Knowledge is the answer

Briar Lipson
The National Business Review
6 September, 2019

During a visit to a new London charter school in 2015, then-Mayor Boris Johnson sparred with a 12-year-old over the year the Roman Empire converted to Christianity (313 AD). Johnson was wrong (by a year) and dumbstruck by the knowledge of the inner-city children. As the future prime minister put it, the Michaela Community School showed “the way forward for our city and our country.”

Michaela is a remarkable state secondary school, one that would not exist without England’s free (partnership) school movement or its incredible Kiwi-born founder and principal Katharine Birbalsingh.

Last week, four years since Johnson’s visit, Michaela received its first national assessment results – GCSEs – and confirmed his impression.

Of all exams entered from Michaela, 18% achieved the top grade of 9, compared with 4.5% nationwide; 54% of all entries were graded 7–9 (what used to be A or A+), compared with just 22% nationwide; 91% of pupils passed maths and 90% English, compared with 60% and 62% nationwide.

This would be newsworthy as it is, but is even more remarkable considering the school’s basic facilities (a renovated 1960s office block with no playing field) and the background of the children it serves. Michaela children come from some of the most deprived backgrounds in the country, with 56% speaking English as their second language compared with 17% nationwide and 47% eligible for free school meals in the past six years, compared with 29% nationwide.

Outperforming state schools

Michaela is not the only free school making waves. This year’s analysis has yet to be published but last year, free schools outperformed all other types of state schools in pupil progress. Although free schools represent just 0.2% of all schools with results, they accounted for four of the 10 top-performing schools in the country in the crucial Progress 8 measure.

The story is similar at A Level (the qualification completed by 18-year-olds and associated with university entrance). Michaela does not yet have A level results but last year, Kings Maths School – a free school sponsored by Kings College London – was ranked second in The Times’ league table of A level results. This made it the only non fee-paying school in the top 10. This year, a remarkable 26of Kings’ students secured places at Oxford or CambridgeThe London Academy of Excellence did similarly well, with 93% of all grades achieved by students being A+ to Band more than 25 students taking up places to study medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine. This is remarkable considering 70% of the cohort come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and 70% speak English as a second language.

Statistics such as these illustrate the power and potential of a movement that frees up educators, parents, business people and communities to do things differently.

But for many, including Michaela, “differently” does not mean innovatively. Birbalsingh – who The New Zealand Initiative brought to New Zealand last year to speak to education and business audiences – is an evangelist for small c conservative values such as duty, hard work, personal responsibility and gratitude; for ditching digital devices; and for passing on knowledge.

At her school, instead of being pitied or coddled with excuses, children are taught to be grateful to the world around them. It is deeply and profoundly empowering. As American educator Doug Lemov put it after a visit to the school: “to express gratitude is to give something to someone. And to give is to be in a place of power.” [emphasis added]

Don’t bring devices

Birbalsingh runs digital detox workshops for her pupils and their parents. Painfully aware of just how addictive technology has become, she tells parents that once they allow a device to control their child, their chances of convincing them to read books will be all but gone.

At a time when New Zealand schools are rolling out bring your own device (BYOD) regimes for thousands of pupils, Birbalsingh’s transformational school is begging parents to take devices away.

Another area where innovative’ does not wash is the curriculum, which privileges transmission of subject knowledge. All pupils study five Shakespeare plays in three years. They rote-learn and recite poetry during lunchtime and read silently on the Tube.

In a recent interview with Australia’s Herald Sun, Birbalsingh said: “only by having knowledge at their fingertips can children write, speak and learn with confidence.”

Such an obvious point should not need stating but it does in New Zealand where the national curriculum is so dismissive of subject knowledge.

At The Initiative, we are worried about the impact of New Zealand’s permissive curriculum and the associated push to teach “skills for the future.”

Only last year, the NZ Qualifications Authority had to agree to be lenient when hundreds of NCEA Level 3 history candidates complained they did not know the meaning of the word “trivial” when it cropped up in an exam. Recent polling commissioned by the Auckland Holocaust Memorial Trust found similar serious gaps in Kiwis’ basic knowledge of the Holocaust.

These and other worrying signs have made The Initiative dig a little deeper. Our national poll is shedding light on our level of general knowledge. Some of the findings reassured us. For example, most Kiwis can correctly name the capital of Australia. But The Initiative is concerned that 43% of adults could not calculate how much money they would have after one year if they put $100 in a savings account at 2% interest ($102).

The full results of the survey will be published soon in a research note about knowledge and the New Zealand curriculum. Meanwhile, New Zealanders would do well to reflect on what Johnson identified at Michaela.

That remarkable free school, and increasing numbers like it, is doing exactly what it set out to do: dramatically change the life chances of some of the most disadvantaged children in society and prove that all children can succeed.

Free (partnership) schools teaching discipline and knowledge are indeed the way forward for London and England. When New Zealand comes to its senses, they can be transformational here too.

Briar Lipson is a research fellow at The New Zealand Initiative.

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