Academic and rigorous and nurturing and cuddly? How to improve progress by investing in relationships with families
By Niall Alcock — Founder, We Are In Beta
I finished writing this article just before I went go to watch H is for Harry, the new documentary that charts an 11-year-old boy’s journey through Year 7 and Year 8. The film aims to tell the story of educational inequality from the students’ perspective.
I’m not going to review the film. Although, you should definitely go and see it. I’m going to share the answer to a question that was asked in the post-screening Q&A using Ed Vainker’s words. Ed is the Executive Headteacher at Reach Academy Feltham, where Harry goes to school.
The question that was asked by an audience member after the screening was “What can be done to support the families of students like Harry?”
When I asked Ed, if there was a strand of work that ran through everything they do, he underlined the importance of building strong relationships with families and how that can extend into the wellbeing of their pupils.
He pointed out that “there’s sometimes a misconception that schools are either academic and rigorous or they’re sort of nurturing and cuddly and that you almost make a choice.”
To the contrary, his experience is that the nurture and support they’ve been able to provide for their pupils and their families have directly contributed to the outcomes their students have achieved.
“When I look at our Progress 8 figures and you look at the ranking by pupil of their Progress 8, it’s almost directly the same as a ranking of the depth and quality of relationships that those pupils and their families had with multiple teachers in the school” he said during his interview on the We Are In Beta Podcast.
So how have they improved progress by investing in relationships with families?
“We have worked really hard to do home visits, to work with families when there are particular moments of crisis, to have a mental health service with Place2Be and to invest our teachers in investing in those relationships and in building those relationships. It’s something that is really difficult work, but I think very, very important and indeed critical to the success of the school and to the impact that we want to have.”
He also says they have had some good training from Place2Be, who alongside that training delivered supervision for teachers.
“It let all of us, I think, in different ways to reflect on our own attachment and our own experiences when we were younger. And I think it strengthened our understanding of where our pupils were”.
He says his intention at Reach is “to reach down and to offer antenatal education in the school and to be a place that the community can come together” and for the school to be an “institution right from conception. You know, we have a kind of cradle to career vision”.
For those of you thinking this is easier said than done, Ed agrees.
“I am conscious also that we are in a particular community, in a particular context and we’re a start-up and all of those things. So it’s not that I think everyone can and should automatically do that. But I do think schools can reach out and have a lot to offer, I guess.”
(For full transcript please head to the bottom of this post)
In his interview, Ed shares his thoughts on:
- How he got into teaching
- How North America influenced his education philosophy
- Why Reach Academy Feltham may never have come to exist
- Why he is reluctant to shout from the rooftops about Reach Academy’s success
- Which strand of work runs through everything they do and which organisations have been pivotal to their success
- An unfashionable opinion he has about student attainment data
- How they can afford to timetable teachers to not be teaching to make teachers lives easier
- How this work will be shared with other schools and thousands of trainee teachers
- Why he thinks teachers leaving the profession might actually help the retention
- His latest thinking on offering staff more flexibility
- Which leadership model has been central to improving teaching and learning
- Which organisations Reach has worked with to keep getting better
- Why two cross sectors training programmes were the best professional development experiences he’s ever had
- What he thinks the school can do better to improve CPD
- How he makes sure the organisations Reach partners with are worth their salt
- Why he’s glad he isn’t a headteacher in France
- Why he is surprisingly bullish about the funding crisis
- How he has reduced costs and increased income for the school
- What one question he would ask every headteacher if he could
- When he ‘had a heart attack’ in the first year of teaching
- Why he thinks support families and communities before students begin school is the key to a bright future in education
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(For full transcript please head to the bottom of this post)
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Below, I’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of my conversation with Ed.
Niall Alcock: [00:00:00] Today, I am delighted to be joined by Ed Vainker, who is the Executive Head at Reach Academy in Feltham. Welcome to the podcast, Ed.
Ed Vainker: [00:00:08] Thanks.
Niall Alcock: [00:00:09] Before we get into policy, practice, retention and CPD, I’d love to talk about you. How did you get into teaching?
Ed Vainker: [00:00:16] I was in the first cohort that did Teach First. So, I saw one of the first adverts, applied the same day and was placed at a school in Peckham — St. Thomas the Apostle, where I taught for three years. Then spent a year at the school Ark took over, Burlington Danes. I spent four years in the States and in Canada, and then came back and applied to set up Reach Academy in 2011 and it was a free school that opened in September 2012.
Niall Alcock: [00:00:42] What was Canada and the States like?
