'I loved it from the moment I walked in'

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Bristol's new city academy is on a fast track to success. The man who made it happen talks to Sophie Kirkham

At the start of his day at Bristol's city academy, Ray Priest is seriously multi-tasking. Disciplinarian, rubbish collector, handyman, computer technician and chief executive are his roles at the school he has turned around in his 13 years as headteacher.

By lunchtime he has acquired several handfuls of sweet wrappers, discarded pencils and drink cartons, and he has chatted to more than 50 pupils and about a dozen staff. These, he said, are "favourite moments" in the job for which he upped sticks and moved 120 miles.

Mr Priest, 50, has transformed a large, underachieving city comprehensive into a first-choice school and along the way become something of a government beacon.

He is perhaps best known for his innovative incentive scheme in which students are rewarded in cash for exceeding GCSE expectations. He earns a salary of pound;90,000 plus a bonus package. This year, Mr Priest paid out pound;37,000 for his best results so far - 52 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C grades, up from 8 per cent in 1992.

The Bristol academy features in a short film on the Downing Street website, commissioned to coincide with the launch of the white paper in October, as an illustration of the success of academies.

Academy status has fast- tracked the change he has been driving for more than a decade, with new buildings, sports facilities catering for Olympic hopefuls and a canteen up to "hotel standards" but Mr Priest is not a man of quick fixes. Much of it is down to his entrepreneurial side, which brings an extra Pounds 2million to the school budget each year - including catered conferences, discount membership of the gym and other financial challenges he is set by staff with good ideas.

While he can reel off statistics of record-breaking achievement by his 1,250 pupils (all but a handful he knows not only by name, but with an accompanying anecdote), exam results are not everything.

For one pupil, success is getting into school every day even though he has yet to go to many classes, and for another pregnant 16-year-old, he is making the school creche available for when she returns to do her A-levels next year.

He has a zero-tolerance attitude towards violence, bullying is "personally upsetting" and deliberately disruptive pupils "really irritate" him, but the whistle in his pocket is rarely used and shouting is a no-no.

"It seems obvious," he says. "But you have got to have schools run with love, not in a soppy sense, but with people who care."

Turning a large, unfriendly school into a collection of "learning villages"; creating an equal playing field for the pupils; incentive schemes; and varying positions of responsibility are all Priest hallmarks.

When he got the job at St George community college, the academy's predecessor, he had already been turned down for five headships.

"I loved it from the moment I walked in. Of course there are days when you think everything is going wrong, but I am not being naive when I say that being positive rubs off in the end."

Now, the first job of the morning is to check dozens of emails from students, all of which he replies to. He has yet to receive one that is rude or offensive, but says it would not bother him anyway.

Next is a school tour, scribbling notes on his hand about broken door handles, cold classrooms, or overflowing water fountains to pass on to the site manager; then a quick coffee before taking up his position at the school gate to welcome his charges to another day.

In the evening he is often not home until after 9pm, but he has no family life to juggle.

"I say to the staff not to look at what I am doing: I'm single and chose to do this. I would be lying if I didn't say it is my life at the moment, but I do lots of things outside work, have good friends, go to the movies and out for dinner."

Travel is a passion. He has 74 countries in his photo album and next year he will add two more to the list - Eritrea and Borneo.

Surprisingly, given that the academy is a sports specialist centre, the closest he gets to a team game is the living room sofa.

"I was always the last to be picked for the team and I am very unfit although I love being in the open air, but the qualities in sport - of leadership, team-playing and responsibility - are ones I am keen to embrace here," he said.

"It's a cliche but I always wanted to be in a job where I feel I am contributing something. I also enjoy the company, being with people and, really, school is like the stage. It is a drama every day."

Leadership 27

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