School head wins teaching 'Oscar' - with celebrity cast

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The Independent Online

This year more than 550 parents applied for the 240 places available at Sandwich Technology College, a 1,300-pupil 11-to-18 high school. Sandwich has to compete with the town's local grammar school.

Last night the school's headteacher, Richard Wallis, 56, was rewarded for his part in turning the school around by winning secondary school teacher of the year, one of the teaching profession's coveted "Oscars", at an awards ceremony at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London.

Judges praised Mr Wallis as a "born enthusiast". His mantra for the school is: "It's not can't - it's can."

His fellow professionals thought he was crazy when he opted to leave a school in leafy Tonbridge eight years ago to take on the challenge of the Sandwich school.

The school serves a catchment area with its fair share of rural poverty. It was one of the last mining communities in Kent, the local pit having closed just two years before his arrival.

The problems were acute: there were low expectations for pupils, and few would stay on after the age of 16.

"We have selection here and 30 per cent of the pupils were being creamed off by the local grammar school," he said. "We didn't have the high-flyers. We are what's called a high school, but it has a secondary modern intake."

Eight years later, more than half the school's sixth-form have obtained university places.

Since 2000, the percentage of pupils obtaining at least five A* to C-grade GCSE passes has doubled from 33 per cent to 66 per cent, and 99 per cent of all children get five A* to G-grade passes.

Mr Wallis has buffed up pupils' esteem by bringing celebrities to the school.

For instance, Boy George opened a new arts and music block at the school. A new cinema was opened recently by the actress Brenda Blethyn, who lives locally. Claire Moore, a local singer who has starred in West End musicals, has also put on a fund-raising concert.

"It builds up people's esteem," Mr Wallis said. "People are really impressed that they have taken the time to come and help the school out.

"I did wonder whether I was taking a gamble with Boy George, but he was inspirational for the pupils.

"When asked why he bothered to keep working when he had so much money,he said it was about the need to find fulfilment. The pupils were very impressed."

Mr Wallis was surprised when Brenda Blethyn made an unannounced return visit to the school recently. "I saw her approaching me in the assembly and I thought I must have forgotten something that was happening," he said. In fact, she had been smuggled into the school to present him with his award.

Mr Wallis hopes to use his new-found fame to promote the need for more cash for Britain's coastal and rural communities.

The winners

* Teacher of the Year in a Primary School - Trevelyan May, Sholing Junior School, Southampton

* Headteacher of the Year in a Secondary School - Richard Wallis, Sandwich Technology College, Kent

* Healthy Primary Schools - Belinda William, Stoughton Infant School, Guildford, Surrey

*Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School - Mike Ullmann, Hockerill Anglo- European College, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire

* Teaching Assistant of the Year - Helen Skelton, Bracken Lane Primary School, Nottinghamshire

* Outstanding New Teacher - Christine Finnegan, St Hubert's RC Primary School, Oldbury, Warley, West Midlands

* Special Needs Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School - Meinir Rees, Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg, Cardiff

* Lifetime Achievement - Peter Wright, Hazel Oak School, Shirley, Solihull

* Headteacher of the Year in a Primary School - Angela Rawlinson, St James CE Junior School, Barrow, Cumbria

* Working with Business and Community in the West Midlands - Andrew Morris, West Croft Special School and Sports College, Underhill, Wolverhampton