Ed Vainker: [00:00:43] Fantastic. I had a fellowship in Montreal, which is called the Sauvé Fellowship, which was a bit like Big Brother. There were 12 people from all around the world, who had a social mission. So, we had a cardiologist from Kyrgyzstan, a dentist from Brazil, a guy who worked for the Armenian central bank, a pro-democracy campaigner from Burma. The idea was that you had a year to reflect on what you’ve done so far. Everyone was under 30.
Niall Alcock: [00:01:10] And you were the teacher from the UK?
Ed Vainker: [00:01:11] I was the teacher from the UK. So, it was great and then I went and did three years working for Teach for All in DC.
Niall Alcock: [00:01:16] What did you learn and then bring back to the UK?
Ed Vainker: [00:01:19] I spent a lot of time in different schools and definitely the ambition and the vision of some of the charter schools that I visited. Educationally and pedagogically, they were not that sophisticated. But the ambition and the entrepreneurialism were pretty remarkable and definitely is something that has been a driver of the work that we’ve done here.
Niall Alcock: [00:01:40] And so from your journey through to headship, is being a headteacher something you’ve always wanted to do?
Ed Vainker: [00:01:45] I definitely think that I was interested in taking on positions of responsibility and I did that when I moved to Burlington Danes. But when I left teaching in 2007 I moved abroad. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to come back into school and I don’t know whether I would have done if it hadn’t been for the free school policy. I might.
But definitely, it was an interesting thing because we put in an application to open a school. Rebecca Cramer, who was a founding teacher of King Solomon Academy, and was on the leadership team at another Ark school by this point. Then a guy called John Macintosh, who I had known from university and who had set up his own business.
So, the three of us put the application together and I remember saying to my wife because we were happily living in Washington, if we get this we’re going to move back I’m going to start a school. And she was like, “Well you probably won’t get it.” I mean she didn’t exactly say that, but it was it was quite uncertain. And so, if that hadn’t happened, I don’t know. I think probably, I would have come back, and I would have wanted to pursue headship.
But it definitely was a very different route. And I remember meeting some friends, who are now heads, who had stayed in school in those five years that I’d been away and who were quite surprised, and somewhat perhaps indignant, that I had left the school system and now was coming back into a headship albeit of a new school.
Niall Alcock: [00:03:08] And how did that opportunity arise with the free school application?
Ed Vainker: [00:03:13] In September 2010, my son was six weeks old. My mum had come over to stay with us in Washington. So, it was the first time we went out and we’d got tickets to see the Facebook film. But I got the times wrong. And Emily was really annoyed with me.
But when we got to the cinema the film it started half an hour earlier and the only film left to see was ‘Waiting for Superman’, which is this film about charter schools. And I had rejected it. I thought I know all about that stuff and I work with those schools, but I went and watched it. It was a powerful film.
When I got home I went to bed. But then after half an hour, I couldn’t sleep. I got up and wrote a kind of 10 page ‘this would be a school, if we set it up’ document.
What I wrote down was a small all through school, a lot of family support, a lot of working within the community, high expectations all that kind of stuff. And I sent to John, who as I say, I’ve known for a long time and he replied the next day and said, “Let’s get on the phone”. Then we agreed that we were going to pursue it.
A month later we met Rebecca through a mutual friend. We realised that we had a huge amount in common and that Rebecca had been wanting to do something very, very similar. So, we decided that we would explore it together. We looked all over London for the right place, found need in Hounslow and in Feltham. And so, nine months later put an application in the second wave of the free school thing.
Niall Alcock: [00:04:28] That’s amazing how a twist of fate has led to something as sophisticated as Reach Feltham. Amazing!
Ed Vainker: [00:04:32] Yeah, I imagine if I’d just watched the Facebook film.
Niall Alcock: [00:04:37] Tell us about your experience of headship.
Ed Vainker: [00:04:38] I’ve been really lucky that it’s grown with me. So, the first year we had 100 children and about 14 staff. Each year we’ve got more pupils and the staff has grown and now we have 900 pupils in the school and just over a hundred staff. It’s been fantastic for me that it’s grown with me.
It’s got easier because there are fewer things that I haven’t seen before. Although those things still come along. It’s easier because as we’ve had more and more people and more and more special positions, there’s been fewer things that I’ve been picking up.
I think one of the experiences I’ve had is when feeling not wanting to give other people things to do that weren’t on their job description which meant that, you know, Rebecca and I ended up doing a lot of those things.
Niall Alcock: [00:05:23] I think it’s interesting how you say ‘it’. It feels like ‘it’ is your experience of headship, but ‘it’ is also Reach Feltham and the two are very much interwoven. That’s the sense I get when I’m speaking to you.
