Free schools at 10: Reach Academy Feltham uncut

To celebrate 10 years since the first free schools opened their doors, NSN published Free schools at 10: A decade of success

The collection of interviews featured founders/leaders of free schools of all type and phase from across the country, providing a candid insight into the process of establishing and running a free school.

The interview that follows is the original, uncut version with the co-founders of Reach Academy Feltham: Ed Vainker OBE and Rebecca Cramer. 

What first inspired you to get involved with the free schools programme?

Rebecca: Having worked in 3 London schools since 2006 when I did the Teach First programme, I was equally inspired by the incredible children I had taught and frustrated by some of the systems in large schools which made it challenging for all children to succeed in the contexts I was teaching in. I had visited some different schools and education systems around the world and it had opened my eyes to what was possible given the right political and educational landscape. The Free School Policy and the opportunity it presented to start a school which took the best parts of what I had seen and learned about in practice and in theory was an amazing opportunity.

What was your original vision for Reach Feltham, and how has it been realised over time?

Ed: We wanted to set up a school where every child left able to enjoy a life of choice and opportunity. We wanted to structure the school differently - being all-through while staying small, giving us the best possible chance to realise that vision. That focus on every child is important and we have not realised it yet, but we have seen 70% of our pupils going on to Higher Education, compared to a local average around 20%.

What has been the most rewarding moment since opening your free school?

Rebecca: Gosh. What a question. There have been so many moments that are so tiny and yet add up to form a whole story. Often the most rewarding things are the ones that seem so difficult at the time, but you can look back and laugh at them. Like the time we let a very inexperienced member of staff loose with a group of students in Le Louvre and didn’t check that he’d changed the time on his watch. Cue a frantic hour thinking we’d lost them all. Obviously results days are the time when it really hits you - I never fail to have a big cry out of pride and relief. And, not a moment, but I’m really grateful that Ed and are I still here doing this together, still sharing an office. Learning and growing together with the rest of the team has been hugely rewarding.

What advice would you give to somebody else embarking on their free school journey?

Ed: The most important thing for us was building a strong team that was aligned around the vision and deciding what the most important priorities were at any one time. Starting a school is a huge undertaking and in the early years it is not possible to innovate and excel in every different area. We focused on culture and relationships and that worked for us, but it was important that everyone was on the same page about that.

The team at Reach is well-known for promoting cradle to career education – why was it important to you that Reach be an all-through free school?

Rebecca: We all know that the evidence shows how instrumental the first 1000 days of a child’s life is. We are really clear about how crucial that period of time is in defining the future happiness and success of a child. We are also very clear that everyone needs support as adults to raise children. It is tough. Ed and I, and lots of the team have our own very young children and know the importance of ‘the village’ to help raise them. We believe that trusting and meaningful relationships form over time and via good times and working through trickier ones. We want families to join us knowing that we will be on the journey of raising children together for the best part of two decades (and beyond). There is huge power in knowing that commitment is there. For teachers also, there is a real impetus that comes from the accountability of working in an all-through school. For every set of external examinations we are responsible. There is immense reward in getting that right alongside the child and their family.

You’ve both said publicly that the Reach model has been inspired from what you’ve seen in America. How were you able to replicate practice from the USA in Feltham, and what did you have to adapt for the local context?

Ed: The main thing that we took from the States was the scale of the ambition and the entrepreneurship of those leaders. They created schools that were dramatically different to what was typical in their communities and were unashamedly focused on those schools being different. They had a focus on ensuring high levels of consistency and presented that as a justice issue - what is required for every child to flourish.

One way that we wanted to be different was in having deeper and more personal relationships with pupils and families, and that has been a priority ever since the school opened.

What was the initial reaction of the local community when you first started working on the application to open? How did you build positive relationships and a trusted reputation?

Rebecca: These things take time and the most important thing we did right from the beginning was to recognise that. Not all of the relationships we have built over the past 10 years were there from the beginning. We now have really excellent and strong local relationships and partnerships that are built on a foundation of mutual humility and respect.  Ultimately we never wanted to take over the world and have 50 schools. We wanted to prove, in our little corner of West London, that all children, irrespective of their background, can succeed. We have done that in a very open and sharing way so that others can learn from all of our failures and successes and hopefully replicate in their own communities

Was the motivation in the early days to transform a community, or simply to establish an excellent school? How has the relationship as both a school and community hub changed over time? 

Ed: We wouldn’t say that we want to transform our community because that suggests that it is wholly negative, which is not the case. We have always wanted to dramatically improve the opportunities and choices available to young people. For us that started with a school but knowing how much home environment and the impact of poverty affects learning and academic success, we always had the aim of seeking a wider role in the community.

You have become one of the most known free schools in the country. How have you remained close to the local community and retained your commitment to recruiting disadvantaged pupils?

Rebecca: Well Ed and I still do duties on the gate most mornings! We love teaching and working with students and their families. I still teach in the school. So we stay connected through prioritising how we spend our time. In terms of making sure that we enable access for those who need it the most - we changed our admissions policy a few years ago to prioritise admissions for those eligible for the Pupil Premium. We also changed our distance over-subscription criteria to a lottery system. We are committed to having the fairest system for those who are the most disadvantaged. 

What more do you want to do to support the community in Feltham, and will you look to broaden your reach in the future?

Ed: We have a lot more that we want to do. We are due to open a second school in the coming years and will want to ensure the highest academic standards in that school as well. We see opportunities to strengthen the breadth of our Post-16 offer, and are building a partnership to be able to do that. We want to continue to work with our community to remove barriers to flourishing across the cradle to career range and see opportunities to work collaboratively with other organisations and the community to address some of the systemic issues that contribute to children not succeeding.

We have also started to work beyond Feltham with schools and trusts interested in the Cradle to Career model. These partnerships are exciting! We are working with two groups who would like to open a Free School in their communities in the North of England so we are also hoping to be able to grow to other communities in the years to come.

What benefits could you foresee from expanding the Reach model to more communities?

Ed: The Free School model, for us, is about choice for communities and innovation in the system. I think an all-through, cradle to career model would be a new departure in many communities and could offer a path to that dramatic improvement in opportunities. Equally, Reach has, we think, had a catalytic effect on the wider system and we think could continue to do so as we grow into new communities and learn more about what works.