‘It is about giving as much as taking in our society’

When the spotlight was set to land on Alan Gray at the Tes Schools Awards recently, the headteacher of the year was nowhere to be seen. But his absence reveals a lot about what drives this inspirational St Albans secondary leader, as Nick Morrison finds
25th August 2017, 12:00am
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‘It is about giving as much as taking in our society’


Alan Gray received one of education’s biggest accolades this summer when he was named headteacher of the year. But the St Albans school leader was nowhere to be seen when his Tes Schools Awards victory was being announced - and his absence is a perfect example of why he won.

Gray makes a point of attending every extracurricular and social activity that his secondary - Sandringham School - runs. So while the other winners were enjoying the awards-night glitz and glamour, the head was on a trip to Normandy with Year 8.

That’s not to say he wasn’t pleased to win an award that he has described as an honour for the whole school and its community. But Gray sees his attendance on trips as a vital part of his approach to school leadership.

It is not just that it demonstrates how integral the school regards the expeditions to students’ education, but that the trips are also a valuable opportunity to get to know pupils.

“Some leaders don’t want to get close to students because they think they won’t be able to exercise authority,” he says. “My view is if you know their names, it gives you authority.

“There is a delicate balance involved in having authority. Clearly, there are times when you have to have difficult conversations, but you also have to be approachable.”

So, next month, Gray will be off again on the annual Year 7 trip to the Peak District. It takes place just three weeks into the school year, when pupils from around 20 feeder primary schools are still getting to know each other.

“We take them on an 11-mile walk through the Peak District - it is about team-building,” says Gray. “You could argue I shouldn’t be spending my time in the Peak District, but by the end, I get to know all their names, what their interests are and how to make the most of their time at the school.”

He also takes his work with him. When everyone else is sleeping on the coach or has gone to bed at night, Gray is still busy.

Evidence of another key part of Gray’s success at Sandringham is on display just inside the school’s entrance in the form of a neatly framed certificate proclaiming the school as the recipient of the Space Education Quality Mark gold award.

This honour came as a direct result of the head’s 40-year love of amateur radio - a passion that led to his pupils becoming the first to speak live to astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station [ISS].

Gray’s interest began as a 15-year-old, when he asked his headteacher for permission to attend night school so that he could take an amateur radio class for three hours a week. Today, he helps run Sandringham’s own after-school radio club.

The link-up with Peake came after Gray responded to an advert placed by the European Space Agency. Following a rigorous selection process - drawing heavily on the head’s own expertise, experience and enthusiasm - Sandringham was chosen to make the first amateur radio call to a British astronaut on the space station. “It took a whole year to [organise], but it was really exciting and the students got an awful lot out of it,” says Gray.

“Amateur radio is a very technical hobby - you have to understand how the equipment works and you’re teaching them communications, computing skills and geography. There is a lot to learn.”

Jessica, 16, a radio club regular, was one of the pupils involved in the space-station link-up, helping to operate the microphone.

“I don’t know how many 16-year-olds could say they have talked to the ISS in the school field with an antenna,” she says. “It was a phenomenal experience and I know it’s going to continue because Mr Gray is so passionate about it.”

A motto that travels well

It is not just phone calls to space that help to broaden the horizons of Gray’s pupils. The school’s many trips also include a biennial sixth-form visit to the Gambia, where Sandringham has formed links with a school in the market town of Farafenni that has adopted Sandringham’s motto “Everybody can be somebody”.

“Our students come back and run assemblies on what they have done, and it gives them a broader outlook in life,” says Gray. “It is about giving as much as taking in our society.”

Evidence of his influence is prominent around Sandringham. There is the board featuring pictures of the school prefects - a system he introduced - while each subject has a roll of honour, with pictures of outstanding students in each year on display in their respective faculty areas. The latter idea was introduced despite qualms among colleagues.

“When I suggested it, people said ‘Children won’t want to be seen up there, it will be graffitied’,” the head recalls. “But it never happened. They aspire to be on the board. This is the norm now, to recognise achievement and be recognised for it.”

And that is why the destinations of last year’s sixth-form leavers are on display, both in the sixth-form block and the dining hall.

The school’s popularity is such that, from September, it is going up to eight-form entry, and this year had 1,350 applicants for its 240 places. But Gray, who has been at Sandringham for 12 years, is always looking for the next challenge. Determined not to let the euphoria over the space-station link-up disappear, earlier this year he delivered a follow-up. About 2,000 children, including pupils at local primaries, gathered in Sandringham’s school field to launch a weather balloon. Packed with equipment, the balloon reached some 35,000 feet, sending back atmospheric readings and pictures showing the curvature of the Earth.

Gray is already working on next year’s spectacular - currently a closely guarded secret.

“If you do a big project like this, it stimulates a lot of interest and that will diminish over time,” he says. “Now, every year we will do a massive event and hopefully that will keep some of the interest going.”

Fostering leadership in colleagues

Gray was nominated for the Tes award by a senior leadership team that included his two deputy headteachers. Since then, one, Richard Found, has become principal at Stockwood Park Academy in Luton, while the other, Scott Barker, is about to take up his new post as head of the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford.

Gray’s commitment to developing leadership was singled out by his team when they put forward his nomination.

“He is a role model and, looking at the way he works, it is about matching people to roles,” says Barker.

“Everybody comes to the job in their own way, but there is so much about Alan’s leadership that you would want to emulate: his energy, his optimism, his attention to detail and the respect that he engenders.”

Talent spotting is a key part of that, but it is not the whole story, according to Lin Keen, Sandringham’s chair of governors.

“He empowers people,” she says. “In the same way as he does with his students, he empowers adults to achieve perhaps more than they think they would.”

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