Ed Vainker: [00:05:33] I think that’s right. I’ve worked hard not to talk too much and so it’s, you know, it’s a sign of how much I respect what you’re doing that I agreed to do this podcast. I think it’s very easy, I think when you start a new school, to go around saying “we do this and it’s great! We do that and it’s great”.
I’m acutely aware that there are huge advantages to starting something from scratch. I, even now having done the job for six and a bit, six and a half years, would feel very sceptical about my ability to run a large secondary comprehensive. You know, that I went into as the head because I think it’s a completely different challenge. And so, I think you’re exactly right. My experience of headship is very much the experience of this school and this project and also being in this community.
Niall Alcock: [00:06:19] Fair enough, that makes complete sense. Thinking a little bit about the journey of Reach Feltham, there a particular project or a strand of work that’s run through everything you do that has led to the success that you’ve had?
Ed Vainker: [00:06:31] Right from the start we’ve worked very hard to build strong relationships with our families and make that central to the work that we do. I think that extends into the wellbeing of our pupils. And I think there’s sometimes a misconception that schools are either academic and rigorous or they’re sort of nurturing and cuddly and that you almost make a choice.
I think our experience and our view is that nurture and the support that we’ve been able to provide for our pupils and our families has directly contributed to the results that we’ve got and the outcomes that we’ve got. When I look at our Progress 8 figures and you look at the ranking by pupil of their Progress 8, it’s almost directly the same as a ranking of the depth and quality of relationships that those pupils and their families had with multiple teachers in the school.
Niall Alcock: [00:07:25] Wow.
Ed Vainker: [00:07:25] We have worked really hard to do home visits to work with families when there are particular moments of crisis, to have a mental health service with Place2Be and to invest our teachers in investing in those relationships and in building those relationships. It’s something that is really difficult work, but I think very, very important and indeed critical to the success of the school and to the impact that we want to have.
Niall Alcock: [00:07:53] Your comments on curriculum, wellbeing, not making a choice between the two… I wonder to what extent your answer to my next question will be reflected in what you said in the changes in the Ofsted policy framework from removing the judgment around outcomes and moving it towards the quality of the curriculum and substance of the education.
What are your thoughts on that and? If it’s not the right way to go, what do you think the solution should be?
Ed Vainker: [00:08:17] I think one of the key reflections I’ve had in the course of doing this job has been, having previously thought maybe one day I’d like to go into policy, increasingly feeling like that’s not something I would want to do. And I think, having perhaps seen a little bit of the free school policy and other aspects of policy — I’ve been able to be on some DfE panels and stuff — I think it’s really difficult to regulate, to drive national policy because the classroom is a very personal place.
You know, the teacher has a huge impact, and then the school, and the school leader has a huge impact. And so, I am reluctant to give advice and have an opinion, not because I don’t want to put my neck out, but because I’m not quite sure what the answer is.
To be honest, yeah, I guess it’s not very fashionable, or not very popular possibly, but I’m surprised that Ofsted might not have a view about the outcomes that a school gets because I think while they’re not the only thing, they’re quite important.
I do think that more time and more focus on curriculum is a good thing. We’ve done a lot and we’re doing a lot of work and we’ve got a curriculum fund grant to share our curriculum in History and Geography at Key Stage 2 and Geography at Key Stage 3. We’ve done a lot of work on really being clear about what we’re teaching and what’s important and what we want pupils to learn. A lot of work around kind of comparative judgment and the quality of writing and the quality of outcomes.
That’s been, that’s been really great. And we made a decision this year to timetable two of our members of staff not to be teaching. One of them, Jon Hutchison (John Brunskill) has done a lot of work on this. And then Emily Maule, who’s our Head of Humanities, doesn’t teach on a Monday and Tuesday.
They’ve been able to really dig into it and it’s been interesting to see how much they can achieve in that time that they’re not teaching. I think when teachers have some space to really think about these things and, to kind of be more intentional about what they’re doing, it can have a really positive impact in a school.
So, I think anything that elevates the thinking about the ‘what’ that’s being taught as well as the ‘how’ — because I think there’s been a lot of thinking about ‘how’ — I think elevating the thinking about the ‘what’ I think is a good thing and will, I’m sure, have already positive impact.
Niall Alcock: [00:10:25] I had the pleasure of speaking to Jon about it in the summer and it sounded like an incredible project whereby he wasn’t in the classroom as much if at all and focusing his time completely on this curriculum. I’m intrigued how that particular about.
