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Stand out schools for.... unconventional headteachers

From identical twin headteachers to the headmaster who teaches youngsters how to use a shotgun, let us introduce you to some of the UK’s less traditional heads. By Kate Hilpern.

Mike Fairclough, West Rise Junior School, Eastbourne

Mike Fairclough, West Rise Junior School, Eastbourne

‘Meet the hunky headmaster who teaches kids to use a shotgun,’ reads the Telegraph headline  about Mike Fairclough. As far as headteachers go, it doesn’t get much more unconventional than that.

With his shoulder-length blonde hair, crisp white shirt, Harris tweed waistcoat, vintage jeans and knee-length fur coat, Fairclough is described as looking like ‘a model who’s got lost on the way back from a Game of Thrones-themed fashion shoot.’

And his eccentricity doesn’t stop there. This head believes that children need to learn how to build a camp fire and make a bow and arrow. At this state primary school, sandwiched between a large council estate and marsh land, potentially dangerous activities that many parents wouldn’t normally allow are placed right at the heart of the curriculum. The kids get dirty, build dens, skin rabbits and yes, they really do use shotguns.

'When children are exposed to new experiences, especially things outside their comfort zone, they expand,’ says Fairclough, whose curriculum is described by Ofsted as ‘outstandingly rich.’ Indeed, the children use these activities to enhance learning in subjects such as maths, science and ancient history in imaginative ways. @westrisejunior

Simon Bannister, Breckenborough, North Yorkshire

Simon Bannister, Breckenborough, North Yorkshire

'Our first head with a pierced ear,’ wrote The Good Schools Guide reviewer of this non-maintained special school for boys with complex needs, including Asperger’s,??? autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. ‘We loved his office with Jimi Hendrix posters and guitars on the wall.’

‘We are an unconventional school and celebrate uniqueness,’ he says. ‘All the students here are very different and many have spent a long time trying to mask who they are, so the first goal is to enable them to be themselves. We model being comfortable in your own skin to help them with that and I also talk to them on a level as an equal human being, which is part of the ethos of the school.’

It’s important to Bannister that the students know about his interest in music ‘because it shows them I’m not just a headteacher but that there’s a human being behind that. There are other schools where that’s deemed as unprofessional and heads feel they have to build a moat around themselves. But that’s not us.’

Just as likely to have lengthy conversations with students about Marvel and Star Wars as algebra and Shakespeare, Bannister also prides himself on students feeling able to strike up a conversation with him about ‘literally about anything they want.’ ‘Students will come and see me during breaktime to talk about nothing more than the virtues of The Empire Strikes Back and I love it.’

Alex Reppold, Pocklington Community Junior School, East Yorkshire

Back in 2015, when Alex Reppold was appointed as headteacher of Pocklington Community Junior School, he was named as Britain’s youngest state school head Now, over 100 schools have headteachers in their 20s, but it’s still far from the norm in Britain.

‘I personally don’t think age should be a factor when it comes to senior leadership positions in schools,’ says Reppold, now 32. ‘But a lot of the discussion at the time was whether I was up to the job because I was coming into a school that had been left dissatisfactory. I suppose people question whether someone knows what they’re doing slightly more carefully when that person is much younger than they expect. Or they had preconceived ideas about what would make a good headteacher – perhaps as a result of thinking back to their own school days.’

Initially, Reppold only intended to do some local press around his age because ‘I was coming in and making big changes to a school and we needed to make sure that change was visible, so it seemed a good way to engage our local community. But it all went a bit crazy and we had press on our doorstop that I had to send away. The point is none of it was for the purposes of self-gratification and I don’t think I’ll ever be in the national press again – I’m not that interesting!’

Alex Reppold, Pocklington Community Junior School, East Yorkshire
Jenny Brown, St Albans School for Girls, Hertfordshire and her twin sister Jane Lunnon, Wimbledon High School, London

Jenny Brown, St Albans School for Girls, Hertfordshire and her twin sister Jane Lunnon, Wimbledon High School, London

Brown was appointed as headteacher in 2014, a few months before her sister Jane Lunnon got her headship. ‘Both our parents were English teachers, so of course the one thing both Jane and I were very clear on during our adolescence was that we were going to do anything but that,’ laughs Brown. But having cut her teeth in publishing (and hating it), Brown soon realised teaching was her calling. ‘As soon as I started my training, it felt like coming home,’ she says.

At that time, Lunnon was working in market research and one day, Brown called her, saying, ‘Crikey, I’ve got a lesson on King Lear in half-an-hour. Any ideas?’ That was the moment Lunnon decided to follow her sister into teaching. ‘I thought, “Oh my God, she’s being paid to do that!” It was a complete Damascus moment,’ explains Lunnon.

