Ed Vainker is the co-founder and executive principal of Reach Academy Feltham, the school featured in the documentary H is for Harry. We chatted to him about some of the themes raised in the film
Qu: The documentary says Reach Feltham was spending twice the amount of funding allocated by Harry’s education, health and care plan (EHCP). Is there enough funding attached to EHCPs to encourage schools to be inclusive?
In my experience, there is a huge range. In the last 18 months we have, with parents, handed back two EHCPs – we said the pupil no longer needed it. We always get a shocked reaction from the local authority when we do that. I mean, they were grateful, but I think that doesn’t happen often enough.
Some EHCPs have enough funding and others don’t. I think frequently there isn’t enough. This term, we’ve had nine children start Year 7 with ECHPs out of 60 – 15 per cent of our cohort. That puts a lot of pressure on the organisation and on teachers. Where you do have sufficient funding, however, it can have a really positive impact.
Qu: The film’s protagonist was transferred to another type of provision because it was decided that Reach Feltham could no longer meet his needs. Do you think schools should be able to do that?
I think it’s important to have that mechanism, because it can give schools the confidence to take children – particularly, perhaps, if they haven’t been in a mainstream through primary and their parents would like them to go to a mainstream secondary.
There is uncertainty – no-one can be sure of how it’s going to go. We’ve had pupils with EHCPs who’ve come from really quite specialist provisions and they’ve absolutely flourished. And in the case of Harry, he did flourish for a good while, but in the end we couldn’t quite sustain that.
Qu: The film ends by mentioning early intervention – is that the answer?
I think we’re behind the evidence, given what we now know about how the infant brain develops in the early years. And the state is not allocating sufficient resources at that stage.
We’re going all-in on the early-intervention piece. We’re an all-through school with two-form entry and we’ve added a nursery with provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds. But what’s interesting is that you see a real achievement gap between pupils, even at that level.
Our aspiration is to offer cradle-to-career support. We’ve got a partnership for new mums with the NCT and another with Save the Children to offer a range of support from nought to five, to support school readiness for children in the wider community.
Qu: Isn’t this extending the remit of a school way beyond the academic – surely they can’t be everything to families?
First, the richness of those relationships and that support at times of stress, I consider to be integral to the school in terms of exam results.
Second, the interesting thing about the British system is the amount of autonomy headteachers have. We’ve chosen to invest in that family support and mental health.
We employ two full-time family support workers, and at any one time we have about 30 of our pupils accessing counselling – we spend approximately the cost of a teacher on therapy every year, and avoid the CAMHS waiting lists. They’ve paid for themselves in terms of the impact on pupils.
Qu: The film shows qualified teachers doing one-on-one classroom support that you would often associate with a teaching assistant. How do you manage that?
All the evidence is that a velcro TA doesn’t support academic progress. So we’ve tried to work with parents to say “let’s look at this differently and allocate your funding and support in different ways”.
Clearly, a child who is really struggling to read needs our most skilful teacher of reading, so having a fully-qualified teacher feels really important.
Most of our TAs are graduates who do one year then transition to do teacher training with us. So in secondary, we have just four or five TAs and it’s a 100% graduate workforce.
That subject knowledge and confidence around reading and writing and numeracy feels really critical, especially for those who are going to be working with our pupils who need to make the most progress.