Personal Open Meeting statement from John Fairhurst

In preparation for the Open Meeting that we held on April 18th, an invitation was sent to all primary and secondary schools in Brentwood, Essex County Council, local councillors with a direct interest and representatives of the Becket Keys proposers. Given the haste with which the meeting was set up, we were delighted with the response that we received and would like to thank all those who attended.

We also extended an invitation to John Fairhurst who was the Head Teacher of Shenfield High School from 1995-2011 and was a key contributor to the consultation that was undertaken between Brentwood’s schools and Essex CC when falling numbers led to an assessment of school provision in the borough that concluded in 2009. This led to the agreed phased closure of Sawyers Hall College and the plan for a facility for vocational education to take its place.

Mr Fairhurst was also National President of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) for 2010/11.

Unfortunately he was unable to attend our meeting but declared that he would like to have done so and hoped to attend on a future occasion. Given his local and national educational experience we asked if he would be willing to provide a statement for use at our meeting in his absence. We were delighted that he agreed to do so and we made copies available on the night.

Below is the full statement posted with Mr Fairhurst’s permission. We must stress that this a strictly personal statement and is not on behalf of ASCL, Shenfield High School or any other body.

Thank you, Educating Brentwood, for taking the initiative to organise this meeting. I am only sorry that I cannot join you, as I am elsewhere this week.

I hope that either or both of Mr Gunn and Mr Scott-Evans, the two Primary school heads who initiated all this, will support the meeting, as it is obvious to me that there are deep seated issues in what is happening here in Brentwood. These issues have simply not yet been given proper public airing.

I hope, too, that the Russell Education Trust are co-operating with you. For they are significant unknowns in the situation. Frankly, it should be THEY, not you, organising this meeting as part of their consultation (which is a statutory duty upon them, after all).

But then, exactly who are the RET?

Despite 37 years in teaching and my significant involvement in ASCL (the national Secondary Headteachers’ Association) I had never heard of RET …. until , that is, their intervention here! There is little on the internet to describe them or reassure me of their competence: just a list of the directors registered at Company House and references to a pilot experience in Bristol (for which feedback has been mixed).

What is in this for these directors? Are they drawing income from their involvement? If so, how much and what for? The tax-payer is paying… So why do we not know?

I find this reticence somewhat strange, given how loudly and successfully RET has publicised their proposal in Brentwood. As I have said before (and as was reported in the Gazette) “Becket Keys is not so much a school, more a PR machine!”

I do not accept the case for the need for a school like the proposed Becket Keys. The real need in Brentwood (and, in truth, in the country as a whole) is the development of an effective and prestigious vocational provision catering for those students for whom the academic National Curriculum has ceased to be relevant.

Brentwood – along with much of the rest of the UK- has a significant gap here. We need to engage these children (from around 14 years old) with a different more practical experience. This would be mostly for them (more of the same no longer motivates them and their consequent disaffection leads to all kinds of problems). But it is also for the rest of us (tried finding a plumber lately?)

Yet there does appear to have been a demand from parents for this new proposal. But, I suggest, this is NOT because there is a need for another Church school in the town nor because there is anything fundamentally wrong with existing mainstream provision.

There is, I acknowledge, a personal following for Mr Scott-Evans. But the issues are much deeper than that. The (very realistic) assumption is that the new school will enjoy hugely favourable funding, both on its capital and operational accounts, as HMG ‘pump primes’ the experiment it has set in train. Also that the church connection will ensure that the more difficult, disorganised and troubled families (and Brentwood has its share) will not get a look-in. I fear that this is, more than anything else, THE motivation behind the interest in the new school.

I have to ask the parents making their application to think again, though. Ask yourselves: who are the people really behind this experiment? They appear, already, to be cutting corners. And does their newly appointed Head have anything like the right experience to take on a project as formidable as this?

Yet, I cannot blame the parents. They believe they can see an opportunity to advance their child’s prospects, so are taking it, albeit at others’ expense.

Blame must lie with those setting it up. Free schools are “me, myself I” schools, for “people like us”. An exercise in self-indulgent defiance of the community as a whole and its wider needs.

Free schools are going to be a drain on resources at a time of financial cuts for everyone else. They will enjoy a bounty at taxpayers’ expense whilst sloughing off the problems that society as a whole simply must address if it is to be ONE society. And, of course, which schools will have no choice but to pick up the problems the Free Schools leave behind?? And pay for the search for possible (usually labour intensive and expensive) solutions?? Out of unfairly reduced resources, creamed off to pay for the unnecessary, cosy “free” school.

