Free Thinking: I agree with Katharine


‘Free at last! Free at last! For more than a decade I have been fighting for my freedom and I have finally taken it back.’

Katharine Birbalsingh, 2010

For over a decade now, I’ve loved learning, teaching and thinking about education. I got hooked in 2003/4, when I taught in a primary school. Since starting secondary English, I’ve read enough to write some 200,000 words on education, decided to make teaching my lifelong vocation, and had one big realisation: on how schools can change children’s life chances, I agree with Katharine. I agree with her that strict discipline, cultural capital and knowledge-led instruction are the best paths to academic achievement for pupils, and I’ve seen first-hand how well her behaviour system works. I agree with her that performance-related pay would destroy school culture and ethos, and I’m encouraged by her strong stand against it. I agree with her that OFSTED should judge by results, not methods. We both think graded judgements of lessons are counterproductive. When she says ‘the education system keeps poor children poor’, she says so, like me, because she wants to change it, to improve the lives and futures of our poorest children. I know Katharine, I respect her courage and I know her motives are true. I agree with her when she says: ‘if only all of us in the teaching profession could be free to think, how much better our schools would be.’ Free Thinking Free thinking has been on my mind recently. I’ve just finished reading Sir Clive Woodward’s inspirational autobiography, where he explains:


“England hadn’t managed to field a consistently world-beating team in more than a century. England hadn’t managed to win any significant team sporting challenge for thirty-seven years. In the players’ lifetimes, England rugby had never won a major series against the southern hemisphere teams… “The England set up was more about maintaining the status quo than anything else. I’ve encountered many different versions of inherited thinking, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in ‘the way’, a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority, and where change is anathema; a diseased organisational culture. I wanted us to free our thinking “By 2003, England had won the World Cup, and put together a run of twenty-one consecutive home victories and ten straight wins over southern hemisphere teams, a feat never before accomplished by any England team.” What had to change was inherited thinking. I see this in schools, where I have not felt as free to teach, plan, nurture, assess, mark, lead or professionally develop as I’d like. Although I’ve learned a lot, I’ve also felt constrained by APP, PRP, OFSTED-‘outstanding’  lessons, skills-based units and 1-4 graded observations. When I’m observed, I’m told ‘knowledge isn’t worth much’. I see pupils forgetting much of what they are taught, and allowed to disrupt others’ learning. I go into classrooms and see learning style surveys. In CPD, I see snake oil research. When I challenge gimmicks, I’m branded ‘arrogant’ and ‘bigoted’ online. As Daisy Christodoulou says, ‘hegemonic ideas depend on suppression of evidence that contradicts them.’ As John Hattie says, ‘fallacious ideas of learning persist despite being contradicted by scientific evidence. ’ As Sir Clive says, ‘change is anathema’. Leading at Michaela Freedom to think and teach differently: that’s why I’m joining Katharine to lead at Michaela, as Assistant Head and Head of English.


A free school is free for parents and pupils to access the academic rigour of a fee-paying independent school, and free for teachers and leaders to think outside of the inherited thinking that many schools seem to persist in. For Michaela’s first year, 257 applicants have applied for 120 places. Free to think differently Our pupil ethos is tough love: strict discipline, sky-high standards and loving, caring support. Extended day opportunities allow our pupils to access the cultural capital that private school pupils take for granted. Our staff culture is no nonsense: no levels, no graded observations, no PRP, no teacher targets tied to pupil progress data, no gimmicks. Everything we decide gets two checks: impact on pupils and workload for staff. Starting a school from first principles means we begin only with high impact ideas that don’t overload teachers’ workload. Free to teach rigorously A cohesive, cumulative, sequenced knowledge curriculum combined with robust mastery assessment ensures clarity, simplicity and visibility for pupils and parents, as well as specificity, reliability, validity and comparability for teachers and leaders. CPD focuses on improving the impact of our instruction on learning: evidence-based, actioned and evaluated CPD. Our English curriculum is already setting the agenda on literature and rhetoric, and will do on grammar.


