The Power of All-Through and Starting Young

Ed Vainker, Principal and Co-founder, Reach Academy Feltham

Over the last few months visitors to our school have caused me to re-assess the core ideas from which we launched the school and reflect on which ones had been most critical to the school’s character and emerging impact.

First 25 Headteachers from across the globe came to Feltham in April and spent three days in the school. They met parents, staff and pupils, observed lessons and reviewed pupil work. They asked me which decision we made in the design felt most important.

Last week 24 Teach First teachers of the 2017 vintage, fifteen cohorts since I did the programme in 2003 spent a week developing their teaching with our Primary pupils as guniea-pigs and asked me the same question.

The answer comes very quickly: our decision to make the school all-through and focus on pupils’ early years in school as a critical moment and opportunity for impact. This structural feature of our school feels central to its character and, we hope, its ultimate success.

There are advantages to managing transition points and building deeper and longer lasting relationships with families. There are opportunities when Primary and Secondary staff and pupils are able to work together. Curriculum planning can be sharper, especially in subjects like languages, the arts and humanities, when teachers know that the pupils will be with us until they finish school at 18.

However, I believe the real opportunity is meeting pupils when they are three years old, or even two, or ideally, even younger. Early Years or Kindergarten teachers know that the achievement gap is pronounced at 3. Parents know that raising a child is a tough job and that support is always needed. We believe that by starting to work with pupils from a young age, we can ensure that they flourish and succeed.

We also believe that working closely with families can yield transformative results. In July 2012 I visited the home of one of our first cohort of Reception pupils. The pupil, who I will call Mustafa, sat four inches from a huge TV screen watching cartoons. He had no language skills and only grunted. There were no toys in his house and the only sign that a child lived there were some scribbles in biro on the walls. Mustafa’s mother was isolated and had very limited English.

I started work straight away. Although our school would not open for eight weeks, Kay, our Family Support Worker visited Mum. We invested £100 in toys and books and spent an afternoon a week modelling playing with the toys. Mustafa started school and this term, after four and a half years, has met the expected standard in maths, and is close in reading and writing. He has had a huge amount of intervention to get him there.

It was with his sister, who I will call Akshara, where the profound impact of this work was seen. Meeting her when she was 18-months-old gave us more time to make a difference. We accompanied Mum to stay and plays, and supported her to attend a course, identifying one where childcare was provided. Our Nursery opened in time for her to attend and last year Akshara exceeded all of the Early Learning Goals. She is now one of the best readers and writers, and we are convinced of the power of early intervention.

Over the next five years we aspire to build on the start we have made in this area. We are seeking to set up a Reach Children’s Hub that offers a seamless experience for a new mother through midwifery and other health provision, through peer mentoring for the first thousand days and into nursery, school and beyond. We will work with social care, GPs and the voluntary sector to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to the support they need.

At the same time we are setting up networks between Nurseries and schools and across schools so that those serving the most vulnerable are able to work together and share expertise and resources. We believe that starting young and working with the whole community is that way that we can have a transformative impact on the community we serve.