The twins who go head to head

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Sibling rivalry is the spur that drove Gary and Paul Smith to become successful leaders of neighbouring special schools. Adi Bloom reports

The head of Market Field special school was always told by his father that being second best is the same as losing.

The head of nearby Treetops special school says his father told him exactly the same thing.

Gary Smith, head of Market Field in Colchester, Essex, and Paul Smith, head of Treetops, in the south Essex authority of Thurrock, are identical twins.

Both trained as PE teachers before moving, almost simultaneously, into special education and were appointed to headships within a year of one another. They live in the same Essex village. Both are 48, have three children, aged 22, 19 and 14. Both have sons who want to be journalists.

Gary is half an inch taller. Paul has more grey hair. But otherwise, they are identical.

And then there's one big difference: in Thurrock Paul is overseeing a pound;15 million school expansion, allowing him to admit up to 50 extra pupils. In Essex Gary has 15 more pupils on his roll than council funding permits.

"We've both expanded significantly," said Gary. "Paul's done it because of local authority policy, and I've done it despite local authority policy.

"The level of frustration is ridiculous. I want to become a hub of learning for the community. I want to offer pre and post-school activities. Kids with special needs deserve the best, not second-best. My dad used to say, second-best is first loser."

Gary teaches PE classes three afternoons a week, to make up for staffing shortages and hires learning support assistants, because he cannot afford in-school therapists.

Meanwhile, at Treetops, generous local authority funding means that Paul and his staff have been able to specialise in working with autistic children. A range of interactive technologies help teachers work with pupils and one-to-one coaching is available for children who have trouble speaking. This month, the school will host an international conference on behaviour programmes for autistic children.

"If staff want to go on a course, funding will be found," said Paul. "It's always been easy. I don't think Gary's jealous. That's just the way it is.

We both want the best for our pupils. But there has always been a competitive element between us."

This competitive edge has been honed over the years. Gary, who is younger by half an hour, was the first to be offered a headship. Paul's response is: "He's just lucky. It wasn't that he was any better than me."

Gary, meanwhile, is quick to point out that his school was top in the county's value-added league tables. But, he said, this is no reparation for earlier defeats: "He got a better degree than me. He got a 2.1, and I got a 2.2. That still grates."

The siblings use their rivalry to spur them on, and Gary blatantly goes to education officials in Essex and says "Thurrock can afford it" in a bid to extract extra cash.

There are clearly advantages to having twins who work alongside each other as headteachers. Paul sends autism experts to advise Market Field staff.

And Gary, who was among the first special school heads in the country to enter pupils for GCSEs, provides academic advice for Treetops staff.

But the biggest advantage is the constant source of expert advice. Gary said: "We can say things to each other, and know it goes nowhere else. Most heads have to hide things.

"But we have the same abilities, and the same failings. We're both a bit soft as heads. Neither of us likes doing the hard-nosed bit of the job.

Also neither of us can sing or dance. But it definitely helps to talk to someone who understands."



Head Gary Smith

Local authority: Essex

Number of pupils: 136, aged between five and 16

Budget pound;1.3m

Position in Essex value-added table: first

Ofsted report, 2002, says: "Market Field is an effective school, where the quality of teaching is high, and pupils achieve very well by the end of Year 11.

"Pupils are confident and happy at school, and make very good gains in maturity and personal development. The headteacher leads with enthusiasm.

"The school spends its money wisely for the benefit of pupils and children."

Gary Smith says: "The commitment is total. I will get what we're after eventually, and it will be sweeter for having waited."


Head Paul Smith

Local authority: Thurrock

Number of pupils: 165, aged between five and 16

Budget pound;2.09m

Position in Thurrock value-added table: second Ofsted report, 2001, says: "Treetops is a good school, which is developing well towards its goal of becoming a centre of excellence.

"Good teaching helps pupils to achieve high standards, and strong leadership by the head and senior-management team is effective in creating an inclusive school."

Paul Smith says: "Yes, we are well-funded for a state school.We've been based on two sites for two years, while we wait for funding for new buildings. It's not all been plain-sailing, even if Gary would say otherwise."

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