An exciting team is taking shape. Consultative and decisive, Katharine’s leadership, both on vision and detail, is the most impressive of any leader I’ve ever met. Each one of us is a free thinker in how we vote and how we teach. I voted Lib Dem at the last election, and each election I vote on manifestos, policy ideas, track record, values and personal credibility, thinking freely rather than tribally. We have the courage of our convictions, and the humility to know we have loads to learn. There will be setbacks; how we overcome them is the test of the strength of our team. Woodward says that “England won the World Cup in 2003 because for the first time in our history we had the most intense preparation, the most exhaustive analysis, the strongest process for nurturing a powerful team spirit and a strong, dynamic organisational culture.” Free thinking changed English rugby. If we can make the most of our freedoms, we could bring about change in English schools.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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34 Responses to Free Thinking: I agree with Katharine

  1. julesdaulby says:

    A genuine question – as I asked Toby Young (@toadmeister) but without reply – you have more applications than places, what is your admissions policy?

  2. Miss says:

    I wouldn’t send my kid to a school where such inexperienced, unregulated careerists were responsible for their education.

    But what do I know? Im just a non blogger trying to learn my craft patiently.

    • That attack appears unjustified and unfounded. When is a careerist a committed professional wanting to make education better? You may not agree, but personal attacks, behind a mask of anonymity get us nowhere. We are all learning the same craft trying to make the same differences for young people – divisive attacks are wasteful poison.

    • sia200 says:

      I agree with huntingenglish, this attack seems very unfounded, particularly as you do not possess enough detailed information to support your view: do you know the experience of all teaching staff and SLT at the school?

      It is clear that Joe passionately believes in the new role that he is going to take and is committed to improving children’s education. You may not agree with the methods but that is a different sentiment entirely.

    • inexperienced? Think when full details released you’ll se there’s a very diverse range of experience. Careerists? I’d point to the Head who’s fought for this school for 4 Years. She has had some very prestigious career opportunities in that time but remained 100% focused upon her principles and upon what she, and her team, know can turn around kids’ lives. This school is built upon the core belief that working class kids deserve rigour, challenge, the opportunity to excel, every bit as much as kids from wealthier homes.

    • “inexperienced and unregulated.” You appear misinformed and have also failed to read the first paragraph of the article.
      1) Free Schools are still subject to inspection (the same inspection as any other state school or Academy)
      2) Katharine has been teaching for over 10 years and I’m pretty sure that with all the reflection that Joe Kirby does, he’s near to his “10,000 hours too”.

  3. Katy says:

    Good Luck! I really hope it all works out for you.

  4. John Wootton says:

    Agreed Alex. This post simply tells of Joe’s philosophy and where it is taking him in his career. ‘Miss’ seems to have some kind of agenda which is a shame. Maybe it’s always nice to start at a level where we all agree … In this case, the education of children … And discuss from there. Reading a little of Marshall Rosenberg night help ….

  5. Mel says:

    Freedom. This post is directed at teacher freedom. Is that a reflection of England’s system? The heart of education is the child. Will this teacher freedom result in the children being able to explore, play and become the best they can be? Is that the big picture goal for your school? If so, the sky is not the limit. ‘Reach for the moon and you’ll land among stars’. (Don’t know original reference for quote sorry)

    • I’m sure the kids of Michaela Community School will be offered a wealth of opportunities. Becoming the best you can be? Could almost be the school motto! Michaela kids will certainly learn to persevere, to pactise, to aim very high!

  6. philippalark says:

    Good for you Joe. We know the current system doesn’t work for many, many colleagues, students and parents so a bold effort to try a different way has to be applauded. Many interesting ideas in your approach and huge learning opportunities for the whole teaching community.

  7. philippalark says:

    Good for you Joe. Bold moves are needed in an education system that does not work for so many involved in it. I hope the school is a huge success and I am genuinely excited about the huge learning opportunities that will arise from the creation of Michaela.

  8. Not only is it a fantastic personal opportunity; I look forward to reading how it pans out as the journey unfolds and what the rest of us can learn from your experiences.
    I wish you every success.

  9. WING says:

    The Michaela project looks very interesting, and it is useful to note that admissions will not be selective. I hope that there can be a greater sense of partnership between schools of all types on evidence-based teaching and learning (indeed this has been happening much more between academies and independent schools in the past few years).

    ‘Free thinking’ is not something any of us would disagree with. It implies not believing in something simply because you are told to do so, nor because the person telling you is a self-proclaimed ‘expert’. Nevertheless, as you have been at pains to make clear on this blog, there is such a thing as true expertise in rigorous evidence-based approaches, and it behoves us to listen openly to those who have cultivated such expertise (such as Hattie and Marzano). We need to trust them, but in a highly qualified sense. A degree of deference with regard to peer-reviewed meta-analyses and RCTs need not preclude free thinking (in fact, it is probably essential for it).

