Head turned novelist and teacher trainer Alex Prior

The unlikely path from film-maker to tech entrepreneur to headteacher to teen novel writer

‘Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than a young person saying, I really enjoyed your book’

Alex Prior well knows how painful it can be as a headteacher to pour your energy into a school, only for it to be heavily (and to him unfairly) criticised by Ofsted.

It happened to him twice, partly because he “never shied away from taking on difficult schools to which more sensible people would have given a wide berth”.

It is telling that his proudest career moment – leading the transformation of a middle school into a secondary – is also one that “half-killed” him. 

Now, he has shunned headship for a less stressful life writing teen sci-fi novels. But he keeps his hand in by training up the next generation of teachers as associate leader of a teaching school, and he is much happier as a result.

Alex Prior at his Bedfordshire home

Being too ambitious

Before all that, Prior had an eclectic career filming the Madchester music scene and running one of the UK’s first online media companies. Education was not part of his “game plan”, but he got recruited straight into school leadership.

It is why he only got his qualified teacher status (QTS) almost a decade into his education career, just before taking on his first headship in 2014.

At Etonbury Academy, part of the Bedfordshire Schools Trust, he led a near £30 million building programme to transform the small, “underperforming” middle school into an extended secondary. The school’s capacity was increased from 400 to 1,100 pupils in four years.

He admits in retrospect that the project was “too ambitious” for a new head to take on.

His pride in it comes from the fact that, on his watch, the school became oversubscribed for the first time – testament to the support he received from the local community. And results improved.

But the many challenges he faced were “exhausting” and “half-killed” him.

Etonbury was “capital rich, but revenue poor” with growth funding being “nowhere near enough to cover the very rapid growth”.

Prior learnt “more about sewage and drainage than I ever wanted to, through endless meetings with builders and contractors”.

The middle school had “very few” teachers with any experience beyond key stage 3, which meant recruiting at least a dozen teachers each year with “essentially no recruitment budget”.

Some teachers quit, deciding that the “scale of change” in such a short time was “too much”. 

Prior also had to persuade local people to believe in the new school, which meant “a lot of PR out in the community”. All this meant less time for education.

“Rather unhelpfully” in the midst of this turmoil, in 2017 Ofsted visited and grilled leaders on whether their newly-designed curriculum had been embedded. There had not been time yet for that.

They rated the school ‘requires improvement’ (the middle school had been ‘good’). It caused Prior to conclude that the education system “doesn’t support leaders prepared to take on the really difficult schools” which are “professionally risky”. 

Alex Prior

Madchester life

Prior’s ability to embrace new career paths perhaps evolved from a transient childhood in which he attended eight different schools, due to “family disruption”. His mum, a former journalist, and dad, a property developer, had a “fractious” relationship.

He was identified as being exceptionally bright at primary school and was signed up to a long-term childhood intelligence research programme in London’s Harley Street. 

The constant upheaval was “not conducive to a great attitude to learning”, although it meant he excelled at “getting to know people quickly”.

Later, as a school leader, he developed an affinity for children regularly moved between schools, who would arrive “quiet and withdrawn” and be moved again just as they were starting to feel “settled and secure… Your heart would break for them every time.”

Prior developed a passion for film-making and studied communication and media studies at Manchester University, in the heydays of the “Madchester” music scene. 

He got part-time work filming bands like the Happy Mondays, Joy Division and the Stone Roses in Manchester’s Hacienda club, and shooting late-night shows such as ITV’s The Hitman and Her, hosted by Pete Waterman and Michaela Strachan. 

Prior also filmed Asian TV shows around Bhangra music, which was “hugely good fun” and a world away from the “middle-aged white enclave” in Cambridgeshire where his family then lived.

He spent the next decade filming at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. His office was directly above that of Chris Tarrant, when he was presenting Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. 

He also became interested in a new technology that was starting to take off – the internet – and became managing director of one of the UK’s first online media and marketing companies, Eflet Technolologies, which agreed contracts with Tesco, HSBC and Asda.

Prior was spending most of his time being a “contracts manager, which wasn’t really me” and, when the “investment taps suddenly turned off” after the dot-com crash in 2000, he turned his sights to the education world.

Alex Prior and a helicopter landed by special permission on the school field to whisk a student and mum to the Isle of Wight for a special holiday

Loving school 

After guest lecturing on post-16 media courses, in 2004 Prior got a job on the senior leadership team at Sir John Lawes School in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, after it received “significant” government funding for a media arts specialism. Prior launched production courses from their “impressive” new TV and sound studios.

He became executive producer of “dozens of student film productions at any one time”, going out on location with budding film-makers. 

Ofsted described the school’s media provision and its leadership at that time as ‘excellent’. Despite only planning to stay for two years – education not being part of his “game-plan” – Prior “absolutely loved” it and stayed for 10. 

He also enjoyed leading behavioural initiatives, which later motivated him to deliberately seek to lead schools with challenging cohorts.

But, before that, he wanted to pass his QTS. Having developed his pedagogy through “CPD and learning from colleagues”, his teaching was “an amalgam of different styles”. The training was a chance to consolidate them.

Being observed was not a problem – during his internet career, Prior had been named The Times’ London business innovator of the year, which involved lots of public presentations. He was always “quite comfortable standing up in front of people”. 

But his next career moves knocked some of the confidence out of him. After leaving Etonbury feeling “quite melancholy” in 2018, he took on Wenlock C of E Junior School in Luton. The school was in a “disengaged community” and had had two successive ‘requires improvement’ grades. 

Under Prior, three successive section 8 inspections praised the school. Then he took on the leadership of Crawley Green Infant School next door, spreading his leadership team across both. 

Alex Prior doing a science experiment the classic exploding hydrogen bubbles at Etonbury Academy

Devastating Ofsted

His staff spent the pandemic working flat out delivering food parcels and ensuring that every child had a device on which to study remotely. One teacher with medical vulnerabilities “pleaded” to be allowed to teach face to face during lockdowns, which “brought a tear” to Prior’s eye. 

Then, in November 2021, while a third of the school were still absent with Covid, Ofsted gave the school an ‘inadequate’ rating. Prior was devastated. The school has since closed.

He believes that Ofsted was “stamping on schools to almost prove a relevance that they hadn’t had” during Covid lockdowns.

The judgment came as a shock because Prior believed he had introduced “real pride” to the community and boosted results from “pretty much the lowest in town” to the “top three”. 

The injustice made him rethink his headship career. “I wasn’t prepared to see decent people being put through this process,” he says. “Some of my wonderful team had been reduced to wrecks.” 

Alex Priors two books with a third in the pipeline

Sherlockian success

But his turbulent years at Wenlock were not wasted. After working “flat out” each day, he would spend the evenings writing a book – The Lost Case Files of Sherlock Holmes – in the prose style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Nobody was more surprised than Prior when it went to number one in several Amazon chart categories. To date, it has sold almost 30,000 copies. 

Then Prior embarked on a different sort of education career – one that is not “all consuming” like a headship and allows him time for writing.

As well as helping to oversee teacher training at around 1,000 schools across the Home Counties through Chiltern Teaching School, he delivers training on working with pupils for whom English is an additional language for the Bell Foundation.

Life is not easy for his Chiltern trainees, who increasingly have to teach subjects they are not trained up in, due to school staffing shortages.

Prior congratulates them for choosing “a genuinely noble profession”, which “we can lose sight of in all the noise and political nonsense”.

He believes that everyone has, like him, “room for several careers in their lifetime”. He is particularly relishing his current one.

“Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than a young person saying, ‘I really enjoyed your book’.”

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