Head exits with Estyn's praise ringing in his ears
Forget gold watches and silver picture frames: Mike Pickard has been given the best leaving gift a retiring headteacher could ask for.
After 10 years at the helm of Blackwood Comprehensive near Caerphilly, Mr Pickard is leaving the school following a glowing report from Estyn.
Not only was his leadership praised by inspectors as "outstanding, dedicated and inspirational", but his school was given five grade ones and two grade twos in the seven key questions section of the report, which was published earlier this month.
Mr Pickard, 60, said: "The personal praise was very embarrassing, but the timing of the inspection couldn't have been better really.
"As a send-off, I couldn't have asked for anything better than the first line: `Blackwood Comprehensive School is a very good school with many outstanding features.' I'm proud to leave to my successor a very good school."
Mr Pickard is retiring after a 38-year teaching career, which included 21 years teaching geography in Wales's largest school, Whitchurch High in Cardiff, and a deputy headship at Cowbridge Comprehensive.
During his decade at Blackwood, he has worked hard to raise the profile of the school and instil a sense of confidence and pride in its 970 pupils, constantly encouraging them to take part in new initiatives and competitions.
In the past year, the school became only the second in Wales to receive the Investors in Families award for its family-friendly approach, and it was recently awarded an Eco-Schools green flag for its environmental work.
"One of my objectives 10 years ago was to make Blackwood a school people had heard of," Mr Pickard said. "Valleys communities do have something of an inferiority complex. When you raise the profile of a school, people take notice of what you do.
"The important thing is to make the children feel important about what they have achieved. I'm proud of the fact we now have pupils who are confident and have a great belief in what they do."
Retirement will give Mr Pickard more time to indulge his passion for sport, particularly watching live test match cricket and following his beloved Swansea City FC.
He will also spend more time with his recently retired wife Shan and their two daughters.
But despite stepping away from school life, he will still keep one foot in education, continuing for at least another year as a mentor for aspiring heads on the National Professional Qualification for Headship programme.
He also wants to spend time working with organisations that help people with learning difficulties.
But he is clear on his first priority: "I'm going to spend a bit of time recharging my batteries. I look forward to taking a summer break without having to worry about planning for coming back to school in September."
Mr Pickard said that although he will miss teaching, and Blackwood in particular, he knows it is the right time to leave and hand over the reins to new head Ravi Pawar, former deputy head at Dwr-y-Felin Comprehensive in Neath.
"Kids have said to me, `Sir, you're too young to retire.' I will miss being around the children and the staff and being part of a very busy school," he said.
"One little part of me says I wish I was staying, but my work here is done. I finish my career with no qualms. I will look forward to not being driven by the school bell.
"I have an excellent leadership team here. The school is ready to move on and be even more successful. I just hope I've put down some foundations for somebody else to work on."