Michaela’s Magic Numbers


Obligatory Medieval image tangentially related to content intended to imply scholarly authority and continuity of traditional virtues. Bow down before me, thou varlet.


What can be said about Michaela Community School? Many things but I will begin at the point my charitable view ended, and by serendipity this highlights Michaela’s public use of questionable numbers.

For some time I defended Michaela, arguing that its staff needed time to find both feet and voice, and to demonstrate that their allegedly radical programme could deliver both positive short- & long-term results for the children at their school. Via Twitter I enjoyed occasional polite exchanges with Michaela staff on the assumption that they were capable professionals who knew what they were doing. These assumptions were proven unfounded in conversation with one of Michaela’s deputy heads, Joe Kirby. Following advance publicity for their Bumper Book of Polemical Blag, I asked Kirby the disposition of the book’s profits, you may read the entire thread from here:



Kirby advised me that all profits would go to Michaela’s pupil premium children and then linked me to a page on their website to find documents giving by year their pupil premium spending and its impact.

Please take the time to examine these documents for yourself, note the nicely round figures given as percentages for impact against each programme and consider them in light of Kirby’s admission that these percentages are not rigorous measures, not calculations found in data representing positive, quantifiable effects justifying PP spend (including a cool £20,000.00 spent on “Home Visits“)  but are determined via “professional judgement and our expertise“.

It would be easy to call into question the professional judgement and expertise of such a mixture of inexperienced and unqualified staff as are found at Michaela but then we’d be accused of committing an ad hominem fallacy despite that Michaela staff, 70% Teach First and 30% unqualified including nonspecialist career-hoppers, are unanimously unambiguous in their negative regard for professional teacher training and by implication the professional judgement and expertise of those so trained, while pragmatic in their dismissal of the necessity for subject specialisms. Instead, then, ask what it is to which Kirby et al apply their alleged professional judgement and expertise. Exercise books are not forensically marked at Michaela and most homework consists entirely of self-quizzing, this being exclusively the case for around two thirds of their population:




Given this it must be the case that Michaela judges pupil progress by pupils’ classroom demonstration of the efficacy of their self-quizzing, presumably on the content of the PP programmes themselves rolled out across the whole school. This presumption is borne out by Bodil Isaksen’s proud admission that she daily publishes whole school self-quizzing “effort” rankings for a bought PP programme, IXL Maths, and she knows that it’s proving to be an effective programme for Michaela pupils because – wait for it – IXL Maths, the recipient of Michaela’s PP funds, tells her so:




Can’t say fairer than that“? Fair is not the word I would use to describe this bizarre conclusion, and it’s anyone’s guess how any of this is supposed to translate into the unfeasible rotund figures representing the sub-levels and months of progress mentioned in Michaela’s PP impact documents and in head Katharine Birbalsingh’s claims of Michaela pupils making double the progress of those at other schools. I’m receptive to their attempts at explanation but I cannot promise to keep a straight face.

Of course, Michaela do not have to explain their confections. I’m sure they are happy for these magic numbers to dazzle the untrained eyes of parents and pundits just as those of their allies will not rest on them overlong in fear of any necessary doubts threatening their faith in “The Michaela Way“. I ask of you only that whenever you hear a Michaela apparatchik trumpeting the success of their operations, perhaps at one of their salons to which you’ve paid admission for the honour of hearing them do so, then question them for evidence of this success, screw down on this issue and see if their answers render to anything more than blustered assertion. Good luck if you do ask because Kirby blocked me on Twitter, an action swiftly duplicated by the majority of his crew including people with whom I’d never had contact, this presumably due to Kirby’s dictat – Michaela wouldn’t want their young, impressionable teachers being exposed to uncomfortable questions about their operations and public messages when Kirby and his fellow technocrats have a brave and new Philistia to build.

Their pupils? It is impossible to say whether they are making any useful progress nor, I imagine, do Kirby and crew think there is anything to be measured beyond the slow aggregation of incoherent factoids, such is their faith in the self-organising power of what Michaela believes is knowledge to produce an educational rapture which will sweep each and every one of their pupils to Oxbridge in a glorious whirlwind of Goveian cultural capital and table manners.

Now that I have stepped back from my charitable view I have a greater perspective on Michaela’s operations and freedom to criticise them appropriately. I am sure that Michaela welcome criticism because, as Kirby said, they are “open to learn“. Good thing too, given the profundity of its ignorant cynicism and the absurd pride with which its staff reject the expertise and the experience of their elders and betters.


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  2. monkrob

    I’m confused Vince.
    Are you saying they are misspending their pp money?
    The data they have published and shared re use of IXL maths is impressive.
    Micaela puts their work out their so people like us can scrutinize and hopefully learn from their success.

    It’s ok to criticize them, but you seem to be concocting some sort of conspiracy narrative here; not a very coherent one though. I really don’t get what you are on about.

    Too quote the great Neil Young.

    All you critics sit alone. You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown.

    • vinceulam

      Hello Rob, thanks for your question.

      No, I’m not telling you that Michaela are misspending their Pupil Premium money, that is your judgement, but the alleged impacts of its Pupil Premium programmes are not worth turning cartwheels over. In fact, it’s a mystery to me why Michaela feel they have any success about which they can shout. Deputy head Joe Kirby’s description of the derivation of their Pupil Premium impact percentages indicates that the effective use of this money is not monitored by his staff in any way except perhaps, by Bodil Isaksen’s testimony, to read, believe and boast about what their Pupil Premium programme providers decide to tell them. These things are problematic.

      It’s fair to say, from the evidence I’ve given which is linked that you may check to draw your own conclusions, that Michaela are confused, perhaps, about the purpose of Pupil Premium funding, using it to rank pupils across their entire intake by “effort” and not by learning. It may be that Michaela requires prompt DfE oversight to account for their use of Pupil Premium funding to this point and to ensure that they will in the future use it as it is intended, to improve the learning outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and not to monitor the amount of time each of their pupils across the whole school can bear to sit at a screen each night after lessons.

      An increasing number of people, meanwhile, are interested in how Michaela’s “Home Visits” programme works such that in 2014-15 £10,000.00 was spent visiting, presumably, 59 pupils while in 2015-16 the same amount was spent doing the same thing to 111 pupils. There are good questions to be answered here but Michaela calls these questions “dangerous“. Doubtless they are, to “The Michaela Way“. For more information please see Michaela’s £20K worth of Pupil Premium “Home Visits”.

      Conspiracy” is a colourful word but really only refers to a private agreement entered into by a group of people to pursue mutually beneficial goals. As Peter Hitchens says, this is very often called “lunch“. Another synonym is “fag break” or just “chat“. Conspiracies exist, then, in schools up and down the land. It would be surprising if Michaela deviated in this respect.

  3. Pingback: New Year wishes to Michaela staff for 2017 | Vince Ulam
  4. Steve

    Couldn’t the home visits just be the salary of a part-time attendance officer of sorts? Would explain the costs staying the same as numbers increased if it’s being spent on a person!

  5. Pingback: Michaela’s Knowledge Deficit | Vince Ulam
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