“I never thought we would win – we do things very differently – so when we did we had a massive party. Every member of staff – TAs, caretaker, volunteers, everyone – was there and we had a really cosmic celebration. And from then, obviously, everything has snowballed.”
You may recognise Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Since his school won the Tes Primary School of the Year award in 2015, he has been almost constantly in the public eye. Just this week, Channel 4 dedicated a 10-minute slot to the school, and there are numerous further opportunities on the immediate horizon, as well.
“Almost immediately after we won the award, the offers started coming in,” says Fairclough. “And they have not stopped. We have had visits from all the major newspapers, major radio stations, we’ve had Countryfile film with us, BBC News, Channel 5, a documentary team whose film ended up being screened at Tate Modern,.I have been asked to write a book and that has been published, and I even ended up on the GMTV sofa, which was completely surreal.”
West Rise won the award for multiple reasons, according to the judges. Firstly, the results were excellent: the school serves a disadvantaged catchment with half of the students eligible for free school meals, yet it has the best results in reading, writing and maths in the local area and progress scores are among the best in the country.
Secondly, Fairclough’s approach is highly innovative: the school rents a marshland from the local council on which the pupils run a farm (including a herd of water buffalo), excavate and recreate a bronze age settlement, meditate, experience land management skills like shooting and hunting and engage in a vast array of historical skills like flint knapping; meanwhile, back in the school building there are innovations like Room 13, a dedicated art space to which pupils can go during the day to be creative.
Winning the award has provided a platform for West Rise to share what it does and learn from others, too, says Fairclough.
“All the media coverage that has been a direct result of winning the award has had multiple positive impacts for us,” he explains. “It has given us the chance to share what we do, it has enabled us to push on and do more through collaborations and increased confidence, it has inspired others to really change the way they approach education and it has led to many, many people inspiring us to do things differently.”
Fairclough has many more irons in the fire. The Health and Safety Executive has been keen to promote the school as an example of how risk, when managed properly, is something that should be embraced in schools. And Fairclough is set to pop up with a new book and some television work next year.
He’s keen to stress that all this attention is not about seeking personal celebrity and that it is not a distraction for the school; rather it is an opportunity to try and change the way education is perceived and delivered for the better. The award has been central to helping him achieve that, he says.
“We have a massive opportunity, because of the platform of the Tes award, to try and put our version of education out there and to say, ‘This is possible. You do not need to conform to what you think the system wants,'” Fairclough explains. “I have realised that to get our message out there I have to present some parts of my character and initially that made me uncomfortable, but I feel I have a responsibility to present the fact that there is a different way of doing things, that we can have a system that is both rigorous and puts the child at the centre of it and if that means I have to be on camera in my flairs and my shirt and riding my quad bike then fine.
“The Tes award gave me the credibility and the platform to really ask people questions about how we teach kids, and I am going to use it as best I can.”