Ed Vainker: [00:10:37] So we’ve been working over the last kind of two or three years to bring in knowledge organisers and to be more intentional about what content we wanted pupils to learn in Humanities subjects especially, and be clear about the type of lessons we wanted to see being taught, and trying to front load some really clear — quite didactic, like “this is what we want you to know about the water cycle or medieval monarchs or the Romans” — and then do the more traditional primary activities like building your Roman shield and stuff. That’s to happen at the end when they have a lot of context and a lot of knowledge.
And we’ve been developing those ideas, and we’ve kind of come, I think, to a point where they were pretty clear. We made a Strategic School Improvement Fund bid to kind of share the content and the curriculum that we had. We also had an increasing number of schools coming to visit and saying, “this is interesting, and we’d be interested in this” But the materials weren’t packaged for external consumption and we wanted to have the time to do that.
So, we did the SSIF bid and basically, we made a decision to put Jon off teaching because we were hoping we’d get that bid and he would then be funded. Then when it wasn’t funded we made some contingency plans and then we had this curriculum fund proposal and found out just before Christmas that we’ve been successful, which was fortunate.
Was it his idea or mine? I think it was a joint thing that we wanted to pursue it. I think what’s interesting is a lot of the strength of that work was that it was from a practicing teacher. And already even in that short time that Jon hasn’t been — I mean he’s teaching A level philosophy — but he’s not teaching his primary classes, in that time, I think he’s experienced slightly less credibility perhaps because he’s not teaching it. Not being able to do that rapid testing that you can do when you’re the person doing a lot of the delivery. So, it’ll be interesting to see over the next year, two years how long he stays in what he’s doing. I think he might be tempted to come back to the classroom and we’ll have to see how that develops.
Niall Alcock: [00:12:39] You talked about the distribution of it afterward. How have plans for that evolved?
Ed Vainker: [00:12:42] The DfE funding is supporting us to share it in six primary schools and six secondary schools. We’ve agreed with Teach First that we’re going to give it — the materials — to all of their trainees this summer. So that will get things out there and then with we’re thinking carefully about how we can bear it.
In principle, we’d like it to be really available. We’d like to be able to generate some resource so that we can be refining it and developing it and we’re already working on Science and on… we teach whole class reading we call it ‘Book Club’ in Key Stage 2.
So, thinking about how we can develop and refine those resources. And of course, part of that is about supporting our own teachers because as that curriculum is developed, and is really strong, and is refined, and is very accessible, and easy to use, it makes it easier for our teachers.
So, when we come to our conversation about retention, that’s quite a key element to me of making the job really sustainable by teachers having the resources to be able to teach.
Niall Alcock: [00:13:41] Well, let’s talk about retention. Headlines are saying that teachers are leaving the profession at record rates. For every teacher we don’t retain, we have to recruit another.
What do we need to do on a national scale to improve the situation? And what we found successful in Feltham’s was context specifically?
Ed Vainker: [00:13:57] I think that it’s a really demanding job and I think it’s very different to other professional jobs in that you are on a clock. The demands on you are… you know, regardless of whether you are feeling a bit under the weather or whatever, I think that’s really tough. I think it’s hard to do that job year in year out. It’s a huge credit to people who do it.
I think probably making it easy for people to come back in and to duck out and to come back. I mean, for me, I think I’ve been much more effective in my job because of the time I spent in Canada and then in the States and outside the classroom. And so, you know when people come to me and say, “I’m thinking of trying something different” it’s quite hard for me to say, “Oh no, you should stay”.
Niall Alcock: [00:14:48] Do you try and persuade them to stay?
Ed Vainker: [00:14:51] Depends. Sometimes. Sometimes. It depends. Flexibility is key. And I think, you know if you take Jon as an example, Emily as well, you know, she’s in on Mondays and Tuesdays. She’s working on this curriculum and then she’s in school Wednesday to Friday.
I spoke to her before Christmas and she said she just has so much more energy. She works at twelve-hour days on Monday and Tuesday. So, it’s not like she’s not working hard. But just having a different, or doing a different type of work, being more self-managed and maybe working from home, and all these sorts of things. You know, she was saying she’s quite… she’s not necessarily a huge extrovert and it’s hard being in a place where there are hundreds and hundreds of other people, you know, all the time.
And so, I think whether it’s some flexibility about the type of work within it at the same time, or it’s having the opportunity to take a sabbatical for a term or a year and come back. I think those sorts of things are important. We’re thinking carefully about that.
Can we give people a day a week where they do something slightly different? Maybe supporting with teacher training? Or they’re maybe developing curriculum resources? Just to kind of change the experience they’re having because I think that has potential I think.
Niall Alcock: [00:16:07] You touched on an interesting point around the extent to which training will help retention.
Are there ways of using professional development as a way of retaining the staff? What are your thoughts?
