At first glance, Mike Fairclough’s domestic set-up looks much like the cheerful chaos that will be familiar to many families.
His three-year-old twin daughters Luna and Star charge around, endlessly changing dressing-up costumes and asking a million questions a minute.
His sons Iggy, 16, and Tali, 22, wander around blaring loud music.
The difference is that, far from trying to rein in the disorder like many frazzled parents, Mike and wife Sundeep positively encourage a degree of spontaneity, rebellion and rule-breaking.
No matter how tired primary school headteacher Mike is when he comes home from work — no easy ride during the long months of the pandemic — he sometimes bundles the family into his campervan for an adventure at the beach.
They might spend the evening around a driftwood fire, plunge into the sea at midnight, or dash outside in thunderstorms, dancing and singing.
Mike Fairclough (above), dubbed the ‘hunky head’, said the death of his wife of 14 years Selina led him to believe we need to reclaim our childish sense of wonder
But then you wouldn’t expect a sober approach to parenting from 48-year-old Mike.
He is, after all, the man who hit the headlines for his unorthodox take on education at West Rise, the East Sussex school where he has put rabbit-skinning, shooting and fire-making alongside mathematics and verbal reasoning on the curriculum.
That wasn’t the only reason he caused a stir: Mike’s dashing good looks, collar-grazing hair and distinctive dress sense — he favours unbuttoned shirts, waistcoats and, in winter, a bearskin coat — sent the nation’s mums into meltdown when he was interviewed on TV. One asked if he was auditioning for Poldark.
It led to Mike being dubbed the ‘Hunky Head’, a label he’s now happy to embrace.
‘I was a bit coy about it at first, but now I love it,’ he confesses, grinning. ‘It’s definitely a good thing to have to live up to as I get older. And let’s face it, no one wants to see someone square lecturing us about how to live our lives.’
No danger of that with Mr Fairclough. As striking in the flesh as in photos, I can’t help but clock the appreciative looks from female passers-by when we meet for socially-distanced coffee pre-lockdown.
We are meeting because Mike is on a mission. Not only does he want children to embrace activities usually reserved for grown-ups, he is encouraging grown-ups to be more, well, childlike.
He argues, in his new book Wild Thing, that children, with their inherent inquisitiveness and adventure, can teach us a lot about how to live.
Mike (pictured in 2016) previously caught attention for his teaching at West Rise, the East Sussex school, where he has put rabbit-skinning, shooting and fire-making on the curriculum
‘It’s hard work being a grown-up,’ he says. ‘Life is stressful and we get bogged down in it. A child never does that. A child’s natural state of being is to smile and laugh. They are instinctively drawn to whatever makes them feel happy. But this playful outlook diminishes over time.’
It’s an uplifting message but one, he reveals for the first time, with its roots in sorrow.
Nine years ago Selina, Mike’s wife of 14 years, died of a brain tumour just six weeks after being diagnosed, leaving him a widower at 38 and a single father to their heartbroken boys, Tali, then 13, and six-year-old Iggy.
Broken and emotionally raw, it was observing his sons’ simple joy in the world — and how it persisted despite their grief — that brought him through. Over time this realisation morphed into a philosophy that we all need to reclaim our childish sense of wonder.
‘I saw the world through the eyes of a child again and it was really healing,’ he says. Now he wants you to do the same.
With chapter headings from ‘Breaking the Rules’ to ‘Finding Buried Treasure’, in his book, Mike recalls the thrills of climbing to the top of a tree in a thunderstorm and trespassing on a private island as a child.
So is he suggesting we should all be hanging off branches as lightning strikes?
Not quite. The idea is that we can tap into our inner child in easier ways, say, by trying something new each day — it could be as mundane as exploring a road we’ve never been down before — or breaking small rules, just to enjoy the feeling of rebellion.
Selina died of a brain tumour leaving him a widower at 38 and a single father to their boys, Tali, then 13, and six-year-old Iggy (pictured with his twin daughters Luna and Star)
It’s an approach that has drawn praise from figures such as children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson and the Duchess of York, his nephew’s godmother, who writes in the foreword she was ‘captivated’ from the first paragraph.
Mike is quite used to challenging social norms, given that from the moment he took over at West Rise 13 years ago, he introduced some rather unorthodox classes.
Alongside the usual timetable Mike encouraged carpentry skills, beekeeping, rabbit-skinning, pigeon-plucking and cooking on open fires, not to mention allowing a local branch of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation to teach target practice with air rifles and shotguns.
