From the coalface to the chalkface: two brothers fired up about schools in the North

20th July 2018 at 00:00
Coming from a family of coal miners, Paul Tarn started his working life down the pit. But night school inspired him to switch the colliery for the classroom, and his younger brother Rob followed in his footsteps. Today the pair are both CEOs of academy trusts and part of a coalition set up to raise educational standards in the North. Here, they tell John Roberts how their own negative experience of school taught them the importance of aspiration

When Paul and Rob Tarn talk about the importance of instilling aspiration in young people, they speak from personal experience.

Today, the two brothers are both chief executives of academy trusts and responsible for the education of thousands of primary and secondary pupils in the North of England.

But their current lives are far removed from what was expected of them in their own school days. The Tarn brothers grew up in Barnsley, at a time and in a place where young men became coal miners.

Rob, 45, who became chief executive of Northern Education Trust (NET) last year, says: “I remember asking for a careers interview at the school and being told I didn’t need one because I was guaranteed a job in the pit.”

Their father had worked underground as a miner at the Grimethorpe Colliery – made famous by its brass band – for more than 30 years. And his father had worked there for more than 50 years before that.

Paul, the elder Tarn brother at 54, is the chief executive of Delta Academies Trust, one of the biggest academy chains in the country with more than 40 schools around Yorkshire.

Like previous generations of his family, his working life started in the pit. “I came out of school and didn’t want to do anything else but go to the pit. I had no aspiration,” he says.

“I didn’t know anyone from my village who had gone to university. And I left school with no qualifications to speak of. I worked at Grimethorpe for 10 years,” he explains, before correcting himself: “Actually, it was nine because we were on strike for a year.”

The interview with Tes takes place in the courtyard of a smart hotel and spa in one of Yorkshire’s most affluent areas – a setting far removed from the life of a collier.

Recalling his underground training, Paul says: “I remember when I first got on the cage. It had three decks – 60 men on each deck – and they used to push you in and then the shutters would come down to hold you in and then it would drop unbelievably quick because the shaft at Grimethorpe was 2,000ft deep. But you never thought about it. It was just what everybody did.”

Paul is keen to stress how much he enjoyed his life as a miner.

“I enjoyed the camaraderie, I enjoyed the craic,” he says. And despite the obvious contrast with his current chief executive position, he is clear that no job should be seen as superior to another.

But while respecting their roots, both Tarn brothers say they want young people growing up in similar communities to have a choice over the career they pursue. Their route into teaching was inspired not by their own school education but by their parents.

Paul recalls how in the evening his mother, who worked as postwoman, would attend night school and then sit at the kitchen table urging him to test her knowledge of biology, chemistry, English.

He already had an interest in science, and this was the spark that led him to night school. And, with the mining industry in decline, he launched into a career in science education.

After four years at Sheffield Hallam University, he qualified and started working as a science teacher at The City School in Sheffield. It was while working here that he provided the inspiration for Rob, nine years his junior, to become a teacher. Paul invited his younger brother to sit at the back of science lessons to see what it was like.

Rob says: “It was here that I got the bug. That feeling of, ‘Isn’t it amazing when you can explain something to a young person?’ It’s the best feeling in the world, so I went back and did my PGCE and became a science teacher.”

Like his older brother, Rob also believes he left school without achieving his potential.

“I went to the same village secondary school as Paul and it was as poor then as it was when Paul went. When people talk about five A* to C, I could tell you which six lads it was – and it wasn’t me.”

Rob recalls how he failed at English and convinced himself it was a subject he was no good at. However, he needed the qualification to train to be a teacher and was later able to get an A*.

“I realised then that it wasn’t me,” he says. “And ever since then that is something which has driven me. There are too many children, particularly in the North of England, who think they are not very good at maths and English when actually they can be but haven’t done well because of low expectations or poor quality provision.”

Rob started his career at Holgate School, in Barnsley, where he worked for 10 years. The Tarn brothers started teaching at different places and times and they have never actually worked in the same school.

But their careers do share something in common – they both rose to leadership roles at Outwood Grange Academies Trust – one of the strongest performing chains in the North.

Paul was recruited to work at Outwood Grange as an assistant principal in 2003, when it was still one school in Wakefield. Rob was inspired to join after hearing the former head of Outwood, Sir Michael Wilkins, speaking at a conference.

Outwood’s approach to raising attainment has been to standardise what its schools do through centrally approved systems. The Tarn brothers are firm believers in this and played key roles in developing systems and leading school turnarounds at Outwood, as the trust took on more underperforming schools. They are full of praise for Sir Michael but object to the idea that they are now simply rolling out an Outwood-style education.

“You could turn it on its head and say, ‘What impact have the Tarn brothers had on Outwood?’” Paul says.

However, they agree that their time at Outwood gave them confidence that successful school improvement systems can work in different contexts. For Paul, the situation he inherited at Delta demonstrates why a standardised approach is important.

When he took over in 2016, the organisation was called School Partnership Trust Academies. It had been warned about the standards in a third of its schools by the regional schools commissioner and was facing a deficit of £8 million. “It wasn’t really a trust,” Paul says. “SPTA was a collection of schools. Heads never met together. There were no common systems. There were 16 different specifications in history, so there were no opportunities to share resources or standardise.” Standards were “through the floor and the finances were shot”, he adds.

The trust went through a restructure, which resulted in a £9 million improvement in its finances. Given the scale of these savings, Paul is proud that it only involved two compulsory redundancies.

“At times you have to be ruthless in your decision-making, but you also have to be compassionate about how you see it through because it is people’s lives. I remember what it was like going to the soup kitchen when I was on strike as a miner.”

Rob, too, believes tough decisions are necessary to raise standards. “If you set high standards around things like the uniform, it might make you unpopular to start with,” he says. “You might be in the papers, but parents will thank you in the end.”

Throughout the interview, the brothers outline a similar vision of education. Their upbringing, they say, has given them a shared sense of values. They insist that they are not competitive. But at times it does feel like they are trading statistics about the way their trusts are raising standards.

Delta saw the number of primary pupils reaching the expected outcome go up by 17 per cent across the trust last year, Paul says. While at NET, there are improvements in the pipeline that are “too scary to commit to paper” , says Rob, as he talks of his secondary schools achieving more 5s at GCSE this year than 4 grades last year.

Nonetheless, the brothers seem to agree about almost everything to do with education. It’s only on subjects such as wreck-diving, a passion of Paul’s, or England’s World Cup campaign, which Rob is keen to discuss, that they lose interest in what the other is saying.

Now, their respective organisations have come together as part of the wider Northern Alliance coalition of academy trusts in a bid to raise standards in the North. “Let’s not look at the North as an intractable problem,” says Paul. “Let’s look at schools which just need a bit of support and say, ‘This is the scope of the job.’”

The North has been blighted by several high-profile academy failures, most recently the collapse of Wakefield City Academies Trust. But the Tarn brothers are adamant that this could have been avoided if other strongly performing multi-academy trusts had been given the chance to help it at an earlier point.

When they are asked about what they want to achieve in the future, it is clear that they are driven by their past.

“I think about my mother’s father,” Paul says “He was a coal miner and after that, worked in the coke ovens. But he could do the Times crossword in 30 minutes. A very intelligent man but stuck in a dead-end job, and it made him bitter.

“I don’t think this country can afford to continue to perpetuate a system that doesn’t make the best out of the people it has got.”


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