A HEADTEACHER has branded Oxford's town and gown divide a 'disgrace' and said education is key to closing the gap, as he prepares to leave the school he loves.

Niall McWilliams spoke to the Oxford Mail during his last week at The Oxford Academy, which became one of the city's most improved secondary schools under his guidance.

The school's chair of governors has described the outgoing head at the Littlemore school as 'class act' and an 'absolute legend'.

Mr McWilliams said the academy was in a 'good position' to continue succeeding after his departure, and stressed that pupils in the area need access to 'life-changing' education.

He said: "It is essential to improving life chances. The community deserves good schools and better opportunities in life.

"After your family and health, education is the most important thing: it can change your life."

The Oxford Academy teaches about 1,650 pupils, many from Littlemore, Blackbird and Greater Leys, Rose Hill and Cowley.

The head said he read this paper's front page earlier this month about different life expectancies in Oxford.

New official figures revealed the gap between wards had increased, with men in the wealthier North ward expected to live until 90 years-old compared to 75 in Northfield Brook.

Mr McWilliams said: "It's a disgrace, and education can bridge that gap.

"A good set of academic results is the best pastoral care you can give youngsters from more challenging circumstances."

Football fan Mr McWilliams announced earlier this year he was leaving after four and a half years as head, having been appointed managing director of Oxford United and cut down to a part-time role at school.

Oxford Mail:

With the school's last day of term on Friday looming closer, he said it had been a 'privilege' to have been part of its transformation.

The school became Oxfordshire's first ever academy in 2008, replacing the Peers School, and is sponsored by the Diocese of Oxford, Oxford Brookes University and The Beecroft Trust.

Its predecessor had been plagued with bad results and Ofsted reports, and had been in 'special measures' after gaining the regulator's worst rating.

The Oxford Academy was rated 'inadequate' in 2012 before upgrading to 'requires improvement' in 2014, then gaining a 'good' rating in 2016 for the first time ever.

In that report, leadership and management was rated 'outstanding' and Mr McWilliams hailed for 'strong leadership'.

The school is now oversubscribed for the next two intakes, for the first time in history, and is among the best in the country for pupils' progress.

Mr McWilliams said it was hugely rewarding to see youngsters achieve regardless of background, adding: "I can't put into words how much of an impact that has on me and how proud I am of students."

The head credited hard-working staff for improvements at the school, and said becoming one of the country's first academies - run by multi-academy trust rather than a council - played little part.

He continued: "It's been good in getting the buildings and facilities the community deserves, but in terms of attainment, academies mean not a blind bit of difference.

"Schools are about people: if you treat people with respect and there is a culture of trust, the school will become more successful."

Mr McWilliams will also step down as executive head at neighbouring primary school the John Henry Newman Academy.

It secured its first Ofsted rating of 'good' last week after determined improvements overseen by Mr McWilliams and the school's headteacher Katie Screaton.

Alongside his role at Oxford United, father-of-five Mr McWilliams now plans to spend more time with his family but also to take up a less demanding part-time role in education.

He said that could be a consultancy role helping struggling schools, or even volunteering on break duty.

He added: "I have absolutely loved working in education - there is no better job.

"I'll never be back as a permanent headteacher but I don't ever not want to be involved in schools.

"Education has such a massive impact and there is no way I can walk away from it - even if I'm doing break duty or volunteer reading, I'll do something."

The Scot was previously head of Carterton Community College and deputy head of The Cherwell School in Summertown, where he worked for 17 years after joining as a PE teacher.

Prior to that he worked for the local authority intervening in schools in special measures, and schools in Worcestershire and Wiltshire.

He has spent 35 years in education, and experienced 64 Ofsted inspections during his career.

Mr McWilliams said: "I am lucky and privileged to walk into a job every day that is both worthwhile and that I enjoy.

"I'll miss interaction with lots of staff, students and families and the buzz of being in a busy school.

"I genuinely believe that all schools should be at the heart of their community, and welcome people with an open-door policy."

Though the head has been outspoken about current funding pressures in schools, he said difficulties did not trigger his decision to step down.

He said: "Funding is undoubtedly becoming tighter and there are recruitment pressures, extra accountability pressures and curriculum changes - but to be perfectly honest, it will be forever thus.

"Things are difficult in schools, everybody knows that. But I'm not leaving because I have run out of energy or don't agree with the government.

"Being a headteacher is always going to be challenging, but having a positive impact on people's lives massively outweighs those pressures.

"I just felt I needed experience in something slightly different, to keep my hand in education but recharge my batteries and have a fresh challenge."

Though he said he could not predict the school's future, Mr McWilliams was confident that his replacement, Andrew Hardy, was an 'experienced' educator and teachers remain 'exceptionally strong'.

He added: "It's now in a good position where it can continue to improve and take off."

He will return to the school for results days in August but Mr Hardy will have officially taken the reins.