive educational orthodoxy that’s so entrenched in school systems like Australia’s. Discipline can no longer be a dirty word in schools. Structure, predictability, and processes allow students to be confident about everything that’s going on and what’s expected of them.
We don’t do this — despite what my critics seem to think — because we hate children. To the contrary, it’s because we love them that we provide them the scaffolding they need. While we may be badged ‘Britain’s strictest school’, our motto is to ‘work hard and be kind’.
I was recently encouraged to hear that the NSW government plans to appoint a schools behaviour adviser. Since we followed a similar process in Britain, it has helped empower many more teachers and principals to improve practice. While this doesn’t mean that results will turn around overnight, it does go a long way to putting schools on a better track.
The first obligation of educators is to provide all students the opportunity to learn. The Michaela model offers a proven concept in how to overcome the educational odds. Schools in Australia — in fact, anywhere in the world — can do the same.
Katharine Birbalsingh is principal and founder of London’s Michaela Community School. In recognition of her accomplishments in redressing educational disadvantage, Birbalsingh was appointed chair of Britain’s Social Mobility Commission. She addressed a public event at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on October 23.