Sir William Atkinson

Former Head of Phoenix High School


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.

Session Details

Leading Change in the Face of Adversity

 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. In his opening keynote at The Education People Show, William will describe the challenge of taking on a failing school, the process of identifying structural weaknesses and the most effective way to take action: combining an inspirational personal story with lessons from motivating others and leading by example.

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