John Townsley began his teaching career at John Smeaton high school in Leeds 28 years ago, and is now executive principal of the Ruth Gorse Academy Trust, which runs Morley and Farnley academies, and the Ruth Gorse Academy, a £28m free school which opened this year.
He said: “I had no idea that I was going to be given this honour. The whole thing came as a very pleasant surprise.”
A tenth of the honours announced on Tuesday were for those who work in education, but just three headteachers received knighthoods or damehoods, Mr Townsley, Kate Dethridge, principal of Churchend Primary School in Reading and Oremi Evans, headteacher of Brookfield School and Specialist College in Herefordshire.
Mr Townsley believes he was chosen due to his work centering on children who need the most support during their time at school.
“What I have tried to do over the time I have been involved in leading schools is focus, with my team of people, on children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and in areas where children and families need the most support,” he said.
He started his career working as an English teacher at John Smeaton High School in Leeds, before spending ten years teaching at The King’s School in Pontefract. He moved to Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley as deputy head before starting at Morley High School as headteacher in 2003, where he focused on raising standards at the school.
It took six years for the school to to take its satisfactory Ofsted rating to outstanding. He lead the school through its transition into an academy in 2011, and then into an academy sponsor, when it linked with Farnley Academy in Leeds and several primary schools under the Gorse Academy Trust.
But it was the creation of the Ruth Gorse Academy, one of the largest free schools in the country, that presents one of the biggest challenges. It is currently in temporary accommodation at Morley Academy but will open in the centre of Leeds in September 2016. It will face its first real test when inspectors judge the free school before the move, and Mr Townsley is determined to see it become a success.
“That will be a school where children are coming to from very disadvantaged parts of the city,” Mr Townsley said.
Mr Townsley, 49, who lives in Cawood near York, is also overseeing the opening of the The Elliott Hudson sixth form centre at the White Rose Centre in Morley in September 2015, which will have capacity for 1,000 post-16 pupils.
But despite his managerial position, he still takes time to teach, and before Christmas was teaching at Hillcrest Academy in Chapel Allerton, one of primaries in the trust.
The father of five added: “I do still try to teach - it’s the thing that is most important, being in the classroom.”