"Chaps like me don't expect to be honoured like this," said Kevin Satchwell after learning that he was to be knighted in the the 2001 Queen's birthday honours.
"I was born in a council house in a tough area in the Midlands, so this just doesn't seem real."
The previous year, his school had been feted as the first comprehensive in the country where 100 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSE passes at A* to C.
Sir Kevin, 52, is used to national attention - his city technology college has been praised by ministers as an example of a school of the future. It has an extended working day and sixth-form students wear business clothes.
But the knighthood focused attention on his working-class roots. Having grown up in Wednesbury, west Midlands, he failed his 11-plus but entered the sixth form of a grammar school.
He then trained as a teacher, before studying for an education degree with the Open University. He became head of Thomas Telford when it opened in 1991.
The college has faced some resentment since its establishment but its sponsorship of other schools has won it friends. The head of a local infant school told The TES that she would not have been able to afford a new electronic whiteboard without its support.