Brighton will lose its most outspoken head teacher and one of Albion’s biggest fans when Andy Schofield leaves Varndean School at the end of term this week. He told Andy Chiles about the nightmare PFI contracts, school admissions sagas, his regret at the closure of the Comart school – and his delight at Micky Adams’ return to the Albion.

ANDY SCHOFIELD has never shied away from difficult challenges or from putting his head above the parapet.

As he prepares to move on from a long spell in Brighton and Hove he has a wealth of experience to look back on.

In 12 years at Varndean School in Brighton, nine of them as head, he has overseen one of the most successful periods in its history – leading the school to record results, a place near the top of the city’s league tables and two glowing Ofsted reports.

He has seen it burgeon from a school of 850 pupils to one of 1,230 and overseen a major overhaul of its facilities.

He was also a key player in attempts to rescue the failing Comart School in Whitehawk, east Brighton, sharing the staff and resources who raised results to a record level in the year before it was shut down.

When it was closed, in a move he strongly opposed, he took in many of the displaced students at Varndean.

His profile has been high in wider education circles as well.

He has been a regular contributor to the Times Education Supplement and a member of high level advisory bodies, including a recent stint as chairman of the national Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Futures Vision group.

His name will be familiar to Albion fans as well through his ten year stint as a columnist for the Seagull’s match day programme But perhaps many of the public will know him best for his outspoken approach when it has come to what he feels is right for the children of the city.

Mr Schofield, originally from Manchester, admits he feels passionately about education and has never been afraid to speak out, even at the risk of upsetting colleagues and his council bosses.

In September he will become principal designate of the Wellington Academy in Wiltshire, a role he says will give him the freedom to put into practice the ideas he has gathered throughout a career pioneering different methods without leaving the state sector.

He is a confirmed supporter of academies, praising the opportunities they give to children in deprived areas and rejecting arguments that they partially privatise state assets.

He said the success at Varndean had been achieved in spite of significant restrictions to that kind of freedom – both because of the constraints of the PFI (private finance initiative) deal which gave ownership of the school buildings to a private firm of contractors and the difficulties of the city’s controversial and regularly changing school admissions policies.

Mr Schofield said: “I was in favour of the PFI in the first place. We needed it here and it has helped in some senses.

“We have had new buildings and new drama studios but it has been badly handled by the local authority and we’ve been unlucky with Jarvis, the contractors.”

He has frequently complained that instead of setting him and his staff free to concentrate on education, which the PFI deal was supposed to do, it has resulted in senior management dedicating their time trying to fight for maintenance jobs to be done properly and bills to be fair.

A dispute over £216,000 for work considered done badly has been lingering for months and has hamstrung the school’s finances.

Mr Schofield said: “Fortunately the academy won’t have these kinds of problems.

“I won’t miss that side of things here.

“I love coming to Varndean every day. We’ve created a fantastic atmosphere here of communication between everyone at the school. But I have had to spend large parts of my time dealing with those issues and now I’ll be fully able to concentrate my attention on education at the academy.”

He said he would be happy to leave Varndean when the school is equipped to move on to further successes.

Mr Schofield said: “We have remained true to what we believe here, which is an inclusive education which creates great students at 16 years old.

“I think that is how any school should be judged, on the students who leave it, and I’m proud of the qualities of ours.”

He said he felt the council could often have handled matters better, particularly where issues of wide significance like the PFI deal, the closure of Comart and last year’s introduction of the secondary school admissions lottery were concerned.

Mr Schofield said: “My experience with Brighton and Hove has been too political. There’s too much infighting going on.

“We saw that with the closure of Comart. Part of the problem seems to be that it’s politics with a small “p”. If it was more overtly political I don’t think people would mind as much but it all seems a bit hidden away. There is a lack of overall strategy. It seems to lurch from one thing to another. The closure of Comart was not in the school organisation plan. They just came up with it at the time.”

When the lottery and new catchment areas were agreed he questioned the wisdom, and feasibility of extending his own school to create enough places for the popular catchment it shares with neighbouring Dorothy Stringer School.

He said the £2.5 million project would make it difficult for other schools which were struggling for pupil numbers.

“Patcham High has since complained its budget has been hampered by a shortfall of students.”

Mr Schofield said: “I’m disappointed that the numbers were wrong and that Patcham seems to have fewer numbers than it should do. We never asked for an extension but weren’t going to say no to it.”

Pupils past and present have not yet seen the last of Mr Schofield. The next year will be spent planning before the Wellington Academy opens its doors in September 2009.

Mr Schofield will continue living in Patcham with his teacher wife and children Natasha, 14, and Ben, 12, for at least the next year and will be able to carry on watching Albion, the team he has come to love since moving south, away from his home club Manchester City.

He said: “Micky Adams coming back is great news. It looks really promising for this season.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Tommy Fraser – he’s an ex-pupil of ours.”