Sir Dexter Hutt is the driving force behind his school's meteoric rise. Philippa White reports
Dexter Hutt decided to become a headteacher while driving through the Sahara desert at the age of 22.
The attraction was the chance it gave him to make changes: "I'm not a power freak - I just wanted to see how much progress a school could make."
Some 33 years later he is head of the hugely successful Ninestiles school in Acocks Green, Birmingham, feted by the Government, and this year he was knighted for services to education.
His career path has taken him from a hotdog stand in Birmingham, teaching bottom-stream maths in a secondary modern, to being deputy head at the Coventry school where Estelle Morris taught physical education.
"She was very good with students, and always looked at the wider educational picture," said Sir Dexter, who became pastoral deputy head of Sidney Stringer in 1982.
Admirers describe him as tireless, dynamic and innovative. "He's relentless - doesn't take no for an answer," says Professor David Hopkins, head of the Standards and Effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Skills.
Sir Dexter hosts a stream of visitors at Ninestiles, a technology college, makes regular trips to London to meet ministers, and is in demand as a conference speaker.
Neighbouring heads admire his achievements but are envious of the extra sponsorship he has brought in through the school's full-time business manager.
Ninestiles has links with Microsoft, for example, and gets free advice and software licenses.
"He can afford to pay staff more - it's not a level playing field," said one Birmingham head. (Sir Dexter retorts that he values good teachers and chooses to spend money to recruit the best.) In the 15 years since Sir Dexter joined Ninestiles, results have soared from 6 per cent achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE in 1988 to 76 per cent last year (helped by general national vocational qualifications worth four grades).
He believes personalised learning - one of the Government's new buzz phrases - can help the school progress further.
At Ninestiles all students from Years 7 to 11 choose which national curriculum levels they work at and every key stage 4 pupil is graded seven times over two years, with the results displayed publicly.
The school has bought 1,400 laptops, 1,100 of which are leased by parents for pound;26 a month for three years. The remainder are used by staff and students in school. Student Heena Chauhan, 15, is a fan of the school's setting system. "It makes you keener to work because you have your say in what you want.
"Each student in each set works at a different pace, so no one is held back."
Professor Hopkins says: "If you go around Dexter's school you see examples of personalised learning."
Pupils' abilities are identified, different teaching strategies are employed, targets are set and progress is tracked.
Sir Dexter said: "Insofar as the school structure enables it, it's trying to look at the individual needs of students. The better the school is, the closer you will be able to get to it."
Sir Dexter, 55, is married to Rosemary, a nurse, and has three children aged 24, 22, and 16.
He was born in Guyana, South America, where his father was senior manager in a Canadian aluminium company.
He left at the age of 14 to go to boarding school in England, which he loved, and then read economics and politics at Birmingham university.
Two nights a week he worked on a hotdog stand in the city centre until 2am:
"It was very good when I entered pastoral management - I was used to dealing with situations of potential conflict."
Ninestiles is federated with nearby Waverley school and the International School and Community College, East Birmingham.
From next September Sir Dexter will leave the headship of Ninestiles and become executive head of the federation.
If that helps spread his success, then Birmingham youngsters will be pleased. "My mates seem jealous," said Year 10 Ninestiles student Luke Scarborough. "They want to be at my school."