Ed Vainker: [00:16:19] Yeah. People want to feel that they’re getting better at something. And I think the profession has missed an opportunity in a way. I think to say you feel like you’re getting better at the core business of teaching, almost independent of taking on more responsibility and so on. But to have that sense, I think, is a retention strategy. You know, if you think I’m getting better at this. When you meet people, who’ve done it for a long time and who have real pride in that kind of craft and the way that they’ve developed and the way they’ve improved, I’m sure that is a key element.
Niall Alcock: [00:16:54] I was at the Institute for Teaching and Ambition School Leadership Global Teacher Development Forum and they asked David Berliner “Why is teacher development so important?” And I think the one that sticks out my mind is “because being good at stuff feels good”
Niall Alcock: [00:16:54]Let’s talk about professional development in the specific context of Reach.
Ed Vainker: [00:17:12] Yeah, I think it’s evolved. I think the consistent thing is that we’ve really invested in coaching. So, every teacher in the school has a coach and they’re observed for 15 minutes every week. Then they have a coaching conversation, which is based on the kind of Leverage Leadership Model and we identify, they identify through that conversation an action step in a way in which their teaching can improve for the next time.
And so, teachers will have, by the end of the year, 35 ways in which, to your point about getting better and feeling good about being good, 35 ways in which their teaching has improved and that’s a big investment. And that’s something that we focus on.
And when the school is really humming that’s when that’s going really well. And we have some really skillful coaches. Really all of our more experienced teachers, so teachers who’ve been in the school for more than a year to two years — qualifies as experienced — they are coaches. And so that’s happening a lot. That’s been the centrepiece of this of the CPD that we’ve offered.
We’ve done quite a lot of work around co-planning working on curriculum planning together and doing that and having protocols around that. Then for our new teachers we have an induction program, which leans pretty heavily on Teach Like a Champion and key behaviours that we support our new teachers, whether they’re new to the profession or new to the school, to develop in terms of particular habits that help classrooms to run smoothly, to build strong relationships, that kind of thing and to do effective checking for understanding and modelling.
Niall Alcock: [00:18:40] I’m intrigued about the coaching aspect. I imagine the quality of those coaching conversations comes down to the quality of the coach and to an extent the quality of the coaching training they had.
Tell me about how your coaches learned their craft in coaching and how it was developed.
Ed Vainker: [00:18:57] So a lot of our coaches were trained by ARK teacher training. They’ve had very high expectations of their schools and of the mentoring and so on. So that helped.
Then we’ve refined it internally and we’ve developed our own materials. We’ve done a couple of Doug Lemov — those two-day trainings — and that has helped us to think about how we’re organising our CPD, especially in terms of quality of practice.
Recently, our Head of Science went to Unlocked had over from his kind of team…
Niall Alcock: [00:19:30] Unlocked Graduates?
Ed Vainker: [00:19:32] …. Unlocked Graduates….had someone from his team — all around practice and how you facilitate practice. We’ve identified that as probably the part of our coaching that most needs work, or at least the part of our coaching which is least consistent across the school. So, where it’s really effective, the practice is really strong and where it’s less effective there is not very much or no practice. But I think you’re right in that can always be improved. And the fact of having the coaching is only part of the solution.
The two elements to it are: can you identify the high leverage thing that that teacher can do to improve? Generally, we find that easier than: can you facilitate the conversation some way that leaves the person ready to do it? Perhaps because I think maybe our staff are quite good at doing the analysis bit and then may be slightly less skilled at people stuff. Particularly, around the kind of facilitating the practice.
I think as the school’s grown, we’ve perhaps slightly lost that ‘we’re all going to practice together’ thing that I think was a strength at the beginning. Maybe we’ve been a bit… we haven’t invested enough in continuing to have that culture of ‘we’re going to practice this together’. And that’s something we recognise we need to do better.
Niall Alcock: [00:20:46] We spoke a little bit about the internal structures and systems in place for professional development. I mean when we first met we talked a little bit about what you valued in external training you’ve been on.
What’s the best thing that you’ve been on personally? What’s the best thing you’ve brought into your school that’s really helped push things forward in terms of professional development?
Ed Vainker: [00:21:03] I mean I think the big thing is the sustained engagement over time. I did a course with an organisation called Mitchell Phoenix called Governing Change, which was one day a month for six months. And that was really, even just the structuring like that. It was a group of eight of us, assignments to do in between, presentations to give when we came back about those assignments.
Niall Alcock: [00:21:26] And so this is a cross-sector training wasn’t education specific?
Ed Vainker: [00:21:28] It was not education specific, it was basically leadership training. So, it wasn’t education specific at all. But it was about communication, about influencing, about organisational development, about personal organisation, communication.
