Northgate Neil - a class act

His career has brought him into contact with politicians and royalty but teaching is still his first love.

James Marston

His career has brought him into contact with politicians and royalty but teaching is still his first love. Today, as he prepares to leave this summer the school which he has led for nearly 16 years, JAMES MARSTON chats to Neil Watts.

A TEACHER for more than three decades, Neil Watts has been a figurehead for a generation of children.

Over his career he has taught thousands of pupils, met hundreds of parents and is a senior figure in the county's education establishment.

And Northgate High School - recently awarded outstanding status for the fourth time running by inspectors - has flourished under his guidance.

Today, as he reflects on his career, he is rightly proud of the school's achievements.

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Even as a youngster in urban Lancashire he wanted to teach.

The 57-year-old said: “I'm from a place called Chadderton near Rochdale, which is why I support Rochdale Football Club. I always wanted to be a teacher. I was interested in economics and finance but never saw myself working in finance. I had a very influential teacher called Harry Travis at Chadderton Boys Grammar School and he was an inspiration to me and it was through him I developed my interest in economics.”

As a youngster, Neil's careers advice was not the involved process it has become today.

He said: “In those days you were marched into the headmaster's office. Mine said to me 'you're going to Cambridge', and that was it.”

Winning a place at Magdalene College in Cambridge Neil went to read economics.

He said: “It was an amazing experience. I had rarely left Lancashire and I had a very broad accent in those days. Magdalene was an all male college of 90 men in my year group, nine had come from Eton and nine from Harrow so I was mixing with people from very different backgrounds.

“It was a fantastic place and the quality of teaching was excellent. It opened my eyes and it was very good for me.”

With contemporaries who have since forged careers in politics, including people such as Richard Spring, Chris Smith and Tim Eggar, Neil decide his future lay in teaching.

He said: “I went to teacher training college in Leicester to do a PGCE. I enjoyed it and at that time Leicester was at the forefront of economics teacher training so I was lucky. On a Friday I taught the economics of car mechanics at Loughborough College - it was there I learnt to make the subject relevant.”

His first job was at King Henry VIII School in Coventry.

He added: “I was quite ambitious and I wanted to learn to teach. You think you know about and fully understand your subject but it is different when you try to explain it to someone else. I learnt my craft at Coventry in those four years.”

Neil's next post was at Hedingham School in Sible Hedingam in Essex and it was here he met his wife of 25 years, Sadie.

He said: “She worked in banking and she came into the school to do a talk to the youngsters and that is how we met.”

In 1981 Neil moved to the newly-built Stowupland High School as head of sixth form.

He said: “The school was two years old and I was approached to establish a brand new sixth form in a brand new school. It was a fantastic opportunity and we moved to the Stowmarket area where we have lived ever since.”

In 1985 Neil became deputy head at Northgate, he was 33.

He said: “I never thought of myself as particularly young. I had stayed four years in each job. Northgate was then a very different school. It was just starting a complete rebuilding project of the whole site.

“The Secretary of State for Education Keith Joseph had visited and there were 42 temporary classrooms and it was a difficult environment.

“I was a junior member of the rebuilding team and became involved in the number crunching and planning of the project.”

Now ready for his first headship, Neil moved to Sudbury Upper School.

He said: “Sudbury had been a troubled school but when I arrived I found its troubled reputation was not really reflective of the school. It was a good school and we made it even better, its reputation lagged behind the reality. That was an interesting lesson to learn. At the time the Princess Royal visited us which gave us the stamp of approval for what we were doing. I also began to realise and use the local media in raising the profile of the school.”

In 1991 Neil was appointed head of Northgate High School, taking over from Brian Ingram who was retiring.

He said: “I started in 1992 and I came back to a school which I had been involved in planning a few years earlier.

“I came back determined the school should make the most of its potential.”

Some 17 years later Northgate High School retains an excellent reputation, some of the best GCSE and A-Level results in Suffolk and places are much sought after.

Neil said: “I think I have kept fresh throughout my time here and I think we have made the most of the potential the new buildings offered the catchment. Numbers and results have grown.

“Northgate was seen as a good school and we have since made it an outstanding school.”

The school also enjoys specialist status in languages and science.

Northgate today has 1,700 pupils, employs 200 staff and commands a budget of �8.5million.

Neil said: “My first budget when I was head at Sudbury was �50,000. A school is now a medium-sized business.”

Over the years Neil has seen a number of changes in education, some for the better some not so.

He said: “First and foremost I enjoy it and I think I and the teams I have worked with have made a difference to thousands of young people. Teaching is a profession and a privilege.

“But it is not an obsession for me and I have other interests so it is not my life. If someone had said to me when I was 36 and had just taken on my first headship that I'd still be a headteacher at 57 I wouldn't have believed them.

“Northgate is a fantastic school and I have enjoyed being a team player and seeing staff and pupils develop.”

Despite a hectic schedule as headteacher, Neil still works in the classroom.

He said: “I teach all of year 10 citizenship which includes things like finance and democracy and credit. It is relevant and reminds me of those days teaching economics to car mechanics in Loughborough. My job is to make sure young people have the best opportunity to flourish not just in terms of exam results but in other aspects of school life like theatre and drama, sport and art and for them to be well-rounded, well-behaved members of society.”

Neil said the state has gradually taken over control of the curriculum while ceding the control of the school's day-to-day management.

He added: “Schools have more control of their destiny and I am in sympathy with the view that most youngsters have a common curriculum to choose from.

“Schools are much more inspected than they used to be, it used to be quite rare to be inspected but now it's regular. But I think league tables distort the reality of what is happening at a school, they don't give a picture of the truth.

“There are also too many initiatives.

“Each time there is a problem in society there is a school initiative but teachers can't do everything, they can't be expected to be responsible for children's diet and exercise. Schools are more and more social organisations taking over a parental role, the danger is this goes too far.

“Parents should have the ultimate responsibility.”

And the best bit about education?

“Seeing the children's faces when they achieve, whether that be when the final curtain goes down on a school production, lifting a sports trophy or getting good exam results. And seeing staff I have appointed blossom and grow and achieve for youngsters. It goes hand in hand.”

So what does the future hold for Neil?

He added: “My whole life has been dominated by the school calendar and it will be strange when that stops but it is the right time to hand over to the next person, we have a very strong team here.

“Being a headteacher is a very demanding job and it is a big responsibility which has grown over the years. I am looking forward to watching more football, and the garden. I also like travel and would like to take my wife to the west coast of America but I'm not the sort of person that will be heading off on a world cruise as soon as I retire.

“I'm going to do some consultancy work. I'll still be around.”

For Neil teaching has been a rewarding profession and one he can heartily recommend.

“Many of my Cambridge contemporaries have had more lucrative careers but if I had the chance I'd do it all again. I've never regretted being a teacher.”

Would you like to pay tribute to Neil Watts on his retirement? Were you taught by him or another inspirational teacher? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or send an e-mail to

1,700 pupils

�8.5million budget

200 staff

Language and science specialist college status

To achieve the highest possible standards in all aspects of school life,

by encouraging pupils/students to develop lively, enquiring minds, value academic achievement and human endeavour, enjoy learning and acquire physical and recreational skills to enrich their lives.

by fostering self-discipline and respect, consideration for others and an awareness of human rights and responsibilities.

by helping parents acquire an understanding of the school and their importance to it, and encouraging them to work in partnership with the school towards their children's education.

by encouraging pupils/students to play an active part in the local community and to involve the community in the life of the school.

by involving members of the school community in the process of lifelong education seeking to remove barriers and maximise opportunities

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