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Brickie who spiralled to the top

Stephen Grix recounts how he left school with no qualifications, but - thanks to some fast-talking from his father - landed an apprenticeship that led to lecturing and, finally, to the job of principal of the Kent college where he started out.

I am the eldest of six boys from a working-class background and attended a secondary modern school in Gravesend, Kent. My parents must have been aspirational because, when it came to secondary transfer, I was the only boy in my class (apart from the teacher's son) who went to the church school.

My parents dragged me along to Sunday school for three years to ensure I got the vicar's letter of recommendation. I think he knew he would not see me again - probably as much a relief to him as me.

At the end of my fourth year, the school decided it was in everybody's best interests if I went out to work. And so it was that one month after my 15th birthday I started thinking about career options.

My father insisted on coming to my careers interview. After outlining my qualifications - no CSEs, no O-levels, and the distinction of being the only kid in school to have failed cycling proficiency - I was offered three jobs: Co-op store boy, which I quite fancied, window cleaner or apprentice bricklayer.

My father was straight in with some spiel about how his boy had always wanted to be a brickie. His father had been a brickie (he was a refractory bricklayer, working with firebricks in kilns and furnaces) and I had loved Lego as a child. In no time, an interview was set up with the owner of a local building firm.

I went with my mum and he interviewed her for about 30 minutes about my health, time-keeping and general demeanour. I just asked about the pay. It was 13 new pence per hour and a 50-hour week - but anything over 40 hours was paid at time-and-a-half. The pay may have been poor, but I enjoyed the job.

I worked through the summer and in September started day release on my City and Guilds Brickwork at Mid-Kent College, where I remember hordes of female hairdressing and secretarial students.

I completed six years. By then I was at a different college site, but I dropped in to see my former lecturers, who said a neighbouring college was advertising for a lecturer and encouraged me to apply.

I was flattered, but had recently married and bought a house and was concerned about the salary. Nevertheless, I applied and got the job. It meant less money, but fewer hours. It also included sick pay and pension, and pay would go up every year. I would have 14 weeks' annual holiday, so I could easily make up the difference with other work.

A young guy who had just completed his probation year advised me not to complain about difficult students. Another, more experienced colleague also warned that some of the school link groups were ferocious and that I should look out for one in particular. Sure enough, my first ever class was from the school he had warned me about.

Without doubt, they were a challenge, but other students were a joy to teach. I was amazed how quickly they picked up skills and it was very satisfying to see their written work progress. I particularly enjoyed working with the adults, most of whom were older than me.

I saw many examples of people who, like me, had not been very successful at school, but later realised they were quite capable. One of my greatest pleasures was seeing students succeed. I had three in one year achieve distinctions in all areas - something I had not managed.

Teaching has never been easy or particularly well paid, but it is a rewarding job and one that I am happy to recommend. Just ask my eldest daughters - they both teach.

Stephen Grix is principal of Mid-Kent College and former chief inspector of FE


1971 - Left school with no qualifications to become apprentice bricklayer, studying at Mid Kent College.

1977 - Began lecturing in bricklaying at Bexley College in Kent, before moving to Barking College of Technology and Basingstoke College of Technology.

1990 - Joined Barking and Dagenham local authority as an inspector of post-14 education.

1993 - Moved to Barking College as director of curriculum planning and quality assurance. Later promoted to deputy principal.

1996 - Appointed principal of Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College in Waltham Forest, east London.

2000 - Joined Ofsted as head of post-compulsory education. Started college inspection regime.

2002 - Became director of education for Tower Hamlets, east London, with responsibility for 100 schools.

2005 - Appointed principal of Mid-Kent College.

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