Big interview: Mark Harrod of Bridge Training
I have lost count of the number of supremely able individuals running successful companies whose journey through school, from the perspective of academic achievement at least, is probably best forgotten.
And yet there they are, dynamic, knowledgeable communicators and decision makers – with professional qualifications now and some even letters after their names, whose school reports were probably ‘lost’ on the way home (some as a matter of personal safety, no doubt).
These are the people the rule book said ‘did not fit’. But when you do not read much anyway, perhaps the book does not mean the same thing?
I am overdoing it a little bit in the case of Mark Harrod, managing director of Bridge Training – but only because this journey is particularly relevant.
Mr Harrod has forged a business which re-writes the rule book for schooling (within the rules, of course) every single time a new student steps through the door of his business, which could be every three weeks, at any time of the year.
That is how fluid life is for his 37 staff, 12 of whom are teachers, seven working in welfare on a daily basis. Four of those are safeguarding specialists.
Gloucester-based Bridge Training helps young people whose days in main-stream education are at an end gain the education – from simple life skills to academic and vocational skills – to go on to college or work.
It may be as simple as their faces did not fit school, perhaps they were bullied, or perhaps daily life brings battles so exhausting, all-consuming, and mindboggling that what actually happened was school was never going to be an option.
This is no charity and has no gold-plated income protection scheme. Like other businesses it has had to look good and hard at itself through the crisis – working out how best to support its students and staff, and now how to move forward.
For students already marginalised - whose daily lives may have become white hot under lockdown - this is a crucial time. There are 160-plus on its books currently.
In the thick of all this has come the results of Bridge Training’s most recent Ofsted inspection. The verdict – a resounding ‘good’.
One of Ofsted’s very few recommendations was for Bridge Training to “extend their involvement and engagement with more local employers to ensure that all their learners benefit from industry-standard equipment and become ready to move into their chosen careers”.
“I left education with next to nothing,” said Mr Harrod, who could tell the story of his CV (shift worker, engineer, computer systems and software to trainer and business owner) like some do – as a series of well-planned steps leading to inevitable success. But that would not be like him at all.
“I was working shifts at age 16 looking after some young people in special school in Stroud while my friends were going onwards and upwards,” he said, mapping out his journey with little credit given to himself.
“I moved on from there and re-trained as an engineer at RHP Aerospace Bearings (Stonehouse) and worked there for a number of years. I ended up moving into its IT department.”
A stint in construction followed, where he picked up more skills, before he returned to IT – working for what became Countrywide. It was a period which saw him not only help develop the company’s point of sales systems, and crucially introduced him to training staff.
“That was something I realised I loved,” he recalls, not realising at the time how important that was.
As he continued to acquire new skills and life continued to reveal to him he did in fact have talents his father was running a Gloucester charity training people with special needs.
Voluntary redundancy from Countrywide and a job in C&G in his sights gave him the chance to stop by and help dad’s business along the way.
“I came in to sort out the computers for him. I never left. And that was 1993. I loved working training people. I had that light bulb moment.”
What followed saw the company continually morph to meet the needs of, as it or society saw it, educating people with special needs, adults, and young people alike.
On his father’s retirement he took over the company in 2005. It followed a period in which he had joined his dad, from time to time putting, their own houses up as collateral to ensure work continued. It was an experience which led to a determination to change the structure of Bridge training from charity to limited company.
We should add, although we are pinning responsibility for the modern business that is Bridge Training onto Mr Harrod, it is difficult to remember a time in the interview took credit for any of it.
It is, he said, a family business and more - a place in which people had invested their lives.
"Not only have I worked with my father in the early years, but also, my youngest sister, my mother (a trained social worker), two ex brother-in-laws and a current brother in law, who all had skills that benefitted the business.
"I currently work with my wife who ensures the quality of provision, finance and HR and my eldest son who has a degree in psychology specialising in mental health (part of the welfare team)," said Mr Harrod, who added there were another three husband and wife duos adding considerably to the 'family feel' at Bridge Training.
"This business has been built on the pure passion of those staff members who truly want to made a difference, not for them personally, but those who enter our doors."
"My colleagues are so important to the success of Bridge Training it would be nice to see if you could mention them somehow."
Jokingly he dismissed the business model as "exceptionally simple", consisting of "drive, determination, passion and a little understanding".
This most recent Ofsted its second ‘good’ report in a row – and one he hopes not only justifies the direction of travel, but finally establishes a new reputation for Bridge Training. It feels like a new beginning.
“We are the longest running private training company in Gloucestershire. But I feel like we are just starting out,” said Mr Harrod, now in his mid-fifties, married with a teenage son.
At the core of the Gloucester operation is a team including some staff who have been with the company for two decades. It is they who have helped tailor the school to fit the students.
There are 14 students to a class. Issues unsurmountable by a mainstream detention or stiff letter home to parents generally mean 20 per cent of that number is missing every day.
Ofsted pays tribute to the flexible timetables to fit in with students’ needs. Mr Harrod is well aware such things can be interpreted in many ways, and nips it in the bud with typically straight talk.
“A student might not be ready to get straight into learning when they arrive,” he said.
“Their immediate needs might be more simple, like when will they ever eat, when will they ever sleep, where will they stay tonight?
“They might be thinking ‘what is the point of this qualification, no one will employ me because I have no fixed address’,” he said, describing what may not be typical, but certainly not uncommon.
Maths and English qualifications are a key element of what Bridge Training aims to deliver. If not the standard academic Grade 4 or above, then the equivalent.
It is a must for all – and unashamedly sugar-coating with the more palatable fodder of the meat of the motor mechanics, beautician, hair dresser, construction courses, or its photographic and art programmes which endow students with Level 1 and 2 qualifications.
Where mainstream schools have battled the impossible to keep track of the ‘vulnerable’ children – with reportedly only five per cent finding their way through the school gates during the pandemic lockdown - Bridge Training has worked a minor miracle.
“We have 163 on the roll and have kept in contact with 154 of those through room, telephone, emails,” said Mr Harrod.
The modern solution to everything, including education - ‘just go online’ - means nothing when access to a computer and broadband is impossible.
“I have gone out and bought 35 lap tops to help some of them get onto computers.
“Sometimes we are just talking to them about what is going on. Sometimes it is about keeping their focus.
“With one lad on the mechanics course we ended up buying a very expensive technical air fix kit of a Mark 1 VW Golf to try to keep their spirits up.
“Now we are in the process of beginning to plan for the slow integration back into education for them.”
As a society he thinks we are becoming better at recognising that just because school is not for you it doesn’t mean you do not have talent, that we can and do all suffer mental health issues – just some to greater degrees – and that some people are battling with things many of us will never face, but could, and that is no reason to right people off.
Businesses too, he says, are starting to realise there are lots of good organisations on their doorstep in Gloucestershire which need their support, not always money – and that they do not just have to rush to the biggest charity’s whose marketing spend has caught their attention. Helping just one person get onto the career ladder can change the world forever for someone.
Students of course, come, and they go. Most with qualifications, but importantly with what many of us will take for granted, but for them is of a value beyond measure. They leave with hope.