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Starting a Free School: Ed Vainker

Ten years after our Free School, Reach Academy Feltham, was approved to open by the Department for Education,...

3 years ago

Ten years after our Free School, Reach Academy Feltham, was approved to open by the Department for Education, I will have a new role in the school – as a parent – when my son joins Year 7 in September. 

In 2010, six weeks after my son was born in Washington DC, my Mum was visiting, giving us a first opportunity for an evening out. I bought tickets for The Social Network but got the times wrong and thus was deeply unpopular with my wife. All that was left to watch was Waiting For Superman, a film about Charter Schools that were offering a different kind of education around the US. That night, unable to sleep, I wrote the first draft of the plan for the school we wanted to open. 

AltWe saw a chance to offer something different that would ensure that more young people went on live lives of choice and opportunity.

My co-founders, Rebecca Cramer and Jon McGoh, and I were motivated by the uneven distribution of opportunity in education. We saw a chance to offer something different that would ensure that more young people went on live lives of choice and opportunity. We also wanted to open a school that we would be excited to send our own children to. 

The biggest challenge we faced when opening the school was prioritising the areas where we wanted to innovate without overwhelming a small team by trying to do too much too quickly. We focused on building a strong culture and strong relationships with pupils and families, and on getting behaviour right in the school. Other Free Schools that opened at the same time, serving a similar community with similar aims, focused on different things such as innovation in pedagogy or a new approach to assessment. In the early years our curriculum was quite typical. As we built our scale and capacity, we invested more in this area, ultimately developing a curriculum which is now being used in 150 schools and which features prominently in the Oak National Academy

We made some very specific choices in the design of the school: we chose to make it all through, from Nursery to Sixth Form, and small, with only 60 pupils in each year. We were seeking to enable strong relationships to be built between pupils, families and staff, to provide a coherent, seamless journey through the school, and to ensure that the curriculum was integrated across each pupil’s journey. 

On top of this, we prioritised pupils having access to a broad and balanced curriculum. So pupils can study Music after 16 and access instrumental lessons from Year 3 onward. We also offer two languages and are adding a third, Arabic, this year, and commit to a rich offer beyond just English and Maths across our Primary phases. 

We prioritise a range of experiences, with an annual residential trip, the opportunity to follow the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme (with a number of students successfully completing their Gold Award). We also offer high quality careers advice and mentoring.

AltIn the end though, so much about a school and the experiences children have there comes down to the teacher.

Showing parents around, I advise them to choose the school where they are most confident that their children will get great teachers year after year. We take great care to recruit brilliant people who share our values and are excited to improve and develop. Every teacher at Reach has a coach who watches them teach week after week and identifies one area for improvement that they can work on. 

We continue to strive to foster an entrepreneurial culture and the feeling of a start-up, even though we now have 900 pupils and 100 staff. It has been an important part of our identity and has allowed us to be nimble and responsive to the evolving needs of our community. 

I am excited for my son to join the school in September and to experience the school from a different perspective! 

About the author: Ed Vainker is the CEO of the Reach Foundation and the co-founder and (previously) Executive Principal of Reach Academy Feltham.

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