Britain’s ‘strictest school’ is a Sheffield success story. But Mercia isn’t for everyone
‘I’ve heard them described as like prisoners escaping from captivity and going a bit wild’
By Victoria Munro
In the early 1970s, a psychology professor at Stanford University conducted an experiment that, despite its miniscule sample size, established a “universal truth” about human behaviour. I am, of course, talking about the Stanford marshmallow experiment.
Unlike the more notorious experiment associated with Stanford, Professor Walter Mischel’s study was a relatively painless experience. Children from a local nursery were left alone with a marshmallow for 15 minutes and promised that, if they restrained themselves from eating it until the researcher returned, they could have another. The experiment was designed to pinpoint the age at which children developed the ability to delay gratification. However, follow-up studies suggested the researchers had actually stumbled on something far more interesting.
Eighteen years later, the children who took part had become young adults and those who best resisted temptation had received far better results in their end-of-school exams than their weak-willed peers. In fact, it seemed they were doing better at life in a wide variety of ways — they were healthier, better able to deal with frustration and more socially adept. Professor Mischel had, it appeared, found a sure-fire way to predict which children would go on to succeed in life, and which of them wouldn’t.
To many, the logic behind this result seemed blindingly obvious. Teenagers with enough self control to spend hours doing tedious revision, for example, would surely get better exam results than those who goofed off. Hard work, healthy habits, selfless behaviour — arguably the building blocks of a good life — all involve taking the harder path in the short-term for the sake of a long-term result. Perhaps then, it didn’t matter if a child started out with innate advantages or natural talents. Maybe all that stood between life’s winners and losers was how much they could control themselves.
This is a vastly simplified account of Professor Mischel’s experiment — and neglects to mention valid criticisms of its methodology — but it is the version that stuck in the minds of many parents. In order to set their child up for a happy life, it suggested, they needed to instil discipline. Spare the rod, spoil the child.
That is, of course, if you believe that waiting 15 minutes for a marshmallow demonstrates that a child has superior willpower. Are marshmallows that nice? Is two a markedly better gastronomic experience than one? Surely no one in their right mind would queue for a quarter of an hour to receive a single sweet. Perhaps the children who caved just realised it wasn’t worth their time.
Viewed through this lens, the Stanford marshmallow experiment wasn’t measuring how good these children were at weighing up effort and potential reward — time is precious, after all, and marshmallows are easy to come by. What it actually measured was how keen they were to pass an arbitrary test set for them by an adult stranger. Maybe they didn’t go on to study hard for their exams because they appreciated the value of hard work, maybe they just wanted to pass the biggest marshmallow test of their life so far.
Whichever way you interpret the findings of Professor Mischel’s experiment, Mercia School in Ecclesall is definitely a “second marshmallow” kind of institution. Labelled the “UK’s strictest school” by the Sun, it prides itself on “demanding excellent behaviour” at all times. Students are expected to walk between lessons in silence and have to hand over their mobile phones for five days if caught using it on the grounds. Even smuggling in forbidden food or drink (namely anything that isn’t fruit or water) means being withdrawn from lessons for at least a day. As a job advert that made national headlines last year shows, it has equally high expectations of its staff — applicants were warned that, if successful, the job “may dominate your life on occasions”.
Mercia School is one of seven academies in the Mercia Learning Trust, although, despite what its name may suggest, it was not the original institution. The trust was founded in 2012 by King Ecgbert School in Dore and went on to absorb Totley Primary, Nether Edge Primary, Woodlands Primary and Newfield Secondary School. Mercia was simply the first opportunity to create something entirely new. Its headteacher, Dean Webster, had tried to put some of his ideas into practice at Newfield previously but, as he would go on to tell the parents he was trying to pitch on his new venture, found it was too difficult to change a school’s culture once it had already been established.
When it comes to this new institution, Webster has certainly made his mark. After just six years, Mercia School already has an outsized reputation among parents. Almost everyone I speak to describes it as a “Marmite” school; loved or despised, nothing in between. Take the fact that, every Friday morning, the children stand outside the school in a vaguely military formation and chant the poem Invictus by William Henley in unison. This is not a joke, and for evidence you can consult a marketing video for the school on Youtube.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
To outsiders, this custom can look bizarre, even disturbing, as if Webster is trying to train up some kind of child militia. One Mercia mum tells me several people who don’t know her son goes there have started talking unprompted about “that prison school” in the past.
