When Nick Hewlett was carving out his early career in school leadership, he took the chance to have the adventure of a lifetime.
Grabbing the opportunity to help set up a branch of North London Collegiate School in South Korea, he set off to the remote island of Jeju.
“I can’t begin to tell you, we turned up on an island where there was nothing, we were 45 minutes away from a pint of milk when it opened, there were no facilities at all,” he says, describing the forested area where he would soon become head of the boys’ school.
“We had to create a community from nothing,” he says.
After much hard work though, the state-of-the-art boarding school was built, teachers brought in from around the world and finally, the pupils. When Hewlett left after three years there were 1,000 pupils and some of the best IB results in the world.
“I love South London, I love the diversity and vibrancy, the down to earth nature of it.”
Hewlett is clearly proud of the achievement of the NLCS team, but after three years, he left, feeling the call to return to less exotic climes – the streets of South London where he grew up and was educated.
“I love South London, I love the diversity and vibrancy, the down to earth nature of it, all of that suits me and my personality very well,” says Hewlett, who took up the headship of St Dunstan’s College in Lewisham in 2014.
“I think it’s fair to say that the school needed quite a lot of attention, in the early days…but we’ve really put it in on the map in a really exciting way and a lot of that comes down to the geography and location,” says Hewlett.
One issue when he arrived, says Hewlett, was that the school was “almost apologetic for its location”.
“It’s really hard, because we’re on the South Circular in South London and it’s an independent school, that’s a paradox.
“I said, frankly, you need to turn that on its head and see it as an enormous opportunity…my strong belief is there is a huge market in South East London for a really diverse, rounded, down-to-earth education.
“We’re on the South Circular in South London and it’s an independent school, that’s a paradox.”
“I felt there was a real possibility to pull all of this together into a real liberal open-minded education that was proud of its heritage but equally wasn’t constrained by it. [It was important] that it was co-ed, incredibly diverse, multi-cultural, multi-racial in a socio-economically diverse environment.”
The school, he says, appeals to left-of-centre parents, many of whom are creatives, who want an independent education but don’t want their children to “get caught up in a monochrome environment” where everyone emerges the same.
The school, which won the Independent Senior School of the Year at the Tes School Awards 2022 offers a “renaissance education” with none of the trappings of privilege, he says.
He is adamant that the school is part of its diverse local community – something that is reflected in the student body and staffing.
“When we audited our racial diversity like many schools did in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, we were the most racially diverse of any school that had been studied in the independent sector in the UK,” says Hewlett.
“We are pretty confident that we are the most diverse in terms of the teaching staff.”
Many independent schools “hugely struggle” with diverse recruitment, says Hewlett, but he says St Dunstan’s has come on in “leaps and bounds”.
He says: “We are pretty confident that we are the most diverse in terms of the teaching staff, racially and ethnically; now why is that? You have to proactively make a point of recruiting into those areas of the workforce.”
St Dunstan’s is involved in an outreach project – Lewisham Young Leaders’ Academy – to support black African and Afro-Caribbean children to improve their life chances.
Those involved in the academy are huge advocates of the school. “That link into that community is one of the reasons we’ve had a lot more applicants from black teachers who are looking to come,” he says.
But most importantly, diverse recruitment hangs firstly on the sincerity of a school culture and an “underpinning belief in the importance of EDI in your strategy” rather than box-ticking, he says.
Recruitment aside, Hewlett has strong feelings about the state of education across-the-board and has identified what he believes is holding the country back.
One key issue, he says, is that the lack of a very high-profile profession-driven organisation steering policy means the system is always at the whims of education ministers who “become pseudo specialists based on their own educational experiences.”
“We have become obsessed with a very narrow definition of success.”
There is also intense disagreement over what education is for, he says.
“I think if you asked a whole range of educators about that I think they’d all give you different answers and I think that is a problem. My concern is that we have become obsessed with a very narrow definition of success.”
While assessment and assimilation of knowledge are important, education has to be about more than that, he says.
A focus on grades and rote learning at GCSE meant the sector waited for Everyone’s Invited to expose the culture of toxic masculinity in some independent schools, says Hewlett.
“Why weren’t we teaching it in schools when clearly and evidently it was so important? The answer is that the emphasis wasn’t there, that wasn’t what people were locked into thinking, they were locked into thinking, what we need as a nation is to get the highest possible GCSE and A-level results that we can.
“And how do you do that, you introduce effectively a programme of rote learning where you drill children like battery chickens to regurgitate parcels of knowledge onto an exam floor, that’s what you do to get them.
“Is that a healthy modus operandi for education in this country?”