I think the structure of it, as I say, was really important because you kept coming back to it. There was homework to do in between and you were accountable because you were going to have a follow-up. So, I think we found that feature has been important to the kinds of things that we’ve done. Where we haven’t had it because it’s been a one-off, we’ve tried where possible to bring that accountability, in terms of people cascading it and people reporting back a month later, and a couple of months later, about the impact that it’s had.
Niall Alcock: [00:22:13] Have you done some educational leadership training?
Ed Vainker: [00:22:16] One piece of training I have had that I found immensely helpful was media training that the New Schools Network ran. It was a woman called Amy Leonard. Very, very helpful.
And what it was, and it speaks to the question about practice I think, because she basically gave me some principles and then she filmed three TV interviews with me and then we watched them back and they would each one was three minutes long. Two of them were generally about the school and me needing to get key messages across. And one of them was a response to a particular incident.
Niall Alcock: [00:22:54] Hypothetical incident?
Ed Vainker: [00:22:57] A hypothetical incident. And just the improvement that I made over those three interviews in the light of her feedback was amazing. The principles were really helpful. You know, you have your three key points and you do answer, bridge, communicate and all that kind of stuff.
But actually, it was the practice. And it was looking critically at what I just said and sort of rehearsing how I could have answered that question differently made a huge difference. So, I’d really recommend if people have the opportunity to do that kind of training.
Niall Alcock: [00:23:25] You’ve mentioned the governing change program you’ve been on.
Tell us a bit about some of the programs that you brought into Reach and how they went.
Ed Vainker: [00:23:32] So we’ve had some really good training from Place2Be around attachment, which has been helped by, I think, the ongoing relationship we have with them in terms of having a service in the school. We’ve been able to kind of develop that training and sort of build on what we’ve done before. But at the same time recognise that there are new staff starting as the school has grown, at different points.
We also, for a year, run effectively teacher supervision. So, in the same way that a therapist would need to have supervision, we had a kind of group supervision that we had monthly for teachers teaching a particular year group to reflect on their experience of teaching that year group and for the Place 2 Be service to kind of talk to us about the children in that year group, who are accessing counselling.
Niall Alcock: [00:24:19] So did the Place 2 Be service train your teachers to run their own supervision sessions?
Ed Vainker: [00:24:23] No. They delivered the supervision and alongside there was a kind of training element to it because it was also reflecting on that child’s experience of counselling and what that might lead us to think about their experience in school, and then going into the teacher reflecting on their own experience of teaching, and also some quite personal experiences.
It led to us, I think all of us, who did it — I think it’s quite important that Rebecca and I were there and we really modelled being very open about it — let all of us, I think, in different ways to reflect on our own attachment and our own experiences when we were younger. And I think it strengthened our understanding of where our pupils were. I think it was quite important and that sat in amongst a series of some different training that has been delivered where we’ve been able to kind of reflect, enquire in a more sophisticated way, I think, about where, you know, our people’s backgrounds and people’s prior experiences.
Niall Alcock: [00:25:23] After we met for the first time, you introduced me to Aidan Sadgrove and I remember vividly comparing the conversation I had with you and with him and you both had a very similar approach to making sure that children’s backgrounds were taken into account and looking after the whole child. So, it’s really interesting and fascinating to hear you talk about again.
Niall Alcock: [00:25:42] There’s lots of organisations offering different services and different kinds of interventions: at student or teacher level.
What’s the secret to going out to that marketplace and to selecting the right ones for you or for your context?
Ed Vainker: [00:25:55] I think it is building a longer-term relationship with providers and being able to say, “Right we’re going to do this together and if it works well, we’re going to continue to work together.” So, in that Place2Be example, and there are lots of people who offer that kind of training, the fact that they know the school and they know that we have a service here already, I think is really important. I think trying stuff out and starting small and then building relationships that way, I think is a good idea. I think also taking time to make sure that it’s the right organisation.
Niall Alcock: [00:26:28] How do you do that?
Ed Vainker: [00:26:29] References. I think talking to people. I think seeing the organisation operating in different places. I think those things.
Niall Alcock: [00:26:36] We are working in quite chilly economic times. Budgets are shrinking real terms.
What’s the secret to ensuring that’s the books balance and that you can protect or ring-fence budget to ensure we can invest in staff development?
Ed Vainker: [00:26:52] Having worked internationally for a few years, it’s really striking how much control headteachers in England have over the budget. So, while…
Niall Alcock: [00:27:01] Is that a lot of control?
Ed Vainker: [00:27:02] …A lot of control. Yeah. And a lot of independence. And while definitely, things are tight, but I have five million pounds that comes in and no one really tells me what to do with it.