    Congratulations on your promotion.

  10. david says:

    It’ a shame that you haven’t been able to find the freedom you seek in state schools-such schools do exist within the constraints mentioned and free schools will have to justify their existence in terms of the same exam success and inspection system-how different an experience they will provide for all children, as Mel says, will be interesting to read in your blogs. I hope the freedom is extended to a true mix of students via admissions and that the school is providing for real need in the locality and there are no teacher job losses at other schools. When I visited Charter Schools in Washington, a big percentage of students who started didn’t finish and were chucked back to the local state school-hope this isn’t the case here-the strength of an education system is how it supports and cares for its most vulnerable-will your Free school strengthen what is already a shameful lot for such students or cause even more division? I’m an old leftie with real concerns about academies and free schools BUT can understand your views and desire to be part of something different that has the same aim at heart-good luck with your new venture.

  11. Wow! I wish you and the school well. I very much hope that you keep blogging such interesting and thought-provoking blogs. Although I have my reservations about the free school experiment as a whole, I genuinely hope that your experiment works out. Best wishes.

  12. This is one more brave blog in a series of brave blogs. I don’t mean because of the content. I mean because of the honesty. Clearly you feel stunted by the current orthodoxies in the state sector, which are driven by the current accountability structures (e.g. Ofsted) and scared leadership in schools. You have given this a lot of detailed thought over a long period of time and arrived at a set of principles which you would like to see implemented in teaching and schools. Joining a new free school is the most direct way of getting to try this. Personally, I have reservations about free schools, chains and academies, but this comment isn’t about that.

    No, instead, I would like to encourage you and your new colleagues to remain focussed on the key points that you outline in the blog. Namely, to focus on the education of the children who will be entrusted into your pedagogical care. I would counsel you to not think or act on the impulse to demonstrate to others in the education sphere that your approach is better than other approaches. This would be a dangerous distraction, because, it is focus that drives success; and you can’t focus on both the education of the children and proving that your approach is superior without damaging the first of these. So, focus on the children – if your approach is a significant improvement, this will emerge anyway.

    This leads to a difficulty with respect to your excellent blogs. I would very much like to continue to read them, as you make the journey in the free school. However, the content must be carefully balanced, because it will be devalued if it becomes merely propaganda.

    Good luck.

  13. Good luck with the opening; it’s a difficult thing to start a new school, so I have the utmost respect to anyone attempting and succeeding at it.

    Two things:
    1. As ChemistryPoet above notes, be careful about trumpeting superiority. In 2011 when I published The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools, the first “predictable failure” came about because new school leaders have a tendency to assume they are both unique and superior. This can lead to some quite serious problems ( For example, it can lead you to believe that problems that apply to other people won’t apply to you. (They will). Second, it can lead you to ignore evidence that your plans or actions are not going well. (Some won’t, be prepared). And thirdly, it gets people’s backs up. Some leaders think this isn’t a problem – “I shall not be quietened to make others feel better” – that’s all well and good, I’ve even taken that approach myself on some things, but in the case of a new school, you need all the help you can get. Getting the backs up of local schools ensures that you now have hundreds of local people, many with good connections to the local media, just waiting for you to do something wrong and they will have the list of things that you have said you definitely WILL do with your free thinking, and they will use that to try and catch you out. Perhaps you have the strength to fight them (not perhaps, I’m certain you do), but that’s not the issue. The problem is that for every minute you are fighting the community trying to bring you down, you’re not focused on the kids. That’s the heart of ChemistryPoet’s point, and it’s one worth repeating.
    2. On this “free thinking” stuff – how FREE is it, exactly? I mean, if I tipped up in the second year of the school and said, “I disagree with everything you’ve said” – would I be allowed to abandon your inherited thinking? Could I be a free innovator? I wonder if what you mean in your writing is really “different thinking” to what you have experienced so far. That’s very important, and I think it’s great that you’re willing to try lots of things you’ve been coming up with and are willing to do so publicly and stand behind them. All of that is valuable, courageous and to be commended. But, is it ‘free’? That seems like a fanciful term rather than an accurate one.

    • julesdaulby says:

      I agree missmecinerney – free thinking seems to mean – pro direct instruction, pro traditional ed and a knowledge based curriculum. This is all fine if you believe in that kind of thing but when a teacher arrives who wants to use discovery methods, a skills based approach and progressive child-centred methods will this be allowed in a ‘free thinking’ school?

