The Conversation: Creating a brand

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
Sir Dexter Hutt has a reputation for turning round struggling schools and was a pioneer of federations. He talks to Geoff Barton

Q: You are chief executive of a federation of schools, but it all began at Ninestiles School in Birmingham. Tell me about your early days there.

A: At my interview I told the panel that Ninestiles was the worst school I had ever seen. Results were 6 per cent for five or more good GCSEs, and 33 per cent of pupils left without a single pass.

This was a different world: there was no Ofsted, no Department for Children, Schools and Families involvement, and an uninformed local education authority. The school was organised into eight rigid streams. Quite good artwork at the back of the hall had the caption: "This work was done by our less able pupils."

So where did you begin?

I had told the staff in my first meeting as a new head that I would take a year to judge things before I introduced any changes. But I then became acutely aware that I could get used to the prevailing ethos.

I have always believed that good social relationships are the foundation for school improvement. So six weeks later I announced that in Years 7 to 9 we would be dismantling the streamed system and going mixed ability the following September (1988).

So you embarked on big cultural changes. How did pupils respond?

Pupils liked being in their new tutor groups and having a wider range of teachers than in the streamed system. They made new friends in their mixed-ability classes. They also liked it when we took photographs of every pupil who had achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs, framed them, and displayed them prominently outside the main hall.

And staff?

There was a bit of a rearguard action. The odd note pushed under my door said: "Please don't spoil our school." The tipping point came when we managed to attract resources. Staff began to feel more empowered and found reserves of energy, talent and determination that they didn't know they had. It was them and their commitment that made the real difference.

So how did you get from that success in a single school to the start of a federation - the development of a Ninestiles brand?

Birmingham was in an exciting and creative phase, ignited by the chemistry of Tim Brighouse, then the chief education officer, and Mick Waters, his chief adviser.

Waverley, a school that had stalled at around 17 per cent five A*-C GCSEs, had picked up a warning "I will be back" message from a visiting schools inspector. Mick rang me out of the blue at the end of January 2001 to ask if he could come in for a brief chat.

It was all agreed in 10 minutes. Chris Quinn, my deputy and on the brink of headship, would go to Waverley as head, and we would use the Ninestiles expertise to support it. I would have an overall strategic brief.

So we "moved in" to Waverley 10 days later. The same inspector returned 10 months later to report that "the outlook of, and for, the school, had been transformed".

The International School in Birmingham followed in 2003, Central Technology College in Gloucester at the end of 2005. Now there's the Hastings Schools' Federation. It's not about cloning schools, but using a framework to establish a climate in which teachers and children can thrive.

And what do this year's results show in terms of progress, and what's next?

This year's results at Central testify to the commitment and confidence that its staff have and how pupils have developed - to go from last year's 23 per cent five or more A*-C GCSEs, including maths and English, to this year's 40 per cent was no mean feat.

This new academic year promises to be another varied one. Contributing to the regeneration of Hastings in my role as executive leader of the Hastings federation is an exciting challenge. I feel privileged to work with so many talented people.


Name: Dexter Hutt

Position: Chief executive of Ninestiles Federation, Birmingham, and executive leader of the Hastings Schools Federation, East Sussex.?

Number of years in teaching: 36

Subject background: Economics and maths

Awardshonours: Commissioner for The Commission for Racial Equality; Knighted in 2004 for services to education

Special interests in education: Leadership and change, progressing Every Child Matters

Other interests: Current affairs, reading, golf and horse racing.

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