Sir William Atkinson

Sir William Atkinson

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Former Executive Head, Phoenix High School

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When William took over at Phoenix High, the school was plagued by poor results and bad behaviour; it soon became a success story for others to follow. William has since advised on measures to reduce youth crime. In presentations he sets out the challenges of taking on a failing entity, identifying structural weaknesses and taking action: “The first task is to explain your intentions and win people’s belief, support and involvement.”


Sir William Atkinson was labelled Britain’s most successful headteacher after turning around ‘the worst school in the country.’ Once plagued by poor exam results and bad behaviour, Phoenix High is now held up as an example for others to follow.

After a less than successful personal school experience, William was inspired by one teacher to push himself. He took that motivation and entered teaching himself. With a combination of passion and forcefulness he became a deputy head and then headteacher where he gained an admirable reputation for turning around struggling schools.

The Phoenix High School entered special measures and was labelled in the press as one of the worst schools in the country. Low grades, social problems, pupils with no support and little aspiration, and a teaching staff beaten down by criticism created a raft of challenges. William negotiated himself freedom to lead in his own style and turned the school around. He motivated staff and recruited new people. He looked outside teaching to areas like psychology and social work to take the pressure off the teachers. He turned the school in a hub for the community and made it the most improved school in the country.

As well as leading schools directly William has also held several advisory positions on government committees, including as a member of the DfE Standards Task Force and the Fulham School Commission. He also continues to offer advise to schools and education bodies on how to improve and tackle particular problems. He has appeared on Channel 4’s documentary The Unteachables, and contributed to Newsnight, The One Show, The House I Grew Up In and Saturday Live. He was named Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London for his services to the community.

In speeches, William describes the challenge of taking on a failing entity, correctly identifying the structural weaknesses and taking action: “Above all, you need to explain the reasons behind your action to everyone across the organisation, and have their full belief, support and involvement.” He combines an inspiring personal story with lessons from motivating others and leading by example.

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William Atkinson on tough school turnaround