"Amazed, delighted and honoured" is how retired head teachers' leader David Hart described his New Year knighthood.
David Hart said his wife, Frankie, was "gobsmacked, but thrilled"
Sir David, former general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it recognised the "vital role" of school leaders.
A London head teacher, Anna Hassan, is made a dame, as is the warden of Keble College, Oxford, Averil Cameron.
The vice-chancellor of Essex university and ex-president of Universities UK, Ivor Crewe, is also knighted.
David Hart, who led the NAHT for 27 years until his retirement this autumn, said at his home in Cumbria: "It's a great honour for me but I would like to think it's because we have been able to help school leaders.
"We have played a part in making sure that their role is recognised as being absolutely vital to the future of the education of this country - and to the future of the country itself.
"I hope I have been able to play a part in developing the policy of this government on matters educational."
Sir David said the Labour government had not always made the right decisions, but it had made a "massive investment" in education.
And he supported the current, controversial White Paper for England's schools in the way it proposed giving school leaders more autonomy.
Professor Ivor Crewe was president of the vice-chancellors' group, Universities UK, when the government pushed through its controversial reforms to student finance in England, introducing so-called "top-up" fees.
He welcomed the changes as a significant step towards restoring the financial health of universities.
Prof Averil Cameron: one of the first women to head a formerly all-male Oxford college
He said of his knighthood that it was probably for a mixture of things - notably Essex's efforts to widen participation in higher education to students from families with no tradition of going to university, as well as his work at Universities UK.
Although he had backed the government over tuition fees, he had been critical of other decisions, particularly its "damaging" approach to visas for overseas students.
And he said the sector simply did not get enough funds to sustain its teaching commitments.
Anna Hassan is head teacher at Millfields Primary School, in Hackney, east London, where 22% of the children have special educational needs.
She believes in the policy of "inclusion" - having children with special needs in mainstream schools, with appropriate support.
Service to education also attracts its share of CBEs and other honours.