FIVE WAYS TO CHANNEL YOUR INNER CHILD IN LOCKDOWN
1 Get lost. While out for a walk, allow yourself to lose your bearings. When you are lost, hold your nerve. Embrace the feeling and find the magic within it. Your senses will be heightened and you will see the world with fresh eyes.
2 Break a rule. Think about the rules you adhere to in your life. Which would you love to break if you could? As long as it’s not doing any real harm, breaking a rule can feel exhilarating and fun. Hopping over a fence to explore a field or rebelling against your latest diet can be truly liberating.
3 Be an explorer. Whether looking for creatures under stones in the garden or visiting a park you have never been to. Undiscovered worlds await.
4 Be here now. Spend a short time (start with five minutes and build up) using all of your senses to experience the present moment. What can you see? What can you hear? What other sensations do you have? Forget about the past and the future. Just enjoy the moment.
5 Dance like no one is watching. The same goes for singing. Put your favourite track on and let yourself go.
Perhaps aware of past censure, he’s keen to point out his insistence on old-fashioned discipline.
‘I always say that if you can’t put your hand up in the classroom, I’m not going to give you a gun — if we are going to embrace risk and danger then we must have high expectations of everyone.
‘We have zero tolerance of swearing and fighting. We are not just sitting round campfires like a bunch of hippies,’ he laughs.
This approach has transformed the school. When he took over, Ofsted said it ‘required improvement’. Under his headship it was named ‘Primary School of the Year’ by an education magazine.
Naturally, Mike wasn’t going to let a pandemic stand in his way. West Rise remains open for vulnerable children and those with key worker parents during lockdown, while the school’s character-building ethos is continued for those learning at home.
‘I have two members of staff who are wellbeing co-ordinators, who help oversee activities linked to traits such as gratitude, resilience, kindness and perseverance,’ Mike says.
‘The children have to show how they are developing these traits. Examples from the last lockdown included children who had taken up rambling in the South Downs, walking for miles through the countryside, or taken up sea swimming with their parents.’
Yet he admits that juggling being in school every weekday — and many nights and weekends — plus overseeing a home learning programme is a challenge and has affected his home life.
‘Sundeep is supportive, but it means extra work for her with the kids. Iggy gets very frustrated,’ he says. ‘We’ve all fallen out a few times — everyone in the family enjoys their own space.’
Fortunately, they could always get outside into the natural world, something that has always been key to happiness for Mike.
Raised one of six children by his actor father Gordon Fairclough — a respected stage performer who also appeared in BBC TV series Z Cars and Coronation Street — and teacher mother Marilyn in the Chilterns, he says his upbringing was ‘strict but loving’. ‘We spent a lot of time outside, exploring.’
At 18, he went to art school, where he met fellow student Selina. She was three years older and had a four-year-old son, but the attraction was instant.
But it was his sons’ (pictured Tali) simple joy in the world despite their grief that brought him through and made him realise we all need to tap into our inner child
‘I was only 18 and basically went from being in sixth form to living with Selina and her son,’ he recalls. ‘But it seemed completely natural. We felt like soulmates’.
The couple married when Mike was 23, and Tali came along the following year, by which time Mike had qualified as a teacher.
‘Art doesn’t always pay the bills,’ he smiles. ‘I needed a regular income and thought primary school teacher sounded OK — making hedgehogs out of egg boxes, that sort of thing.’
That wasn’t quite the reality but by his mid-20s he was at a North London primary, subsequently moving schools twice, before, in April 2004, being appointed headteacher at West Rise in Eastbourne. Two months later Iggy was born.
As a new father and a newly appointed headteacher, life was hectic. So when, in September 2010, Selina complained of headaches, Mike admits he didn’t initially pay too much attention.
‘I remember feeling quite irritated,’ he recalls. ‘I was brought up with a dad who had lived through World War II and whose grandfather had been in the Battle of the Somme, so my approach was very much push through.’
That changed when, at the start of 2011, Mike watched his wife try to walk through a wall instead of the door.
‘It was surreal, and I knew then something wasn’t right. We went to hospital the next day,’ he says. A brain scan showed a shadow on Selina’s brain which, five days later, was confirmed as incurable cancer.
‘The consultant told me Selina wouldn’t make Christmas and there was nothing anybody could do,’ Mike recalls. ‘I remember refusing to believe it. It just didn’t seem real.’
