We have a tough intake. There are some very bad habits that many of our pupils have been in, some for seven years or more, some for an entire lifetime. When I ask in one of the first assemblies how many have short tempers, 80% of the year of 120 put their hands up. When told on arrival at secondary school that we interact politely here, many of them smirk, perhaps having ignored adults for years. When reprimanded, blame and excuses are default reactions: ‘it’s not my fault!’ ‘He made me do it!’

In all of the many schools we have taught in as a team of teachers, induction for new Year 7 pupils lasted one day at most, and was rushed, stressful and scary for the youngest year group. They were often jostled, harried, hustled, bullied and intimidated by those pupils much older than them. Teachers were so busy firefighting on all fronts with all year groups that they had the least time to nurture and protect the youngest cohort. As a result, many Year 7 pupils start school terrified and terrorised, and in future years go on to inflict this intimidation on new pupils, stealing or hiding their bags, blazers or kit.

At Michaela, we take the most time for our youngest pupils, with 7 days to set them up to succeed in their first steps on the start of their seven-year journey at secondary school – without any older pupils there at all. We recognise that they have to navigate the new demands of some 10 different teachers, and 120 pupils in their year group, very different to their primary schools, where they tend to have one form teacher all year and sometimes only 50 children in their year group. Bootcamp gives the new kids seven days to adjust these new challenges and rise to our high standards.

Bootcamp at Michaela teaches our pupils the mindset and habits to succeed at school.

We teach them our routines meticulously. We teach them how to enter a classroom and time them in competitions so that they can do so in under 30 seconds. ‘Every second counts!’ we tell them. We teach them how to hand out their books: each row works as a team to hand out books and sheets and booklets in 5 seconds. We tell them that in other secondary schools, it takes longer than 5 minutes to hand out books. We tell them that we save hundreds of hours of learning before their GCSEs with such careful attention to detail.

We teach them all our school rules, the consequences that follow from making wise choices, and the consequences that follow from making unwise choices. We explain in minute detail what we give demerits for and what we give detentions for. We clarify precisely how to avoid detentions. We tell them how to behave in a detention so there is no ambiguity, confusion or lack of clarity. We teach pupils how best to respond to a demerit: not by arguing, sulking, protesting, complaining or grumbling in the moment, but by staying calm, practising patience, keeping their self-control. We teach them exactly what to do if they feel that a demerit or a detention is unfair: to find the teacher later and explain. We also tell them that teacher’s word is final, and will not always be perfect: for learning to work for everyone, sometimes imperfect decisions must be taken swiftly. We give them lots of scenarios, and together as a class we discuss how best to react. We share stories about self-control and teach them why it is so useful and so important for learning and in life.

We tell our pupils that the reason their teachers at Michaela are so strict and so tough on them is because they care about them so much, because they believe in them so much, and because they love seeing them succeed and improve and achieve. It is our intention that this positivity, warmth, care and tough love pervades every interaction we have with pupils in school, even when we are disciplining them. One of my favourite lessons in bootcamp is teaching them our philosophy of stoicism. We explore the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus: ‘it’s not events, but our judgments that disturb us’; ‘anger is weakness; self-control is strength’; ‘do not complain: think your way through difficulties’. It is a breathtakingly empowering philosophy for kids who may have been exposed to a lot of blame and excuses beforehand. It gives them control of their choices, reactions, responses, habits and ultimately, their destiny.

In my chapter in the Michaela ‘Battle Hymn’ book, I explore how we teach our pupils about habits, responsibility, equipment and attendance; about intelligence, knowledge, learning and their unique self-quizzing homework; about kindness, integrity, trust, reputation and preventing bullying; about perseverance and gratitude. We tell them the stories of Malala Yusufzai, Victor Frankl and Nelson Mandela, and how to apply the life lessons to their own lives: to overcome their own difficulties, setbacks and frustrations with courage and persistence. Bootcamp gives all teachers and pupils a shared repository of enduring wisdom, virtues, values, guidance, stories, paragons, parables, lessons, poems, quotations and mantras, such as: ‘success is never final; failure is never fatal; it’s the courage that counts.’

In bootcamp, we frontload many of the life lessons that pupils will experience their tutors and teachers teaching them over the coming months and years ahead. It sets our pupils up for success at school and in life, changing the bad habits of a lifetime for good. I’ll be talking about and taking questions (and challenges!) on how bootcamp works at our event on 26th November.


Bootcamp teaches pupils to understand exactly why we do everything we do

How do pupils respond to such startlingly high standards, such strict reprimands, such intense drills for handing out books and entering lessons, and such fearsome intolerance of excuses and irresponsibility?

They raise their standards; they start believing they are capable of more than they thought possible before; they shed their bad habits of complaining, arguing and making excuses; they feel empowered. They actually start to enjoy themselves. They enjoy trying to beat their 30-second record time for entering their classroom as a form. They enjoy knowing that they have reduced the time taken to hand out their books from 5 minutes in primary school, to 30 seconds on day 1 in rows, to an astounding 5 seconds by day 7. Everyone enjoys succeeding.

We want all pupils to understand exactly why we do what we do. Once pupils know the logic behind our expectations – that they are purposeful, designed to boost their long-term success and lifelong happiness – they are happy to accept them and willingly strive to meet the sky-high standards. Soon, pupils begin to understand that the rules are not arbitrary and hateful, imposed because teachers want power over them or because we dislike them. They get that it is precisely the opposite: we are tough on them because we care about them, because we love seeing them succeed, because we want them to achieve, because we believe in them, and because we are prepared to take the tough choice to hold them to the highest standards that we would want for our own children.

Bootcamp is highly effective for new teacher induction

When we started in 2014 with our first bootcamp, I thought its major advantage was that it changed pupils’ habits. By 2016, now that we have run bootcamp three times, I’ve seen that there is another, equally important advantage: not only is it life-changing for new pupils, it is a game-changer for new teachers, too. Reading the blogposts of our new teachers Mike Taylor and Hin Tai Ting, demonstrate that new teachers are able to start with maximum authority, certainty and confidence so that they swiftly earn the respect of the older pupils they teach. In the bootcamp chapter in the Battle Hymn book, I explore how powerful bootcamp is for inducting not just new pupils, but also new teachers, into the school.


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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4 Responses to Bootcamp

  1. Miss Friday says:

    All of this is fascinating, and, quite honestly, gives me hope for education in the UK. But (you knew there was one), it leads me to two questions:

    1. Is there a plan for Michaela to start a primary school? Thereby eliminating the need for bootcamp in the first place, and also preventing the problem of knowledge latency (which a topic for another post).

    2. What happens when it goes wrong? When students refuse to comply with the new directives? Act out when receiving demerits? Refuse to show up for detention? Continue to embrace and enjoy their old habits while at the same time learning to be devious?

  2. Dom Thomas says:

    Given the precise thought and attention to detail that goes into everything that happens at this school – as described on this blog – I just know that there must have been countless hours given over to deciding what to call the start of the school year for the Y7 students. And this is what troubles me the most. To choose such a loaded term with militaristic and correctional facility connotations, after presumably much thought, really gives an insight into a lot of the assumptions and ideology underpinning the school.

    High standards for behaviour and academics should be the norm, I agree, but I am uncomfortable with this straitjacket approach. Where do students have the space to develop their own beliefs and habits? The teachers are doing the heavy lifting here and not allowing the students to develop their own moral compasses and behaviours.

    And it just all seems so unwelcoming and joyless.

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