Feature: Superhead says Hastings was ‘my swansong’

Sir Dexter Hutt
Sir Dexter Hutt

On the eve of his retirement, education superhead Sir Dexter Hutt looked back over his three years in Hastings with reporter Ben Higgins.

SIR DEXTER Hutt can pinpoint the day he felt Hastings secondary schools were turning over a new leaf.

It happened, he says, just a few months after he was hired by a county council desperate to raise the failing standard of local education.

“We finally persuaded old teachers to formally plan their lessons for the first time,” he said. “That was a defining point.

“Soon afterwards, the letters began arriving, from parents, saying they had noticed a difference in their child. That their child was happier, and had more confidence.”

In April 2008, a history of scathing inspections and failing standards forced the authority to turn to Sir Dexter, the 63-year-old chief executive of the education consultancy Ninestiles Plus, in a last ditch attempt to boost local education.

His mission was to reverse the fortunes of three secondary schools: Hillcrest, The Grove, and Filsham Valley.

Three-and-a-half years later, as youngsters across the town celebrate the latest clutch of GCSE results, Sir Dexter is about to leave Hastings for good. And speaking to the Observer on Wednesday, Sir Dexter revealed he now plans to retire, describing Hastings as “the peak of my career; my swansong”.

So as he leaves behind his permanent room in Bannatynes Hotel, does he feel his Hastings mission is accomplished?

“Without a doubt. The most obvious indicator is the results.

“Take the three schools in the federation. The average pass rate for these schools, of five A* to Cs, including Maths and English, has gone from 21 per cent to 45 per cent this year. They have more than doubled.”

Broadly, the numbers back Sir Dexter up. Hillcrest has dropped three per cent in the key GCSE indicator since last year, but the two other schools are up, and all three have dramatically improved since 2008, when Hillcrest was named and shamed as the worst secondary school in East Sussex.

It has not been straightforward. He was shocked, he says, when he arrived, by a pervasive lack of confidence within the schools.

“There was a feeling that not a lot could be expected from Hastings. There was a culture of low self-esteem. The biggest challenge was to raise those expectations.”

He did this, he says, through the Hastings Federation – an executive organisation that guides, critiques and, crucially, encourages the three secondary schools.

He places a huge amount of emphasis on this collaborative approach – constantly praising East Sussex County Council officers and members (“We are a team pulling in the same direction, and in my experience, that has not always happened. East Sussex and Hastings are the best experience I have had”), as well as the staff and students of the federation schools.

It must have been a blow, then, when Filsham teachers walked out last year over plans to merge their school with The Grove to create the St Leonards Academy. Pupils staged a protest the following day.

“Filsham were very committed to getting the best for their students,” he diplomatically offers.

“It wasn’t easy, but I think they saw the benefits the other schools were getting. Any doubts they had seemed to go, and they came on board.”

Fears that the major academy sponsors, including British Telecom, could have too much influence on the curriculum are “a theoretical danger,” but he adds that he is reassured by what he has seen of the sponsors so far, and believes they are vital to the wider regeneration of Hastings.

“Hastings is small enough to see the changes,” he says. “The first academy jobs we advertised, for instance, we struggled to find the right applicants. Now, we get hundreds applying.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given education secretary Michael Gove’s recent dismissal of ‘soft subjects’, he passionately defends BTECs in Media Studies, Drama or PE, saying he is “not at all concerned” about any trend of Hastings students opting to avoid traditionally ‘harder’ areas like History or Modern Languages.

He is similarly untroubled by the episode in 2008 when Hillcrest students were forced to change onto an IT course halfway through the year. At the time, furious parents complained of disruption, but Sir Dexter insists it was the best move for the students.

“We did that because their chances were not high on those courses. The IT they were doing was token IT. It was pointless.

“They were not keen to change initially, but when I spoke to them two months later, they were very pleased.”

Now, as he winds down from a furious period that has, broadly speaking, seen consistent improvement in Hastings education, he plans to settle into retirement: spending more time with his wife, working on his golf swing and polishing his novel-writing skills.

“I’ve seen Hastings go from strength to strength. The schools now have strong leadership, and are strong teams,” he says.

“They have a lot of confidence and self-esteem. The aim has been to build that inner strength. And I don’t have any doubt that has happened.

“There’s a core of people in Hastings, both paid and voluntary, who seem passionate to make a difference. That sounds trite. But I don’t mean it in that way. I genuinely think that will help the town go places. And its students will be a hugely important part of that.”