When you have that level of independence, I think one thing that’s important is being very critical about what you have. It’s very tight if you start with “this is all the money that we spent last year, and I want to spend it all again”, then it feels very tight because money might be coming down and that’s really difficult.
If you — not exactly a blank page but start with as close to a blank page as possible — and say, “What are the things that are really important?” For us, a lot of that has been the mental health support, the kind of pastoral and pupil support that we offer. We’ve made the decision to kind of put that down first and then that stays.
Then you have to be flexible about some of the other things. We’ve been able to be quite entrepreneurial in terms of bringing in revenue from lettings and also running wraparound care for our pupils and for our families. I mean, I think it’s really difficult, I think it’s easier in some ways when you’re a brand-new school because you don’t have as many entrenched relationships that are perhaps harder to change.
Maybe part of it is that kind of mentality of starting from a place of like “Wow I’ve got loads of control”. If you’re in France and you’re a headteacher, you get allocated all of the teachers, you get allocated all of the textbooks you’re going to use, you get told this is the timetable the school is going to have. So, you’ve got really, relatively little leverage in terms of what you want to change and how you want to make your school a great school.
So, I think we’re in a really fortunate position in a lot of ways even though I do acknowledge that financially things are really tough.
Niall Alcock: [00:28:42] You’ve always struck me as someone who’s very innovative and entrepreneurial and you’ve mentioned the entrepreneurial things you’ve done.
What other projects have you run in the past to be successful in helping you run a sustainable school?
Ed Vainker: [00:28:54] Last year last year we did a big exercise where we went through all our invoices. We worked out exactly how much of everything we’d bought. And then we went to the market and said, “We’re going to buy three thousand glue sticks this year. Give me your best price on glue sticks, if I buy 3000 of them from you.”
And then we’ve tightened up and we’ve reduced the number of invoices we get. We use a piece of software that allows us to make all our ordering come through certain places and we only get orders in certain times so that we reduce the invoices.
Niall Alcock: [00:29:24] What’s it called?
Ed Vainker: [00:29:25] It’s called Redro.
Niall Alcock: [00:29:26] OK.
Ed Vainker: [00:29:27] Yeah. And that’s been that’s been quite successful. So, we’ve done quite a lot to reduce our costs on that side.
Niall Alcock: [00:29:34] I ask this question to every guest on the podcast. If there is one question you could ask every headteacher in the country what would a question be and why?
Ed Vainker: [00:29:42] I think it would be something like “How do you, kind of…” I mean it sounds really cheesy but not exactly…. “How do you nourish yourself? How do you look after yourself?” I think that’s a hard thing about the job. It’s easy to focus on the things that are not going well and there are always things that you want to be going better. So how you maintain your own sort of energy levels and positivity. I think that’s the thing that I’m always curious to find out from people.
Niall Alcock: [00:30:06] How have you done it for yourself?
Ed Vainker: [00:30:08] Um. I don’t know… I think probably the thing is seeking opportunities to be innovative. That whole business where we tried to save money on our glue ticks. We lost our business manager. So, we didn’t have a business manager for nine months. So, I was basically in that job. It was pretty hellish in a lot of ways but those sorts of things — we made it quite fun and I made it kind of quite fun and it became a bit like “How we get into how we’re going to figure this out?” and, you know, horse trading and phoning up these different companies and saying “Gosh! You know. Well, we’ve been told we can get this elsewhere for cheaper”.
Finding joy in what you’re doing is probably and sort of being mindful, being present. You know, just being like this is what I’m doing, let’s have fun doing it.
Niall Alcock: [00:30:45] I think it’s a great answer. Looking back on your career so far. What’s the one moment you will always remember or the ones that will always make you laugh.
Ed Vainker: [00:30:55] It was in February of my first year of teaching. I was teaching — it was Friday afternoon — I was teaching a Year 9 class and I thought I was having a heart attack.
It was a catholic school I worked in and I remember my professional mentor, who looked after the trainee teachers, was called Sister Sarah. So, I asked a pupil to go and get her and she came into the lesson — I was in the middle of teaching and I said, “I think I’m having a heart attack”.
And she said, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
So, I went off to Kingston Hospital and the nurse said, “No, you’re not having a heart attack”. Then I had to wait two and a half hours to see a doctor.
And then this doctor came in and said, “Oh you’re the 21-year-old, who thinks he’s having a heart attack” And he laughed (he was laughing as he came in).
I said “hahaha, yes”.
“So, you’re not having a heart attack”.
I said “Okay but it feels quite… I feel quite ill”.
And he said, you know “What do you do for a living?”
