Dexter Hutt talks of his idyllic childhood in Guyana
By John Mair
January 27, 2004
He is the latest school knight created by Tony Blair. When pupils at Ninestiles school in Birmingham call him 'Sir' they mean it. Their headmaster Dexter Hutt has just been knighted in the Queen's New Year's Honours list for his services to education. Today, he is a 'super head' in charge of Ninestiles and Waverley School in Acocks Green. His own childhood was many worlds away in Guyana, South America.
Sir Dexter's school is a runaway success story; the number of good (Grades A to C) GCSE passes are up in the 15 years since he has been headmaster from just six per cent to 76%.Word has got out. Pupil numbers have shot up from 900 to 1500. Ninestiles is now at the education cutting edge with the largest school wireless network in Europe - 1,000 laptops on site. Sir Dexter preaches the gospel of good headship and school improvement through a training company he has established on site. Many, including Prime Minister Blair, have come to Birmingham to see success for themselves.
Still the news that he was to be Sir Dexter came as a surprise to him. "I feel both privileged and lucky to have been knighted," he says. But he thinks the glory should not all be his alone. "I recognise that I have been very fortunate to have worked with so many talented and committed individuals".
Sir Dexter Hutt is the latest recruit to the so called UK 'Guyanese Mafia', individuals born in the former British colony on the tip of South America who have made it big in Britain.
Few summits remain to be scaled by this 'Mafia', which includes Baroness Valerie Amos, the Leader of the House of Lords; Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality; Dr Raj Persaud, the popular and eminent psychiatrist and Lords Waheed Alli and Herman Ouseley. Sir Dexter is very proud of his heritage and what some others in the diaspora have achieved. "I always feel a sense of natural pride when other Guyanese do well," he says, recalling one national song from 'back home'. "Onwards, upwards may they ever go - and as we used to sing - day by day in strength and beauty grow!"
Dexter Hutt was born in the capital Georgetown 55 years ago but spent most of his first 12 years in the bauxite mining area of Mackenzie. That was then a thriving vibrant town after a war in which the demand for aluminium was limitless. Today Mackenzie has been renamed Linden (in his own honour by the late Linden Forbes Burnham). It is severely depressed. The market for its 'crop' collapsed and kept alive for political as much as economic reasons. Guyana is a racially polarised society. The mainly Indo-Guyanese government simply cannot afford to let an African Guyanese town go to the wall.
In the 1950s Hutt remembers a very different place: "My father Walter Hutt worked for the bauxite company, then known as DEMBA (Demerara Bauxite Company). My memories of Guyana are mainly centred around the Mackenzie/Wismar area: the bauxite and alumina plants, the draglines, the Chinese supermarket, Riverside Drive, Arvida Road, Sprostons, the Crescent cinema and the boats that crossed the river. And of course the R H Carr which made the river journey between Mackenzie and Georgetown."
In British Guiana back in those colonial days, Dexter was the son of the cream and so lived in a segregated compound away from the workers. "I remember feeling safe, free and somewhat privileged as my father was senior staff at DEMBA and so we had a comfortable lifestyle." The racial conflict that was to tear Guyana apart in the last four decades was yet to rear its ugly head. "I remember Guyanese of all races getting on well together, an open friendly community and everyone with transistor radios held to their ears when a cricket test match was on." This being the Caribbean, life was more than a little laid back. Little boys, even the sons of senior staff, were allowed their freedom. "I remember wandering about at an early age without shoes - never mind socks!"
But it was the Guyanese education system which had the strongest influence on this future super-headmaster. Mackenzie may have been out in the sticks, 50 miles from the capital but education in all of the country then had a value and a high one at that placed on it. "I have very positive memories of the Guyanese education system. I enjoyed my time at Mackenzie High School and the standard of education was every bit as good as the schools that I attended in England afterwards."
Schools modelled themselves on the motherland. That meant English exams and an English style school ethos: "I enjoyed the competitive environment and remember how we used to add up the end of term test marks to see who got the highest total." That ethos can be seen today in Ninestiles.
