'See me after class, Gove!': Why the headteachers' union leader opposes the Government's "free" schools policy

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The Independent Online

Michael Gove will not be able to rest on his laurels when he addresses the first big headteachers' conference of his reign as Education Secretary tomorrow. John Fairhurst, this year's president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), is expected to spell out in plain terms some of the reservations it has about his policies. He will also make it clear, however, where the association is in agreement with some key aspects of government policy.

Fairhurst, headteacher of Shenfield High School in Essex for the past 16 years, has serious reservations about the Government's "free" schools policy – under which parents, teachers, charities and religious groups can open their own schools with government funding. He dubs it the "schools for people like us" policy.

It can make a mockery of local authority planning for school provision, he argues. "Where a school closes because of falling pupil rolls, some group pitches up and says, 'We want to create a school here'. It can be middle-class parents in a socially deprived area who want something a bit more exclusive than what's available," he says. "They [the Government] are going to have find all kinds of serious money to create schools over and above the number needed at a time of scarce resources. They're going to be 'me, myself and I' and 'grab what you can' schools. Falling secondary school rolls is a big issue. What a weird time to be expanding provision through maverick ideas like 'free' schools"

On the other hand, he is all for government plans to centre teacher training around schools – having been one of the first products of such a scheme when he trained in the mid-1970s. He did his training at Hackney Downs school in east London – the former boys' grammar school with a reputation for producing the goods, which later in the 1970s became, for a while, one of the country's most notorious schools – the first failing school to be closed under the Blair Government's drive to raise standards. It has now been replaced by the Mossbourne Academy, which has just succeeded in getting ten of this year's A-level candidates offered places at Cambridge.

Fairhurst was taught as one of 12 trainees. "It was school-concentrated initial training, so I am one of the few teachers of my generation who can say I can put my hand on my heart and say I was well trained in the classroom," he says.

So impressed was he by school-based training that one of his first big decisions on arriving as head at Shenfield was to make it a training school. It is the lead school in a partnership of 12 in the neighbourhood now training about 46 teachers a year. "I am hoping that Michael Gove will recognise that there are very successful examples around the country of school-based teacher training on which he can base his policy," he says.

Another decision he made on becoming head and one he will be remembered for, is the introduction of single-sex classes in his 1,550-pupil comprehensive. It was not his original idea – the previous head, Peter Osbourne, had decided to go down this path – Fairhurst just decided to press ahead with it.

"Dr Osbourne was a scientist, and it was a time when we were trying to encourage more girls to take up science – there was a campaign, Women into Science and Engineering," he explains. "The trouble was the boys would shout at the girls 'You're not good enough to be taught with us'. In the end, we decided to split them in all subjects." One of the areas where it was felt most neccessary was in computer technology where the boys would elbow the girls out of the way to get at the computers when there were not enough to go round.

Fairhurst says the strategy was"a great marketing idea". "We were offering something different," he adds. "Parents would say we're not just another extremely competent comprehensive. We've actually got a different offer and people flocked here. We're a different dish on the menu."

Moulsham High School in Chelmsford – where he was deputy head before coming to Shenfield – did the same. It was slightly different for them, since the school was created out of the merger of a boys' and a girls' secondary modern school. Shenfield was always mixed. "We were the only ones who had to have a sex change," Fairhurst says.

Now all classes are single-sex up to the age of 14 – as are maths and English lessons up until GCSE. With so many different subject options at GCSE, it was not feasible to continue splitting the sexes in all subjects. "For instance. you might have 17 taking music – 10 or 11 girls and six boys. You can't split them up." In the sixth-form it reverts to mixed classes throughout the curriculum.

The policy has been successful in persuading parents to choose the school – possibly on the ground that there will not be so many distractions in class. Fairhurst is cautious about claiming it has improved standards, believing better results are more likely to be attributed to the qualityof the teachers.

Only a handful of secondary schools have adopted a similar strategy. He thinks there are only about four or five others in the country – although Waterloo Road, the fictional comprehensive in the BBC 1 drama, is planning to go down this route. In any case, the policy is embedded at the school and unlikely to change.

As he approaches the ASCL conference in Manchester, Fairhurst's thoughts are turning more to the curriculum changes planned by Gove. He is worried that too much of the planning for the future seems to centre around ideas from the past – and that vocational education is taking a back seat.

He himself has introduced a strong BTEC element into the sixth form, believing it is neccessary to cater for those pupils "for whom A-level would be a difficulty", especially with the introduction of the new school leaving age of 18.

However, he is critical of fellow heads, whom he described as "league table cheats", who use level two BTECs (the equivalent level to GCSE) to boost their ratings.

Michael Gove, therefore, can look forward to a combative weekend in Manchester although, Fairhurst is anxious to emphasise, a constructive one. "At ASCL, we believe in dialogue with the Government – working with them in a fruitful way rather than being antagonistic," he says. "We want any government that's been legitimately elected to a position of power to listen to us because we can improve their policy."

Could do better: The big issues troubling Britain's headteachers

Cuts Many heads will now have had a glimpse of next year's budget – and realise there may be many losers despite the Coalition Government's pledge to protect front-line services.

Exams Heads are angry over the way in which Gove introduced his English Baccalaureate – by rating their schools on it in exam league tables before they could advise their pupils to study for GCSEs in the five subject headings that go to make up the new certificate. They also believe the decision to limit the humanities element of the baccalaureate to just history and geography is too narrow – and that it should include religious education and the arts as well.

Pensions A poll of ASCL members reveals that two-third are ready to take national industrial action for the first time if their pension entitlement is reduced. Already the National Association of Head Teachers – the other main heads' organisation – has received support from its members for industrial action and the University and College Union has voted for strike action on the same issue. The traditionally moderate association of Teachers and Lecturers is also flexing its muscles on the same issue – dusting down its action committee, which has not met for six years, to plan ahead.

Free schools Heads share misgivings voiced by Andy Burnham, the Labour education spokesman, that the setting up of free schools in a neighbourhood could destabilise existing schools by taking pupils away from them and leaving them unviable.