Rob Bridgewater, a church minister who sends his youngest daughter to Mercia, insists that the school’s more unusual customs only seem shocking because they are being taken out of context. The point of chanting Invictus, for example, is to instil the school’s ethos that students can achieve anything if they are, like the poem’s narrator, the “captain of [their] soul”. Having to stay ascetically silent while walking in the corridors was introduced because the school’s leadership felt this is “one of the places where bullying goes on” — the boy’s toilets have no urinals, only cubicles, for the same reason.
“The school has a reputation of being quite harsh but I think that’s a misreading of what they are trying to do,” Bridgewater says. “It’s not about thinking the kids need squashing, it’s the opposite.” Other parents insist the school, though strict, can also be incredibly caring. “Yes, there’s very hard line discipline,” one mum says, “but they also do that other side really well.”
Outsiders could be forgiven for assuming that the school is severe, however, because Mercia goes to great lengths to cultivate this exact image. “Culture is king,” reads the admissions page on its website, “and our expectations will not be compromised.” Multiple parents speculate that the school bangs on about how rigorous it is because it wants to put some people off. “It’s not a selective school,” one dad points out, “but I wonder if, through messaging and signalling, it can scare off any parents who are not interested.” As another parent puts it, “you could only send your child to Mercia with your eyes wide open.”
It’s not made much of a dent in demand; Mercia is the most oversubscribed school in the entire city. Last September, it turned away 137 pupils hoping to secure a spot in its Year 7 class, whereas the second most competitive, King Edward VII School, only had to rebuff 107. This is partly due to its gargantuan catchment area — stretching all the way from Hathersage Moor to Kelham Island — and the school having only 180 places in each year (King Edward VII School, by comparison, has 240). But an even bigger factor is that, at least when it comes to exam results, even its critics will admit that Mercia’s approach works.
Last year, the school was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and, though it is still too new to have a long track record of exam results, it does have an excellent start. Last year, Mercia’s first ever Year 7 cohort sat their GCSE exams and received an average grade of 7 — the equivalent of an A under the old grading system. Nine out of every ten students achieved at least a strong pass in Maths and English, tearing far ahead of the rest of Sheffield’s state-funded schools, which on average got less than half of each year group over this hurdle.
One mum tells me that she didn’t pick Mercia because she hoped it would boost her child’s grades — instead, she felt its orderly atmosphere would be a good fit for his timid personality — but she’s nonetheless ecstatic about how well both he and his younger brother are performing. “We are regularly blown away by how much our sons know,” she says, adding that her eldest is on track for GCSE results that she “wouldn’t have dreamed of at the start of Year 7”.
Its detractors, however, aren’t always dazzled by this achievement. “It’s an exam factory,” writes one, in a Reddit thread about the school. “No real learning or education.” Another notes that Mercia has revived a style of teaching that has very much gone out of fashion in recent decades. “They’re very against group work, everyone is sitting facing the front,” she tells me. “But, if you talk to employers, do they want people who can learn by rote?” Surely (the argument goes) it’s more valuable to foster children’s ability to collaborate than to stuff the necessary information into their head by any means necessary. “The old-fashioned approach will be popular with certain parents,” she adds, “but what does it mean for making well-rounded people?”
Bridgewater, meanwhile, insists his daughter’s education isn’t limited to what will get her a good grade in exams. Mercia has an unusually long school day — children must arrive by 8.20am at the latest and leave at 5pm Monday to Thursday — but not all of it is devoted to teaching the curriculum. Each morning, children have half an hour of “mastery reading time” dedicated to reading books as a class, both to ensure they can read fluently and that they’ve absorbed the classics. In the first few weeks of Year 7, his daughter came home and told him she’d been reading The Illiad.
At the end of the day, students are given time to do their homework — one of Mercia’s notable quirks is that children don’t do any work at home — and have at least one session a week of optional electives. According to parents, these can range from cooking and gardening to French cinema and the history of maths.
Some parents describe wrestling with the choice of whether to send their child to a school that is deliberately trying to hark back to a previous era. One mum, who works in education, said it took her “a lot of time to come round,” because she worried her son wouldn’t have “enough opportunity for the social side of things” or time “to let off steam”. After emailing questions to the deputy head, she was reassured to hear that children are still given some time to play freely at breaks but, nevertheless, it felt like taking a gamble. “They were turning what I had done [in education] for the past 16 or 17 years on its head.”