Mike (pictured with his son Iggy) said people should tap into their inner child by trying something new daily, such as going down a road they’ve never seen or breaking small rules
Desperate, he turned to alternative therapies — herbs, crystals, anything — but Selina deteriorated rapidly.
‘She wasn’t in pain and had actually accepted she was going to die. She wasn’t frightened, but upset about not seeing her boys grow up,’ says Mike. ‘I just kept thinking that miracles happen.’
In this case they didn’t. Selina died in February 2011, aged 41.
Mike was devastated: ‘Every night after the boys had gone to sleep I would get quite angry at Selina for not pulling through. Of course, it wasn’t rational.’
For weeks, he would wake at 1.35am, the time Selina had passed away, and walk round the house looking for her.
‘I was definitely losing the plot. I managed to conceal it from the boys. It was a case of, ‘We can do this, us against the world’, but I was struggling.’
Then, just before Easter, a friend invited him to Goa, convinced it might help them in the aftermath of Selina’s death.
‘She was so insistent that somehow I got it together enough to scoop up the boys and get on a plane,’ he says. ‘From the moment we landed I felt lighter somehow. It was all so vivid — the colours, the smells.’
He and the boys explored remote jungles and swam in the Indian Ocean. ‘We would eat fresh watermelon and mangoes, straight off the land, and drink milk from coconuts we had cut by hand.’
Mike became determined to make drastic changes in his life after he met his current partner Sundeep, an Anglo-Punjabi law teacher he’d been introduced to by mutual friends in India
As Tali and Iggy flourished, Mike felt himself reconnecting with life.
He recalls watching as his young sons plunged into an icy waterfall, shrieking with delight as their bodies hit the water.
‘I saw the boys playing, totally absorbed in what they were doing. It took me back to my own childhood in the Chiltern Hills, the times when I had got lost, the feelings of excitement, the way in which my imagination would run wild. I had a powerful sense of deja vu.’
So he, too, leapt into the waterfall. ‘I felt completely alive again,’ he recalls.
‘I couldn’t just lose the grief, of course, but from that moment on, I committed to following my heart and living in the moment.
‘Like all parents I could be guilty of saying to the kids we would do stuff tomorrow but, from then on, if they wanted to go for a walk in the woods I’d just do it, not put it off.’
He became determined to make drastic changes to his life, a decision reinforced by his flourishing relationship with Sundeep, an Anglo-Punjabi law teacher he’d been introduced to by mutual friends in India.
‘We met in a treehouse of all places,’ he recalls. ‘There was an immediate connection, but I was much too raw to do anything. Then, two months later, we met at a party in Lewes and talked all night, although we did not become involved romantically for another year.’
Happily his boys accepted his new relationship. Today Tali, a games designer, remains close to both, while Iggy, 16, now calls Sundeep ‘mum’.
Three years ago, Sundeep gave birth to twins Luna and Star.
‘Sundeep is a force of nature,’ Mike says. ‘She is this intelligent woman who teaches everyone from undergraduates to high court judges, but who also has this incredible energy. She made me embrace a desire for more adventure, more play.’
Which is why most nights, come rain or shine, after he has finished at West Rise, the family pile into the six-berth camper van and drive the mile to the nearest beach to connect with nature.
Mike now shares his twin daughters Luna and Star (above) with his partner Sundeep, who he revealed his son Iggy, now 16, now affectionately calls ‘mum’
‘Sometimes, I don’t want to go — I had a stressful day recently and the impulse was just to stay at home. But then we got there, started digging in the sand and found two baby crabs. The girls were so absorbed and I went from being very in my head to just being in the moment,’ he says.
What about those of us who aren’t lucky enough to live five minutes from the beach?
‘You can embrace the wonder around you anywhere,’ Mike insists. ‘We do some very simple things with the girls that are generally considered a waste of time in adulthood — staring at the clouds, or crawling around on the ground looking at insects.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Sundeep. ‘Children are so free-spirited and we can learn so much from that,’ she says.
‘In our case we just allow ourselves, wherever possible, to be pulled along with them — if you want to go down this path, or jump in the sea, or turn over this stone, then let’s do it. Children connect you with what is real and what really matters.’
Mike adds: ‘That same enthusiasm for life is at the heart of the emotional wellbeing of adults — if only we can recapture it.’
He smiles at me and I can’t help feeling that the Hunky Head and his new philosophy will have an avid following.
Wild Thing by Mike Fairclough (Hay House Publishers, £10.99) is out now.