Alan with his award

Making the Exceptional Happen in schools - Headteacher of the Year Alan Gray

University of Exeter alumnus Alan Gray (Chemistry, 1979) was recently named TES Headteacher of the Year for his leadership of Sandringham School in Hertfordshire.

Since taking over in 2005, Alan has taken the school from strength to strength, with performance well above the national average and rated outstanding by Ofsted.

Awarding the accolade, the judges said: “Alan Gray is an exceptional headteacher. He has led his own school to greatness and has found time to support other schools both locally and internationally. His exciting can-do approach to educational achievement is an inspiration.”

We caught up with Alan to learn what inspires him in teaching, and what advice he’d offer for new graduates in the profession.


I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference.

It’s incredibly challenging and rewarding working with children and seeing them achieve more than they thought they ever could. I’m also passionate about chemistry and wanted to encourage other people to develop the same passion.

My love of teaching hasn’t diminished over the years and I still teach now, even as a headteacher. I’d advise all new graduates to remember that you became a teacher to teach, so always try to maintain some classroom contact even in senior positions.

I think of it a bit like the NHS. As you progress through your career you move further from the front line. But if you never go back and spend any time there once you’re in management, how can you expect to be a good leader. You have to understand what it’s like at the coalface.

I would also encourage young teachers to spend time at the start learning as much as possible. Don’t be in a massive rush to move into more senior roles. Teaching is a journey rather than a destination, and what you learn on that journey can be invaluable later on.

All through my career I’ve looked for different challenges.

I started my career at a challenging school in North London and was there for four years. In this time I learned so much about how to be an effective teacher, how to re-engage students who have switched off, and how to support colleagues so that the team improves and develops.

Later I became a Head of Chemistry and then a Head of Science in tough city schools before moving out to Hertfordshire and progressing through senior management.

The first 13 years of my career were all academic but the first senior role I took on was a pastoral position. That was a really interesting time; I was in charge of performance and standards and student wellbeing, so it provided me with a whole series of other challenges that I hadn’t really faced before.

You can inspire anyone if you’re good enough.

Tough schools can provide great opportunities. It’s a different way of teaching and it can be incredibly rewarding. When you have a group of children who are disengaged, who don’t feel like they’re good enough, who don’t understand the subject or the relevance of it… then you have to work hard to engage them, but once they’re switched on to the subject they’re no different to any other group of students.

When you see young people exceeding their own expectations and getting satisfaction from it, when you see them enjoying a subject for the first time – that’s incredibly exciting.

Better performing schools still have their own challenges. Sometimes when a school is doing well it can lead to complacency or an assumption there are no improvements to be made. In a number of my roles I’ve introduced new processes and measures to ensure that performance remains high and that staff and students are happy. There is no sitting back and relaxing!

I became headteacher at Sandringham School in 2005 and since then me and my team have worked hard to improve performance. We’re now ranked Outstanding by Ofsted in every category and are one of the top 100 schools in the country.

Sandringham's motto is "Everybody can be somebody".

I love to see inspirational teachers in action and the results that they can achieve. And by that I don’t just mean the grades or the league tables, I mean the real-world impact on students. Whatever a pupil’s potential is, we want to empower them to achieve it.

My favourite part of the job is building personal relationships with students and staff. We work hard to encourage a strong team spirit and support one another to ensure the school is a positive place to be.

I think it’s important to try and get to know students’ names and be approachable. I know some leaders think getting close to the students will mean they can’t exercise authority, but I find it’s the opposite. Obviously it’s a delicate balance and there are sometimes difficult conversations to be had, but it does give you an advantage. One of the highlights of my week is still the time I spend in the classroom with my students.

I’ve always loved working in education but I guess if I could change anything it would be to have more autonomy from Government. We’re an Academy which means we have some freedom, but rules, particularly concerning the way performance tables are constructed, make it harder to do things differently. For example, with such a focus on STEM subjects at the moment, it can be hard to allocate time for the Arts. So far we’ve been able to continue to offer good access to Arts subjects, but more vulnerable schools can be forced to reduce what they can offer students.

When I heard about the award I didn’t really tell anyone.

Not even my wife which got me into trouble when she heard about it elsewhere…

I’m not all that comfortable with the personal praise and attention that come from awards. But I do appreciate the recognition and understand that this is important as it demonstrates the achievements people have made in their sphere of work. The press and Government tend to focus largely on the negatives, but there is so much positive work happening in schools across the country and it’s great when that is highlighted.

It may say ‘headteacher’ but this award is all about the team. Everyone has played a part in the success of the school and I couldn’t achieve what I’ve done and what I plan to continue doing, without their commitment.

Headship is a bit like having a family. You have to treat the responsibility very seriously and only take it up if you’re prepared to commit to it. That doesn’t mean it has to take over your life. My family is the most important thing in my life, and I like a good game of rugby, but school hours are not 9-5 and you have to accept that.

Delegation is key to being successful. And by that I don’t mean just offloading work onto others. If you have a great team around you they can support you to achieve the school’s objectives. Delegation is important to give experience to others – I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much as I did if people hadn’t delegated to me earlier on – and also because you simply can’t do everything.

I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

I have had a wonderful time teaching and have been lucky to meet many exceptional people along the way. Now I’m able to share what I’ve learned with others and encourage collaborative working through the other roles that have come my way. Children are the future of this country and a good education can set them on the path to a happy and fulfilled life. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve made a positive difference to a person’s outlook.

Date: 5 September 2017

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