While Mercia might look like a bold social experiment, the school’s ethos actually places it on one side of a long-running civil war in education: traditionalists versus progressives. Despite some new-fangled innovations, the school otherwise marches with the former battalion, positioning the teacher as the expert and favouring traditional forms of learning like recitation, while emphasising the need for discipline and toughness. A progressive teacher, to paint with broad strokes, would view their role as facilitating the children learning together — hence a fad for blocks of desks facing each other — and might place more emphasis on emotional development and giving children a rounded education. Students might learn more facts if they’re drilled into them, the progressive argument goes, but won’t life primarily require them to work well with others?
Unsurprisingly, these schools of thought tend to map onto (or at least, be associated with) a teacher’s political leanings. Traditionalists are generally assumed to be conservatives (“Tory Teachers”) or even whip-cracking authoritarians, whereas progressive teachers tend to get dismissed by their critics as bleeding-heart liberals too fixated on validating their students’ feelings to teach them anything useful.
In the UK, the traditionalist approach to secondary school education is most famously represented by the Michaela School in London — a free school multiple parents mention to me unprompted and one that also occasionally gets branded Britain’s “strictest school”. Led by the explicitly “Tory Teacher” Katharine Birbalsingh, who delivered a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference about the "culture of excuses, of low standards” in British education, Michaela was recently taken to the High Court by a Muslim student for banning prayer rituals. Like Mercia, it has been praised for its exceptional results.
However, for some Mercia parents, their reason for sending their child to a school that could be considered antiquated has nothing to do with politics — it’s because they feel strongly that it will do their offspring genuine good. Bridgewater, 54, went to a grammar school himself “and benefited enormously from what is now seen as an old-fashioned approach,” so why shouldn’t it work for his daughter? He likes that Mercia has “an element of formality” and very clear rules about what behaviour is acceptable, “not just for the sake of it but in order to allow teachers and kids to flourish”. If children are taught not to be disruptive even when they don’t feel like coming to school, he argues, then “you’re not relying solely on the good will of the kids” to keep things moving smoothly.
And for others, they are hoping Mercia’s throwback culture will protect their child from particularly modern ills. One dad, in his early 40s, says he volunteered as a scout leader while his son was at primary school and heard horror stories of the kind of bullying that can happen elsewhere. It comforts him to know that this would be swiftly stamped out at Mercia. Furthermore, he likes that the school is entirely free of mobile phones; he feels the risk that “at any moment, someone could point a phone at them and record them doing something stupid,” has made today’s young people less willing to express themselves. (The counter-argument from the school’s critics would be that many of the school’s rules, such as silence in the corridors, seem explicitly designed to stop children expressing themselves, responding to the chaos of youthful expression by trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.)
Still, he’s clearly conscious that the school’s ethos could seem regressive to many people — indeed, he points out how surprising it is to find such an institution in stereotypically left-wing Nether Edge — but the headteacher’s absolute certainty about the right way to treat children seems to have won him round. Mr Webster, he says, “comes across as very determined and kind of almost abrasive” but it was appealing that “he knew what he thought was right and what he thought was wrong”.
The south-west of Sheffield is not just associated with left-wing politics, of course, it is also associated with affluence, a fact that could make it easy to dismiss Mercia’s success as a natural result of drawing from a pool of privileged students. Schools in this area tend to consistently outperform the rest of the city.
What complicates this picture is the fact that Mercia School was ranked one of the best in the country by the Department for Education, specifically for improving the results of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. When it came to that first set of GCSE results from last year, there was no difference in how much students from disadvantaged backgrounds progressed compared to their more affluent peers. (This was based on its “Progress 8” scores, a newer way of measuring attainment, that tracks how much a child’s grades improved between the end of Year 6 and their GCSE exams, rather than considering the grades themselves).
Many parents I speak to mention kids in their children’s classes who have spent time in foster care or who have overcome serious behavioural issues. Though one mum notes that the student body seems to have become more middle-class as the school’s popularity has grown, just under a fifth of its current students are eligible for free school meals. This is slightly below average for the whole of Yorkshire and The Humber, where just over a quarter of students claim free school meals, but at least suggests the school is not particularly well-off. Mercia, it seems, isn’t just taking kids already on their way to the top and giving them a leg up — it is actively turning lives around.
