HEADMASTER Mike Fairclough was the darling of primary school education after creating an unorthodox forest school in a council estate in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Alongside the usual lessons, from 2004 Mr Fairclough provided an extraordinarily rich rural curriculum that you would never expect in a state school. He leased 120 acres of marshland opposite West Rise school, the site of a former Bronze Age settlement. The children learned how to build fires and how to whittle wood with knives to make arrows. They learned fly fishing, how to skin rabbits and pluck pigeons. They tended beehives, sheep and even water buffalo.
Mr Fairclough won the admiration of his peers, and in 2015, the Times Educational Supplement ‘Primary School of the Year’ award. Dame Judith Hackitt, chairman of the Health & Safety Executive, said more school head teachers should be following Fairclough’s example. The underperforming school’s Ofsted rose from ‘Satisfactory’ to ‘Good’ and for 19 years, West Rise thrived. The number of pupils doubled from 179 to 360, as did the number of staff from 30 to 60.
Mr Fairclough enjoyed a good relationship with his staff and his local authority East Sussex County Council but resigned last month after a witch hunt using anti-terrorism legislation left him feeling a broken man. In his resignation letter he said: ‘I feel that I have been discriminated against, harassed, and bullied for exercising my right to lawful free speech and for expressing my philosophical belief in the importance of critical thinking, free speech, and safeguarding children.
‘As a headteacher, I have had a legal duty to safeguard children against harm. My professional field of expertise is child development and education. I have publicly shared my opinion that lockdowns harm children, that I disagree with masking children, and that I feel that the risks from the Covid vaccines for children outweigh any possible benefits. It has therefore been entirely reasonable and relevant for me to express my lawful opinions on these matters in the interest of safeguarding children against harm.’ Other heads agreed privately but 50-year-old Mr Fairclough, a father of four, was the only headteacher of 20,000 in the UK to say so publicly.
‘I first started to lose heart during the pandemic,’ he said. ‘The fear of Covid trumped learning, so children weren’t sitting next to each other and couldn’t share resources. Some schools were having children learning outside in the cold, so they weren’t able to concentrate, and it felt like adults’ fear of dying, which was irrational because we were told early that we were at minimal risk of dying of Covid, meant they were using children in their care as human shields. That made me think that the Department for Education weren’t really bothered about kids at all.’
His lawful response put him under scrutiny at the highest levels. Mr Fairclough found out through freedom of information (FOI) that he had been monitored by the government’s Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU) and their Department for Counter Extremism, although he was cleared of any wrongdoing by East Sussex County Council.
Some people objected to his negative views on vaccinating children against Covid, opinions expressed outside the school setting, on social media and in podcasts. They fell into four main points, all of which are hard to challenge:
· Healthy children were at low risk of serious illness from Covid. (Office of National Statistics figures show that just six under-tens died between January 2020 and May 2021. They do not say whether the children had underlying health problems. For context, around 1,000 children die on the roads each year.)
· Covid vaccines posed known and very serious risks. (Potentially fatal myocarditis, and pericarditis, inflammation of the heart, are known risks.)
· A child can still catch Covid and spread Covid when vaccinated. (Covid vaccinations were not recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination (JCVI) for under-16s, a decision overridden by the chief medical officers in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.)
· There was no long-term safety data, trials do not finish until this year, and the potential risks outweighed any benefit.
Mr Fairclough said: ‘I tried to communicate with parents who were undecided in a way that didn’t make me sound like I’m mad. I do think there are some in the freedom movement who say things in a way that doesn’t endear themselves to people with a different view.’
So, who complained about this popular and effective headmaster? The first investigation was launched in June 2021. It was made by a group of retired NHS workers on Twitter (now X) whose mission it was to find anyone in education who appeared to be antivax and anti-lockdown. Mr Fairclough does not know who made the second complaint but the third was made by a concerned group of parents and teachers. ‘No parent came to me,’ Mr Fairclough said. ‘I have an open-door policy and they know they can talk to me at any time. I don’t know exactly which staff complained, but I have my suspicions. There was a small group within the school who did not agree with me although most were aligned with my thinking.’
It was December 1 2022 when the third complaint arrived, reported under the Prevent duty, the government initiative that requires all education providers to safeguard learners from extremist ideologies. Mr Fairclough was also reported to the DfE’s Counter-Extremism Division and was being framed as an extremist and potential terrorist, an intimidating move by the local council that left Mr Fairclough traumatised. He was signed off suffering with stress. He said: ‘I found sleeping difficult. I kept dreaming about what was happening and woke up thinking about it. I’m not a terrorist, all I was doing was discussing the alterative narrative.’
We know utopia does not exist and Mr Fairclough had his run-ins. ‘It wasn’t that I never fell out with parents. Say for example they felt like a teacher hadn’t dealt with a bullying issue, then of course they would come in and kick off and I’d have to look into the matter. But what surprised me with the resignation is that even parents that I’d had that kind of fractious relationship with have actually contacted me personally to say, “we’re really gutted that you’re not here any more”. That surprised me. I thought at least one would say good riddance.’
His absence has sent the school into freefall. An Ofsted report carried out in July, seven months after he was signed off, saw West Rise downgraded from ‘Good’ to ‘Requires Improvement’.
Our education system is increasingly focused on learning by rote rather than teaching critical thinking, a skill Mr Fairclough thinks is essential. He said: ‘Education is highly political under the Conservative government, it’s all about acquisition of knowledge to be retained and regurgitated for a memory test on the other side.’
His unusual approach had the full support of parents, the Health and Safety Executive, Ofsted and the media. Some of his pupils gained places at the local agricultural college and now run their own herds in the Sussex South Downs. A number entered media in film, art, and drama, mainly thanks to his ‘Room 13’, where children could go and have complete creative autonomy.
He is not sure what comes next, but he is sure of one thing: advocating for children cost him his much-loved career in our inverted world. He said: ‘Critical thinking and lawful free speech are not dangerous; they go hand in hand in safeguarding children. Open debate on important matters is the bedrock of any democratic society and no one should be pursued for speaking out.’
Mr Fairclough is not giving up on free speech and is crowdfunding to take his former employer to court. You can donate here.
He hopes his future will include writing more books like Wild Thing, which is about how embracing childhood traits into adulthood can lead to happiness. He recently started a Substack which you can see here.