Sir Dexter even 40 years later can still remember many of his classmates in the Mackenzie High Class of '60. "Many names come back to me including Joe Bakker, Ian Bacchus, Lorimer, Duncan, Ross" and like so many other impressionable youngsters one teacher stood out above all others, Mr Palakdari. So much so that 'Sir' today has built a permanent educational memorial to him.
"I have always treasured my memories of Mr Palakdari who used to run geography tests at lunchtime - we had to fill in blank maps of the world with the winner getting a dollar prize. My own school now has an annual Palakdari Easter Challenge in his memory!"
But the future disciplinarian and disciple of 'Behaviour for Learning' was no complete angel himself at school. The positive and the negative memories flow back. "I liked the teachers - I remember names like Wharton (nicknamed Wow), Hinds and Cummings and I remember getting caned on occasions when I had earned it!" Corporal punishment was commonplace in Guyanese schools in those days (as this writer well remembers from his own schooldays there).
So Sir Dexter's educational philosophy was forged in the mining furnace of Guyana for which he still retains a special place in his heart. "My favourite memories of Guyana are the food, and living in a country where the majority of people I met were intelligent, open, friendly and interested in current affairs. And humorous."
That was then before the flight
from the country which has continued to this day. There are now more Guyanese in the various diaspora worldwide than in the country itself; the respected and effective Guyanese education system, like Mackenzie itself, now gone to rack and ruin.
After leaving Guyana at 14, school in England, then university followed by 'falling into teaching' in 1972 in Coventry for the young Dexter. He took to education and education management like a duck to water. "I fell into teaching by chance starting with a temporary post and then realising I enjoyed it and that there was significant freedom and autonomy within the secondary school system for individual heads to shape their own school." He took on this challenge in 1988.
Ninestiles has become a beacon with many of the lessons learned in Mackenzie put into practice 4,000 miles away and three decades later. His view of how he improved it: "The challenge for school leaders is to create a culture which encourages teachers and pupils to strive to achieve their best."
Onwards, upwards may they ever go? That achievement culture though needs vision and a machinery. "We work hard to establish a shared vision of what we want the school to achieve in three-year cycles and then give the freedom to individual teams to contribute to that vision." And no vision can happen without the time and the space to take chances. "We have a no-blame culture, which encourages risk taking. I have enormous admiration and respect for the talent and creativity of many of the teachers that I work with."
But at the very centre of his educational vision as in his formative childhood are the educational needs of the child allied to the need for firm discipline. His 1,500 pupils make up a racial rainbow just like Guyana was back then. Thirty percent of Ninestiles' students are from ethnic (non white) minority backgrounds and about a quarter of them are so poor that they receive free school meals. But all are sovereign.
"We try and win their hearts and minds and find that this makes them more predisposed to learning," he says and that learning is measured and rewarded with regularity, just like those end-of-term tests in Guyana. "We have regular assessments and feedback to students so that they know where they are and what they need to do to improve."
Joe Bakker and Ian Bacchus of the Mackenzie High School Class of '60 might also recognise some of their school then in his school now. "We have a service approach to our students ensuring that they have personal lockers, leisure areas, a good quality restaurant with no more than five-minute queuing, and a pupil support centre available to meet their personal needs throughout the school day." And all of this achieved within the firm structured environment he brought with him from his childhood.
In Mackenzie High, corporal punishment did the trick. Today, moral suasion is to the fore in his practice. "It needs a good basis and that is good discipline. Within all of our schools we have established a whole school discipline system called Behaviour for Learning. It is a highly effective system that has been copied by many visiting schools. It has a striking and immediate impact on schools," he now says in an almost messianic way.
The barefooted boy from Guyana has now transformed two middle England high schools and had an impact on many more. His reward has come in the improved futures of his many pupils. But the joy of being knighted earlier this month struck closer to home. "It was good to be able to break the news to my (82-year-old) father Walter and brothers and sisters who are now in Florida," he recalls and that Guyanese childhood came back to revisit him. "And I was touched to get a phone call from a friend, Bert Carter, who lives in Georgetown."
Arise, Sir Dexter, the educational knight in the inner shires whose own dreams and vision and childhood lie so far away.