And who is going to pay for the massive over-supply of secondary school places in Brentwood? The stark but simple truth is that Brentwood can support five secondary schools, not six. This is precisely why Sawyers is closing! Who is going to plan strategically for the needs of the town when a proper consultation process, as that recently and competently conducted by Essex, is arbitrarily – almost whimsically – swept aside in this way?

The Secretary of State for Education, Mr Gove, speaks a lot of social mobility. Yet his ‘flagship’ policy will cement social division like no other. He perhaps does not see it – but everyone else can, and (having met him a good few times) I know he is much, much ‘smarter than the average bear’. This is a policy for polarisation; the absolute antithesis of “we are all in it together”.

The tacit, but very real, underlying reason for the Free School programme is simple dogma: “Private provision… good; public provision… bad! ”

Yet the philosophical preference for competitive free market solutions cannot apply when ‘the market’ is being palpably and deliberately loaded in favour of HMG’s preferred suppliers, with preferential funding, questionable admissions policies, and with rushed and token consultation with the wider public.

John Fairhurst


  1. Thanks John, for such a lucid and passionate argument.

    I am particularly concerned about the private/public aspect, which characterises education as a marketplace. Effective marketplaces have some clear criteria – you can discern quality in the product, you know its price and you can change your purchasing decision to favour something better. Good markets have regulators to keep the cowboys out. Every single one of these criteria seem to be functionally missing, without even beginning to address the philosophical questions of education as a product.

  2. I felt it appropriate to comment on the Personal Statement from John Fairhurst shown above. I work in a vocational college and I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be more provision of this kind for those young people who are more able practically than academically. I have worked with these young people and I hear of their struggles in school and I see all the wonderful skills they have that are not recognised in a regular comprehensive. That said, I am also a parent of an 11 year old and I regard Becket Keys as an answer to prayer. I do not expect that there will be a perfect level of behaviour in the school because it is a Church School nor do I see it as the elitist option. The Church I belong to welcomes everyone from all backgrounds, inclusion and belonging are an intrinsic part of the Christian faith. What I do feel is that my child has the right to attend a school where he is treated in a caring Christian way. My child doesn’t come from a Church school and he has been picked on because he is too nice and treats others how he would like to be treated. I believe Becket Keys will give him the chance to be respected for his self-acquired moral views and for the person he is rather than being crushed by ‘the one size fits all’ approach to education in many schools.
    There is provision of the vocational kind around whereas Becket Keys is not simply another church school in Brentwood it is the only Church of England Senior School in Brentwood and I believe, this part of Essex (St Edwards in Romford being the only other one I am aware of).
    I also agree that Mr Scott-Evans has a following but why should that not be the case for someone of such high standing with a commitment and passion to improving educational options for local children. The school has been approved and as such should have support from local people. It should be embraced as a missing link in the Brentwood group of schools not beaten down with a big stick. One day it could be the jewel in the crown of this community.

  3. Mary, thank you for your perspective on Mr Fairhurst’s post.

    If we can respectfully make two points; there is acknowledged to be no vocational provision within Brentwood and Becket Keys has not had final approval. Only when the funding agreement has been passed will it be fully aproved and a legal entity. That is why the consultation, such as it is, is important.

  4. Mary, I don’t think you have to go to a Christian school to be treated in a caring manner, neither do I think that being a Christian ensures that a person is nice or in your case ‘too nice’. You are not alone in believing that inclusion and belonging are an intrinsic part of a community. I have taught in an Inner London comprehensive school for 16 years. Our ethos is based on respect and we continually strive to create a welcoming and caring environment for all of our 2,000 pupils regardless of their background or faith. I have been fortunate enough to work with thousands of delightful young people throughout my career.

    My daughter attends Shenfield High School, having attended a Cof E primary. It was Mr Fairhurst’s ethos and honesty that undoubtedly lead us to choose Shenfield. I can honestly say that she has flourished there, has attended every single day since year 7 and is absolutely thriving. She feels more accepted at Shenfield than she ever has done in the past. As parents we are delighted with the education she receives.

    I think it it fair to say that in terms of the wider community a vocational option at 14 is a long overdue priority, not just in Brentwood but throughout the UK. I do have concerns regarding the contined lack of provision for all of our young people and think that this need has to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

    Whilst I believe in choice I also believe that we should be aiming to accommodate educational needs before religious ones.


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