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Sacked lecturer keeps on trucking

Richard Dean takes to the highway with Alan Cowood, FE whistle-blower turned lorry driver from Grimsby

ALAN Cowood - or Big Al to his friends - is tucking in to chips as he talks about his new life as a lorry driver.

We are sitting in a greasy spoon cafe near junction five on the M180 near the Humber Bridge.

For 20 years, he worked as a senior lecturer until he was dismissed from his pound;23,700-a-year post at Grimsby College last June. The 30 hours a week of teaching motor-vehicle mechanics, management, trade union studies and health and safety are now fading in the memory.

Mr Cowood was sacked for blowing the whistle on alleged financial irregularities at the college, and won his case against the dismissal at an employment tribunal.

He tells me he has never looked back since leaving behind the stresses and low pay of lecturing for his new life on the open road.

"I went into education because I thought I had a gift for it," he said. "No one ever criticised my teaching. But they changed it into a money-making game."

He has been up since 2am, after taking a load of Polish steel from Immingham to Blackburn. The offer of breakfast is turned down. "I don't want breakfast. That was at 6am. I'll have egg and chips, please.

"Actually, you missed a wonderful moon," he adds, recalling the view from his cab. "A big glowing ball that just dropped slowly in the sky."

We are destined to deliver titanium dioxide, a chemical powder which makes UPVC windows glow white, to a rural depot in picturesque Ripon.

Winning the tribunal has given him the vindication he needs but the thought of going back into further education in Grimsby fills him with dread.

Driving gives him self-respect, a feeling of being trusted and treated as an equal. "I find driving extremely therapeutic," he said. "I have time to think. I got a job as a lorry driver within a week of being dismissed. I was not going to sit back and feel sorry for myself.

"My new boss thought I would only last three weeks because I gave him my CV with its list of college and teaching qualifications. He thought I would be here one minute and gone the next. But that is not my style.

"My boss will drive my lorry if he has to. It is true teamwork. Everyone you meet in this job is helpful.

"Sometimes, when I go down the road I think it is one hell of a privilege to be given a lorry like this. You are given a pound;70,000 tractor unit and sent to Aberdeen. You pick up a load and are told to go to Anglesey. It is up to you how you get there.

"The trust is incredible from your company. I can laugh and joke with my boss. As long as the job is done, then it's OK."

He and his wife Sharon, a library assistant, live in Cleethorpes in a converted guesthouse and have two children, Alice, 19, and Adam, 17.

"I realised I needed to develop qualifications," said Alan, who attended Frederick Gough grammar school in Scunthorpe. He worked his way up the ladder from apprentice motor mechanic to transport inspector at British Steel's Scunthorpe works.

"I always wanted to cover myself. That's why I trained as a class one driver, studied management and went into teacher training when I took voluntary redundancy from Scunthorpe."

Ironically, the historic failure of post-16 education to fill the country's skills needs makes people such as Mr Cowood, who are trained to teach vocational subjects but who also have a trade of their own, more sought after outside education.

"These lorries are so technical now it costs a minimum of pound;3,000 to train and qualify as a class one driver," he said. "In the UK there is an industry shortage of 30,000 to 35,000 drivers."

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