The twins admit to talking shop quite a bit, ‘mostly during phone calls on our drives home.’ ‘Although I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how she influences me, or vice versa, I know those conversations have become part of who we are,’ says Brown.

Among their favourite twin moments was their assembly trick. Brown explains, ‘Jane went first, doing an assembly in her school on what it’s like to be a twin – and half way through her talk, I burst out from the back, where I was hiding, to say, “You’ve got it all wrong!” Then she did the same at my school. It went down a treat – the girls still talk about it.’ @STAHSHead @Head_WHS

Zoe Readhead, Summerhill, Suffolk

Regularly labelled Britain’s most unconventional private school, it would be disappointing if this independent school for boys and girls aged from 5 to 17 didn’t have a quirky head. ‘I think I might be the most unconventional headteacher in the world, but certainly in this country,’ says Readhead. ‘Running Summerhill is different than running any other school because we live in a democracy within the school, so the adults and pupils make decisions about the daily running of the school together and I’m just part of that process, having no more say than anyone else.’

Described by our reviewer as ‘a very youthful late 60s,’ Readhead was literally born, bred and educated at Summerhill, her father having founded the school. She has, continues the review, ‘been a staunch guardian of school's core values when lesser mortals would have wavered.’

Readhead, who comes to school in a pair of crocks and is called Zoe by everyone, runs a school where children choose their own educational goals and take things at their own speed. If children decide to skip lessons, so be it. Play is considered as valid a part of their development as formal teaching.

Readhead says she’s unhappy about the direction of education as a whole because of the lack of emphasis upon emotional intelligence and the huge expectations it puts on children. ‘People are working harder and harder to get it right, but they are still pushing children to achieve at the expense of social and emotional development. We come at it completely the other way round – my father said if you look after the emotions, the intellect will look after itself.’ @Zoesummerhill

Zoe Readhead, Summerhill, Suffolk
Dr Julian Murphy, Loughborough Amherst School, Loughborough

Dr Julian Murphy, Loughborough Amherst School, Loughborough

Murphy made newspaper headlines in 2017 when he abolished traditional school reports, claiming they ‘are a complete waste of time.’

Parents are busy people, he says – ‘what they basically want to know is, “what do you think my child could achieve, where are they in relation to that target and what could they do better?”. So in essence, we trimmed everything down to that.

The other reason for ditching conventional reports, he says, is that ‘with the best will in the world – and I’ve seen good teachers do this – people slide into euphemisms and politician-style speech because they’re a little bit scared of parents and reactions. So rather than saying, “X isn’t working hard enough,” they’ll take three sentences to say that in an incredibly roundabout way that probably won’t even register with the parent. They do it almost subconsciously, like politicians do.’

A third reason is that report writing can be a very time-consuming job, he says. ‘It can take up an enormous amount of time that could go into lesson planning and thinking about teaching and learning, which after all is a teacher’s job,’ he says. ‘And then there’s the unnecessary stress reports cause to pupils themselves.’ As long as the school has excellent and honest communication with parents as necessary, he argues, full reports are redundant.

No wonder our reviewer wrote, ‘He’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.’ ‘A bundle of suppressed energy, nervy and enthusiastic, he will undoubtedly carry everyone with him; his great determination is apparent.'

Jonny Lakin, Woodside Lodge Outdoor Learning Centre, Leicestershire

Jonny Lakin, Woodside Lodge Outdoor Learning Centre, Leicestershire

‘The school opened with one pupil and two staff - Jonny and a teacher,’ wrote our reviewer about this special independent school for boys and girls with autistic spectrum disorder.

For many headteachers, the motivation for the job is all about career progression. ‘But for me, it’s all about necessity,’ he says. ‘I used to work with ASD children who were out of school, building them up academically and emotionally to go back into mainstream. But nobody seemed to be getting it right, so it would often fail again. That’s when I decided to open a school that does get it right and with no watered-down measures.’

There are no classrooms, he says of the school with 32 pupils. ‘The classroom is anywhere the kid wants it to be – outside in the woods or the community and we learn by doing rather than sitting down with worksheets. And nobody is forced to do a particular curriculum.’

When Lakin knows he has a visitor, he often hangs around reception. ‘Very often, the visitor turns up and says to me, “Hi, can you let Jonny Lakin know I’m here?” They expect the stereotype – the balding white 50-something in a suit, and they get me – black, 36-years-old and often wearing shorts.’ @group_woodside

Chalk & Chat 2019


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