One sceptic, who previously worked for another secondary school in the south west of Sheffield, tells me it doesn’t surprise her that Mercia would be able to enact these kinds of transformations. Its one-size-fits-all approach is, in many ways, fundamentally egalitarian. For example, the school forbids packed lunches — all students have to eat the meal prepared by Mercia’s in-house chef — and packing a lunch is a task that families “who have got loads of other issues to cope with” might find more difficult to fit in. Even the lack of homework, which allows middle-class parents to avoid a battle of wills with their children, means students who go home to a house where they have no quiet space to study aren’t at a disadvantage.
The trade-off to this approach, she argues, is that families are essentially allowing Mercia to act as a third parent to their children. “They’re trying to replace what families should be doing,” she says, “and that works for some kids but is there a price you pay for that?” A uniform approach might level the playing field in many ways, but it also ignores the fact children may have different needs, learning styles and cultures. “You can’t push everyone down a pipeline of ‘you have got to perform this way’,” this sceptic insists.
Even some parents who think Mercia has been excellent for their children are willing to concede that “it wouldn’t work for any kid”. For example, one mum suggested that, while many autistic students might thrive in its quiet and predictable atmosphere, a child with ADHD might struggle to sit as still as the school dictates.
Her two boys, who are both well-behaved, still struggled to meet Mercia’s incredibly high standards, which she said involves kids receiving detention for infractions like dropping their pen. Her eldest son, though he never got detention in primary school, frequently lost his things, also a punishable offence at Mercia. “I anticipated he would get quite a lot of detentions to start with and he did,” she says. “But he was never upset by them, the teachers used to laugh with him and say ‘what have you lost this time?’” She continues to think some of Mercia’s rules are a little silly but is also confident that a few detentions haven’t done her son any harm. “And he doesn’t lose as much stuff now so, selfishly, it’s quite nice for us,” she adds.
While Mercia had not responded to our questions by the time of publication, It’s likely that the school’s rebuttal to those concerned that its approach wouldn’t suit every child would be that not every child has to go — after all, not even everyone who wants a place will get one. Those who find it too stifling are also free to leave; one mum says two girls from her son’s class hated the school and transferred out during Year 7. The reason, then, that Mercia continues to provoke fierce debate among Sheffield’s parents is likely because both those who send their kids there and those who didn’t are anxious to know who made the better call. “When people choose a school,” one dad points out, “they want to feel like they have done the best thing for their kids.”
Mercia might have a year or two of great exam results to show off but, in many ways, its approach is still untested. The first-ever Year 7 cohort will head to university pretty soon and, for many parents, this is when they’ll find out if their offspring will sink or swim. One mum, who says she has no regrets about sending her son to Mercia, nevertheless wondered aloud to me: “Will he have the skills to do it independently or will he be too used to having somebody else do it for him? Has he got that self-motivation or is it all just Mercia motivation?” According to some teachers at Sheffield’s other sixth forms, who recently received the Mercia students that decided to take their A-levels elsewhere, this concern is well-founded. “I’ve heard them described as like prisoners escaping from captivity and going a bit wild,” one mum says.
Ultimately, Mercia’s pitch to parents is that it can teach children to be “captains of their souls,” to quote Invictus, and that this will inevitably set them up for future success, regardless of how well they performed before arriving at its gates. Bridgewater recalls being impressed at an open day by the headteacher’s focus on nurturing “average” children — on the grounds that, in many other schools, the most talented and most behind students often take up the bulk of their teachers’ attention. At Mercia, the ethos seems to be that natural talent and external privileges are less relevant. Every child receives the same treatment and any child, provided they can learn discipline, can become great.
It is an idea that puts a lot of faith in the mainstream interpretation of the Stanford marshmallow experiment — that self-control is the key to success. For many anxious parents, it must be nice to imagine that the truth is so simple but, as with all things, the real story is more nuanced. Professor Mischel, the creator of the original experiment, recently took part in yet another follow-up study on some of the children he put to the test decades ago, who are now middle-aged. What he found was that those who once gave in fastest to sugary temptation are generally no more or less educated, wealthy or healthy than the rest. It seems the only way to truly know if someone will succeed in life is to wait and see.
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