Utopia Within Reach?

What if a school combined a deep commitment to social justice, outstanding leadership and world class professional expertise? And kids in the school were enjoying it? It sounds like utopian stuff, but believe it, because you can see it at Reach Academy Feltham.

reach academy

I brought 12 School Leaders from the Teach For All global network to visit the school this week, and they – and I – were humbled by the place. Led by Teach First Ambassadors Ed Vainker and Rebecca Cramer, and staffed by many more, the school is transforming the lives of kids in Feltham, and pushing our sense of what is possible in education in the UK.

The school opened in 2011 and has a Reception, Years 1 & 2, and Years 7, 8 & 9. It’s designed on a small-school model and will be all-through by 2018, when there will be 900 pupils in year groups of 60. And with no setting and despite high levels of Pupil Premium and SEN, the signs are that the kids in the school are on track to reach the ambitious vision: everyone will be prepared to go to a great university if they desire.

In classrooms throughout the school kids are on a mission to this destination. Anecdotal evidence says that the Year 2s are already a year ahead of their peers in other schools in reading, writing and maths. The Year 9s are on track for outstanding results at GCSE and the strived-for A* – Bs at A Level. Ofsted visited the school last year and rated it Outstanding in every category.

Reflecting with our group of school leaders – from India, Chile, Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Spain and Bulgaria – on Thursday night, we tried to identify what it was that we’d seen that was contributing to this great picture. We identified five principles:

Learning all the time The highest academic expectations are combined with a deeply intentional approach to curriculum and pedagogy. And pupils are making progress. Kids are developing as readers and writers, but also as people. They’re whizzing through Maths Mastery, but also building self-efficacy in reflection groups and team activities.

Community school School is characterized by a true sense of community. Senior leaders meet with all new parents at their homes before kids join the school. There are weekly parent groups to practice reading with children, and to give feedback to the school. Just watch this video.

Excellence of leadership We saw a commitment to excellence in every detail. Everything has been considered by the teachers and senior leaders, and every effort is made to execute that brilliantly. For example, we heard that the whole 3 – 18 English curriculum had been backwards planned from speaking to Professors about the knowledge, attributes and enhancements (such as theatre visits) needed to succeed on an English degree course.

Developing people One of the clearest commitments of the school was to developing people. There was an atmosphere of real collegiality and staff were given opportunities to lead and develop themselves. Every teacher receives a twenty minute observation and feedback every week and tellingly, there are many City Year volunteers and NQTs, with a clear progression pipeline from one to the other.

Inquiry and innovation Talking to Ed and Rebecca one afternoon, we realized that this was only a beginning, ‘we’re on a 6 or 7’ they told us. And they were deeply thoughtful about new ideas: embedding  an understanding of attachment theory throughout the school to support kids and teachers, looking to break into Early Years work, and even working with pregnant mothers locally to intervene in those vital years for the brain of 0 – 3 year olds. The conversation ended on a dream of launching wrap-around services in the manner of the Harlem Kids Zone.

Our school leaders have returned to their countries this week inspired and full of ideas. And that’s before we mention the last of the Reach values: H stands for ‘Have Fun’. It is perhaps this that distinguishes it from some of the more rigorous schools I’ve seen in the US. Occasionally, I’ve wondered if despite the incredible academic track record, KIPP schools aren’t a too much like a fourteen year boot camp for poor kids. At Reach, the feeling is one of family, of a school where the teachers would want to send their own children.

So, if you’re struggling to understand what is meant by leadership, if you can’t picture what a great school for disadvantaged kids looks like, if you’re falling out of love with the mission, go to Reach. Seeing is believing.

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