Obituary - Peter Hastings 1922-2012

27th July 2012 at 01:00

Peter Hastings was a visionary Catholic headteacher who championed children's curiosity and their right to enjoy learning in an atmosphere of freedom.

Peter Charles Hastings was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1922, the second son of a lawyer who served on the Federal Council of Malaya. His great-grandfather, Sir Charles Hastings, founded the British Medical Association, and his brother, Adrian, was a distinguished academic and theologian.

Peter was educated in England and read history at Worcester College, Oxford, before volunteering for the Royal Navy Reserve in 1942. In 1946, he returned to Oxford to study law, but left after two terms to recover from his war experience, hitch-hiking around France. He then opened a Catholic bookshop in Dundee, only to discover that the Catholic population of Dundee bought few books - and still fewer Catholic ones. In 1950, he returned to Oxford to run another bookshop, with limited financial success, and to marry Virginia Nicholson.

In 1956, he took a diploma in education and taught for three years in Kisubi School, Uganda. He returned with his family to England and in 1961 was appointed head of history and the library at Fitzharrys School, a secondary modern in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where he became increasingly frustrated by traditional approaches to the curriculum. In 1966, despite his modest experience, he was appointed headmaster of Bishop Bright Grammar School, a new Catholic school in Leamington Spa.

Peter believed outstanding young teachers would inspire young minds, and his headhunting became legendary. He scoured Oxford for likely candidates, interviewing in the Turf Tavern and appointing youthful heads of department.

His sense of religious freedom brought him into conflict with local priests, whose conservative model of Catholic education was one of dogmatic rigidity. But in 1976, Peter took on the previously failing Dormer RC High School in Warwick and amalgamated it with Bishop Bright to form a Catholic comprehensive, Trinity Catholic School.

Trinity became a powerhouse of educational innovation and success. Teachers were known by their first names; Peter banned homework in the early secondary years unless it was investigative; he believed passionately in mixed-ability teaching. Learning was experiential - practical classes dominated.

In 1989, after his retirement, Peter was appointed an honorary fellow of the University of Warwick. After a spell living in Coniston in Cumbria, where he completed a book capturing his educational philosophy, Educating the Elephant's Child, he returned with Virginia to Oxford.

He died after a long illness. Four former pupils acted as pall-bearers at his requiem mass and the church was packed with former pupils and staff. He is survived by Virginia and their five children and 12 grandchildren.

John Guy. The writer is a former principal of the Sixth Form College Farnborough. He taught at Trinity Catholic School between 1978 and 1985, latterly as head of sixth form.

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