I said, “I’m a teacher.”
He was like, “Is it stressful?”
“Yeah it’s quite stressful”.
“Well, that’s the problem then. My advice is to relax”.
And I was like “Okay. Is there anything else you can tell me?”
He turned around, and he was walking out, he turned around he said, “My girlfriend does yoga.” And then he came in and said, “You can go.”
And so, I was like “Oh. okay.”
So, I went out, it was about five thirty or six o’clock and I’d never been to Kingston Hospital because it was the nearest. So, I had to walk to get to the station and I was thinking “Oh my God. That was weird. That was a weird thing.” And then I just concentrated on being a bit less stressed.
Niall Alcock: [00:32:23] I was going to say… How’s your yoga coming on?!
Ed Vainker: [00:32:26] Oh yeah. Well, I went to one yoga class, actually. It was before loads of twenty-somethings in Hoxton doing reformer pilates. This was 2003 and I was the only man and I was the only person under 60. So, I just went to the one class. I find it quite stressful and left and I haven’t been back to another yoga session. I have managed to find a way to manage it.
Niall Alcock: [00:32:49] The future of education. What does it look like? What are you optimistic about? and what do we need to do to make sure it happens?
Ed Vainker: [00:32:56] I think that there has been huge improvement. You know, if I think about London in the last 15 years when I started teaching in 2003. I think thing are very, very different and that’s really positive.
I think there’s a lot more to do. The thing that I’m particularly interested in is early years and is, in fact, is probably before school starts, and even before nursery starts, this has been starting a school has been quite challenging.
Much easier than having two kids, even though I’ve got a very talented and accomplished partner and my parents have been super supportive and so have hers and we’ve got Google and it’s been really hard.
I think the state doesn’t support people enough and there’s a big taboo around it. But actually, I think there are some really simple things that you don’t necessarily know to do. But if we could support everyone in the community to do them, it would really help children to build secure attachment and to develop language skills, and so on, at an early stage.
That achievement gap is so massive at three and at four. It feels like there’s more that we could do as a society. And I think if we could do that in a strengths-based way, in a supportive way and not in a kind of critical way, we could help everyone, and it would have a really positive impact on the opportunities that all young people have.
Niall Alcock: [00:34:18] You mentioned there are a few things that we could do to achieve those outcomes. Practically, what are those things?
Ed Vainker: [00:34:24] If parents chat away to their children, if they make eye contact but not too much eye contact- they come they come and go- if they smile, if they use touch really effectively, all those things. Those things are empirically shown to have a really positive impact. And it’s not easy… one doesn’t know automatically that one is supposed to do those things and so much of the way that we parent relates to the way that we were parented and it’s almost subconscious, that helping people to work through those things and to reflect on those things I think would make a huge difference.
Niall Alcock: [00:34:57] And if we think about those things in the context of a school then we talk about the future of education how do we bring those things into a school context?
Ed Vainker: [00:35:06] My intention here is to look to reach down and to offer antenatal education in the school and to be a place that the community can kind of come together. I think schools do an amazing job of being an inclusive place and a place for the whole community. I think it’s a shame that at that stage there isn’t, there aren’t institutions like schools.
So my intention here is that we just that we are the institution right from conception. You know we have a kind of cradle to career vision. But I am conscious also that we are in a particular community, in a particular context and we’re a start-up and all of those things. So it’s not that I think everyone can and should automatically do that. But I do think schools can reach out and have a lot to offer I guess.
Niall Alcock: [00:35:51] Ed, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you. Thanks for being honest, thanks for sharing your insight. Maybe I can come back in six to twelve months’ time to see if those predictions come true.
Ed Vainker: [00:35:59] It would be a pleasure.
Niall Alcock: [00:36:00] Thank you very much.
Ed Vainker: [00:36:01] Thanks.
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With the support Teach First, the Young Foundation and Super Being Labs we’re creating We Are In Beta — a positive space where we can all learn and grow from each other. We’re doing it through telling positive stories of teachers and senior leaders who are solving big challenges in their schools. Through our stories and interviews, we want to spark conversations about challenges and solutions, and we want to build bridges with parents and policymakers and make education the place we all want it to be.
You’ve just listened to Ed’s story and it’s part of Series 1 of the We Are In Beta podcast series; it features 12 inspiring school leaders, in conversation with me, discussing their journeys, their thoughts on the solutions to a range of the big issues in education, the questions on their mind and their predictions for the future.
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If you enjoyed this interview, check out Episode 4 of the We Are In Beta Podcast with Will Smith, Chief Exec at Greenshaw Learning Trust on Lybsyn, Spotify, iTunes and Stitcher or download the file here.
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