      • Mr. McEnaney says:

        Coming from Scotland, the things described in this blog post seem pretty far removed from ‘free-thinking’. The snapshot of the English curriculum, for example, looks very tightly controlled, and I certainly wouldn’t want to teach in a school with that level of prescription (precisely because I value my academic and professional freedom).

  14. bootleian says:

    I think you should take Laura’s first paragraph on board. There were a couple of free schools who fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority for proclaiming themselves to be “outstanding” before they opened! The word “outstanding” has a particular nuance when applied to education, and you might be better served by keeping below the radar until the standards can speak for you. You have quite a circle to square, for whatever your educational philosophy, you will still be held accountable by OFSTED and an examination system that we know has been seriously damaged and discredited by political interference. And what if you’re wrong? Is there a “Plan B”?

  15. Nicholas Soar says:

    Things Needful

    I’m intrigued. As Laura says: good luck. You may need it. We all do. As someone who has worked in a small school I would say, too, that you will certainly need to watch staff workload as it is in start-up small school’s where leaders often end up working the longest hours and the most tiring of days.

    Your previous blogs re-assure me know that you know this, but the following seems apposite as you start out. Rhetoric, PR and visionary plans can hit a hard reality and I hope you will remember the need for resilience, patience, and humility in any new venture. The openness to ask for help when things become difficult is vital. London’s schools have become the best principally because they collaborated and I would caution making your school seem unique and different. I fear there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, as many new schools have found: you can’t use loaded words like ‘outstanding’ on a website until Ofsted have given it to you. There is a danger of hubris, too, in claiming academic rigour when a school hasn’t started teaching yet. Rigour comes with reality. The vision comes first and the rigour

    I’d love to sit down and discuss your blog more in depth, but for now I will ask one thing first.

    May I ask what is different or new about your English curriculum plan for KS3? Your blog is only a broad-brush of your intent and the shape of what you would like, I know, but there seems little here that is new or has escaped the inherited thinking? Civil Rights speeches have formed the back-bone of teaching S&L and writing at KS3 onwards at least since I did my GCSEs in 1989. Oliver Twist is used in almost all schools at some point in KS3. Animal Farm and 1984 similarly laudable but ordinary choices. No place for Joseph Conrad ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Milton or Chaucer; James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ or Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. All texts that would have supported and driven the delivery of rhetoric and grammar and are equally political as 1984 and much better texts.

    Currently the table you have posted in your blog seems to suggest pupils in Year 9 will study Romeo & Juliet as their set drama text. Fine. This seems again a rather cliche text to choose in a school of free thinking that is setting the agenda. How does this set the agenda & for whom? It is certainly not Shakespeare’s best play, nor his most challenging for a school aiming sky-high. Why not a play like Merchant of Venice or a more problematic tragi-comedy like Measure for Measure;or for that matter Hamlet. A diet of Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet reads like a little like a mirror of past GCSE set texts from last decade; and all have appeared in the SATs over the last decade, too. When you get a moment I would love to discuss or hear what you mean by your headline of a new curriculum.

  16. jonpatrick says:

    Refreshing to see a school leader put their cards on the table in terms of pedagogical principles that they believe in. As others have mentioned, it’s not ‘free’ in the usual sense of the word, but free from previous constraints. I think that’s fine, because you’ve been so up front with what’s at the core of your school. If, as missmcinerney suggests, a teacher or parent applies spouting the opposite beliefs, they would be ‘free’ not to apply. Similar to religious schools, I guess, this is what we believe…if you don’t, that’s fine, but here is not for you. Maybe if all schools were a little more up front with the principles at the core of their schools parents would be better placed to make a decision, and inspectors would have a clearer idea of what you are trying to achieve. And it might force schools to think a bit harder about what exactly it is that they believe in. Which in turn may make it easier to challenge snake oil practices and dodgy gimmicks.

    In any case, congratulations and the best of luck. I’ll be watching with interest.

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  18. Jenny C says:

    I agree, if we can make most of our freedoms, we can change education in general.

  19. kevincooper777 says:

    All the best. How exciting.

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  21. Now, I love the study of rhetoric, applaud the need for grammar but question the absence of dialectic…

    Enjoy your new work Joe!

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  24. Bill Fleet says:

    Sounds like a nightmare vision of a future Tory Britain. It’s simply not a sustainable model for an education system. Rather, you appear to be an outrider for the libertarian Right, whether wittingly or not.

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