My father, David Cassar, who has died aged 71, was a dedicated educator and advocate for special needs schools. For 20 years he was the principal and chief executive of St Mary’s Wrestwood in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, which he turned around to achieve “outstanding” gradings from Ofsted, earning personal praise from inspectors.
The children who attended had complex needs, including physical, social and educational. Most of them thrived during their time at the school, often against the odds. Many learned to walk, or speak, or read, with the help of the specialist staff.
David believed their needs could not be met in mainstream education and advised the government throughout the 1990s. When policy changed to bring more children into the mainstream, he warned of the limitations and dangers.
He was born in Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, one of eight children, two of whom died in infancy, of Maltese parents, John Cassar, a cabinetmaker, and his wife, Josephine (nee Sultana), who worked in a factory. They had come to the UK after the second world war and met in Portsmouth. David always considered himself Maltese. His parents’ English being limited, young David filled in all the family forms, and read letters and bills for his parents.
He attended St John’s RC secondary modern school in the city, leaving at the age of 16 to work in construction. Aged 17 he had a motorbike accident, which left him with one leg shorter than the other. He spent a year learning to walk again. His mother died suddenly when he was in his early 20s – he decided to change his career direction and went to Leicester University to study for a degree in youth and community work.
He spent a year in the Bronx, New York, and came back to the UK to become youth and community worker at Impington Village college, Cambridgeshire. He then became the first youth and community worker for Waveney Valley in Suffolk.
Deciding to train as a teacher, he attended Avery Hill College, Greenwich, in London, and in 1981 went to teach woodwork and design technology at Peckham girls’ school. In 1983 he moved to Burlington Danes secondary school in White City for three years and in 1986 he became principal of South Lodge in Hertfordshire, a boarding school for girls with emotional difficulties. There he was able to combine his experience of community work and teaching, and he thrived in the role.
In 1991 he moved to St Mary’s Wrestwood, which at the time was struggling. He made it into a glowing success. After retiring in 2010, he sat on the bench at Hastings magistrates court, where he continued to influence people’s lives.
David was a committed socialist, who gave me the Marxist manifesto as a 16th birthday present. He was a long-time union member and rep of the NUT (now NEU). When at the age of three I declared myself vegetarian, he soon joined me and became a vocal advocate for the cause.
He married and divorced three times and is survived by his three children, Joseph, Jessie and me.