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What I Learned From Visiting Reach Academy Feltham

04/07/2014 15:50 BST | Updated 02/09/2014 10:59 BST

As I alluded to in my previous article, I'm concerned that we are using the wrong models as benchmarks of excellent education. I'm certain, however, that recent visitors Boris Johnson and Michael Gove will attest that Reach Academy Feltham should be championed as an innovator in British education. Heavily influenced by KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Harlem Children's Zone, Reach Academy Feltham (RAF) is unlike most schools in the country. Its controversial free-school status pales into insignificance at 7.45am when students arrive, in single-file no less, to be greeted by Rebecca (teachers are addressed by their first names) who wishes them a successful day ahead. There is a wonderful sense of community and shared vision between teachers, parents and students. I asked one Year 8 girl what she is going to achieve in her GCSEs in 2017, to which she replied with utmost certainty: "A*s in EVERY subject"; refreshingly aspirational. However, this is the work of a masterpiece; the students at Reach (which stands for Reflect, Endeavour, Aspire, Show Courage and Have Fun) are moulded by the exceptionally erudite Principal, Ed Vainker and the bold no-nonsense Secondary Headteacher Rebecca Cramer and their team of 17 (15 of whom are Teach First ambassadors). I arrived early to sit in their staff briefing and from that moment I knew that I already agreed with Ofsted's recent grading of 'Outstanding' in every category. The culture that has been created in this team is incredibly impactful and clearly caring; all staff embody the values that Reach wants to instill in their students.

So, here are the lessons I learned at Reach:

Leadership matters

Rebecca and Ed are visionaries. Rebecca (married to King Solomon Academy Principal Max Haimendorf) has incredibly high aspirations for her staff, pupils and their parents. Before the beginning of a school year for new students, Rebecca visits their homes and she and the parent(s) sign a commitment to do whatever it takes for the success of the child whilst at Reach. How to make a difference? Lead by example. I wonder what it would say next to Rebecca's name on Mary Poppins' measuring tape, maybe "this great leader inspires action." The power of 'why' is omnipresent at Reach when teachers demerit students for talking out of turn or having their tie incorrectly tied; there is continual emphasis about how their actions now will affect the next stage of their life. Interestingly when I spoke to some Year 8 boys, they talked generally about the importance of working hard and supporting each other. There was no despondency about 'being rubbish at Maths' or 'not enjoying English'; students at Reach are led by teachers who are fluent in perpetuating the values of giving 100% and approaching work with endeavour, courage and as the French teacher excellently put it "playing to your strengths."

You can never have too many acronyms

Reach Academy, like their inspirers Uncommon and KIPP are acronymaniacs. That's a word, apparently. TANC, STEP, STAR, REACH - all acronyms used at RAF. It's very American charter school. In fact, one of the primary teachers is a Teach for America alumnus. But, I have no issue with this. Last April, I visited an Uncommon Charter School in Brooklyn and was inspired by the self-discipline and commitment of the students to their learning. I was even more inspired by the students snapping each other when they did well in class. Just like in Uncommon, teachers at Reach are trained in the strategies in Doug Lemov's book 'Teach Like A Champion' and as a result students are progressing exceptionally; snaps to the Year 8 girl who's now a Level 7c in English.

Success with limited resources

Despite its Outstanding Ofsted rating, Reach needs funds to keep being able to deliver the amazing education it currently provides to its growing cohorts. At lunchtime, staff and students sit together on 1950s fold-away lunch tables, there are no walls between primary classes and the inaugural Sports Day was held in a derelict local park with about £100 worth of sports equipment. But does it have an impact on learning? No. Do students take pride in what they have? Yes. Do they make it work? Definitely. I can admit to being despondent in my first year that I was in a computer room and not a generic classroom with rows of desks. All you really need are committed students, passionate teachers and minds to learn. If Reach is able to maintain the current quality as it grows, the Year 8 girl will definitely achieve all A*s.

As a teacher of almost two years, I feel inexperienced writing a review of a school. Fortunately, I only have praise to hand out. As Reach looks forward to their new building in September 2014 - which is thoroughly deserved - students are reflecting on whether they are ready for the 177 steps and 43 windows, endeavouring to excel in their end of year assessments, aspiring to find their own solutions to their problems, showing courage as they rise through their levels in English and Maths and have fun as they cheer each other on in the 400m relay. At the end of the 1500m race at Sports Day, I asked Beck (Lead English teacher) what the prize is for winning. The answer: Pride. What did the Year 8 boy who won want? Pride, too.

Go Reach Academy and Good Luck Class of 2019!