New Oasis Academy Principal has gone from meat factory sweeper to raising pass rates
Education versus experience: the age-old debate between academics and the working man. Oasis Academy Principal Kevin Rowlands believes both are important – and he has a CV to prove it. Mr Rowlands talked to education reporter James Dunn about flunking college, "Madchester", football and his multitude of careers before eventually going to university.
AT 39, Kevin Rowlands is fairly young for the principal of a secondary school – especially considering he didn't even start his career in education until he was 30.
However, since he took the post in 2011, the school has seen the number of students getting five CGCEs at grades A*-C, including English and maths, go from 36 per cent in 2010 to 56 per cent in 2012.
So how does a man with so little teaching experience oversee such a dramatic turnaround? The story starts in Manchester.
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Kevin was born and brought up in Denton, a working-class area of the city. His father was an electrician for BT and his mother worked a number of clerical and telecommunications jobs.
He went to Egerton Park, the local comprehensive, where he was the captain of the football team, but admits he "did just enough" to get by academically.
"I wasn't one of the worst so I stayed off the radar. No one had ever been to college so my parents didn't know what that sort of future looked like.
"My teachers said I could go far, but only if I wanted to, and I thought education wasn't for someone like me.
"I was football-mad. I was on the red side of Manchester, and me and my dad had a very strong relationship based on football.
"There have been some good times, trips to Wembley and Champions League finals but some bad times in the 1980s, too, which we survived. At school, I would have debates with teachers about football. I've taken a lot from that.
"I particularly remember Mr Shorthall, geography, and Mr Greaves, my science teachers – my stronger subjects. They convinced me to believe in myself. Until then, I had always believed that education wasn't for someone like me with a working-class background."
College was a shock for Kevin, who spent three years doing what he should have done in two years at Tameside Tech. He finished up with three Ds in psychology, human biology and physical education – not enough to get him into his first choice Nottingham University to train as a teacher.
"I was in America coaching football at a summer camp when I got the call to basically say I had flunked it and would have to go into clearing. I ended up choosing a leisure management course at Brunel, but I was going home at weekends. I dropped out after the first term and decided to try and make a go of things with the qualifications I had. The draw of Manchester in the early 1990s was too much."
With acts like the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Oasis coming out of his home town, the "Madchester" scene was the envy of the musical world at the time.
Kevin, a budding musician, wasn't going to miss out and knew Inspiral Carpets frontman Tom Hingley personally.
"I remember seeing him collecting money for a charity gig – he wasn't the only famous person there. I sat down and Noel Gallagher was sitting at the table next to me."
But Mr Rowlands was working hard. He had already held a few jobs, from the sweeper in a meat factory to a baggage handler at Manchester Airport. At 20, he took a job in a call centre and at 22, he went to work for a holiday company at a ski resort, in Andorra, then on to Tunisia for the summer, but had to return to the UK when his grandmother died.
"I had planned to do another winter season, but my mum needed me. It was the best thing for me."
Previous employer Cable & Wireless called him when they heard he had returned, offering him a management position. In 2007, he was in Swansea, managing a call centre with 200 staff.
He moved around, working with similar companies until he was offered a job with the NHS in Wakefield, helping to set up nursing banks. Aged 29, he was earning just under £40,000. Then, he jacked it all in to go back to university and study as a teacher.
"I always wanted to be a teacher but I hadn't made the grade. But now, universities thought my professional record was more important. When I was offered a place, starting nine months later, I quit my job and booked a trip around the world."
Kevin went to Thailand, Bali, Singapore and Australia. "I worked driving trucks for the carnival and even did some construction and demolition. I actually helped demolish a school which was ironic, given my ambitions."
Kevin went back to Cable & Wireless, working 20 hours a week in a call centre – where he met Suzie, who he married in 2011 – while studying to be a physical education teacher at Manchester Metropolitan University for three years and came out with a 2:1.
"I started classes at 8am, went to work from 4pm to 8pm and would come home and do my course work. The difference was that this was my last chance, it was what I wanted to do and so I knew that failing was not an option. When I finally finished, my dad actually told me he didn't think I would do it – it seemed too difficult."
Within a year of working as a physical education teacher, he applied to join the Future Leaders programme, which aims to put the best people at the head of schools in disadvantaged areas. Nigel Whittle, who was appointed principal at Havelock Academy, was part of the same scheme.
"I seemed to have the qualities they were looking for, but not many would have the audacity to apply with only one year of experience. At every stage, I expected them to say 'thanks but no – maybe come back in a few years'."
Mr Rowlands now has two children of his own – Eleanor, 5, and Archie, 3 – and Oasis Immingham is currently two per cent below the national average of 58 per cent of students getting five A*-C grades at GCSE.
Immingham's percentage has gone from 36 to 56 per cent in three years. In 2013, he expects it to rise to 60 per cent and up to 70 per cent the following year. So how did a man who has spent more time managing call centres than teaching do it?
Kevin said: "Managing people requires similar skills in any industry. I knew I had all those skills although with so little experience, I knew I had to convince a few people. But I think my background – which is probably similar to many of the kids at this school – helps me understand the challenges that face them.
"I always felt a sense of injustice in education when I was growing up. It was as though no one ever expected anything of me so I was never pushed.
"I remember having an argument with a lecturer at college and deciding I would sack it off for a few days and a friend from football said there was work going at a local meat factory. I spent the day sweeping blood off the floor and went to leave at 5pm to go to the football – but the other lads said we couldn't go until it was all clean. That is when I realised I had skills and opportunities but these lads didn't have a choice but to work there. I want every student to leave here with choices.
"We have improved since I took the post, but it's not nearly good enough for me. Some people would celebrate an improvement so that 56 per cent are getting five A*-C grades including English and maths. The way I see it, it is absolutely unacceptable that nearly half of these students aren't reaching that. We need to convince that 44 per cent that they can succeed in education and give them the individual support they need so that they can do that."