A RETIRING school leader has revealed how he was ‘saved’ during his troubled teenage years by his own teachers.

Simon Spiers, chief executive of the Vale Academy Trust, spoke to the Oxford Times as he prepares to step down next month.

The former head of King Alfred’s Academy in Wantage, one of the eight schools the trust manages, reflected on his own childhood and how he was inspired to join the profession.

Mr Spiers received free school meals during his own childhood due to his family’s financial situation, and admitted he was a ‘challenging young child’ who kept being moved from school to school due to bad behaviour.

The 55-year-old, who lives in Faringdon, said: “I got into a very good school but I was from a very difficult background. I was from a dysfunctional family.

“There is no question in my mind that without that school and a particular group of teachers that I would have gone off the rails. I was off the rails – they brought me back.

“It was the power of teachers having faith in me. It’s those teachers who saved me, their love of education that saved me. Hence why I became a teacher.

“I always think, if my mum could see where I got to…”

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Mr Spiers, who grew up in the Midlands, gained his teaching qualification in PE and geography in the 1980s.

He said: “I loved every second of it. I remember going to work into a secondary school and from that very first moment, I was hooked on teaching.”

He gained his first job as PE teacher at a state school in Hertfordshire, then at a large comprehensive in Brighton, where he also ran an outdoor education centre for children to work on team-building activities such as raft building and kayaking.

After moving to teach in New Zealand, he returned to the UK and took up post as head of PE at a school in a deprived area of the East Riding of Yorkshire.

He said: “My wife was seven months pregnant with our first child and we upped everything to move there.

“It was a tough school in a tough area, of huge deprivation, but the staff were amazing and the kids loved PE.”

Mr Spiers explained he has only ever worked at state schools as he does not agree with the independent sector in this country.

He explained: “We have a very dysfunctional education system, it’s two-tier and that brings all sorts of unfairness.

“I don’t support the private school system we have here at all.”

After three years in Yorkshire he and his wife decided moving to a more rural area closer to family would be the next best step.

He admitted he initially ignored the advert for head of PE at King Alfred’s as he was put off by the fact that the school was split between three sites.

The job was then re-advertised about three months later and he had a change of heart, and the family was struck by the ‘beautiful’ setting of Wantage when they visited for his interview.

Bernard Clarke, the school’s headteacher at the time, gave him the job in April 1998.

The Oxford Times:

Simon Spiers pictured at the school in 2009

Mr Spiers said: “It went incredibly well – I had to pinch myself. In 1999 we were made a national sports college which, for a PE teacher, was the best job in the world.

“By summer 2000 I was leading West Site and I became acting head in 2004. That was a hoot, playing a headteacher and knowing you were giving it back.”

He then stepped down to deputy head and back up to the full-time headteacher in 2010.

The following year the school was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, in a report that hailed Mr Spiers for his ‘outstanding and visionary leadership.’

The father-of-two added: “In my life there have been some special days – my wedding day, watching my kids be born. Being head of King Alfred’s during that inspection is next on that list of life.”

However, he said he has concerns about the ‘high stakes inspection regime’ that schools are tested by, adding that inspectors can ‘turn on’ even the most minor of observations.

In 2011 King Alfred’s became the first school in Oxfordshire to convert into an academy model, forming its own academy trust to oversee the school’s management instead of Oxfordshire County Council.

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The trust changed its name to the Vale Academy Trust 2013 after adopting two more schools into its community, Charlton Primary School and Wantage CE Primary, and has since grown to oversee eight schools.

In 2014 Mr Spiers stepped down as King Alfred’s head to become the trust's executive headteacher, then its chief executive in September 2015.

He said: “We were the first school to convert under the new system, and there were mixed views about that.

“There were some good things, and some not so good things. We are in charge of our own destiny, and that allowed us to move forward.

“The downside of this education system is that it’s a lot more fragmented. Whilst it’s great to have more control, I think in the long term it is stirring up some problems.

“Groups of schools [under a multi-academy trust] are working well together, but it’s less joined-up between trusts.

“We are all set up to do our own thing, and there’s not yet enough work being done to share and collaborate between trusts. It’s very hard to do that.

“What this government wants is for us to compete against each other, which doesn’t foster an open, supportive and challenging relationship.

“That’s a real shame, and I think that will be something that might come back to haunt us.

“It’s up to us as educators and leaders to encourage that.”

While some of the country’s largest multi-academy trusts seem set on sprawling their network of schools across England, Mr Spiers said the Vale Academy Trust had ‘no aspirations’ to expand beyond the local area.

The Oxford Times:

The new sports hall at King Alfred's Academy West Site

He said: “We are here to serve our local communities and do the best that we can for our children.

“We believe new schools should be part of a local academy trust where they can be supported from day one. We don’t believe any school should work alone as an island.”

In January the educator announced that he would be retiring from the trust in April, handing his role to Richard Evans, who is currently a director at a Surrey-based school trust.

Explaining the decision to step down, Mr Spiers said he felt fulfilled in that he had seen through one of King Alfred’s major projects, to streamline from three sites to two.

He added: “We now have two sites with buildings that are fit for this century and for decades to come – we have truly stunning facilities that these children deserve.”

The 1,780-pupil school was rated ‘requires improvement’ overall by Ofsted in May, although the sixth form still upheld its ‘outstanding’ standard, after pupils’ results slipped.

Mr Spiers admitted the past couple of years had been ‘hard’ but stressed that the school was ‘back on track’ with the help of the ‘fantastic’ new head Rick Holroyd.

He added: “I can step back knowing that the school and trust are moving in the right direction.

“I feel confident that I am leaving it in safe hands.”

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Mr Spiers’ time at the school and trust has been a family-oriented journey – his wife Juliane also works as a PE teacher at King Alfred’s and manager of its Duke of Edinburgh provision.

Their daughters Katy, now a 23-year-old paramedic, and Rebecca, a skilled downhill skier who is in Year 12 at King Alfred’s, have both been educated at the school.

Mr Spiers said: “It was absolutely the best option for them, and they have had the most incredible time here.

“They are confident, outgoing and successful girls and I genuinely believe King Alfred’s played a huge part in that.”

In retirement Mr Spiers plans to spend much more time indulging his passion for the outdoors and travelling.

The Oxford Times:

He already volunteers running expeditions for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a role he has enjoyed for 35 years, and plans to dedicate much of the summer to this.

The adventurer added: “There are many mountains I want to climb and rivers I want to paddle, and I want to do that while I’m still fit and healthy.”

He has plans to visit Canada, go on trips with his new campervan, conquer the Munro mountains in Scotland and improve his golf handicap.

King Alfred’s will not be forgetting about Mr Spiers any time soon, however, as the school’s new sports centre has been named in his honour.

A plaque proudly unveiled last week paid homage to his contribution to the school – a tribute Mr Spiers said he was ‘flabbergasted’ by.

He said he can look back on his career in education with a ‘clear conscience,’ and stressed the importance of good schooling.

He said: “Education can save people. It can turn people’s lives around – there is nothing better than working with young people and watching them change. It’s awesome.”