Shifting gears

9th January 2009 at 00:00
After 20 years as a car fitter, redundancy gave Richard Thornton the chance to fulfil his lifetime ambition of becoming a teacher. Steven Hastings met him

Three months into his PGCE, Richard Thornton, 40, has taken to teaching, no trouble at all. He loves being in the classroom, sharing his enthusiasm and finding ways to bring history alive. The only thing he can't get used to is everyone calling him Mr Thornton.

At MG Rover's Longbridge plant in Birmingham, where he worked as a fitter for almost 20 years, Richard was always Moley to his mates, not to mention his bosses. "When I started there, the Adrian Mole books were popular. I had combed down hair and glasses and apparently I looked like him. The name just stuck."

As Moley, Richard tested car engines to assess performance and fuel consumption. Now, as Mr Thornton, he tests key stage 4 (GCSE) pupils on their knowledge of the Tudors. It's an unusual career switch. But as with many people who come to teaching later in life, the idea had been at the back of his mind for years.

"I've always been fascinated by history. As a child, I loved classic war films such as Zulu and Kelly's Heroes. And when I played with my toy soldiers, I always wanted to learn more about them, and find out what each regiment did. I still collect soldiers even now - I've got more than 2,000."

At 16, Richard thought long and hard about a possible career teaching history, before plumping for an apprenticeship with Rover. "My dad died when I was eight. He'd worked at Longbridge all his life and there was an attraction to following in his footsteps. But mostly it was about the money - I wanted to start earning straight away."

Those pay packets gave him cash for going out and bought him his first car - a Mini with a sunroof. Out of loyalty, he's never bought anything other than Rover cars. He's still proud of the work he did at Longbridge and looks back fondly on his time there.

"It was a fantastic place to work. A group of us started there at the same time and we worked together every day for 20 years. It was like a second family."

Working his way up the ladder, Richard helped to develop some of Rover's most successful engines, like the one that powered the MG ZS 180 from 0-60 in seven seconds. But even so, the idea of teaching stayed with him. When he was promoted to the position of grade 1 fitter, he found himself supervising new workers - and loved it. "We all got apprentices to look after, but they gave me more than anyone else because they knew I enjoyed helping them."

When Richard's children started school, a teacher discovered his passion for wartime history and invited him to give a talk. "I was nervous, but ended up having a great time. I took some war medals and the pupils enjoyed handling them. I realised that was how they liked to learn."

Over the next few years, he gave more talks at local primary schools. But that's probably as far as his classroom ambitions would have gone if fate hadn't stepped in.

After two decades at Longbridge Richard knew all about the ups and downs of British car manufacturing. Even so, it came as a shock when the MG Rover group went bust in 2005. "I didn't see it coming. Everyone was sure the company would be sold to a Chinese buyer. They'd even begun refurbishing the plant. Then one day I got a phone call saying: `It's over, don't bother coming in to work'."

His first concern was how he would pay the mortgage and put food on the table. With MG Rover in liquidation, workers received only minimum redundancy payments. "It was a rubbish deal, about Pounds 5,000. I felt really down. But Wendy, my wife, was brilliant. She handed me a can of paint and a brush, and said `decorate the house'. It didn't need doing, she just wanted to keep me busy."

When he went to the job centre, he joked about getting a job there and, as it happened, with all the Longbridge redundancies to process, the job centre was short-staffed. So Richard spent the next six months signing on his friends. It was fun, and it paid the bills, but like all good historians Richard had learnt some lessons from the past. And so he set about fulfilling his long-held ambition of becoming a history teacher.

About a third of new teachers are over the age of 30, according to the Training and Development Agency for Schools, but the majority of those career changers are already graduates, whereas Richard needed to do a degree before he could even think about teacher training.

"The idea of going to university was a bit scary. I was expecting big lecture halls and grumpy professors. But Newman University College in Birmingham wasn't like that at all. The tutors were friendly and approachable and it was a relaxed atmosphere. I signed up there and then."

Despite having to juggle his history studies with several part-time jobs, Richard emerged with a 2:1 degree.

Now, with his secondary PGCE in history and citizenship in full swing, his two sons are already bored with dad trying out lesson ideas on them. "I'm always asking them what they think, and how I could make a lesson more interesting. I suppose that's the fitter in me, testing and tweaking all the time."

So how does teaching compare to developing and building car engines? "At Rover, I used to clock in and out for my shift, but now it's not like that at all. I have to work in the evenings, there's always something to prepare. Teaching isn't a job, it's a way of life."

And when it comes to money, it will probably be a few years before his teaching salary exceeds the Pounds 28,000 he earned at Rover. "But I'm having a great time. What I enjoy most is that pupils ask genuinely challenging questions. It forces you to think about things from a new perspective - so you're teaching, but also learning."

Is there still a small part of him that misses "Moley" and the camaraderie of Longbridge? "Maybe a little. Working in a school is very different from working in a car factory. Even my old mates from Rover have started calling me Mr Thornton because they know it winds me up. But once I get to know my classes and colleagues a bit better, I'm sure we'll get some banter going."

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